Visiting My Grandfather's Town

Visiting My Grandfather's Town - Piotrkow Trybunalski

by Ellen Mains, Boulder

Warsaw, September, 2010

I took the train from Lodz to the smaller city of Piotrkow Trybunalski, one hour directly south. Although much older than Lodz, it had remained smaller and quieter, like the retiring parent of an outgoing child. Lodz was the child, the ‘promised land’ of industry and opportunity, and the birthplace of my mother. But Piotrkow was the birthplace of my maternal grandparents. For some reason, in the search for information about my family, Srul Gedalie Goldblum, my mother’s father, was the only ancestor for whom I easily found information.

On my first visit to Poland in 2006 I had stumbled upon the cemetery record showing his burial in the Jewish cemetery in the Lodz ghetto in 1941. Earlier this year I came upon the record of his death in the ghetto hospital on the internet. And on a three hour visit to the Piotrkow archive in May, I had located a record of his childhood home. The information in that document eventually revealed to me that he had had a twin brother, as well as three younger siblings who had a different mother than he and his twin. From that document, suddenly it was possible to find out who my great grandparents were, as well as numerous other relatives. But these records were all handwritten in Russian and it was no small task to find them, first of all, and then to extract the desired information.

My friend Beata’s aunt had generously taken me into her home in Piotrkow, and Beata’s cousin Jarek accompanied me to the archives, translated from Russian and showed me other Jewish sites in Piotrkow for two full days. In addition, Jarek and I met with Jacek Bykowski who worked for the City government and provided us with written information and guides to Piotrkow’s Jewish past.

As we sat with Jacek in the café, I tried to understand their Polish conversation (since Jacek spoke no English), but my mind drifted away from the strain of listening and trying to understand, with only 20% Polish language comprehension. At some point I understood Jacek to be talking about a man who, in the process of remodeling his house in Piotrkow, had found a collection of old photos inside a wall, and about a survivor of the Holocaust who later visited Piotrkow and identified the woman in one of the pictures as his sister.

Perhaps I was feeling stretched at that moment, or particularly vulnerable in the uncertainty of my quest. Because of a spiritual reading I had had in Boulder, and similar messages conveyed to me earlier on, I had the sense that uncovering information about one of my ancestors in particular, could be like a kind of door opening for me – that doing so might bring me closer to receiving some kind of gift, some kind of further communication or understanding about myself and my connection to this past.

But so far I was in the dark. Although I wasn’t feeling particularly emotional, when I heard Jacek’s story, suddenly I heard a voice inside me saying “Why can’t I find anyone?” This question repeated itself again and again and quickly I was in tears. Some kind of longing had penetrated my heart.

Since I had a bit of a cold and sore throat, Jacek and Jarek assumed this was the reason for my blowing my nose. They were kindly concerned, perhaps sensing that something more was going on, or perhaps not. I was tired and overwhelmed and couldn’t tell. My attention was no longer that of an interested visitor, but of someone crying out from inside a deep cavern of longing. Or was it possible that someone was crying out to me?

The next morning, I re-read my uncle George’s account of his childhood in Lodz and how the family had spent their summers in Tuszyn Las, near Piotrkow:

The fact is that the closeness of the family made life beautiful. We always were a family that did things together and loved each other. We had a large extended family and many cousins the same age as me, our immediate family consisted of seven and we also had many relatives from both the Goldblum and Lask sides of the family, as well as relatives by the names of Kleinman and Altman. We used to get together for Passover. Some of our close relatives were farmers, Goldblums, and they were living in Tuszyn Las about 15 kilometers outside Lodz. There were two families of Goldblum, they were very Orthodox and I believe they had at least 15 children. Every summer we would vacation there, as a kid I had a wonderful time. We would run in the orchards, swim in the lake and they were also traders of horses, very wealthy. They gave us a cottage to spend 2 months in during the vacation. Naturally my father didn’t come; he would stay a few days then go back to the city. We would chase cows, ride horses, milk cows, we did some work but we loved it. Every Friday we’d have to go to the Mikve and naturally I went and Saturday morning we had a special meal called Tsulent, you put it in at night and take it out at 12:00 in the afternoon fully baked. This was Saturday, a total day of rest. I befriended some other Jewish kids from the village. The family also owned a lake and in the wintertime they used to cut up the ice and cover it with sawdust and in the summer they would sell it and did very well.

Jarek and I arrived at the archives at about 11:00 and I decided to focus on gathering information on every Goldblum who had lived in the same house as my grandfather, Srul. This seemed likely to guarantee that all of them were related to him and to me. By the end of the day, with Jarek’s help, I had recorded the birth date and parents’ names for approximately sixty people in the Goldblum family who had lived in that one house in Piotrkow. By tracking the parents of each inhabitant, I was able to produce a chart or family tree of two main branches of my great grandfather’s family. I knew there were more branches of my family to be found in the records of some of the other houses listed, which could be tracked by identifying people with the same parents, but this was as much as Jarek and I could deal with in one day.

Of particular interest to me were two different documents which were inserted on the appropriate pages of these enormous yellowed volumes of Russian script, concerning two children born to two of my great grandfather’s brothers. The notes said that these children were born in Tuszyn. So now I knew which two brothers of my great-grandfather had moved to Tuszyn and were the rich farmers. One was his twin brother, Josef, married to Estera, and this seventh child born in Tuszyn had been named Masza, just like my mother. She was born in 1913. The other child had been born to the youngest of my great grandfather’s siblings -- Szaia Fiszel and his wife Ruchla; she was named Julia and, born in 1920, she was exactly the same age as my mother. I imagined what the relationships between these girls might have been like in the years before the war began, as they grew into young women. The official records for these births and probably the later children also born in Tuszyn were said to be available in Lodz. .

At the end of the day, Jarek drove me to Tuszyn. The sun was going down and the light was gradually growing dim. Jarek inquired at a little shop whether there were any lakes nearby, and we were directed to a little area known as ‘Palestynka’, where there was a small lake. A very large house was on one side, with little shack-like buildings next to it, where farm workers would typically have lived. We stood at the lake and looked around. I walked down the street.

Across the street was a very large field, now used for sports. There was a fence and shrubs surrounding it, but also a place almost directly across the street from the lake and the large house where the fence was broken and I stepped through. It seemed very likely that this was the land that my great grandfather’s brothers owned and where my mother’s fifteen or so cousins lived, and where she and George had spent their summers until the Nazis invaded. I wondered what had happened to all of them.

I was physically and mentally exhausted, my senses overwhelmed. Still, I could feel that there was some kind of rich energy in the ground of this place. I can’t find the words to describe it. It felt a bit intoxicating, perhaps even blissful. But I knew I was too tired to properly receive whatever might be present.

I decided that I would come back the following week and try to stay at one of the small local hotels. I wanted to spend time in this place and feel more of what it might whisper to me.