Light from Dead Stars

Norma Marder

Reviewed by Adina Cimet

28 Jun 2018

Synagogue in Sierpc (Poland), ca. 1920, from Yizkor Book, Księga Pamięci Miasta Sierpca.
This image is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.

Sier­pc, Poland: a world of graves for my par­ents. A myth­ic world for me.

There my pater­nal grand­fa­ther, the shoichet, smooths his slaugh­ter­ing knives on silk socks and my mater­nal grand­moth­er sews men’s under­wear. Mama and her sis­ters sweep the floors with sand and sleep head to toe like sar­dines in one bed. The streets are mud­dy. The wood­en syn­a­gogue has Byzan­tine domes. Peo­ple go hun­gry except Fri­day nights and hol­i­days. My father pass­es meat to his sis­ters under the table in exchange for bones. Dogs chase him on his way to ched­er.

Those who left nev­er went back.

Dad­dy died. Mama mar­ried Leon, a wid­ow­er from Sier­pc. He died. Mama died.

It’s pro­nounced Sherptz, but my fam­i­ly called it Sheps.


A mover sets Mama’s captain’s chair on the side­walk, neat­ly wrapped in blue quilt­ed padding. It stands under a pin oak, muf­fled and serene, on our street of Vic­to­ri­an hous­es. Sev­en car­tons join the chair, con­tain­ing music scores, pho­tos, Stan­gl dish­es, my father’s writings.

Things used. Things loved. A chair that is more than a chair.

The fur­ni­ture lines up in sur­re­al dig­ni­ty. A swad­dled lamp. A brown-padded side­board. A lumpy tow­er — the kitchen step-stool chair.

Movers car­ry the side­board to the porch. I prop open the storm door.

The house phone rings. I hear Her­bert say, She’s out­side, hold on.” He hands me the phone. It’s Michael.”

Hi, Mom,” Michael says, what would you like from Sierpc?”

Sier­pc? Why are you …”

Elp­i­da had an arche­ol­o­gy con­fer­ence in Torun.”

Oh my god! Grandma’s fur­ni­ture is com­ing in the front door! The movers are bring­ing in Grandma’s fur­ni­ture as we speak!”

Michael laughs, a deep, sat­is­fied laugh.

The con­nec­tion crack­les. He’s in the Jew­ish quar­ter. The syn­a­gogue is gone. Jew­ish hous­es gone. Except for the city square and gov­ern­ment build­ings, most of Sier­pc is post­war construction.

They lived on Jew­ish Street,” I say.

That’s where we are. The trans­la­tor says it’s Bak­er Street now.”

(Chil­dren walk to and from the bak­ery in pairs, car­ry­ing two-han­dled pots of Sab­bath stew.)

No point going to the ceme­tery,” I say, you wouldn’t be able to read any­thing, anyway.”

Tell him bring stuff for tourists,” Her­bert shouts.

They make beer,” Michael says, Sier­pc beer. Got­ta go.”

Pic­tures,” I cry, I want pictures!”

I clutch the silent phone, the moment hold­ing its cache of time like a seine net drawn tight over its weight of fish. I draw in Her­bert, draw in the movers, feel­ing the moment rip­ple out­ward and cir­cu­late back. I phone our son Yuri and my aunt Dinah; they’re not home. I call a close friend. She says the sto­ry is pow­er­ful and won­der­ful because it demon­strates order­ly design in the universe.


The first time I use one of Mama’s kitchen things my hands become her hands, those puffy hands soft­ened with lemon juice. If I were reli­gious I would say it’s a sacred moment when I first scram­ble eggs in her green glass bowl, dice an onion with her par­ing knife. These things are Mama, are a way she used her hands — she is the object and the task and, for awhile, in part, I become her in the doing.

I scrub two pota­toes, punc­ture them, and put them in her stove-top pota­to bak­er. Mama used it to save mon­ey on gas. It has a per­fo­rat­ed steel plate with an arched han­dle, a small foot­ed plate for the pota­toes, and a stain-speck­led, domed alu­minum lid. She stored it in the oven. When the oven was in use, she put it on the step-stool chair.

I set the bak­er on a burn­er and adjust the vent. The lid resem­bles a Byzan­tine dome on the Sier­pc synagogue.

A famil­iar smell wafts into the kitchen. Roast chick­en? Chick­en with onions and car­rots? Kasha var­nishkes? No mat­ter what Mama cooked, it smelled like this. It’s the smell of my child­hood. It’s the smell of our vis­its, Mama open­ing the door, clap­ping her hands to her cheeks, crying.

I see her move about her tiny kitchen, a house­coat over her clothes. She wash­es a chick­en, pats it dry with a paper tow­el, and puts it in the roast­ing pan. Rubs salt on it. Cuts onions, car­rots, and pota­toes in chunks right over the pan. Before light­ing the oven she sets the pota­to bak­er on the step-stool chair. She roasts the chick­en cov­ered for an hour, bast­ing occa­sion­al­ly, then uncov­ered half an hour until it browns. As soon as she takes it out she puts the bak­er back in the oven to make space on the chair.

Mirac­u­lous object, lying dor­mant for six years, pre­serv­ing this ghost­ly essence. Per­haps par­ti­cles lin­gered in the sealed air, adher­ing to steel and alu­minum. Par­ti­cles, mol­e­cules, swirling, falling — what­ev­er the physics of it, here is Mama’s pota­to bak­er on my stove, exhal­ing a life­time of her cook­ing, per­fume of roast chicken.

I lean against the counter. The smell grad­u­al­ly dissipates.

Her­bert walks in. A trace lingers.

We mar­vel togeth­er, and then it’s gone.


Michael sends two emp­ty Sier­pc beer cans, a Sier­pc beer glass, and a pho­to of the grassy lot where the syn­a­gogue stood. Filled with peb­bles, the cans and the glass serve as book­ends in my study.


Mama’s Yid­dish books went to the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter, except for The Com­mu­ni­ty of Sier­pc, Memo­r­i­al Book. Six hun­dred pages of Hebrew script, impen­e­tra­ble as the stone wall of amne­sia. On the cov­er, beside a draw­ing of the syn­a­gogue, teardrops from the Yid­dish title’s last let­ter fall into an over­flow­ing gob­let; an eter­nal light on the spine. I leaf through pho­tos of solemn school­girls in white col­lars and long skirts. Young men in high skull caps. Beard­ed old men. Youth groups in uni­forms. Some pub­lic places iden­ti­fied in Eng­lish — the syn­a­gogue, the prayer house, the Old Mar­ket, the Town Hall.

My step­fa­ther used to say the book was writ­ten for future generations.

But we can’t read it, I said.


They weren’t sto­ry­tellers. My par­ents and aunts grudg­ing­ly told a few. My Bube, born in Sier­pc, said noth­ing. Their ret­i­cence leaked shame; I recoiled from Yid­dish cul­ture. Their past was a fic­tion, a tiny land­scape sealed in glass.

Secret­ly, though, Dad­dy was writ­ing. For thir­ty years he man­aged a small silk mill in Beth­le­hem, Penn­syl­va­nia, and wrote in his office. When the mill closed he hid his writ­ings in a blue zip­pered hat­box. Mama dis­cov­ered them after he died. She trans­lat­ed three mem­oirs for me and stored the case in her basement.

After she died, I touched his papers, his hand­writ­ing. Poems and polit­i­cal plays in Eng­lish. Mem­oirs in Yid­dish, col­lages of the Old World and the New. He wrote his father’s virtues on the backs of price lists for used machine parts. His mother’s latkes on the backs of ads for looms. Chanukah mem­o­ries on invoic­es from Gates Rub­ber Co. and Eagle Beef Cloth Co.

A friend trans­lat­ed the remain­ing memoirs.

From ages six to nine, he writes, he went to a lit­tle ched­er in the house of Reb Yosef, a fanat­i­cal rab­bi who whipped the boys if they laughed or asked ques­tions. A kinder spir­it reigned at home. His father lov­ing­ly taught the chil­dren prayers and songs. His moth­er ran the large house­hold with lit­tle mon­ey. The toes of his shoes opened like alli­ga­tors’ mouths and swal­lowed mud. When the but­tons on his good jack­et popped his moth­er sewed him into it.

The rhythm of life was set by prayers. Every action began with a prayer — eat­ing, wash­ing hands, step­ping from room to room.

He learned prayers and sacred songs from his father. He mem­o­rized the Torah, stud­ied vio­lin and man­dolin. Had a beau­ti­ful voice. Learn­ing, learn­ing — he loved to learn. He eaves­dropped on his sis­ters’ lessons, hun­gry for sec­u­lar his­to­ry. His moth­er allowed it briefly, then, alarmed by his pas­sion, told his father it dis­tract­ed him from the Torah. The next day … I had to stay in a dif­fer­ent room and felt like one starv­ing who sees and smells food and can’t reach it.” Hunger, hunger. Emp­ty bel­ly and yearn­ing mind. Hap­pi­ness was the Sab­bath and hol­i­days, fam­i­ly rit­u­als graced by food. My Grandmother’s She­vuoth Blintzes.” To the Feast of Purim.”

An ide­al­ized mem­oir, My Father,” is ded­i­cat­ed to his moth­er, broth­er, and sis­ters and their fam­i­lies who per­ished in the War­saw ghetto.”

Who didn’t know or at least hear of Yan­kl Shoichet?” he writes. Not only as the expert shoichet but as a per­son who was always ready to offer advice or a favor to who­ev­er need­ed it. … My father sang all the time regard­less how he felt inside of him with trou­ble of mak­ing a liv­ing or sick­ness or chil­dren. He always sang and with a smile helped wher­ev­er help was needed.”

His sis­ters, men­tioned occa­sion­al­ly, are rarely named. His broth­er is absent. After we were done with our Sab­bath meal my father ordered all the chil­dren to take a nap. We lay down and kept silence until my father and moth­er were asleep, then we either read some books that were pro­hib­it­ed to read on the Sab­bath or we made our way out into the street through the window.”


I google Sier­pc occa­sion­al­ly, a hope­ful rit­u­al end­ing at maps and tourist sites. Today a star­tling new link heads the list. Jew­ish­Gen. The Com­mu­ni­ty of Sier­pc: Memo­r­i­al Book. Trans­la­tion of Kehi­lat Sier­pc; Sefer Zikaron.

Heart pound­ing, I enter. Par­ties and Insti­tu­tions. Once Upon a Time. The Great Flood of Sier­pc.” Street Names in Sier­pc.” Chanukah Mem­o­ries from my Town of Sier­pc,” by Motl Rajczyk.

My father.

We had to make a book out of ash­es,” the edi­tors write, “… but thanks to the stub­born­ness of a few … our remem­brance has reached its cli­max after six years. Impor­tant mate­r­i­al had to be col­lect­ed bit by bit … with great respect for all our loved ones who were there and are no longer. We, the remain­ing towns­peo­ple of Sier­pc … felt that we have to ful­fill a sacred oblig­a­tion, to leave a tes­ta­ment to our com­mu­ni­ty. We could not rest or stop until we fin­ished our labors, this holy work of sor­row and pain.”


After WWII, memo­r­i­al com­mit­tees asked for­mer res­i­dents of wrecked com­mu­ni­ties to write mem­o­ries and his­to­ries of their home towns. The writ­ings became books, some in Yid­dish, some in Hebrew. In the 1950s and 1960s over two thou­sand were pub­lished. I rec­og­nize two names on the Amer­i­can book com­mit­tee: my par­ents’ friend Gol­da, who may have solicit­ed Daddy’s mem­oir, and Leon, who became my step­fa­ther. Jew­ish­Gen, in its Yizkor (Memo­r­i­al) Books project, has had about one hun­dred books trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish and put online.

Deeply grate­ful, I order a hard copy.

I start with The Holo­caust.

Nazis entered Sier­pc in Sep­tem­ber 1939. On Sep­tem­ber 28 they burned the syn­a­gogue and shot a teenage boy, blam­ing Jews for the fire and demand­ing a con­tri­bu­tion” for repairs. Humil­i­a­tions esca­lat­ed. Jews for­bid­den to use elec­tric­i­ty, walk on side­walks, be out­doors after four p.m. Devout men beat­en, their beards hacked off, car­ry­ing rocks back and forth for hours, dig­ging use­less holes. Girls forced to wash toi­lets in the jail with their bare hands.

The ragged shad­ows are Daddy’s moth­er, sis­ters, and broth­er. Mama’s aunt, grand­par­ents, and cousins.

(I’m six. Dad­dy lies across the bed, cry­ing, face down. My moth­er is killed in War­saw,” he sobs. How did she get to War­saw, I wonder.)

On Novem­ber 8 Nazis lined up three thou­sand Jews, six to a row, in the mar­ket square. The Fireman’s Orches­tra, play­ing live­ly march­es on pipes and drums, led the mass expul­sion. Old, sick; tod­dling, preg­nant — the SS forced every­one to run, whip­ping them into speed, shoot­ing strag­glers. At the rail­way sta­tion sol­diers shoved them into air­less cat­tle cars with­out food or water. For days, by train and on foot, they were starved, beat­en, shot, drowned, and final­ly dumped on the out­skirts of Warsaw.

The grotesque music plays. Bube Manye strug­gles to keep up. Her daugh­ters strug­gle to shield her. We were in Dante’s Infer­no, the writer says.

The writer, Gol­da Gold­man, was like a cousin to my father. Hav­ing trav­eled through hell with his moth­er and sis­ters, she knew the secrets that poi­soned him.

I hear him singing kadish, tor­ment­ed by guilt, a fire that con­sumes but is nev­er exhausted.

His mem­oirs stop at 1923, the year he left Sier­pc. Safe in Amer­i­ca, he inhaled air­mail let­ters from home, their melodies, their dark­en­ing har­monies. His heart locked his tongue and his pen. They ate latkes in Sier­pc, he wrote; they per­ished in the War­saw ghet­to. In the gap between latkes and per­ished he hid twen­ty years, draw­ing his cape of shad­ows around my questions.

As for Mama, she was so ashamed of her past, she let the holes in her ear­lobes close up. Prim­i­tive women, they have holes in their ears,” she said, and wore clip ear­rings until pierced ears became fash­ion­able in America.


For relief, I turn to The Hold­ers of Reli­gious Posts in Sier­pc,” skim­ming the chap­ters on rab­bis and can­tors, read­ing the chap­ter on shoichets. The his­to­ri­an, a rab­bi, remem­bers fierce dis­putes over hir­ing a new shoichet. The Hasidic sects squab­bled for many months, he writes, and can­di­dates came and went. One day a rit­u­al slaugh­ter­er from Sochocin applied for the posi­tion. He was a young man … tall, head and shoul­ders taller than every­one, with a face as hand­some as an angel, with a black beard and two black, fiery, hyp­not­ic eyes. He always had a smile on his lips, and his joy and friend­ship were infec­tious.… The women sim­ply fell in love with him and want­ed Reb Yankel Reitczyk to be the shoichet of the Sier­pc community.”

Yankel Reitczyk. My grand­fa­ther. He ris­es from the historian’s mem­o­ry like a genie from a rusty lamp.

The shoichet was loved great­ly in the Sier­pc com­mu­ni­ty. [He was] a fine prayer leader, an expert shoichet and mohel, with a splen­did appear­ance, wise and intel­li­gent, get­ting along well with peo­ple, a good soul with a heart of gold, G‑d fear­ing but not fanat­ic. He was a mod­ern Ortho­dox Jew, who was loved by all class­es of people.”

I read the pas­sage and cry, read my grandfather’s name and cry. I tell the sto­ry to Her­bert, to our sons, to our grand­daugh­ter, to close friends. When I say, I found my grand­fa­ther” or Reb Yankel Reitczyk, my grand­fa­ther,” some­thing old and deep wells up, love or sor­row or guilt, some­thing sup­pressed or cher­ished, released from captivity.

If any­body had a … dis­pute,” Dad­dy writes, they didn’t turn to the rab­bi or judge, but came to my father.… When a cow was about to die dur­ing the night the butch­er would knock on my father’s win­dow and he would … slaugh­ter the cow to save the butcher’s hard-earned prop­er­ty.… Every­one loved him, the entire con­gre­ga­tion, and he loved them, rich or poor, all walks of life.”

Crack­ing like riv­er ice, I flow into a world with real dimensions.

I found my grand­fa­ther,” I say, touch­ing the heart that passed to my father and beats in me, in our sons, in our grandchildren.

Vis­it­ing sick peo­ple is one of the virtues, he preached, and he kept on vis­it­ing dur­ing the 1917 typhus epi­dem­ic, ignor­ing the con­ta­gious” notices. When he caught typhus he refused a hos­pi­tal bed until it was too late.

Dad­dy was almost thir­teen, prepar­ing for his Bar Mitz­vah.

The life of this thir­ty-eight-year-old tree was cut for­ev­er,” he writes.

The his­to­ri­an says it was a tragedy for Reb Yankel’s fam­i­ly, los­ing him after los­ing Esther. I stop. Daddy’s sis­ters were Malkah, Necha, and Breine. I nev­er heard of Esther till she flit­ted through a pas­sage about his father. When my old­est sis­ter Esther died dur­ing WWI, my father did not sing for the longest time, as it had been his habit, going to and from the prayer house.”

Dad­dy was the old­est child; I assumed old­est sis­ter,” was a mis­take in trans­la­tion or tran­scrip­tion and imag­ined a sick­ly tod­dler he bare­ly knew.

The his­to­ri­an says, Esther died of typhus at the age of fif­teen. She was the spit­ting image of her father … tall, well-grown … with eyes like … sap­phires and hair that cov­ered her head like a crown.”

Fif­teen! I scour Daddy’s mem­oirs. Purim prepa­ra­tions. My sis­ters buy fresh kerosene to wash their hair, also new combs and rib­bons. … My old­er sister’s boyfriend walks in. He just came from the bar­ber shop and he smells like a hospital.”

His beloved old­er sis­ter, cher­ished in silence.

He had his Bar Mitz­vah a month after his father died, becom­ing a man while the earth shook. His des­tiny tast­ed sour. He told his moth­er he would not study to be a shoichet. He joined a youth group, sang in a cho­rus. At six­teen he’s a haunt­ed-look­ing boy with big eyes and short hair. No fore­locks, no high skull cap. Cousins in New York offered him a job. He left Sier­pc at nine­teen and set­tled in Beth­le­hem, Penn­syl­va­nia, man­ag­ing their lit­tle tex­tile fac­to­ry. I am the only one in our fam­i­ly,” he writes in Eng­lish, who knows how it feels to be on his own.”

Before he could earn enough to bring any­one over, his moth­er was killed by a bomb dropped on a War­saw ghet­to hos­pi­tal, his sis­ters died, and his broth­er Schloime van­ished. Years after the war end­ed an air­mail let­ter arrived from Necha, in Tel Aviv, a blip of joy in a set­tled grief.

Did Schloime escape, too? The fam­i­ly album shows a mod­ern, con­fi­dent young man in 1934, strid­ing down a city street, wear­ing an army great­coat, cap, and boots. Absence cre­ates belief: he got to Cana­da and did­n’t know how to find us. I imag­ine a fam­i­ly, chil­dren — at least one girl cousin. I sense Schloime alive some­where. When­ev­er I see the name Reichek in print I vow to find out if we’re related.


Like an arche­ol­o­gist exca­vat­ing a site, I dig through the book, unearthing details that match and extend my par­ents’ sto­ries, sat­is­fy­ing a hunger to see beyond crum­bling tomb­stones. Pho­tos of Schloime in a play and my aunt Breine in a youth group. My father, a young lad,” study­ing in the old Beis Midrash. The fanat­i­cal teacher, Reb Yosef, pushed into the riv­er by an enraged stu­dent. The bak­ery on Jew­ish Street where chil­dren car­ried the heavy pots of Sab­bath stew — two bak­eries, actu­al­ly, run by hard-work­ing women, their ovens in base­ments reached by rot­ting wood­en steps.

I devour streets, hous­es, shops, peo­ple, and cus­toms, know­ing mem­o­ries are part fic­tion — mine lay­ered on my father’s and on those of the memo­r­i­al book’s writ­ers. Daddy’s past mutates. He wrote about Sier­pc as if he were born there, but he was eight when he arrived from the vil­lage of Sochocin. Did he con­flate the two stetls or did I mis­in­ter­pret some­thing? I notice the sad­ness in his mem­oirs, his long­ing for the rit­u­als of life, the prayers and bless­ings, the hol­i­day meals.

His­to­ry records the selec­tive mem­o­ry of selec­tive wit­ness­es. My par­ents grew up in the same three-fam­i­ly house; Daddy’s fam­i­ly on the first floor, Mama’s on the third. But my mater­nal fam­i­ly left no impres­sion. No wit­ness remem­bers my grand­moth­er Idy­la, her four daugh­ters, her par­ents and sis­ter, and her vagabond hus­band. The only trace I’ve found is Mama’s youngest sis­ter in a school pho­to. From the cap­tion I learn their sur­name, Oppen­heim, was orig­i­nal­ly Open­chaim. Where’s my great-aunt, the wig­mak­er? Where’s my great-grand­fa­ther, the Torah proof­read­er, so devout he wouldn’t eat fish on the Sab­bath for fear of break­ing a bone?

Sier­pc, itself, that mud­dy vil­lage, mutates into a love­ly old city crossed by three rivers and sur­round­ed by farms, orchards, and moun­tains. In 1938 the pop­u­la­tion was ten thou­sand with a long-estab­lished Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of four thou­sand. Jews were tai­lors and shoe­mak­ers, glass­mak­ers and clock­mak­ers, fish­er­men and butch­ers, fruit and veg­etable dealers.

Poles called it Sherptz; Jews called it Sheps.

Leaf­ing through the book’s appen­dix one night, I stum­ble on frag­ments of anguished let­ters to Yid­dish-Amer­i­can news­pa­pers as ear­ly as 1939, report­ing forced labor and humil­i­a­tion, one from Mama’s cousin Beryl. News­pa­per clip­pings about the syn­a­gogue burn­ing, the expul­sion. Thir­ty-three Sier­pc men write to The For­ward from Vil­nius (Vil­na) — they’re bare­foot, sleep­ing on the floor of one room, eat­ing one meal a day. On Decem­ber 26, 1939, they appeal to the Sier­pc Relief Com­mit­tee in New York for mon­ey and visas. Their thank-you let­ter for 300 Litas, dat­ed Jan­u­ary 28, 1940, includes a receipt signed by each man in the group. Num­ber 4 is Schlo­mo Reitczyk. Schloime. There’s even a pho­to­copy of the orig­i­nal receipt, with his signature.

His writ­ing is del­i­cate and cramped. I trace the curves.

Did he get a visa? Was the New York Sier­pc Relief Com­mit­tee in touch with our fam­i­ly? Did any­one noti­fy Dad­dy his broth­er was alive, need­ing help? Alas, my par­ents dis­cussed seri­ous mat­ters in Yid­dish; I con­struct­ed nar­ra­tives from scraps. I still do. I imag­ine us in Brook­lyn for an emo­tion­al reunion with Gol­da. I imag­ine ten anx­ious adults in my grand­par­ents’ liv­ing room, hav­ing sent me and my cousin next door. I imag­ine Zeyde in his stuffed chair, arms crossed and eyes blaz­ing, Bube serv­ing tea and cook­ies, Gol­da on the lumpy couch, telling hor­ror sto­ries about their friends and neigh­bors. About Daddy’s moth­er and sis­ters. About her­self. Zeyde rant­i­ng in rage; every­one else crying.

Mama’s guilt erupt­ed late in life. After the war, she said, Dad­dy want­ed to pay a head-hunter $100 to look for Schloime, but Zeyde said they’re all thieves, don’t waste your hard-earned money.

The book ends with a necrol­o­gy. Sur­names and maid­en names; ages at time of death. Six entries for Reitczyk. I read slow­ly. My grand­moth­er, Bube Manye. My aunt Malkah, her hus­band, and three sons. My aunt Breine. But who is Chana Reitczyk? Is there anoth­er fam­i­ly with the same name? A dif­fer­ent Schlo­mo Reitczyk? My brain refus­es to process what my eye sees. Schloime had a wife, Chana, and they had a daugh­ter. Schloime and Chana died at thir­ty; their daugh­ter, not named, was two.

Imag­ined, but not imaginary. 

Breine, Daddy’s youngest sis­ter, died at twen­ty-sev­en, prob­a­bly in 1941, with Bube Manye. I linger at the num­bers, watch­ing them toss and swirl like dry leaves in a wind. Out of the shad­ows my grand­moth­er emerges into her untold sto­ry, a gaunt, preg­nant woman in a long bag­gy dress. It’s 1914. She gives birth to Breine while Ger­man and Russ­ian patrols run through the streets and bombs fall. Three years lat­er, when typhus rages in the house, she nurs­es Esther, nurs­es Reb Yankel. Who helps her? Who goes to mar­ket, cooks, tends the younger chil­dren? Her wig is crooked, her cheeks hol­low with exhaus­tion. Her daugh­ter dies, her hus­band dies. She wails, tears her dress, throws dirt in their graves. She sits shi­va.

Do rel­a­tives sup­port the fam­i­ly after­ward? Is she bit­ter? Resigned? My father mere­ly sketch­es her exis­tence, prais­ing her and hint­ing at her frus­tra­tion. She sac­ri­ficed for her chil­dren, made deli­cious bar­ley soup, and nev­er com­plained to God. She hit him over the head, twist­ed his nose, and pulled his ears.


The orig­i­nal Sier­pc Memo­r­i­al Book was pub­lished in 1959. Did my par­ents get a copy right away? Did Dad­dy read the necrol­o­gy? Per­haps he didn’t have a copy at all and this is my stepfather’s book.

Per­haps, per­haps — with a secre­tive father it’s always per­haps. I rea­son, imag­ine, track prob­a­bil­i­ties. Did he ever know his broth­er had a wife and child? Did he know he died? I’m grate­ful for proof, but I don’t deserve it, don’t deserve the knowl­edge and clo­sure that belonged to him.

I feel lonely.

Whether or not the book was an impe­tus, in 1959 my par­ents final­ly trav­eled to Israel to see Necha. A reunion after thir­ty-five years. Daddy’s only sur­viv­ing sis­ter, Mama’s child­hood friend and class­mate. Ultra Ortho­dox, with a devout hus­band and devout twelve-year-old son. It was an immer­sion in fam­i­ly, in Sier­pc, in cousins and their chil­dren, in an old way of life. A joy­ous time, though Mama wor­ried about him, so tired and pale.

Two years lat­er a sim­mer­ing can­cer erupt­ed. If we could talk about survivor’s guilt, I thought, the tumor would shrink. He died in 1962.

When my grand­fa­ther, Reb Yankel, went into hos­pi­tal with typhus, a nurse gave the beloved shoichet a lucky” bed in which a teenag­er recov­ered. The teenag­er was Leon, who, thanks to the Sier­pc grapevine, became my step­fa­ther. Leon loved his­to­ry; his heart belonged to Sier­pc. He helped gath­er mate­r­i­al for the memo­r­i­al book and wrote a chap­ter on relief work. We would sit on the couch, leaf­ing through the book; he showed me pho­tos of his fam­i­ly and told stories.

Mama would shout, So who needs sto­ries about Sierpc!”


I dream I’m in a warm, smoke-filled bar, about to play a peg-board gong, a res­o­nant wood­en bowl con­nect­ed to a rec­tan­gu­lar glass box the size of a fish tank. Inside two small, fierce lions face each oth­er — nose to nose, teeth bared, ears erect, tails over their backs. I tap the bowl with my mal­let, mak­ing the lions fight. Sud­den­ly, in a freak acci­dent, they escape through a slot, grip­ping each oth­er with their teeth and land, life-size, at my feet. They growl, swish­ing their tails. Peo­ple pan­ic. I flee, scream­ing, I released the horror!”

Many years lat­er, walk­ing through a 2000-year-old cat­a­comb in the Beit She’arim necrop­o­lis, I saw two lions on a sar­coph­a­gus — nose to nose, teeth bared, ears erect, tails over their backs. Pan­ic-strick­en, I fled, glimps­ing, down an infi­nite time tun­nel, an ancient white-robed mason with mal­let and chis­el, carv­ing my dream.

I paced out­side, Jung’s col­lec­tive uncon­scious cir­cling like a vul­ture, peck­ing at my sense of self. I bought a green-tinged pic­ture post­card. The Lion Sar­coph­a­gus, it said, a mytho­log­i­cal Greek image on a Hebrew tomb.

Past­ed over my desk, the image lost its charge. Styl­ized ribs and mane, pro­trud­ing tongues — the lions seemed more friend­ly than fierce. I described them to a schol­ar of funer­ary images. Your lions are guardians of entrances and exits, he said, com­mon­ly found on door­ways and tombstones.

The dream’s date? Four months after my father’s death.

Order­ly design in the uni­verse, my friend said. The lions began to appear, face-to-face on Assyr­i­an lin­tels in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um, in pho­tos of Hebrew ceme­ter­ies, on a Pol­ish Passover plate. My lions, my friends. Pro­tect­ing and mourn­ing, wel­com­ing me to a vast and strange com­mu­ni­ty of dreamers.

Now I wel­come my place in Sier­pc. The memo­r­i­al book is both ora­cle and mau­soleum; here my kings and queens lie on stone coffins, new­ly exca­vat­ed. I may still be invent­ing his­to­ry, but it’s a dif­fer­ent his­to­ry, less haloed than my father’s and less prick­ly than my mother’s. Writ­ers trav­el back­wards; I have been trav­el­ing for many years and the memo­r­i­al book takes me fur­ther and deep­er. My father’s ances­tors con­tin­ue to emerge; my mother’s remain buried — my mater­nal great-aunt, the wig­mak­er, and my great-grand­fa­ther, the pious proof­read­er, rest­ing in a few sto­ries, their bones pro­tect­ed by uni­ver­sal guardians of entrances and exits.

Quo­ta­tions from Memo­r­i­al Book of Sier­pc, Poland used with per­mis­sion of Jew­ish­Gen, Inc.


By Adi­na Cimet

Undoubt­ed­ly, an evoca­tive title. But describ­ing her grand­fa­ther’s pre-war Jew­ish life with images such as the shoichet, smooths his slaugh­ter­ing knives on silk socks’ ” and dogs chase him on his way to ched­er” seems some­what off his­tor­i­cal­ly. Using silk socks to clean a butcher’s knife in a poor, Pol­ish shtetl? And he, an adult, on his way to a ched­er, a chil­dren’s school? To a schol­ar, these details betray an impre­cise his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tion. But that is a prob­lem of which the author is well aware. A few lines down, the nar­ra­tive departs from his­to­ry and enters into the realm of per­son­al mem­o­ries and an emo­tion­al inner search. The writer reveals that she knows lit­tle about her elders’ lives, much of which was destroyed or remained frozen in oth­ers peo­ple’s minds.

This work is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, with expand­ing metaphors and poet­ic lan­guage that describe a search for self-clar­i­fi­ca­tion. The quest through fam­i­ly his­to­ry is com­plex. The writer braids her own mem­o­ries of her par­ents’ nar­ra­tives, the fam­i­ly lore, with infor­ma­tion culled from the Izkor book of Sier­pc, the Jew­ish memo­r­i­al book of the fam­i­ly town, one in a genre of pub­li­ca­tions by self-appoint­ed sur­vivors who became data col­lec­tors and edi­tors fol­low­ing the Holo­caust of WWII. But these books not only aim to pay trib­ute to, hon­or, and remem­ber fam­i­ly mem­bers whose lives were destroyed. They also con­sti­tute a form of defi­ance — moral, legal, and philo­soph­i­cal — against the Nazis’ ide­o­log­i­cal intent and phys­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion. Nor­ma Marder uses these mate­ri­als to uncov­er dif­fer­ent lay­ers of mem­o­ry and to gath­er facts so as to find mean­ing and counter the cul­tur­al-bio­graph­i­cal amne­sia that she has inher­it­ed. She attach­es her­self to her cul­ture and explores its sig­nif­i­cance in order to be released from the over­pow­er­ing cap­tiv­i­ty of silence.

Her chal­lenge is all the more ago­niz­ing and fraught because many cul­tur­al tools that would have helped her accom­plish her task are absent or lost. Essen­tial is lan­guage. Yid­dish is gone; she nev­er learned it, and her par­ents may not have stressed its impor­tance. The key to the trea­sure trove is there­fore miss­ing. Her — and our — aware­ness of this is painful. Lan­guage alone holds the key to grasp­ing and under­stand­ing much, most explic­it­ly here the Izkor texts, but also, lit­er­a­ture, poems, folk say­ings, expres­sions of feel­ings, tra­di­tions, reli­gious fer­vor, and more. Yid­dish — the code — rep­re­sents the lin­guis­tic uni­verse that enveloped the lost Jew­ish life of pre-war Poland.

Nev­er­the­less, with this nar­ra­tive, Marder re-enters his­to­ry as a wit­ness. She recon­structs parts of the sto­ry, trans­mit­ting it, and trans­fer­ring it to oth­ers. In the process, she re-claims it for her­self. She is recov­er­ing past life, thus cre­at­ing a new role for her­self as the nar­ra­tor who under­scores the will to live with mean­ing and to live with­in one’s cul­ture. Despite the his­tor­i­cal dis­tance, she repo­si­tions her­self as a wit­ness with­in a chain of wit­ness­es work­ing on the re-emer­gence of truth. While search­ing for facts and details, she amply describes her expe­ri­ence in doing so. Emo­tion­al­ly, she is liv­ing through tes­ti­mo­ny: she is lis­ten­ing to that of oth­ers, and she is also an active inter­preter for oth­ers today. She has thus assumed the man­tle of social respon­si­bil­i­ty, and I hope this will not be her last nar­ra­tion in this unfold­ing effort.


Nor­ma Marder is a writer based in Cham­paign, Illi­nois. Author of the futur­ist nov­el An Eye for Dark Places (Lit­tle, Brown), her sto­ries and per­son­al essays have appeared in The Get­tys­burg Review, The Geor­gia Review, and Lit­er­al Lat­té. Marder began writ­ing after a dis­tin­guished career as a singer of avant-garde music, spe­cial­iz­ing in impro­vi­sa­tion and extend­ed vocal tech­niques. In New York, she per­formed with the Jud­son Dance Work­shop, Fluxus, and Tone Roads, and in New York and Cham­paign-Urbana, she pre­miered and per­formed works by major con­tem­po­rary com­posers such as Charles Ives, John Cage, Ben John­ston, Mor­ton Feld­man, and Lejaren Hiller. With her hus­band, Her­bert, she found­ed the New Ver­bal Work­shop, a ver­bal impro­vi­sa­tion ensem­ble. For over forty years, Marder and her fam­i­ly spent sum­mers on Mon­hegan Island, Maine.
Email: marder@​illinois.​edu

Adi­na Cimet was born in Mex­i­co City, the daugh­ter of East­ern Euro­pean par­ents. She received a Licen­ciatu­ra in Soci­ol­o­gy at Uni­ver­si­dad Nacional Autóno­ma de Méx­i­co (UNAM) and a Ph.D. in Soci­ol­o­gy from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. Cimet is the author of two books—Ashke­nazi Jews in Mex­i­co: Ide­olo­gies in the Struc­tur­ing of a Com­mu­ni­ty (SUNY Press, 1997) and Jew­ish Lublin: A Cul­tur­al Mono­graph (Maria Curie-Skłodows­ka Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009) — as well as numer­ous essays in schol­ar­ly books and jour­nals. Her research and writ­ing focus on cul­ture, minori­ties, lan­guage pol­i­tics, and polit­i­cal asym­me­tries. Cimet has taught sem­i­nars and lec­ture cours­es in Mex­i­co and the Unit­ed States, includ­ing at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. In New York, she cre­at­ed and was direc­tor of the EPYC Pro­gram (Edu­ca­tion­al Pro­gram of Yid­dish Cul­ture) at the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research. She is also a mem­ber of the Juda­ic Stud­ies Advi­so­ry Board at Drex­el Uni­ver­si­ty in Philadel­phia.
Email: adinacimet@​gmail.​com