This story is published in collaboration with the Delacorte Review.
Three months after my pilgrimage to Poland in June of 2018, I received an unexpected call from a sales representative at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin. He explained it was time to order a headstone for my son’s grave. While we had a perfectly professional conversation on the phone, I broke down upon hanging up. It wasn’t as if the call had been a shocking trigger. In that first year of loss I found myself facing crippling waves of grief daily, set off by any of hundreds of ordinary activities. This was just one more.
I sat at my desk and looked out at the beautiful fall Friday. On a day like this, in any of the past twenty years, Zach and I would have been taking advantage of the newly resurfaced public tennis courts around the corner in our neighborhood park. We would have been gearing up to watch our hometown Wisconsin Badgers play football. He’d have been up late working on his DraftKings picks for Sunday. All of that came to an end on Saturday night, April 21, 2018, when Zach, having finished a poker tournament, was struck by a car in the parking lot of a local bowling alley. He was twenty-six.
My wife, Diane, and I had planned on joining my brother Bob and his wife for the Poland trip months before we lost our beloved son, the younger of our two boys. Over the weeks following the accident, we’d asked friends and counselors if we should still go. None of them said no. So with heavy hearts, in mid-June we flew from Chicago to Toronto to Warsaw. Once there, cemeteries turned out to be key destinations. If you are Jewish and returning to search for your Polish roots, the two most likely destinations are death camps and cemeteries.
We noticed a theme among the graves: Some of the surviving memorial stones, most from the 18th and 19th centuries or the first forty years of the 20th, were in the shape of tree stumps; others had a stylized, broken tree as decoration. Our guide, Tomasz Wisniewski, the author of The Lost World of Small-Town Jewish Cemeteries and Jewish Bialystok explained that these were symbols of lives cut short. Although we hadn’t discussed it in Poland, Diane and I both had been impressed with the artistry and poignancy of these traditional designs. When we discussed the call from Sunset Gardens, we decided we’d try to follow this tradition with our son, so I sent the salesman a few of the pictures we’d taken in Poland.
The frequency of these broken-tree motifs was a stark reminder of the harsh life of those times—and not just for Jews—before vaccines and antibiotics, in a country with rampant poverty. But in Poland, in the years before and after my grandfather and grandmother fled to America in 1921, life was particularly and calculatingly cruel for the Jews. In addition to natural deaths, many Jews, then ten percent of the region’s population, had been killed in violent pogroms, attacks sparked by a dangerous stew of motivations. The foundation was deep-seated antisemitism based on religious animosity and otherness. Another factor was long-term covetous machinations calculated to diminish the Jewish population economically, while producing the opportunity for immediate rewards via pillaging. The end game: to demoralize the Jews into emigration and in doing so to root out what was considered revolutionary thinking, and ultimately “return Poland to the Poles.” This thread of nativism continues, and in its modern incarnation has made Poland one of the least hospitable European destinations for modern immigration. The general attitude was expressed neatly by the pick-up college-age guide who helped us tour old Warsaw. “At last,” he gushed, “Poland has become a country where we all speak the same language, all look the same.”
Many of the worst of these attacks came in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when Poland was part of czarist Russia. Despite optimism that Polish autonomy might make antisemitism a thing of the past, animosity towards the Jewish population only paused after WWI when Poland regained its independence.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, a steady increase in institutionalized anti-Semitism was demonstrated in stricter Jewish quotas at universities and such ignominies as “ghetto seating” for those who did get in (specified benches for any Jews at a lecture). Over these years a series of escalating harsh impositions on Jewish businesses were enacted into law, including state-sponsored competition and the requirement to banner the business owner’s name, facilitating the regular waves of boycotts of Jewish stores. Even more telling was purely vindictive legislation, such as a ban on kosher butchering, or measures that effectively eliminated the Jewish population from welfare benefits. It’s no wonder that large number of Jews fled Poland. Many resettled in other parts of Europe; some went to Palestine and other destinations; but the largest number, like my grandmother Rachel and grandfather Gdalia, came to the United States. Some two million Eastern European Jews emigrated to the U.S. between 1880 and 1921, at which time new quotas began to stifle the flow.
Our Polish trip had been long in coming. My older brother and I had been talking casually about visiting the birthplaces of our paternal grandfather and grandmother for years. We knew that none of their descendants had ventured back. It was my brother, now a retired rabbi, who finally took the initiative, booking our guide Wisniewski and hotels, and later asking if we’d like to join his itinerary. Now, as I packed, feeling increasingly emptied as the suitcase filled, I found myself apologizing out loud to my Zachary for leaving just two months after the last time we’d heard his voice.
The missing stones
If you are a Jewish tourist in Poland, chances are you will not see the actual gravestones of your ancestors—most of these are long gone. The Germans took them to pave roads, sidewalks, and to lay building foundations. Local farmers have been found using them as grinding stones. Depending on the location, you may find an explanatory plaque, a few headstones left behind, even some that have been returned by the minority of locals with an interest in commemorating their former neighbors. Sometimes you just stare at an empty, walled field, knowing that the bones lie below. It’s no wonder that I wept there.
On June 18, 2018, I was crying in a sprawling graveyard in Bialystok. My grandmother’s hometown, Bialystok had been a bustling industrial town since the mid-19th century, a textile center where most of the major factories and virtually all of the merchant shops had been owned by Jews. It’s now the largest city in northeast Poland, with a modern population of nearly 300,000, just thirty miles from the Russian frontier. In 1939, on the eve of WWII, about 60,000 Jews lived there, constituting close to two-thirds of the population. Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor, internationally acclaimed lawyer, and adviser to U.S. presidents, wrote about his childhood in Bialystok in his 1979 memoir, Blood and Hope. He described it from his family’s position of affluence (his father owned one of the first automobiles in Bialystok)—”a bustling commercial crossroad” full of “political movements associated with reform socialism, Zionism, and revolutionary labor” which “mingled with the teaching of the Torah.”
But in her introduction to the memoir of Puah Rakovsky of Bialystok, My Life as a Radical Jewish Woman, the Yale historian Paula Hyman notes that most of the Jews of Bialystok were impoverished by today’s standards. As was typical across the region, this did not diminish the Jewish obsession with books and education, which for centuries had given the Jewish population the distinction of virtually universal literacy. Children began long days of study at age four to six in kheyders, and moved on to Jewish or secular secondary schools. The region was spotted with prestigious yeshivas for Talmudic training of teenage boys. During my grandmother’s childhood and adolescence and up until WWI, Poland was under the control of czarist Russia, and the secular schools, including the Bialystok high school, were taught in Russian. Jewish youth, as a result, were much more likely to speak Russian, in addition to their native Yiddish, than Polish. Jewish boys also were also instructed in Hebrew (the script used for written Yiddish); girls much less commonly. One telling anecdote: When Jewish children in nearby Ciechanowiec were first exposed to radio in the mid-1920s they were described as fascinated, even though they couldn’t understand a word of the Polish-language broadcast.
By the turn of the 20th century, Jewish bookishness went far beyond the centuries-old focus on holy texts, via the sweeping influence of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. The Jewish population of virtually every city and town in the Pale of Settlement, the broad region that is now western Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania—the region where Jews were required to reside—took pride in their lending libraries, which offered Yiddish translations of the great works of literature from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky plus less elevated popular works such as Zane Grey’s Westerns.
The thirty two-acre Bagnowka Jewish cemetery we visited in Bialystok was ancient looking and uneven, shaded by mature trees. Of the original 43,000 gravestones, some 7,000 are left. Tomacz Wisniewski estimates that in 1939 there were up to 270,000 Jewish grave markers in Bialystok’s numerous Jewish cemeteries, with just 14,000 surviving the war.
As I looked over the fields of gravestones and memorials, many of them half-buried or broken, I kept picturing Zach’s plain, currently unmarked gravesite in the new Jewish cemetery back home, a flat grass field with a few recently planted saplings, just a few blocks from the only home he could remember. I closed my eyes and confabulated his presence, his physicality so familiar that I could pull this trick at will. I could feel him standing next to me, his voice still clear in my ears.
What I heard him say was, “Why are you so far away?” and then, “Have you forgotten me?” The pain of his words, his presence in the face of the reality of his absence, was crippling, compounded by my fear that he was fading by the day—that soon I would no longer be able to pull off this conjuring. People told us that it would get better, the grief. But how was this different from forgetting? Throughout Poland we’d crossed paths with Israeli bus tours. School trips to Poland are as routine for them as our tradition of touring Washington DC. The last Holocaust survivors are dying and the leaders of Israel, my age peers, also fear the forgetting.
A few months after we returned from Poland, I took on the unwelcome task of completing Zach’s last tax return. He’d recently started working full time at a local insurance company while studying for his third, challenging actuary test, reading up on topics such as “Put-Call Parity,” “The Binomial Model of Replicating Portfolios” and “Modeling Stock Prices with the Lognormal Distribution.” He’d always liked math and carried a school district ID he’d received to authorize his volunteer tutoring at the local high school. Our accountant was surprised to find a 1099 from DraftKings among his income statements. He said it was the first one he’d ever seen.
Zach took his gaming pretty seriously. Although his self-criticism when playing tennis or computer games was creative, loud and often profane, he never had an unkind word for anyone else. At the extremes, he would recognize the absurd humor in these self-deprecations. In one high school tennis match he so thoroughly debased himself after a long rally his opponent felt the need to call out, “You do realize you won that point?” Upon which both players along with audience broke into laughter. He didn’t hold grudges either, despite the shining example his father set before him.
As we were straightening up the basement around that time, my wife pointed me to the dusty Nintendo Game Cube sitting in the corner with its maze of cords. “Should we see if one his friends wants it?” she asked. I choked up and could only shake my head. I was thinking of the day it had appeared. Zach had been around fourteen, his older brother just off to college. Ever since I spied my first Nintendo game console, I had been leery of what I assessed was addictive allure. We had forbidden the purchase of any of the subsequent game systems, imagining naively that our boys would instead spend the time exploring the outdoor world or reading. Zach had saved up his birthday gifts and spare change and walked a couple miles to the game store in the mall and bought the used Game Cube.
“You’re going to make me take it back, aren’t you?” he asked, when I first noticed it. I told him no, that it obviously meant a lot for him to arrange the purchase and he was old enough to make the decision on his own. He soon began to improve his already considerable gaming skills, focusing on Mario Kart, in which Mario races through various dream-like courses on a little go-cart. For practicing these races, Nintendo had created a clever system in which a soft image of the gamer’s previous best cart ride could be seen and chased. Gamers called these “ghosts.”
In the summer of 2017, Zach announced he wanted to drive the 325 miles to Grand Rapids, Michigan to compete in a one-day Mario Kart tournament. “I think I can win,” he said. “Unless a ringer shows up. Winner gets $1,200.” Mario Karters like to post their best times on a website and Zach’s times were clearly better than past participants. His plan was to leave at four in the morning, drive up for the tournament and then drive back late that same night. By the time we’d worked out the details, he was taking my car instead of grandma’s inherited 1997 beater and staying overnight at a hotel. He won the tournament handily, but only brought back a partial purse. Zach told us that the guy who runs the tournament—and who had, it turns out, won the previous events—didn’t have the cash, “But he’d send me money monthly.”
I warned him that he might never see that money, but the checks steadily arrived. So did Vincent, the tournament director, on the day of Zach’s funeral. He was standing in front of the synagogue when my extended family arrived. My wife noticed him immediately as “someone who looked like a friend” and went over to introduce herself. He had driven the five hours—”because I had to,” he said. Even though he’d only known Zach for a day. The summer after the funeral he held the tournament again, and renamed it “The Zach Tabak Memorial Mario Kart Tournament.”
All of which flashed before me when Diane suggested we give away the Game Cube. I didn’t know how to explain in that instant this whole story and how inside the Cube, on the hard drive, along with each of the Mario Kart courses, Zach’s ghost was standing by, ready to race.
The Jews of Bialystok
There are no modern graves in the Jewish section of that Bialystok graveyard. For one thing, there is scarcely a resident Jew left within a hundred miles. We were told that out of a population of some 300,000 people there were five known Jews. A 2018 survey by University of Warsaw sociologists revealed that 85 percent of contemporary Poles have never met a Jew in person. The few loose rocks perched on top of gravestones as tributes had been left by people like us: American tourists, Israelis, descendants of immigrants who had gotten away in time. As I wandered deeper into the cemetery, Wisniewski pointed out a ten-foot black marble tower, a memorial to the victims of the 1906 pogrom, an orchestrated multi-day attack on Jewish businesses and persons. The murdered were buried in this cemetery in a mass grave. Along with a Hebrew poem titled “Pillar of Sorrow,” the inscription on the monument lists the names of the official count of eighty-eight victims, although some accounts put the toll at closer to two hundred. Regular troops of the czarist army took part, with undisciplined Cossacks leading the way, backed by imported thugs, with the local police either passive or joining in. Many of the victims were shot, but much of the damage was done in more primitive fashion: Homes were invaded and looted, the inhabitants, including small children, beaten with clubs and tire irons or attacked with sabers. While repressed in contemporaneous accounts, rape was rampant.
This 1906 attack was hardly a singular event for the region’s Jews. Even for Bialystok: Twenty-five Jews were killed in a military-led pogrom in July 1905, and twenty-two were killed by military fire in October, 1905. It is hard, in modern America, to come to terms with this kind of institutional violence from a standing army directed at a pacific and industrious minority. Perhaps the closest parallel is our country’s awful legacy of brutality against Native Americans. And like Native Americans, Jews were regularly expelled from their homes and forced to settle in proscribed areas. And not just in Poland and Russia (Jews were expelled from Moscow in 1891). Over the centuries every European country had, at one time or another, expelled its Jews. And while the Holocaust overshadows all the atrocities preceding it, some 100,000 Jews were killed or wounded during the Russian Civil War pogroms of 1919-1920. In addition to sparking migration, the pogroms formed the backdrop for “the politicization of the Jewish masses together with the rise of the Zionist movement,” as Jonanthan Dekel-Chen put it in his 2011 book, Anti-Jewish Violence, Rethinking the Pogroms in East European History. My grandmother, Rachel, was born in Bialystok in 1887 and would have been nineteen at the time of the 1906 pogrom. No family diaries, memoirs, or oral traditions exist to tell us what horrors she witnessed or personally experienced during those days; whether she successfully hid from the marauding, raping troops, or whether she was one of the surviving victims. Rachel died at age fifty (“heart,” was said the cursory coroner’s conclusion) in 1937, sixteen years after arriving in America, when my father was just fourteen. This eyewitness account of the pogrom by David Sohn provides a sense of what my grandmother might have suffered. It’s excerpted from the Bialystok Yizkor book (one of hundreds of memorial books published by Jewish survivors and former residents of cities and towns across eastern Europe in the years after WWII):
“Hundreds of hooligans armed with crowbars, knives and axes escorted by police and soldiers, fanned out into the centre of the city smashing doors and windows of houses and stores, looting and pillaging everything in sight. The unarmed Jewish population, terrified by these murderous acts, ran for cover in airless cellars and attics, where they hid for the entire three days, hungry and prostrate, anticipating death at any moment. The sound of gunfire echoed throughout the city. Armed soldiers and police went shooting in the streets and houses while bandits broke into and robbed the stores. On Thursday and Friday nights, the shooting increased…Either they shot people on the spot or forced a whole group out into the street and killed them there. Worst of all was when these vicious criminals gouged people’s eyes out with their nails or stuffed their cut-open abdomens with feathers. Some of the victims included small children whose heads and other organs were removed. A particularly grim scene unfolded at the Bialystok railroad station where hooligans helped by the railroad personnel killed many Jewish passengers arriving on the train. The stationmaster laughed at this tragic scene.”
Two months later, this stationmaster was assassinated, part of a calibrated retribution by Jewish activists. And while there was little hope for Jews caught in the open by mobs or unlucky enough to step off the wrong train, it was not true that the Jewish citizens of Bialystok and other cities were passive. It was a common practice, when pogroms threatened, for Jewish leaders to attempt to intercede, often via bribes to city officials, including the police, and they tried to do so in Bialystok in 1906. Unfortunately, the local officials at the time were either not accommodating or powerless against the arrayed forces. Post-Soviet scholarship has uncovered definitive evidence that this pogrom and others were orchestrated by czarist generals, no doubt convinced that Jewish intellectualism and Bolshevism were interchangeable. Jewish defense leagues had been organized in many towns, typically by the labor unions, and were capable of standing off the ordinary mob of ruffians and peasants behind a typical pogrom. But to deflect the full power of the well armed and organized czarist army was too much to ask of any rough militia, although the Bialystok neighborhoods with the strongest defenses (limited as they were to pistols and homemade bombs) were, with a fight, able to deter the troops and mobs, saving many from destruction. Perhaps my grandmother had been lucky enough to be a resident of such a neighborhood.
Later, from home, I read through the names inscribed on the Pillar of Sorrow. Among the victims were Israel Kustin, Moses Liberman, and Josef Burl, all aged three, and Jonah Kon and Avron Grynhojz, aged twenty-six. As I read this long list, I once again cried, thinking of them and their surviving families. Of my grandmother and her family under siege. Of my people. Of senseless loss.
For the rest of “A Tombstone for Zach,” please click here.