The family knew my father came from Sokolka, a small town in Eastern Poland. During various times in its history, it was Lithuanian, Russian, or Polish; for all intents and purposes, it was part of the Pale of Settlement—where a swath of land Jews were allowed to settle. While serving in Cambodia with the United Nations peace-keeping mission, I became friends with a Polish major named Darius. In late 1993, I met up with him in Warsaw, and we traveled together to Sokolka, the birthplace of my father.
Darius and I went to a Jewish cemetery, containing maybe a dozen headstones; some were upright, and others were half lying in the dirt. A broken partial fence was all that kept the chickens out. Darius asked if I saw any familiar names. “No, I don’t read Hebrew or Polish. How would I know?”
Darius grunted and then exclaimed, “You don’t read Hebrew!”
“No, I don’t.” I huffily replied, trying to cover my embarrassment over my lack of language skills. “But here, take some stones to put on each grave, just in case one of them contains a relative of mine.” *
Then the people at the post office directed us to an elderly man—a sort of amateur historian of the events in Sokolka that ultimately drove all the Jews from the town. We met up with Henrik and his blonde, blue-eyed 8-year-old granddaughter at the site of the former Jewish ghetto, which had become a relatively modern housing block.
Henrik told us that the cemetery had been left untouched because the German soldiers got spooked and were afraid to cart off any more headstones to use in building their camps. He proceeded to tell us the history of Jews during WWII in this tiny town—how some were put on trains for the concentration camps, but most were taken only as far as the forest and shot to death. My father left the town in 1907 as a toddler, to escape the pogroms with his family, long before the German invasion in the late 1930s. When his family lived in Sokolka, the area was part of Belorussia (now called Belarus).
Darius asked questions as if he were my familiar, reading my mind, and Henrik answered. I stood immobilized, with hot hot tears running silently down my cheeks. Finally, I requested that Darius ask Henrik why he was a stone upon my people’s memory (like the stones we put on the graves). Henrik pointed to his little granddaughter and said, “For her, so she will know what happened in this place, so she will not forget.”
Then he told Darius that I should stay in Sokolka.
Why?” I asked. “Because we need pretty women, and the bread here is better,” replied Darius.
Months later, I was at the movies in the U.S., watching Schindler’s List. Although I watched the movie dry-eyed, I could feel the tracks on my cheeks burned into my memory from the tears I had shed in Sokolka.
*A common Jewish cemetery custom is to leave a small stone at the grave of a loved one after visiting. Although there are various theories about its origins, rooted in ancient times, leaving a visitation stone has become part of the act of remembrance.