I wasn’t expecting the answer. What my mother had told me was true. As was what my father had said.
It had all started on the Holocaust Remembrance Day a few months ago. My fastidious younger brother, Laurence had discovered some very old photographs he had obtained as a legacy from a very distant relative or friend of the family from Praszka. Praszka was a mythical place in Poland from where our grandparents had come. As the oldest, I knew that Mum had spent seven years looking for relatives who had survived the German onslaught. She had found two.
Many years later I was to meet one of them, Lipman. It was my first night in Israel; I told him of my troubled relationships with my soon-to-be wife-especially how my parents objected to the marriage. Till this day I cannot imagine or reconstitute how we managed to converse. Lipman new a few words in English and I even less in Yiddish. Nonetheless, he told me the story:-
‘Ah, you remind me the cousin of ours, he was a romantic too. ‘ I asked what had become of Natan Goodfreund; our cousin’s name. ‘ Fate had us meet in the summer of 1944. It must have been in the middle of the summer, if I remember it was about 15th of July 1944. The Germans had decided to execute 10 Jews he was one of them. They hung him.’ I gazed at Lipman telling him,’ my birthday is on the 15th of July 1944.’ This did not seem to move Lipman too much, as I was to learn for him, life was a continuous surrealistic experience.
I did something that Remembrance Day, which had never been done before. I turned the pictures over. On the back of the wedding scene containing thirty one people, simply written- ‘Wedding; Praszka January 1939.’ My brother and I could not recognise anybody. They had all died. They were gone. The bride was obviously of one family. A family which contained many women who look similar-obviously related to one another. There were some more pictures. One caught my eye. She was hauntingly beautiful and yet she reminded me of so many people. She reminded me of my aunt; she reminded me of my daughter; she reminded me of my granddaughters, and she reminded me of my nieces. I fell in love with that picture and on that day I swore I was going to look for her. One thing we did learn and that is how to write the name Praszka. Till now we had been searching as it had been pronounced in a Yorkshire dialect which affected even the Leeds Jews. Sure enough, I found Praszka.
The idea was born to ask the people of Praszka to play a game of football with the local Oranit football team. A friend in Kfar Kasm wanted to take part. We corresponded with the Praszka council. Within two months we were on our way.
Warsaw left me cold. Far too many Christian symbols and churches. The atavistic, yet personal, nigh on subliminal fear awoke itself. I was quite happy to get on the plane and return to Israel. The old feeling,’ I don’t belong here,’ awoke again. Nevertheless, the next day we drove three hours to Praszka. As I entered Praszka, my mood changed. Praszka is incredibly beautiful; it is idyllic and calm. As I told the Lord Mayor later in one of our many long conversations,’ Polonia in Hebrew means,’ God resides here.’ He smiled-he seemed to know exactly what I meant.
I had told the Lord Mayor in one of our many conversations, translated painstakingly, on the day of the outbreak of war in 1939 the BBC had announced,’ the German army has entered Praszka.’ It was my Mother’s mantra. This seemed to me very strange as we were talking about the village of about 5,000 people, of which 1,600 were Jews.
Ten minutes later we were stood on the old Polish-German border. It was on the outskirts of the village. If it hadn’t been pointed out, I wouldn’t have noticed- it was a simple small bridge going over a smallish stream. Nothing was there to indicate this was the point where the biggest disaster known to the Jewish people started. 300 yards further back in the middle of the village lay a large patch of about thirty dunams. They explained that was the Jewish area. It must have taken the Germans about a minute or two to capture it. The Poles had left it untouched. Across the road from the Jewish quarter is the town’s museum and culture centre. It was the synagogue. I am completely non-observant, and it was obvious to our hosts that this was the case. Nevertheless, they were amazed when I pointed with an unerring accuracy. I pointed out where the Ark of the Covenant was, where the dignitaries sat, and where the women sat. I explained to them. I used to attend the Polish synagogue in Leeds with my grandfather. I choked as I told them it was almost a replica of this building.
It was not the only time I found it hard to control my emotions. The Poles are fascinated by trains. Wherever you go, you see them preserved. Praszka has a train too. I was shown it, after composing myself I asked the question.’ No-they were taken away in lorries,’ they answered.
I told the Lord Mayor about my grandfather and his deep love of Praszka. How he had cried the day war broke out and how he, a jolly man, had died broken as my mother searching the relatives she couldn’t find. Any Jew from Poland had an elevated status; any person in any way related to Praszka was automatically a member of the family. There weren’t many. The Lord Mayor, a typical Polish gentleman, is reserved, not given to making eye contact. But when he did there was a bonding completely beyond my vocabulary to describe.
We met the town historian and kept his word. On coming back to Israel, he sent me the electoral roll from 1939. I recognised my grandfather’s family, and I recognised cousin Natan Goodfreund.
In Praszka I learned a lot about myself and my family. I understood why my Zeideh adored Praszka. I learnt how ephemeral Jewish life is. How easy it is to destroy it. I learnt my mother hadn’t exaggerated-history had changed in the little village. I had also asked the Lord Mayor about something my father had said. The Lord Mayor had smilingly answered,’ it might well be true.’ In other words, my family were into stealing and smuggling horses. I added something which would have made my Auntie Annie very proud,’ well they must be good at it because we survived.’ The Lord Mayor had smiled. But the beautiful lady who haunts me, who left us- without a name- still exists. I see her as I write this. Till I find her real name, she will live on as Oranit Goodfreund.
May God bless her memory. And all the martyrs from Praszka.
We lost Praszka.
We will never lose Oranit.