It ended in the dark at the cemetery. It ended at the cemetery everyone said no longer existed, the one that would not be there, the one that had been razed, bulldozed, defaced and then destroyed - the one that had been built over with neat little houses and neat little lawns. It ended among the pines and in the sand and with smashed crypts and broken headstones and graves ripped open, and in a moment of horror and yet triumph that I find hard to descibe - the moment when I finally found something.
Up to then it had been something of a lark. This thing about going back. This thing about seeking roots or whatever, of coming here, to this town, to this town of my grandparents, and maybe poring through the records, taking notes and looking for good detal, and maybe finding the old house and the old square and the store where my grandmother sold cheese and the synagogue where my grandfather prayed and maybe, just maybe, finding some old person some bent and bearded person, and having him tell how it was. He would be quotable. The old always are.
It was going to be like that or it was going to be just the opposite; there would be nothing left - no records and no house and no square and no quotable old man and all I would have to do is figure some way to tiptoe around the holocaust, to not some down too heavy on what had happened, to respect your right not to deal with something that no one deal with anyway, and then maybe to write some sort of anti-roots thing; how there aren't any, at least not here. But it is here and I found it and it has something to do, I think, with error.
It began differently. It begin nicely enough on sunny day in a fine Russian-made car, a good highway, the signs appearing every once in a while announcing the approach of the town. I had my notes on my lap and I was reading them to my colleague and interpreter, Christopher Bobinski, telling him how I had interviewed my cousin and how he had told me how to locate things. We had talked in a restaurant in New Jersey and you should hear the tape - piano music in the background.
Anyway, my cousin had told me where to make my rights and my lefts and that the family lived on the smaller of two squares, not the one with the municipal buildings but the other one. I had talked to my mother and my uncle, too, interviewed them really for the first time about all this, not understanding until then that they really starved during the first war. They told about how my grandmother stole one potato a day from the farm where she worked. She cooked that for an entire family.
They were the first to mention the cemetery. My uncle said that the family house was on the outskirts of the town and then my mother had said near the cemetery - maybe half-a-mile away. I remember that very clearly because I thought at the time, of course, the cemetery - that's where I would go. It would be there. It is stone and dirt and that does not go with time. And of course it would be there they said it was. Children know about cemeteries. Children remember funerals and such. Children are not afraid to be afraid of death.
So now things are going along just as my cousin said. There is the river, and there is the town to the right and there is the bridge and there . . . but something is wrong. The houses are new and in some places tall and nothing is old. No houses made of timber or of brick, but instead buildings made of concrete - like Miami, for crying out loud.
Soon we learn that everything is new. Soon we learn that three wars have been fought in this town and that each one has taken a toll. There is a woman we find called the conservator of documents and she tells us all the records are gone. She shows us old pictures, taken by the Germans in the first World War and you can see right off that this town was mostly destroyed. Later we saw picture of the very square where my grandparents lived. German soldiers are posing in the rubble. Not a building is left standing.
So now it is option No. 2 - the everything-is-gone option. Now it is a question of getting the quotes and compiling the details and maybe summoning up some emotion and then writing it up. We go to see the local historical buff in the bookstore he manages, and he tells us that even the cemetery is gone. Hard to believe, but true. He is very specific about the destruction. He is a small man with a long nose and an ugly, baggy suit, and speaking very slowly he tells about the cemetery.
The Germans destroyed it completely, he says. They pulled out graves. It has been built over. A housing development. It is gone.
Still, we now have an old map of the town and so we head for the cemetery anyway. We walk the half-mile that my mother remembers only the map is old and we run into a backyard. We cut through it and find the road again and follow it until it turns to dirt and then to mud. The walking is hard and it is fast getting dark and all around us, as we were told, are new houses and houses under construction, and in the middle of the road is a car mired in the mud. Men are working at pushing it free. This is where the cemetery should be.
We walk on anyway and soon the houses disappear. And there is an open area to the left and we walk out into it and suddenly you sense it before you actually see it. It comes out of the failing light slowly - a mound here, a mound there and then a topped stone and then a crypt sticking out of the sandy soil and then an open grave. You walk toward all this, not quite sure of what you are seeking and then it becomes clearer and clearer. There are more and more open graves and more and more white stones and then you see stone that is not stone at all. Bobinski sees it first. He is in the lead and he turns around and he says, bongs.
There is horror on his face and God knows how I look. For some reason we go off in different directions. I run into the cemetery and I start picking up bones - a leg bone and a rib cage with three ribs and some splinters and then an arm bone. I carry the arm bone around for a while and then I go from stone to stone, not knowing then that they are not headstones but material from the crypts, and try pushing the dirt away with my shoe and then when that doesn't work I scrape with my hands. I am looking for writing maybe even a name, who knows, maybe even a family name. But there is no writing, nothing but ants and moss.
Now the sun is setting fast and the wind is whistling through the pines and a rain is coming on and I go back to the little rise where I have left my bag and drop a piece of crypt stone inside. I look around and see the graves and the crypts and the bones and the houses all round. I know that soon they will take the rest of the cemetery and so I think that maybe I should say some kind of prayer, but I don't really know any.
Anyway, it is time to go and I am thrilled at what I have found, thrilled because I have found something and I have that rock in my bag. I am thinking of how thrilled I am when I realize I am scared - a stranger in a strange land, trying to figure out why the cold is suddenly so cold and the sound of wind so awful in the trees, and why all of a sudden I feel something in common with those who went before.
I feel terror.