She was small - tiny, actually - and toothless, and even inside the house, with the fire going, she wore several sweaters, a heavy skirt and socks over her stockings. She kept busy cooking potatoes on the woodburnig stove and she paid little attention as her husband talked of the old days and the countless wars and the front moving, always, through the town. One of the few times she had anything to say was when we got on the subject of the destroyed cemetry. Then this peasant woman with a face out of central casting cried.
Her husband did most of the talking, sitting in the corner of the timbered house, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He said he had built his house to be near the cemetry gates, and you had to conclude that he had seen my grandparents because he was old enough and because he must have seen them pass by, the old people and their children. He must have seen them come for funerals and for the unveiling of the headstones and then later when they would come back to remember the dead with a prayer.
The house was old and made of timber, a one-room museum piece. It had a bed on either side of the room, a table, a barrel, the stove and a tile oven that, appeared cracked and no longer usable. The floor was covered with canvas cut from duffle bags and there was a window on either side of the room. The place had been plastered inside like a white cave and the old man must have considered it fireproof because he threw a cigarette butt on the floor and let it burn there.
He did all the talking. He had white hair, cut short, and strong clean features with a beard of maybe two or three days growth. His clothing was filthy and his face was unwashed and he sat with his boots off, a wash basin across from him, apparently waiting for his supper when we had come knocking at the door.
Now he is telling us about the cemetery. He built his house to be near to it and he describes it as something of great beauty. It has been years, but he is still impressed and he tells us of the pine trees and the wonderful gates and the walls so high you could barely touch the top with your hands. He held his arms up high. He said the mushrooms used to grow around the walls, wonderful mushrooms, big mushrooms he says, and he gives the impression that he came to live near the cemetery because he thought it was pretty and also because he thought there would be work there for him. There is no work now, though. The cemetery was destroyed years ago.
The old lady keeps moving around the stove, poking at the potatoes with a spoon, arranging the lids on the pot so the water doesn't boil over, going over to the corner where the wood is stored, slipping some of it into the fire. She is cooking the way I think my grandmother must have cooked - the same sort of stove, probably; maybe the same sort of house.
Now when the talk gets around to what happened at the cemetery, she moves in close and joins the conversation. She gesticulates with the spoon and the words come out of her toothless mouth and I am thinking of course, that this is the dreaded Polish peasant, the ones who came in the night with clubs, and I am braced for something - in her face, a sadness, and now her words are being translated and she is saying that she saw the destruction of the cemetery.
She is saying she was there and she saw the Nazis march the Jews out to the cemetery and she saw them forced to deface the headstones. She saw all that, she said, and she and the other women wept and them someone said, "Don't cry, son they will take us away and destroy our cemetery," and, of course, some of that did happen. And now the old woman is choking up and she is close to tears again and then she turns her face away. In a moment she returns to the stove where the potatoes are boiling over.
Her husband continues the tale. They used hammers and so on, he says. It was the 24th of December Christmas Eve. and that is how he remembers the date. He does not know the year, though. He says the headstones were removed and used for building material and the cemetery went to pieces. It is a shame, he says. It is a shame. Over by the fire, the old lady spits on the floor. It is not clear why.
The old man goes on with his history. His recitation is slow and detailed and he spares nothing. He has seen it all. He has seen three wars and he had seen the front move through the town and then back out again and so he spares us nothing. What he has to tell is nothing but life, his life, but it is strong stuff and the translator flinches, telling me later that he did not tell me all. It's all right. I know the stories.
Now the old man is saying that the construction that has taken the cemetery is also going to take his house. He worries about that, worries and wonders about what kind of apartment he will be given and then he returns to the topic of the cemetery. He said a woman complained about conditions there. She was an old woman and she had gone to Communist Party headquarters in the town and she said that something should be done about the cemetery, that bones were turning up and the children were playing with them. Something was done for a while the place was cleaned up.
Outside it was raining and outside it had turned windy and cold. It was dark and unlighted out by the cemetery and so we stepped in puddles and slipped in the mud and finally made it back to the town. Now we had a person to look for - the woman who had complained about the cemetery.She must be very old and she must know things about the town and about the square where my grandparents once lived and maybe something about them. We went off looking for her. The old man had been very specific.
She was the last Jew left in the town.