Once it took a day. Once you had to come out of this town by horse and cart and you took the road to Warsaw where there was the train to the boat. It was a November as cold as this one and now when you are on the road the horses and the carts are still there and you can image what it was like - the faces hiding from the wind in the collars of coats, the children swaddled in blankets, the jets of vapor coming from the nose of the horse. It was slow and it was cold and they were scared but the time had come. The time had come to go.
And now they tell us that in this town there is a woman, a very old, and she can tell us how it used to be. She is here yet. The houses have been destroyed and the records are gone and the people themselves are dead or scattered but this woman is still here. So we go off looking for her. Knocking at the door of shops that have closed for the night, talking through the glass, being directed and pointed and instructed until finally we come to the alley and then the house. We knock and the door opens.
A woman, She is short and she is fat, but she is not old. In her hands she holds a knife and chicken feet. She scraps the feet as she talks. We have come two, three weeks too late, she says. Scrape, scrape. The old lady has died. Scrape. A shame. Two, no three weeks ago. But there is someone else who can help us. Someone not as old, but someone who could help. A Jewish women. Well, not really Jewish. She converted. Scrape, scrape.
The former Miss Finkelstein was not at home when we arrived. At church, her husband said.
He was an old man with white hair and a flat nose and when he was told what we were after he invited us in and brought two chairs out to the kitchen table and told us what he could remember. He could remember the square where my family lived and he could remember a dairy shop like the one of my grandmother ran, but the one he remembered was owned by a man. Anyway, his wife would know for sure. His wife would definitely know. She had been born and raised on the square.
The square. We were at dinner now, eating while the old woman was at church, and we talked about the square and how she had to remember my grandmother and my grandfather and my uncle and my aunt and, of course, my mother. They are grew up on the square together and so now there really was a person who could remember. We ate quickly checking the time frequently, gobbling down something akin to gefilte fish and borsht and a pork chop and then a shot of vodka that went down like lava. We had tea and then we left, walking quickly through the rain, pushing our pace into a run sometimes. We got back to the house in no time.
The old men opened the door and invited us in again, and again pulled up the chairs to the table and just started talking. I kept looking around, waiting for wife to make some sort of dramatic appearance. We were in the kitchen and the room was divided by a curtain and there was no telling what was behind the curtain. I kept leaning back in my chair, trying to peek. There was a room off the kitchen and maybe some other room that I couldn't see - it was hard to tell. It was easy to tell, though, that these were poor people. They had maybe four or five plates to their name, several glasses, a half-dozen utensils. Nothing more.
The old man is still talking. Finally, I ask about his wife. Still at church, he says. Two little dogs camp under the table, one of them rubbing his neck against my boot. The old man is telling the story of his life. He is back to 1939 and he tells about how he went into the Army and fought in his own town. he was captured on the river Narev by the Germans, but escaped in 1941. A German woman gave him a railway ticket and he came home. As for his wife, she spent the war years working for peasants in the forest.
Yes, yes, your wife, I break in. Where is she? Still at church, he says. Should be home by now. He is wearing heavy woolen pants and a heavy woolen shirt, both navy blue, and he goes on talking, now taking us back to 1915 when the Cossacks came to town and made everyone leave. Then they burned it. In 1920, the Bolsheviks held the town for about a month and when they retreated into Prussia, the Polish army came in an hanged the father of a friend who was a Communist.
"The people had turned him in as people will."
A car slows down outside, its headlights visible from the kitchen, but it keeps going. The old man says he worked in a sawmill before the war. After the war, the owner's son wrote him from Israel, asking him to support his claim for restitution from the Germans. "I wrote a letter," the old man said, "and the son sent me some money and a carton of oranges."
Now there was a rustle at the door.It opens and cold air comes rushing in and then a woman, small, wearing glasses, hair back in a bun, kerchief, coat and under it the usual sweater, this one beet red. i stand. Her husband says something to her and then the interpreter says something and then her heads turns and she fixes me with her eyes and she just holds me with them. She stares and I stare back and then I can hold my stare no longer and I don't know what to do. I don't know whether I should shake hands or hug her or say something and in what language. Yiddish? Some sort of secret handshake? What? She continues to stare. I feel the blood coming to my face. For some reason I am blushing. She turns to the interpreter.
"I can't remember anything."
Everyone sits and now we go over the names once again. Her head keeps shaking no at each name - no, no, no. We try the store. No. My grandmother's nickname. No. It's been so long, she says in Polish with a Jewish accent. So long. "Even an old Jew wouldn't remember," she says. She turns to me and asks if I can speak Yiddish. She seems a bit excited now and refuses to take no for an answer. How come? Why not? Of course I do. I must. I say no and then maybe and then when it occurs to me that she is dying to speak it - that there is no one left to speak it woth - I say yes and hope like hell that she will say something I can understand.
"What is your name?" she asks in Yiddish.
I hesistate, unsure of what she has asked. She is waiting for my answer. Finally, I say, fine. "Fine. Yich bin. Fine."
She looks puzzled. She has asked me my name and I have said that I am fine and so she tells the translator in Polish what she has asked in Yiddish and he tells me in English and I try to respond in Yiddish: "Roischield," or something like that. I fumble with the name and she looks at me with contempt, not inderstanding how in one generation a language that had lived for 1,000 years is gone. Me and Johnny Carson know about the same amount of Yiddish - a few words, a few expressions. I am more of a disappointment to her than she is to me. She cannot remember my grandmother and I cannot remember my grandmother's language.
Soon after, she brought out pictures in a cracking leather purse and showed us relatives in America and Argentina and Israel. She showed us a picture of her husband kneeling at her parent's grave, a handkerchief over his head. Out of respect, she said. "Soon the houses will cover it all," she said. She brought us tea and we talked some more and she asked us to stay the night or at least stay some more. Outside it was storming and it was a long, cold, cold ride back to Warsaw, but once again the time had come. The time had come to go.