The records are very precise. The records say that he came to the town hall on the 26th of May, 1896, to register the birth of two children, one of them a son named Reuben born 16 years before. The record indicates that the man was asked why he had waited 16 years to register his son. He said he had not been feeling well. The record does not say if he was smiling.
But he was. It was a smile that I know so well - a smile that tightens the lips and makes the father and probably of his father, the boy named Reuben, and maybe the smile of the old man himself. His name was Mendel, a merchant of this town, the one who stayed. He lived and died here and if you go to the town hall and have them take out their record books, the man comes alive for you.
He comes out of the pages as a father and as a husband - as the man who buried seven children here and saw the other six leave for America. Those who remember him say he was a big man with a reddish beard, but the records will tell you something more. They will tell you he started off in business driving a cart the way his father had, but he wound up a merchant. The records follow his life as the dropped into the town hall from time to time - first to marry, then to record the birth of his children, then sometimes their death, sometimes their marriage. Finally his own death is recorded. He was 81 and by then his beard had turned to white.
It is all here - here after there was no hope that anything would be left. It is here in the registrar's office where the people are nice and cooperative and it is here in the vaults in the cellar and it is here in the locked cabinets upstairs and down the street at the library and, finally, days later at the regional archives in a nearby town. It is here where you expected it would not be, when you were simply going through the motions, doing what you had come to do, doing it and thinking this would be yet another story about how it is all gone - the houses and the buildings and the people and, of course the records.
So you go to the town hall and you ask for the records and the clerk there smiles back at you and says they are all here. You smile and you wait while she fetches the book but you know she is wrong - that she did not understand. They almost never understand. But then she brings out an old book. It is a huge notebook with a speckled cover like an old school notebook and it is labeled,
Documents of Death for the Synagogue District of Ostrow." She goes through the book, checking the index at the back or the entires for the year until suddenly her finger stops and she says the name "Mendel Cohen." It is a mistake, you think, the wrong man in the wrong year and only the name is right.
But then the translator moves beside her and he calls out the names and all of them are right - the name of the wife and the name of the children. And then you move over to their side of the desk and you look down and there it is - huge, bold, rococo script. The name leaps out at you - Mendel Kohn, in the Polish fashion, and you react the way you would not have thought. It is his death certificate and you are sorry about his death.
From here it gets easy - a matter of time, reallY, and history starts to give up its dead. There is first Mendel and then his father, Judka, and then his father, Shulim, and then Judka again. Bu now we are back to 1750 or so, Judka being the first of the family to come into the town. You pour through the records and find that Cohens you discarded as not being related are in fact related. You find the record of children born and then dead within a year or two and minor mysteries such as the apparent death and remarriage of people - or was it, perhaps, a divorce?
Some questions are answered, some raised. The family name here is Kohn or Kohen or, once, Kahan. The grandfather I am named for is called Reuben in the books, not Rudolph as he was called in America. The grandmother my sister is named for is called Odessa in the books, not Judith, but you get the feeling that the authorities were told what they wanted to hear - Odessa, yes sir, Odessa. Let them write it the way they want. Say yes sir, and move off.
There is something good about the exercise - something healthy. It is good to learn up close that you come from poor and exceedingly humble people, to sense how they feared the authorities and how finally they left or were killed. Is was as if they had not been there at all - invisible men and invisible women. There is a lesson there in that.
Most of them left here, some of them forced over the border with the Soviet Union in 1939, the rest of them shot on Nov. 11, 1939, on the road to Warsaw. Their names still are kept in a big book of abandoned property and if you look through it you will find names like yours - descendants, too, of Judka Kohn. He came from somewhere and he settled here and the last his Polish line was a big, red-bearded man named Mendel. He did at 1 o'clock in the morning, Nov. 9, 1931, and his wife followed him four years later. Not too long after that their grandson married a woman born ina nearby town.
They honeymooned at Niagara Falls.