People sometimes ask about the origin of my name, their name. The question is somewhat disingenuous, for the name could hardly sound more Polish, where it means “little apple tree.” Ivan Jablonka, John Little-Apple-Tree, or just plain Jean Pommier, in French, the commonest of names. I am less sensitive to the comic overtones of the name, once translated, than to its protective mundaneness. There is another name, however, that fills me with pride, a legendary name this time, one that defies translation: Parczew, the Jewish town where they were born 100 years ago. When pronounced parshef in Polish, this name has a singular effect on me. It sounds more exotic than our family name, our little apple tree, a trivial shrub growing in the backyard. Parczew, with its end-of-the-alphabet consonants, its bighearted sounds, its final w that rises like smoke from a campfire, with hints of clay—that’s where we come from. My father was born in Paris during the war, and I have never lived anywhere else, but we seem to be linked affectively, viscerally, to this little Polish backwater that takes forever to find on a map, somewhere between Lublin and Brest-Litovsk, out near the borders with Belarus and Ukraine.
On his trip to Parczew in 2003, my father had his picture taken in front of a sign at the entrance to the town, off to the right at the edge of a field. His hand rests on the sign, while he smiles into the camera, looking a bit ill at ease. How I want to go there too, rest my hand on that sign and smile. For me, Parczew gives off a fragrance, a musicality, but also suggests a color: green. It is an almost fluorescent, yellowish green, like the dazzling color of a prairie by Chagall, a native of Vitebsk, in Belarus. Parczew makes my lips pucker, like a tart apple, but also suggests a more intense shade of green, grassier, a fiddler balancing on a roof, a pair of oxen pulling a cart, or a goat flying off on a garnet cloud.
Jews in the West today are making an increasing number of pilgrimages to the shtetls of their forebears.1 They return home with photos, impressions and emotions to share. On my parents’ trip to Parczew, they attempted to revive memories, as my father would approach passersby in a mixture of Russian and Polish: “Hello, my name is Marcel Jablonka, my parents were born here.” This got him nowhere. They even hired a guide, an elderly lady who walked them through the town, conferring with friends and acquaintances, knocking on doors in search of answers, but to no avail. Disheartened, they returned to France. My father would have to live his life knowing almost nothing about his own parents, apart from a few random fragments provided by Annette, his guardian, a cousin of his mother’s, and by Reizl, his Argentinian aunt, the one we call Tía, “aunt” in Spanish. This ignorance was a source of great anguish, for as a boy, he had felt no need to ask his parents’ cousins, friends and former neighbors to tell him what they remembered. And whenever anyone did try to do so, he would say he wasn’t interested. He had no parents, that’s all. Further discussion would only make his suffering worse. Now, he wishes he knew more, regrets his youthful refusal to find out. “I was an idiot,” he says, furious with himself. But what can he do now? Everyone is dead and gone.
I go to see Colette, a family friend whose parents came from Parczew. She made the trip in the summer of 1978, shortly before the election of Pope John Paul II. It turns out that my parents’ visit was a stroll in the park compared to hers, which proved dismal and disturbing. It was pouring rain. After making their way along the muddy lanes, Colette and her mother arrived at the home of an ancient couple whose address they had been given. One low-ceilinged room, two tiny beds with crocheted coverlets, embroidery on the wall and a gargantuan meal on the table. Not only did the hosts distinctly remember Colette’s grandfather, a tripe butcher by trade, but they had nothing but fine memories of him! At four in the afternoon, it was almost dark. Intent upon finding her old house, Colette’s mother set out, but what with the destruction caused by war, the waning light, the drenching rain and her forty-year absence, the search came to nothing. At one point, she thought she recognized her in-laws’ house, and the brick building that looked like the Polish school she attended as a girl. In the end, overcome with emotion, she began to wander aimlessly through the boggy streets, holding back her tears, soaked to the skin, speaking Polish to her daughter and French to the locals, utterly confused. On the verge of collapse, they made their way back to the car, which was parked in a water-logged square. Suddenly, a drunk emerged out of nowhere and started banging on the hood of the car: he needed a match to light his cigarette.
Now, it’s my turn. In Warsaw, I meet up with Audrey, who is working on a dissertation on anti-Jewish violence since the war and who has agreed to serve as my interpreter and guide. We drive for two hours along a highway clogged with truck traffic. After Lublin, the road takes us through forests as it cuts through the countryside. Soon, warehouses, machine shops, garages and a smattering of homes signal an industrial zone. Then, houses turn into neighborhoods and suddenly, we’ve arrived. Parczew, my shtetl. But Parczew bears little resemblance either to Chagall’s images or to the muddy mess Colette and her mother encountered 30 years earlier. The newly blacktopped road is full of nice Fiats and Volkswagens, and the freshly painted homes give the town an Austrian flavor, so that one hardly notices here and there the collapsing hovels amidst thickets of weeds.
Audrey pulls in next to a public park, where we meet up with Bernadetta, a French teacher in Włodawa, with whom I have exchanged a few emails. In the car, she briefs us on what she has scheduled: first a visit to where the old Jewish cemetery once stood, then on to what was formerly the synagogue and finally a get-together with Marek Golecki, the son of Parczew’s sole “Righteous,” that is, a Gentile who risked his life to save Jews during the war. She then passes on some copies of general information on the town’s history, some newspaper clippings and an ethnographic narrative intended for the younger generations, in which an elderly Polish woman recalls the Jews of Parczew.
We are now looking out onto the Jewish cemetery: it has become the public park. Planted with beeches and birches that shade the grassy areas, it is crisscrossed with paths where we see couples, joggers and mothers pushing strollers. I wander along in the spring sunshine, taking it all in, with my heart dancing. I have accomplished what I set out to do: I am treading lightly on the land of my ancestors. In one corner of the park, standing in front of two tombstones, Audrey and Bernadetta chat as they wait for me to finish my walk. The first stone—tilted slightly, made of pale grey marble—bears an inscription by the mayor of Parczew in honor of the “Polish soldiers taken prisoner during the war,” killed by the Germans in 1940. The second stone—horizontal, made of dark grey marble, with a Star of David—bears a bilingual epitaph in Hebrew and Polish written by a Belgian Jew: “Here are buried 280 Jewish soldiers of the Polish army, shot and killed in February 1940 by Hitler’s assassins. Among the victims lies my father, Abraham Salomonowicz, born in 1898.” Faded dahlias grace the tombstone.
We get back in the car and head to the synagogue, built in the late nineteenth century to replace the old wooden synagogue which has since been destroyed. On the freshly painted golden-yellow building, one story high with windows in the shape of stone tablets, there is a sign that reads “Second-hand clothing imported from England,” and a smaller sign next to it announcing a 50%-off sale. Bernadetta, walking ahead of me, says in her delightfully old-fashioned French: “Please don’t take offense.”
She’s right, of course. Even though the rare documents I have gathered regarding my grandparents all mention “Parczew” (whether spelled Parezew, or Parczen or Poutchef), I know full well that I have no claim to this place; I am nothing more than a tourist. We climb some stairs and end up in a vast space where the mostly female clientele is sorting through hundreds of dresses, skirts, pants, shirts, T-shirts and coats that hang from rows of rails that fill the room. The walls are depressingly grey, and fluorescent lights dangle from the ceiling, giving an overall impression of shabbiness. Still, the cracked linoleum is waxed and gleaming; it is a kind of polished indigence. As soon as my camera flash goes off, men behind the cash register turn and glare at me: I’m not sure if I look like a Jew, a Westerner or both, but I’m not from around here, that’s for certain. Some of their items, hanging from some piping, are visible in the picture I secretly snap as we scurry back down the stairs: a mauve dress with rhinestones around the collar, a wedding dress, a beige negligée studded with flowers, a nightgown in an orange and blue pattern.
We continue our visit of Parczew. Next to the synagogue, and in the same golden yellow, is the former Jewish study house, now proudly displaying a sign reading Dom Weselny, which means “reception hall.” Built in the early 1920s to replace the first study house, now a distillery, it was turned into a movie theater after the war, before becoming today’s reception hall.2 I vaguely recall a photo in which my father stands somewhat stiffly on the steps outside a movie house, its decrepit yellowish exterior covered in graffiti. It must have been cleaned up and repainted before becoming the locale it is today, an all-purpose hall for weddings, banquets and other festivities.
Our tour finally takes us to see Marek Golecki. With close-cropped white hair, a moustache and the paunch of a fifty-year-old, Marek lives on Kościelna, or Church Street, in a three-story cement brick house that he built himself. He is the last “Jew” of Parczew. Not a real Jew, of course, since the 5,000 or so Jews who were living in and around the town were murdered during the war, and the few survivors—who had emerged from the surrounding forests where they had found refuge from the harsh winters and famines, the German search operations and the partisan racketeering—ended up leaving the town after the pogrom of 5 February 1946. But because of his father, who had been declared “Righteous among the Nations” for his role in saving Jews, Marek is not exactly popular in the town. He serves us refreshments and tells us about how, in the 1970s, his barn was destroyed in what looked like an arson attack. When he went to the town council to demand some form of compensation, the mayor told him to go ask his “Jewish friends” for help.3 I fear that my gift of a bottle of port that I brought from France will cause him further harm—I’m another “Jewish friend”—but Marek doesn’t care what people say, and in any case, he is not being treated as a pariah, as we are able to observe during our walk with him around the town, where he stops to talk auto repair and garden hoses with his neighbors.
The next day, we go to the town hall. Audrey explains the purpose of our visit to the office head who, looking a bit puzzled, goes out and returns a few minutes later with three thick volumes: the rabbinical records. Amidst this thicket of pen strokes, I get ready to discover the name of my grandmother, Idesa, but the office manager replies that there is no entry, because the year of her birth, 1914, was a somewhat troubled time. Her marriage certificate, on the other hand, two decades later, is definitely there in the records, which refer to “Idesa Korenbaum . . . daughter of Rushla Korenbaum, unmarried.”4 Family names have a way of revealing certain truths: my grandmother was an illegitimate child. Once back in France, I’ll have the opportunity to verify, through my father’s birth certificate, that Idesa’s exact name was Korenbaum-vel-Feder, the Polish word vel in this context meaning “also known as.” She was indeed illegitimate, but not abandoned, since she also bore the name of her father, Mr. Feder. As a child, Idesa lived with her mother, Rushla Korenbaum, a brother I know nothing about, and perhaps their father. In Yiddish, Feder means “feather,” and Korenbaum, “bark tree” (as opposed to tree bark), which makes no sense. Family names have a poetry of their own.
What were things like on my grandfather’s side, in Matès Jablonka’s family? Here, the office manager pulls out some ordinary-looking birth certificates, but I feel I’m being entrusted with secret information, never before revealed, possibly scandalous. The Jablonka siblings include, in descending order, Simje (born in 1904), Reizl (1907), Matès (1909), Hershl (1915) and Henya (1917), three boys and two girls, all born under the Czarist empire.5 Nothing there that I don’t already know, apart from a tragedy that my own father was unaware of: in 1913, a younger brother, Shmuel, died at the age of two.
Their parents—my great-grandparents—were named Shloyme and Tauba. Not only were they not married, but their children were acknowledged only belatedly. Hershl, born in 1915, was not declared at the records office until the late 1920s, supposedly “because a world war was breaking out.” Likewise, Henya’s birth certificate was not drawn up until 1935, a delay of eighteen years ascribed, this time, to “family reasons.” One senses here a rather negligent patriarch getting his complicated house in order late in life by officially recording the last of his children. On my grandparents’ marriage certificate, Tauba, over sixty years of age by then, is finally recorded by her married name, Jablonka. And all is right with the world! But since the children of Shloyme Jablonka and Tauba bore their father’s name from birth, it goes without saying that their line of descent was a matter of public knowledge, as was the case for my grandmother.
So, there were five Jablonka siblings, not counting the baby who died at age two. Simje and Reizl, the two eldest, future émigrés to Argentina; Matès, my grandfather, the brother admired by all; and then the last two, Hershl and Henya, future émigrés to the Soviet Union. But this spread of births, from 1904 to 1917, actually starts even earlier: by cross-checking documents available online at the Yad Vashem site, I discover that old Shloyme had two sons and a daughter from a previous wife, all of whom were murdered with their families in 1942. The information was provided by Hershl and Henya themselves, though they were a bit unsure of the dates and of the spelling of their half-sister’s and half-brothers’ first names. From Buenos Aires, Simje’s son confirms the existence of these earlier children, and adds that the half-sister, Gitla, had been disabled ever since she fell off a table as a baby.
The complexity of piecing together these unstable families of varying legitimacy calls to mind a dialogue between some poor wretch and the writer I. L. Peretz in the late nineteenth century, while the latter was collecting data about the Russian Jewish population at the request of a philanthropist. Here is Peretz carrying out his survey:
“‘How many children?’
At this point, the man had to think. He then began counting on his fingers. With his first wife, the ones that were his: one, two, three; hers, one, two; with his second wife . . . But all this counting has started to annoy him!
‘Nu, let’s just say six.’
‘I’m afraid “just say” isn’t good enough. I need to know more precisely than that. . . .’
So he begins counting on his fingers again, to arrive at a grand total this time—God be praised—that amounts to three more than his last count a moment earlier.
‘Nine children. May God bless them all with a solid constitution and long-lasting health.’”6
Nine is also the total number of children arrived at by the venerable Shloyme Jablonka, a good father, if not an especially good husband. The Yizkor Bukh of Parczew, the “book of remembrance” published by the survivors of World War II, a volume of local history in Hebrew and Yiddish meant to bring the lost shtetl back to life,7 devotes exactly one line to the man: Shloyme was in charge of the Parczew baths. It goes without saying that such a modest occupation would have earned him barely enough to meet his family’s needs. At the Jablonkas’, no one ever went hungry, but the house was small and sparsely furnished. In bad weather, everyone tried to stay indoors, for the rain and snow brought in on everyone’s shoes would have turned the earthen floor into a muddy mess in no time. But since they had to go out for bread, to use the outhouse, to get water and wood and to attend religious services, the only clean place in the whole house at the end of the day was underneath the dining table, which is where the children would play. When Tauba was ill, their half-sister Gitla would come to help out, so that the children all loved her like a mother and relations between the two women grew tense. One or the other would bring dinner to the Friday evening table, after the head of the household had poured the wine and recited prayers, while the children looked on in wonderment.
Matès, my grandfather, was five years old at the outbreak of World War I. After the first setbacks suffered by the Russians, the Germans invaded Parczew in 1915, and photos of the period—some are available in a database at sztetl.org—show a parade of tarpaulin-covered carts and soldiers on horseback or on foot, with guns slung over their backs and spiked helmets and backpacks, crossing through the town; the elder locals look on with worried expressions while the street urchins laugh. Compared to the war that was to follow, this occupation was almost kindly, though it did give rise to some troublesome incidents. The Yizkor Bukh refers to looted shops, famine, a cholera epidemic, work camps and inflation. “Russian currency was used to make paper; 500-ruble notes could be found lying in the street. Children played at collecting small change. Each child would have a cloth sack full of coins as they scoured the streets for more.”8
But there was also such hope! For the German invaders promised equality for the Jews, spoke of cultural autonomy and even authorized a few initiatives (a library opened in Parczew during that time), while the Russians, who suspected Jews of spying for the Germans, were deporting them to camps on the Dnieper.9 Children learned to live with war. “Young people were starting to be affected by the same war hysteria as adults,” explains the Yizkor Bukh. “Two sides formed. On every Shabbat, the children would stage pitched battles. One side was led by the brother of Rabbi Mordechai Saperstein . . . ; Israel Straiger Rosenberg (who lives in the United States now) led the other. The girls also took part in the fighting as ‘nurses.’ Using stones as weaponry, with the river as their dividing line, both sides produced casualties.”10 But when they weren’t playing these war games, the children would swim in the Piwonia in the summer, and skate on it in winter. On Sunday mornings, they would go down to wash their pitchers and utensils. And life would continue, with costumes on Purim, archery and banners on Lag Ba-Omer, to commemorate the Jews’ revolt against the Romans, and so on.
The Germans occupied Parczew until 1918, when Bolshevik Russia called for peace and relinquished its Polish territories. One hundred and twenty-three years after being carved up by Russia, Austria and Prussia, and a half-century after the crushing of its national insurrection, Poland was reborn as a state. Pilsudski, the socialist leader and war hero, became head of the fledgling republic. Born Russian, my grandparents became Polish, and that is how I present them today.
1. The word shtetl, or “village” in Yiddish, the diminutive of shtot, or city, designates an agglomeration of between 2,000 and 10,000 inhabitants. It implies a closeness, or even tenderness: for Jews, “it is not only a place inhabited by fellow Jews, but also a very particular economic and social structure, a network of relationships, whether individual or collective, a way of being in the world, a specific way of life, a Jewish space.” Rachel Ertel, Le Shtetl: La bourgade juive de Pologne (Paris: Payot, 1982), 16.
2. There are photographs of the old synagogue and the study house in Wojciech Wilczyk’s Niewinne oko nie istnieje [There’s No Such Thing as an Innocent Eye] (Lodz: Atlas Sztuki, Krakow, Korporacja Ha! Art, 2009), 433–435.
3. According to Jan Gross, not only do the Poles perfectly remember the massacre of the Jews, but they were often actively involved in it. This would explain why the Righteous feared telling their neighbors that they had hidden Jews. Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Jedwabne (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 238. Furthermore, “it was assumed that people who sheltered Jews had enriched themselves handsomely (which was often the case). . . . If found out, in addition to being stigmatized as ‘Jew lovers,’ they risked being identified as potential targets for robbery.” Jan Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz: An Essay in Historical Interpretation (New York: Random House, 2007), 45.
4. Parczew Town Hall, Public Registry Department, Rabbinical Registry, marriage record of Matès and Idesa Jablonka (26 June 1937).
5. Ibid., birth certificates of Reizl Jablonka (7 January 1907, no. 41), Matès Jablonka (10 February 1909, no. 42), Hershl Jablonka (16 June 1915, no. 104), Henya Jablonka (3 April 1917, no. 408).
6. Isaac-Leyb Peretz, “Tableaux d’un voyage en province ,” in Les oubliés du shtetl: Yiddishland (Paris: Plon, 2007), 92.
7. Shlomo Zonenshayn, Elkana Niska and Rachel Gottesdiner-Rabinovitch (eds.), Remembrances of Parczew (Haifa, 1977) (in Hebrew and Yiddish). The expression Yizkor Bukh is a neologism coined after World War II, from the German Buch and the Hebrew yizkor (the title and 1st word of the prayer for the dead). It is a literary genre all its own that mixes reminiscences, emigrant narratives, short stories, poems, archival facsimiles, individual or group iconography, lists of victims of Nazism and so on. See Annette Wieviorka and Itzhok Niborski, Les livres du souvenir. Mémoriaux juifs de Pologne (Paris: Gallimard-Julliard, 1983).
8. Rachel Gottesdiner-Rabinovitch, “The Transition of Regimes” (in Hebrew), in Remembrances of Parczew, 52–55.
9. Pawel Korzec, Juifs en Pologne. La question juive pendant l’entre-deux-guerres (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1980), 51–52.
10. Rachel Gottesdiner-Rabinovitch, “The Transition of Regimes.”