Awake or asleep, I dream myself into my grandfather's story, a story of bigamy, murder and deliverance. Most of it took place in 1912 in a city called Radom, sixty miles south of Warsaw. Much of it is true. The rest I have imagined. It concerns my grandfather and therefore concerns me, so I have every right to tamper. But not with the essential facts: they remain as I first heard them, told to me by my father when he knew he was dying. He spoke quietly, afraid of being overheard, perhaps worried that if the truth were known, even after so many years, he might be expelled from Canada and sent back to a country that never wanted him in the first place. What he gave me was a deathbed confession, a legacy of questionable value. He did not say how he came to possess it. From his father, possibly, or another relative. I knew my grandfather and he was not the sort to confide in his son. He might, however, have been boasting. That I could imagine.
Over the last fifteen years I have repeated the story to close friends, usually late at night after too much wine. In a more sober moment, I passed it on to my own children. They want to know more but I cannot help them; there's no one left to ask. There are no letters or diaries, no living witness to the violent acts that brought my father's family to Canada, to a life of freedom and prosperity. All I have is a collection of photographs and recollections my parents gave me long ago, The Book of Radom: The Story of a Jewish Community in Poland Destroyed by the Nazis.
No one is certain how Radom got its name. A legend, hundreds of years old, involves a Polish king and a beautiful Jewish girl. Casimir the Great was hunting in the forests of Sulub when a frightened deer charged out of the woods toward a young girl named Esterka who was out picking berries. The King shot the beast just in time to save her life, fell in love with her, and eventually built a palace for her near the site of the memorable hunt. Esterka became known as the uncrowned queen of Poland. The town that grew around her was named 'Rad-dom', or House of Joy, and the house said to be hers stands today at 5 Rynak.
My grandfather's crimes cannot be entirely explained by love or history, although those forces were surely part of it. When I dream his life, I roam the streets of Radom as they were in 1912, seeing them as he saw them, with their cobblestone streets and open storm sewers. The poorest families, many of them Jews, live on the outskirts, near the tanneries where they work: in Radom they have been stripping the skins off animals for five hundred years. By 1912 there are more than a dozen factories soaking and liming animal skins, turning them into the finest shoe leather in Europe. The air reeks of animal flesh, sulphur and corn sugar. To those passing through, their handkerchiefs doused in cologne, the stench seems unbearable. Workers living nearby in shacks with earth floors and broken windows no longer notice.
The rich in Radom, Poles and Jews alike, live at the centre of town, in apartment buildings two and three stories high. There are many churches and two synagogues. On the Sabbath, a group of Hasidic Jews gather at 61 Lubelska, the home of a beloved Rebbe, where they dance and sing their wordless songs through the night, uniting with the Almighty in divine ecstasy. During the week, in bars and cafes, secular Jews argue about Socialism and Zionism and plan a better future.
Pinchas, my grandfather, and his wife Hinda have been married for more than a year. There is a baby, my father, a healthy boy with a wide face and blonde curls. They live with her family, the Abramowiczs, in a small wooden house painted pale blue, the colour of Hinda's eyes. I cannot prove this, of course. Proof is a luxury denied the banished. History is what we choose to tell.
They became engaged years earlier, before Pinchas left for South America. Other Jews from Radom had gone to Argentina and sent back letters filled with stories of their good fortune. So Pinchas went too, promising to send for Hinda. After all, what did he have to lose? He could not read or write, in Polish or Yiddish, but he was strong: a thick neck, broad shoulders, tough little legs, and eyes as hard as slate. Why should he wait to be scooped up by the Tsar's army? They would only march him to the east where he would disappear among people who hated Jews as much as the Poles did.
He stayed in Argentina for two years. When he returned, he said the others had lied, that life everywhere was cruel. All he had to show for the years abroad was the thin gold wedding band he gave my grandmother and a heavy gold ring with a black stone shaped like an egg that he wore until he died and left to my father. Now it belongs to my brother.
The young officer my grandfather will kill arrives one afternoon at the railway station. Trains from across Eastern Europe pass through Radom, a fact important to Pinchas's story, for what is a railway yard if not a clanging place of coal and iron, the brutal heart of industry, poorly lit at night by kerosene lamps and sparks ignited by metal wheels screeching along steel tracks?
The soldier appears tired after his long journey, dust sprinkled on his dark blue uniform with gold braid. He collects his trunk and climbs into a hansom cab. The driver is sullen: he hates the arrogance of Russians. The horse moves slowly toward the barracks, through the remains of a twelfth-century wall, then along the beautiful Traugutt-Allee. Chestnut trees line the two large parks on either side and the air is ripe with blossoms. Young girls, with nipped-in waists and buttermilk skin, stroll arm and arm in the springtime sun. Not so bad, our officer thinks, brushing his hand across his epaulets and down the front of his tunic.
Around the main square, shop windows are filled with bottles of Polish liqueurs, high-proof schnapps, loins of venison, and figs threaded on long strings. On the curb, pushcarts stand piled high with apples, beets, carrots and bunches of hanging onions.
It's Thursday, when peasants come to town in horse-drawn carts, their wheels clattering over the stones. They bring crates of chickens and geese, fresh vegetables and fruit, eggs and butter. They set up on beds of straw in the square at the intersection of Lubelska, Warshavska, Rvanska and Walowa. The smell of sausages fills the air. The sidewalks are crowded with nannies and little boys in sailor suits, housewives with baskets, one or two with lapdogs on leashes. There are Ukrainians, Germans and Byelorussians in ribbons and embroidery--and Jews. Always Jews.
Some of the men, the most religious, ignore the late summer heat and dress in fur-lined hats and heavy black coats with white fringes hanging below their belts. Others, in woollen pants and peaked caps, resemble Polish workers. One of these is my grandfather. Today he's made a few groshen hauling sacks of grain into the mill. He's hot and dusty, his mouth dry as wheat--not that he needs an excuse to visit his favourite tavern, a rundown place, owned by Jews, that sits defiantly opposite a church. Inside, the bar is covered with jars of herring, pickled eggs and onions. Men are drinking cold beer and playing dominoes on small tables in the crowded room. Hinda doesn't like Pinchas coming here; the customers are rough and settle their arguments with their fists. Pinchas feels right at home.
He joins a table of tannery workers. The skin on their hands is as brown and grainy as cowhide. One man rolls up the sleeve on his right arm. The flesh above the wrist is as white as goats' milk. Pinchas pulls over a stool. The two men slide the glasses to one side and plunk their elbows on the table. Their hands lock and begin to vibrate in the air. Then, with a thud, Pinchas pins his opponent's arm to the table. The loser curses and buys everyone a beer.
On the street, the peasants start cutting prices, desperate to sell their produce, wilting in the afternoon sun. Pinchas makes his way around them with a drunk's slow, deliberate step. Coming toward him is the Russian officer, a local girl on his arm, a parasol in her hand. They point and laugh as a heavy farm wife slits the neck of a goose and drains its blood into the gutter.
The sidewalk is crowded, wide enough for one, maybe two, at a time. Pinchas looks up and finds himself facing the Russian and his girl. No one moves. The officer says something in a language Pinchas doesn't understand, but he recognises the anger in the voice, knows he is being ordered to give way. Sweat stings his eyes, clouding his vision. He takes off his hat and rubs his sleeve across his forehead.
The officer removes one glove, ready to strike. The woman with the goose raises her eyes while her hands continue to pluck, feathers spreading around her feet. Out of my way, the Russian says. He calls Pinchas a filthy Jew. Vermin, you're all vermin. He speaks more for the girl who clings shyly at his side than for my grandfather.
Before Pinchas can act, the Russian shoves him violently. He stumbles off the sidewalk and slips on the entrails of the slaughtered goose. The officer laughs. He pats the hand of his flushed young companion and they continue on their way.
I do not know why Pinchas didn't finish him off right there. Perhaps he was too drunk to stand. Perhaps someone held him back, someone who knew he had a temper, knew he wouldn't stop with a single blow, knew he had a wife and young son. Perhaps they persuaded him to go home, forget it. These things happened.
Nor do I know how he came, several nights later, to be in the railway yard facing the same Russian who had humiliated him. Had Pinchas sought him out, followed him to the station? Or had they met by chance? Somehow they were there together, standing in a pool of yellow light like boxers in a ring, hidden from the station by a passing freight, the ground rumbling beneath them. Pinchas lunges forward, his arms strengthened by rage, and in an instant snaps the neck of the young soldier from Russia. He leaves his body on the tracks, his blue uniform covered in coal dust, a trickle of blood caking on his chin. The next day Pinchas runs away from Radom, this time forever. The following year, he sends a ticket for my grandmother and her baby to join him in Canada.
I wonder if anyone in Radom knew why my grandfather never asked Hinda to come to South America, why he vowed never to go back. The fact was, Pinchas had married another woman in Argentina. There was a child, a second on the way. He left them all behind in a remote continent, to manage, somehow, on their own. Did my grandmother ever learn of their existence? Did she ever think about that other family near the bottom of the world? My father knew the truth, and before he died he insisted I know it too.
So I dream my father's dream about our other family in Argentina: Did my grandfather's first wife remarry, or did she struggle all her life, hoping to hear from the man who must have said, at least once, that he loved her? Were there grandchildren about my age? Did they rebel against the military dictators and disappear in the night, like their grandfather, never to be heard from again? Did Pinchas's first wife, or one of her daughters, join the circle marching each week in the Plaza de Maya, willing to hear the truth they already guessed? Is someone with a Spanish voice telling her version of my story? I will never know.
Nor will I ever know the combination of bribery and luck that brought Pinchas and his new family to Toronto. I do know what happened to those they left behind. There is a picture in The Book of Radom of twenty-one young men and women staring out from the pages of history. The year is 1936. They are students at Przyjaciol Wiedzy high school, the last class to graduate before the war. They pose for a farewell photograph: their teacher, Mrs. Steiler, is emigrating to Palestine. Fifth from the right, in the back row, stands Hela Abramowicz. She's short, with a tiny waist, full breasts, and a face like an upside-down pear. On her chin there's a large cleft, just like my grandmother's. Hela is my grandmother's niece, a daughter of a younger brother who must have cried when he said good-bye to his sister and her baby at the train station in 1913. Under the photograph it says that only seven of the students in the picture survived. Hela was not one of them.
On September 1, 1939, the first day of the war, the bombing of Radom begins, concentrated on the densely populated Jewish district. A week later, the Germans march in, unopposed. The S.S. shave off the beards of Orthodox Jews, one side of the face only, for fun. Then they make them pose in grotesque positions. Each time they pass a Jew on the street, they ask him to remove his hat. Those who refuse are beaten; those who obey are also beaten.
During the first months the Germans issue eighteen decrees withdrawing property and civil rights from the Jews of Radom. One decree prohibits Jews from walking on sidewalks. Every Jew is photographed and issued an identity card. It lists those streets the bearer can visit. No Jew is allowed on Lubelska Street or Rynak, the site of Esterka's house.
Soon after, two ghettos are established, one in the city, the other in a suburb. On August 18, 1942, most of the Jews who have survived disease and starvation are herded onto cattle cars and transported to Treblinka. It takes two days and three nights to complete the job. Those who try to escape are shot. In July, 1944, the last of the Radom Jews are shipped off to death camps. In Canada, with my parents and grandparents, I celebrate my third birthday.
Fifty years later, I am free to tell this story because my grandfather, a bully himself, refused to be bullied and fled to Canada where Jews freely walk the streets and no one is punished for the sins of their grandfathers. Pinchas's life in Canada was remarkably ordinary: he peddled fish from a horse-drawn cart and he and Hinda had two more children. He remained illiterate but it didn't matter; before he started school, my father, Philip, convinced one of the boarders in their house to teach him to read. He was an eager reader all his life, favouring popular history that tried to explain why new waves of refugees continued to move around the world--books by the Durants, H.G. Wells, John Gunther. He made it as an amateur wrestler and later, as a businessman. No one ever dared to push him off a sidewalk.
I am his daughter and know the family secrets. I spread my grandfather's story like a fan across three continents, over my grandfather's other family, who do not know I exist. Of my relatives who stayed behind in Radom, those who married once and never killed anyone, not a single person is left. That my grandfather, the bigamist and murderer, survived is a mystery beyond the reach of justice, a fragment of an epic tragedy that defies understanding.