Friday, June 26, 2009

Nowy Dwor

I spent the most unusual hour in cyberspace the other day and I thought I'd tell you about it this amuse you, but also because the whole incident was so odd, and so interesting.

As a child, I grew up knowing the name of my grandparents' town in Poland. They weren't survivors--they came here in the last years of the nineteenth century as teenagers--but they knew perfectly well what happened to the Jews of their town during the war. I hardly knew them--my grandparents, I mean--personally, however: my grandfather died before I was born, and my grandmother (my father's mother) died when I was four years old. But my father and his siblings kept their own parents' recollections alive, mentioning them from time to time, recalling the stories they had heard, saying the name of the place over and over. For me, a generation removed, it never sounded like a real place. True, I knew, all my aunts and uncles spoke about Nowy Dwor all the time...but it always sounded like the Jewish version of Neverland or Treasure Island to my young ears: a kind of place people talked about, but which no one actually came from, let alone visited. I certainly never met anyone who had been there, or who knew anyone who had. And I am certain no one in my family ever raised the possibility of going there to see what it was like, or what was left.

Anyway, the other week, Joan received an e-mail from the New York Public Library announcing the digitalization of a number of Yizkor books produced during the 1950s to memorialize the Jews of different towns in Eastern Europe that were destroyed during the Shoah...and, amazingly, among the names listed was our town. Check it out: And so my journey, brief but very intense, began.

It was an amazing read. People with my grandfather's last name (Cohen was an Ellis Island substitution) are listed among the dead, and so are some with my grandmother's maiden name. There are pictures of people who resemble my father to an amazing degree, especially a tuba player in the Nowy Dwor Agudas Yisroel Orchestra (no, I am not making this up)...which reminds me that my own father played the bugle as a boy. There's a young boy in one photo who looks exactly like the oldest son of my cousin from Scarsdale. And from that experience of reading the book on-line came the journey in cyberspace I want to write about.

It turns out it's a real place not only in the past, but also in the present. It has a website ( from which you can send electronic postcards to your friends showing the sights. The town fields a football team in the Polish National Football League. (For some reason, that detail amazes me more than any other.) More to the point, the real place comes with real people. It has a mayor, a town council, a local high school. It has a 27,200 residents. Did any of those 27,200 people people assist in the murder of some of my grandparents' relatives? I suppose, these many years later, some few probably did and most surely didn't. I have no desire to go there...but this whole journey of discovery has made a strong impression on me.

Does it sound naive to say that I never thought of this place as real until I found its (unreal) traces in cyberspace? I think we all tend to think about the towns and shtetlakh of Eastern Europe that names where bad things happened, rather than as real places in which history went on without us, and in which people play soccer and elect town councils and work on their websites. I always tend to think of the road splitting for our people at a certain point, with the lucky ones leaving Europe for Palestine or America before the war and the rest facing what came next and either surviving or not surviving. But suddenly discovering that there was an entirely different show playing in the theater nextdoor--one in which people neither emigrated nor survived, but just stayed on in their place and either did or didn't thrive there--is the experience I'm attempting to describe. I certainly don't feel any kinship to those people. But, I do have to admit, after all this reading and thinking...I wonder what it would be like to sit through a football match featuring the Lukullus Swit Nowy Dwor football club, and to wonder, while watching, what life would have been like if...if my people hadn't left, if the Germans hadn't come...if the roads hadn't diverged at all. It's an odd fantasy...but, really, couldn't the same be said of all the most compelling reveries? (May 17, 2007)

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