LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE MAN IN MY GRANDFATHER'S SHIRT
BY HELEN BETYA RUBINSTEIN
You remind me of my grandfather: let me begin there. And not only because I am primed to see you that way, here in this country where he grew up, got married, became a father, and then where eight of his siblings, his parents, and his first wife and daughter were lost. Not only because I am here, in some sense, in search of him. Or them. Not because this town, I’m told, has the size and layout of his.
It’s also your shirt, short-sleeved, collared, and thin, like his, with a tidy row of buttons, tucked in. And it’s your smell: stale and sharp, unlike his, but familiar in some musty, mothballed way. And then your grin, not at all like his—which featured a movie-star gap, and later his dentures’ eerie uniformity—but with dark holes where teeth are lost. So that I wonder: what is the difference between a Jewish man who flees, and the Polish man who stays?
I visited the reconstructed synagogue of Chmielnik before meeting you, so it towers over you in my memory: the pristine white exterior, its glass doors advertising ticket prices and “Culture Days.” The recordings that looped inside its exhibit still ring in my ears, translations of residents’ memories of Jews, read by actors over keening klezmer tunes. The Jew asked us to put on the clothes and followed us out into the street, went one such tribute, to a tailor, like my grandfather once was. He was unable to evaluate his work in his small Jewish apartment.
Meant to evoke nostalgia and sentiment—to impress upon the visitor, in sweet memory after sweet memory, how integral to this place were the 80 percent of its residents who were ghettoized and then killed—the remembrances leave me uneasy. Digitizations of family photos, recovered after the war, flicker in high definition across glass-faced displays. Homeless chanukiot and mezuzot, salvaged from nearby flea markets, here lie on velvet drapery under lock and key.
And then there’s you, outside beside your display of cucumbers, plums, and greens. I can’t tell what you might think or know about me. My friends are off buying ice cream, while I want something solid, something everyday. “Miły, miły,” I say, but the sounds don’t mean small in Polish, as I’d thought they might. They mean nice, and you shake your head until I press my hands together to show I want as few blueberries as you are willing to sell.
The blueberries are in glass jars, and I’ve wanted them for days, because for days now I’ve seen women and men spread out with these jars along the shoulders of rural highways. The economics of the enterprise puzzle me, the jars sold for a dollar or two, and so infrequently; the competition hardly spread apart, instead clustered together, chatting, beside car trunks open to reveal whole boxes of these hand-picked berries in jars. But from the windows of a tour van, in their glinting glass, the berries are beautiful. I’m disenchanted as soon as you dump my seven zloty’s worth into a filmy plastic bag.
Inside the synagogue, the self-appointed historian of the city’s Jews (older than me, young enough to be a son to you) boasted that two million of the restoration’s funding was raised among residents of Chmielnik itself. He showed our group a bright diorama of 19th century shtetl life, complete with fiddler on roof, then cued up a 1930s film called Polin: the Hebrew word for Poland, meaning Here you shall rest. Over the credits, he effervesced about how, when Jewish three-year-olds began school, their alphabets were scattered with raisins and almonds, their fingers smeared with honey, so that their studies would always be sweet. “You can watch the rest on YouTube,” he said.
No one in Chmielnik is “openly Jewish” anymore, he told us when we asked. Once, though, Jews fueled local industry in places like this: shtetls were planned communities, designed to sustain small economies. Now, the memory of Jews fuels a different industry, a production for schoolchildren and travelers, for people like me, searching for some history left behind. We purchase tickets and ice cream cones, blueberries and peace of mind.
I am scooping these berries into my mouth when a woman shouts at me, “Te są bardzo zdrowe!” and laughs. The berries are mealy and soft, unsweet, with thick skins so dark they’re near black. They disappoint me, but I turn to give her an uncomprehending smile in the same instant that, somehow, I understand what she means: Those are very healthy.
I won’t wonder until later whether these, the first berries I’ve tasted in Poland, are anything like the blueberries my grandfather’s second wife—my grandmother—is said to have survived on during the war. I didn’t know her, just him, years later, after he’d lived through camps, typhus, hunger, and loss. He wore dentures and laughed at his own jokes. He played derdl and kaluki, even after his postwar memories were gone, even after he began singing a Polish song we’d never heard before, an army song we couldn’t understand, while he waited for us to play our cards. Maybe you know those card games. Maybe you know that song. You’re right here in his shirt, first laughing at my Polish, then packing up your vegetables and plums. I’ll remember you for what I didn’t have the language or courage to ask: if any of the memories broadcast in that synagogue were yours, if the memories are even worth believing, or if they play like that, in plaintive, never-ending loop, only to cover up the silences that are worse.
But the truth, it turns out, is that you sold me berries in Dzialoszyce, the next town I visited, this one off the usual “shtetl trail.” I have notes that correct what memory covered up. In Dzialoszyce, the former synagogue stood roofless inside chain-link gates. Its stones were covered in bird shit. Pigeons chattered in every crevice and at the top of every wall. Surely you knew that this synagogue, its carcass, was why I had come, but I couldn’t tell if you cared. I was there to see absence, and you sold me blueberries. Their juice clung to my hands for days.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helen Betya Rubinstein's essays and fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, The Collagist, Okey-Panky, and elsewhere. She lives in Mount Vernon, Iowa (for a few more minutes).