In The Invisible Courtyard of Chaim Skibelski

By Joseph Skibell

Originally published in the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler Magazine, November 8, 1998

Copyright by Joseph Skibell

Perhaps we are unduly nervous. (IÕd even had a small anxiety attack, waiting for my connection at OÕHare.) The problem is not the Poland we've come to, but the Poland my brother, Steven, and I have brought with us, the one we carry with us as Jews. Inherited from our grandparents, thie Poland is a dark gravescape, a terrifying labyrinth of memory, filled with pogroms and blood libels.

Our worries seem to frustrate and sadden our guide, Piotr Zubrzycki. A gracious and pleasant man and a historian by training, he patiently defends his nation's character on the long drive from Warsaw to Suwalki, a small city on Poland's far northeaster border.

We arrive late on a breezy Friday morning in June and spend the early part of the day exploring what was once Suwalki's Jewish quarter. From my great-uncle Sidney, I have the family's address. Our great-grandfather Chaim Skibelski had owned an entire court on Noniewicza Street with 21 private apartments, 8 storefronts, 3 warehouses and a timber yard. Chaim and EsterÕs 10 children, including my grandfather Archie, were born and spent their childhoods here. When World War II started, four of the sons were already in the United States. Sindey would come later, after eight years in a Soviet prison camp (he was arrested for illegally crossing the Russian border). A sixth son, along with his parents, his four sisters, their four husband and seven children, perished.

My brother and I are here simply to walk its streets and to see if anything of our familyÕs presence remains.

The city is ugly, worndown, dirty. Many of the original buildings are gone, paved over by monstrous Soviet apartment blocks. There is only one Jew left, a Mr. Adler, but he isn't in the phone book. Piotr checked.

Because much of my novel takes place here, I had applied, years ago, for a travel grant. When I didn't get it, I fictively reconstructed the town through other means: family remembrances, memorial books, films. Now, as we stroll down Wigierska Street, I feel as if IÕve arrived in a city IÕve inhabited previously only in dreams. Things are not exactly where they should be. Little corresponds to the information my uncle has given me. Even the street numbers have been changed since he fled for his life.

Piotr suggests stopping old women on the streets and asking them if they remember the original numbers or where the synagogue had been or if they know of a Mr. Adler. The first woman we approach is happy to talk. Thick-waisted and grey-haired beneath a summer straw hat, she tells us that she has some Jewish blood herself. We are standing exactly where the synagogue was, she says, (the main one, she means; Suwalki was once home to 27 shuls), but it has long ago been torn down. She doesnÕt remember anything more about our family than its name and sheÕs uncertain about the street numbers, although she confirms that they have been changed. And no, she doesnÕt know a Mr. Adler.

As she gestures to the street corners around us, the timbre of her voice changes and grows shrill. Without our prompting, she begins to recount her memories of the Nazis rounding up SuwalkiÕs Jews. Piotr, who has proven only an intermittently reliable translator, does his best to keep up with what she's saying. However, watching her speak is enough. The horror is clearly articulated in her eyes and in the breaking agitation of her voice.

"She says that the Poles were worse that day than the Germans," Piotr tells us.

(In the Hotel Hancza later, having thought it over, he will reconsider, insisting that "She was clearly confused. She didnÕt remember where the street numbers were, so why would she remember anything else.")

We walk farther up Noniewicza Street. A block or two ahead , I see a corner building with yellow walls and apartments on the second floor, storefronts on the first. Giddily, I feel certain that we have found our great-grandfatherÕs house. In any case, itÕs the only building on the street that fits the description. Inside the courtyard, a small car pulls up and a man who looks remarkably like the painter Francis Bacon gets out. Jowly, bulldoggish, he eyes us with suspicion. Piotr explains who we are in the blandest of terms. All along, Steven and I have joked nervously about somehow getting the property back, worrying conversely that our presence here might provoke a vicious mistrust in the current owners.

The man putsus off and disappears into the building. Piotr seems to think he runs the downstair shop.

On the street, we approach five more elderly women , but not one has heard of Mr. Adler. Piotr stops at the post office for a final look in the phone book. No Adler listed there, but peering over his shoulder, I spot an entry for "Adelson, Natan."

"ThatÕs a Jewish name," I say. And Piotr phones him immediately. He turns out to be the man we are looking for and we make arrangements to visit him the following day.

From the hotel, I call my wife Barbara and ask her to call my Uncle Sidney in Texas to see whether we have actually found the right house. She calls back, confirming that the house was at the intersection of Noniewicza and Chlodna, exactly where we had encountered our Polish Francis Bacon.

In preparation for the trip, I had called Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Boulder, Col., seeking spiritual guidance.

ItÕs the first time IÕve formally asked a rebbe for advice -- and Reb Zalman is nothing if not clear. In less than five minutes, he tells me everything I need to know about travelling to Poland, covering practical as well as spiritual concerns.

When I tell him my brother and I want to a tikkun, a spiritual repair for the souls of our murdered relatives, he asks, "What kind of tikkun were you thinking of?"

I hadnÕt realized there were choices, but I find myself saying, "I want to let them know that something survived, that something remains."

Reb Zalman says that we should recite psalms in Hebrew wherever we go. "Just on the streets, walking," he says. "Be open to whatever happens. And of course, youÕll want to take your tallis and tefillin and put them on whenever necessary."

Although IÕve sung psalms quietly to myself in the crooked streets of Kasmierz, the old Jewish district in Cracow, and also here and there in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and although Steven and I have be n davening each morning in our various hotel room, the first time I feel compelled to put on my tallis and tefillin in public is in the synagogue in Tykocin, on the drive up from Warsaw to Suwalki.

A museum now, the 17th-century Baroque synagogue served the community -- once 70 percent of the town -- from 1642 to 1941. (Everything in Jewish Poland ends in 1941.)

The building was restored with great care in the 1970's. There are no prayer books. Instead, the interior walls are covered with large rectangular frescoes, each filled with a part of the service in Hebrew, so that we are literally surrounded by prayer.

The curator kindly stops the booming cantorial tape loop, and I wrap my prayer shawl around my head and strap on my tefillin and sit west of the bimah, the raised platform from which services were once led. Four thick white pillars rise up around it, supporting an interior dome, a small building inside the building.

When the moment feels right, I begin chanting a verse from psalm: "Open the gates of righteousness for me that I may enter and praise God." Eyes closed, I hear my brotherÕs whispered prayer from another corner of the empty shul. Uncannily, I feel surrounded by the presence of invisible others, as the sound of my own voice, reverberating, is returned to me.

That night, we light candles and welcome in the Sabbath in a private room in the restaurant of the Hotel Hancza. Piotr, who had guided many Israeli tours in Poland, knows something about jewish custom and law and has volunteered to be our "Shabbos goy."

"I will anticipate your wishes," he says, "even before you have formed them in your mind."

He makes all the arrangements, pushes the button for the elevator and handles the money.

Since we first planned this trip, the idea had been to make Shabbos in Suwalki, perhaps the first Jews to do so in nearly 60 years. Everyone had tried to dissaude us. Our travel agent originally suggested "two days for Warsaw, two for Cracow, and for Suwalki -- about forty-five minutes." A rabbi in Warsaw told me, "Two hours in Suwalki will be like 24 lonely hours anywhere else. The whole Shabbos could be overdosing."

But Reb Zalman was clear that we would need no fewer than 72 hours here to make our tikkun.

At a table for eight, the three of us -- Steven, Piotr and I -- sing traditional Sabbath songs, welcoming in angelic messengers of peace, asking for their blessings. Piotr does his best to keep up, and Steven and I sing a song in praise of Jewish women to honor our great-grandmother and her daughters. But somehow, the empty chairs at our long table seem especially empty. The evening grows bleak, the room heavy and sad. Perhaps we shouldn't have spent Shabbos here after all.

The next day, Steven and I rise early to say the morning prayers. We stand in the hotel window, overlooking the town, and at the phrase, "Who is like You, the One who causes death and restores life?" I begin to weep inside my tallis and cannot stop.

Mr. Adelson and his wife are quite gracious. They welcome us into their small apartment. TheyÕve set a table with fresh strawberries, coconut cookies, and hot tea. We've brought them a bottle of kosher wine and a loaf of kosher bread from Warsaw and they are torn between sharing the wine with us or saving it until the Jewish New Year. We insist that they save it, and Mrs. Adelson brings out a bottle of Soviet cognac.

At the outbreak of the war, Mr. Adelson tells us, Suwalki was for a short time under Soviet jurisdiction. During that time, he fled east into the Soviet Union, where he worked, as a teenager, in the Soviet coal mines. In the 1950s, he says, he returned because his mother, who had survived, was ill. Of the three Jews who lived here after the war, he is the only one still living. At one point, he considered moving to France where he has relatives and cannot quite explain why he stayed.

When her husband leaves the room, Mrs. Adelson, who comes from Bialystok, confides to us that he has stayed in Suwalki, against her wishes, in the hope of one day reclaiming his familyÕs extensive properties and business holdings.

"Phssft, " she says. "It will come to nothing."

The man who resembles Francis Bacon is peering out from an upstairs window of the house on Noniewicza Street. Although Piotr tells him we believe the house once belonged to our great-grandfather, he is not inclined to let us in. Before we can leave, however, a little car tools up into the courtyard and a plump woman in a shimmering green dress and summer hat gets out. She smiles at us and shouts something up to the man in the window and soon we are being led up the gleaming parquet stairway into the main residence.

His name is Stanislaw Szczesny, and he owns the complex, this house and the stores in front. He bought the burnt-out building from the government three years ago and has worked to fix it up. The place is beautiful. A long elegant hallway leads into a comfortable living room and there are rooms everywhere off this main artery, each behind French doors with windows of frosted colored glass.

Mr. Szczesny jokes that if we offer him a good enough price, we can certainly have the property back. His wife enters from the kitchen a moment later and makes the same joke. We all laugh.

We are invited to sit around a small coffee table in the dining room where we are offered tea. Bozena, the woman who secured our entrance, joins us. She is StanislawÕs unmarried sister-in-law, his wifeÕs sister. She lived for a few years in Chicago and now runs a Sony Store in town. She smokes one clove cigarette after another, flirting quite openly in her limited English with my brother, and soon a match is being proposed between them in fun.

Steven says to me, "ThatÕs how weÕll get the property back. ItÕll be like a Pushkin story!"

We ask if tomorrow we could come and take pictures of the interior. Stanislaw demurs. Because itÕs Saturday, he says, they plan to do a lot of drinking in the evening and may not be up for it.

In the afternoon, we take a long, quiet, rambling walk through the Wigry National Forest. My great-grandfather owned a lumber business, and as I break off from Steven and Piotr to walk more perfectly inside the silence of the trees, I wonder how Chaim felt about his life and his work in these woods. They are perhaps the thickest, the densest and the tallest I have ever been in and I experience an exquisite, sensual happiness here.

The sky is grey and I see only a few other people, some boys fishing off the pier into the lake. The ground cover is brightly green and extraordinarily luminous.

After sunset, we call our Uncle Sidney in the States. Not only were the street numbers changed, but it becomes clear from our conversation that the sides of the streets, the odds and the evens, have been reversed as well. WeÕve been searching for the Skibelski homeon the wrong side of Noniewicza Street.

When we ask if thereÕs anything they want us to look for, our Aunt Regina says, "ThereÕs nothing. They took it all." She adds, "Don't get into any trouble." Uncle Sidney says, "You know youÕre walking on graves."

At about five in the morning, we crawl out of our narrow hotel beds and walk to Noniewicza Street. The morning is quiet, still. WeÕre certain weÕre on the right piece of land now, but only one of the buildings looks like it might have been built before the war. We walk around inside its inner court -- the invisible court of our great-grandfather Chaim Skibelski -- and sit on the front stoop. As the Poles make their way to their churches, we quietly sing through our Psalms.

On the way back to the hotel, we stop by the building that once housed the Jewish high school. On a wall inside the courtyard entrance is a strange piece of whitewash graffiti. The second word is certainly zydzi -- a form of "Jews" -- but the first word, larger, its lettering more flowing, is harder to decipher. The only possible word it could be, in English or in Polish (later, we brought Piotr by to verify this) is "Psalm."

Psalm, Jews! the building screams at us.

And so we comply, putting our hands against the wall and singing, "Then we will all be like dreamers, our mouths filled with laughter and song... Those who sow weeping shall return in joy, bearing their harvest."

After breakfast, we pick up Mr. Adelson and make the trip with him to the Jewish cemetary. We are now literally walking on graves. Descrecrated by the Nazis, the cemetary contains over 1,600 of them, all but 5 of them unmarked. These belong to Mr. AdelsonÕs mother, to the other two post-war Jews, and to the townÕs rabbi and his son, who were buried here following the war.

In the 1980's, a Suwalki landsmen group in New York asked Mr. Adelson to oversee the restoration of the cemetary, which the locals were using as a horse market. Mr. Adelson constructed a fence around the land and was able to reclaim shards of gravestones from the walls of a swimming pool that the Nazis had built with them. With these, Mr. Adelson constructed a long memorial wall. He takes us to see his motherÕs grave -- the photo from it has been pilfered -- and then bids us goodbye, kissing us once on each cheek, once on the mouth.

While Piotr drives him home, Steven and I plant seeds weÕve brought with us. We walk near the memorial wall, looking for a fragment of a tombstone that might bear the family name in Hebrew lettering.

My brother returns to our hotel to pack, and I take the walk I have been aching to take since we arrived, along the Czarna Hancza River, the Black Hancza. The rain-cleared morning is fresh and new. ItÕs not yet 8 a.m. The small river dawdles its way through the lush, green valley. Horses and cows lumber in wildflower fields. I find a tree of old crow, clacking deeply. From here, the ugly, massive apartment buildings cannot be seen. Instead, across the river, the townÕs roofs form a jagged, low horizon. The city looks sleepy, rural, a village, small and inviting.

Three old men sit with two bottles of vodka at the end of the trail on the only park bench that has not been vandalized and destroyed. Their bench is only partially intact, but itÕs enough for them to sit on. Two of the men sit very close; the third, the possessor of a lustrous white mustache, keeps himself a small space apart.

The Hebrew word for Poland, Polin, contains a pun, "po lin," meaning in Hebrew "here we will rest." Walking through this valley, the morning so generous with its beauty, I re-experience the exquisite physical happiness I felt the day before in the woods and I understand why the Skibelskis might have been glad, even grateful, to settle here, convinced that, here, near this charming, laughing river, they were home.

I turn for a final look, and see, flying into the grey skies, a black bird and a white bird and I canÕt help thinking of Noah releasing his black and white birds after the flood to see if the waters had yet receded.

Like Noah, I stand quietly in the quiet morning, watching these birds, and wondering if this earth will ever again be habitable.