Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Jewish Cemetery

After my journeys into the Polish countryside, I returned to Warsaw for a few days. I wanted to see Poland’s largest city and take in some of the museums and culture. But first there was more research on my family background and a visit to make.

I had learned that my great-great-grandparents on my mother’s side were Anna (Gradecki) Gradus and Jacob Gradus. Anna was born in Jankowo, in 1858. I had tried to find the town of Jankowo on my train trip to the countryside but only found a deserted train station, a dirt road and a possible glimpse of what might have been the town in the distance. When I looked for the Gradus surname in Poland, I found the name in only one place, the Jewish records of Warsaw. A very surprising development.  

As far as anyone in the family knew, all our Polish relatives were Catholic. There is no way to tell when or why Jacob changed his faith – or perhaps just stopped practicing his faith. His wife, Anna, was Catholic. Did he adopt her faith for love? It’s even possible that she was not aware of her husband’s background. Maybe he was tired of persecution and left his Jewish identity behind when he left Warsaw. At that time in Poland there was both personal discrimination towards Jews and there were also special taxes assessed against Jewish businesses.

I found a record of a Jakub Icek Gradus, born in 1863 in Warsaw on the Jewish Records Index. His parents were listed as Yosef  Tzvi (Hersz)  and Sara Golda Gradus. He had a brother, Benjamin and a sister, Bajla Ryfka. When I contacted the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw I found they had burial records for Yosef Tzvi (Yosef Herz), died 1868, and Sara Golda Gradus, wife of Yosef Tzvi, died 1882. The section, row and plot were detailed for each of them.

My first stop in Warsaw was the Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery is surrounded by a brick wall, portions of which date from the Jewish Ghetto. Prior to this time, there was a Jewish quarter, but it was not walled off from the rest of the city. Because there were so few Polish Jews left in Warsaw after WWII, the cemetery was virtually abandoned for 45 years. For the past 15 years Przemsslaw Yisroel Szpilman has been the cemetery’s director and has been locating and recording the graves in the cemetery. It has been difficult work. Trees, weeds and shrubs sprouted in the untended area; gravestones crumbled or broke apart; some stones were vandalized. So far, he has found and recorded information and the locations of 85,000 graves. There are still many graves to be found and recorded.

When I arrived with the documents on my ancestors, Mr. Szpilman offered to take me to the graves himself. First we found the grave for who I believe is my g-g-g grandfather, Yosef Tzvi. It is fortunate that Mr. Szpilman was with me because the stone was in Yiddish, a language I don’t know. We found the grave for my g-g-g grandmother, Sara Golda Gradus in another section. Mr. Szpilman told me that at that time, Orthodox Jews didn’t allow men and women to be buried in the same areas of cemeteries; there was a men’s section and a women’s section. He also told me that he was nearly certain his own grandfather was buried in the cemetery, but he had not yet discovered his grave.

It was very moving to be at the graves of my ancestors; ancestors I had not even guessed at. I thanked them for coming before me; I hoped they would be proud of their descendents. I don’t know if any members of the Gradus family still living in Poland survived the Holocaust. It’s possible that the only members of the Gradus family still surviving are all in countries outside Poland. I felt like I had found people who had been lost – with many thanks to Mr. Spzilman for finding them first.

After the cemetery I visited monuments to the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, a monument commemorating the location of the railroad siding where Jews and others were loaded on cattle cars for the trip to Auschwitz,  and a monument to the many war dead of all cultures. So much suffering. It was a sobering day.