„Ja, zwykły, szary człowiek, taki jak wy, wzywam was wszystkich – nie czekajcie dłużej. Trzeba zmienić tę władzę jak najszybciej, zanim doszczętnie zniszczy nasz kraj; zanim całkowicie pozbawi nas wolności”. – Piotr Szczęsny, "szary człowiek" (19.10.2017)
In his tales of Se-NI my father told me of the two-room log-house with earthen floor, in which he, Izrael Chackiel MARKOWICZ, lived with his parents, Josiel Mowsze and Sora (born KRASNOPOLSKA), his older brother, Aron Lejb (my namesake), older sister; Basia, and younger sister, Etel. Still in my memory are the “Russian stove” he slept on in winter; the great seminary complex that dominated the town; and the river he had to cross in wintry winds, to deliver clothes his tailor-father had sewn for the “chief priest” at the seminary church. My father told me that each spring he would stuff new moss between the logs of the family house, and he described his mother’s sweeping the earthen floors so vigorously that they “glistened like stone”. He mentioned the many and varied languages spoken by the local inhabitants; the nearby lakes and forests with abundant fish and animal life; and the six-mile walk he frequently made to visit his grandmother Golda in the small townlet of Kras-no-POL-je. He told me of being schooled until the age of thirteen, followed by his apprenticeship as a housepainter (his lifelong occupation). He mentioned the nearby larger city of SU-walk, and told me of his smuggling expeditions to and from the city of Königsberg, in adjacent East Prussia. His final act of smuggling, at age fifteen, was to smuggle himself across the border on a farm cart, dressed as a girl, en route to the port of Antwerp, to embark on his journey to America to join Aron Lejb and Basia, and begin his new life as Charles MARKOWITZ.
Between August 1990 and August 2005 I made three trips to Sejny. Those experiences are the subject of this article.
I first visited Sejny in August 1990 – the one 100th anniversary of my father’s birth there. My immediate impression, based my father’s stories, was that if he were with me he would have felt that he had returned home. I, myself, felt an eerie sense of déjà vu, so strongly did it resemble the town he had lovingly described. That first visit was made without advance planning or reservations, and without knowing a word of Polish. I simply arrived one morning in Warsaw, by air from Helsinki, boardeda train to Białystok, then a bus to Augustow and, finally, a bus from Augustow to Sejny. As that final bus traveled along the narrow road hrough the dense and beautifulAugustow forest, with birch on one side of the road and conifers on the other, I found the magic of the region exhilarating. Approaching Sejny in early evening, I realized that I didn’t even know if there was a hotel in town. But as the bus pulled into the station a passenger, spotting me as a stranger, gestured to me with her hands together and rested her head on them, as if to ask if I needed a place to sleep. As we walked together to the local hotel, the Hotel Skarpa, we turned a corner and I saw the Sejny synagogue, proudly proclaimed as such by a sign written in Polish, in Hebrew-style lettering, which briefly described the history of the Sejny Jewish community. The sight of the synagogue, with its prominent entification, heightened the senseof exhilaration I had felt on the final leg of my journey. I was finally in Se-NI!
The Biała Synagoga (White Synagogue) sits at the eastern end of the town’s main street, Ulica Piłsudskiego (practically every town and city in Poland has an Ulica Piłsudskiego, named in honor of the hero of Polish independence, Marshall Jozef Piłsudski). Next to it are the former Talmud Torah and the former (secular) Hebrew gymnasium, founded by the scholar Tuwie Pinkas SZAPIRO, whose son Israel Schapiro later became the first Chief of the Semitic Division at the Library of Congress. Passing the City Hall, ul. Piłsudskiego continues as the town’s dominant axis until it terminates, on a topographic rise, at the church and cloister complex of the Church of the Visitation of the Most Holy Virgin Mother Mary, the distinctive and impressive landmark which dominates the town. The church was from 1818 to 1925 the Cathedral of the Diocese of Sejny. Because there no longer is a Sejny diocese it has lost its status as a cathedral, but has gained new importance through its later designation as a Basilica Minor of the Roman Catholic Church. Rebuilt in the eighteenth century in a regional variation of the Italian baroque style, called Vilnius Baroque, it is on the site of the original monastic complex of the Dominicans from Vilna who founded Sejny, and who later brought Jews from Vilna to establish a Jewish community in Sejny. Thus, the synagogue and its related buildings at the eastern end of the main street, facin church complex at the western end, symbolizes an ancient relationship; although the Dominicans have been absent since their monastery was dissolved under Prussian authority in 1804, and the Jews have been absent since their obliteration under German authority in 1939.
The Hotel Skarpa, a two-storied building on the north side of ul. Piłsudskiego with a tavern below and rooms above, provided adequate but rudimentary accommodation, with all necessary plumbing (including a communal shower) at the end of the corridor. From my room, in the front of the building, the view was of the rather solid buildings on the south side of Ul. Piłsudskiego. From a window at the opposite end of the corridor, I could see the adjacent, winding, narrow Marycha River and the neighboring traditional wooden houses and their dependencies that once comprised the core of the local shtetl. The tavern/dining-room served highly acceptable food; in fact, the chleb (bread) transported me immediately my Brooklyn childhood. A restaurant/linguistic confusion I shall never forget, was the time I started my meal with a very good zupa, and, after a meat course ordered rosól (which I conjectured was rice pudding) for desert. The waitress tried her very best to dissuade me from my choice, but finally acceded to my persistent demand, and brought me the consommé I had insisted upon. (If you are unsure of the Polish menu, ask for assistance from the wait staff!)
Another occasion in the Skarpa tavern, which I remember less clearly,was the vodka party given in my honor by some enthusiastic local pensioners. With a Berlitz phrase book and a supply of three-by-five inch index cards, I was able to manage some simple communication: “Ojciec, Sejny 1890” followed by an arrow to “Ameryka 1905” succeeded in communicating “Father, born in Sejny in 1890, went to America in 1905.” Unsure of the word for “Jewish,” I wrote “Gdzie jest cmentarz,” followed by a drawing of the Star of David, and showed it to a cap-maker, at work in his small shop. He seemed unsure of the answer, but insisted on closing his shop and walking with me to where he thought it was. As it turned out, it was not at the location he had thought it to be; but I shall never forget his kindness. Nor shall I forget the old woman who invited me into her home (one half of an old two-room wooden house) so that I could see some semblance of where my grandparents and their children lived. Food was cooking on her stove, in an area of her living space separated by a plastic shower curtain, and I asked if I could see the stove. Eureka! Attached to the firebox portion of the stove was a long, low extension, just large enough for a young boy to sleep on.
The Sejny of 1990 was just emerging from decades of war, occupation, and communist rule. It was not a prosperous place. Alongside a low brick wall on the main street, people were selling assorted small objects, the air was heavy with the taste of soft coal, and automobiles were a rarity. Horse-drawn carts straight out of “Fiddler on the Roof” rolled by on rubber tires. There was however, frequent local bus service, and a number of young foreign tourists with their backpacks had apparently discovered the region. I will never forget my thrill at seeing a bus with a sign indicating: Suwałki – Krasnopol – Sejny
My father’s description of a six-mile walk from Sejny to Krasnopol turned out to be completely accurate; the road sign at the town limits of Sejny, indicates Krasnopol 10 Km. (Suwalki is another nineteen kilometers beyond Krasnopol.) Much as I would have wished to walk the six miles to Krasnopol, summer heat and my age suggested that I take the bus. The name Krasnopol can be translated as “beautiful fields” or “rosy fields,” and it is easy to see why the town was called by that name. (My father told me that some of his Krasnopolski relations, in America, changed the family name to SHOENFELD.)
The small town sits surrounded by fields of reddish soil that appear to undulate like waves of the sea. The sight of these fields, reaching to deep blue skies with puffy white clouds, is truly beautiful. The road between Suwałki and Sejny juts off-course to pass through Krasnopol, and pass through it does, with the small town straddling the road.
Although I have yet to locate it, I am told that the synagogue is now a tavern and would not be easily recognized for what it once was I was directed to the Jewish cemetery by a woman on bicycle, who was fairly critical of its lack of upkeep. Indeed, the only upkeep feasible would be to erect an identifying sign, and perhaps a fence, for the gentle knoll has completely reverted to forest, with barely the fragment of a memorial stone.
My father told me that his parents and sister Etel (married to a soldier named WOLFOWITZ) had been evicted from Sejny during the first World War, and had eventually lived in Vitebsk. The 1915 Suwałki eviction records published by Landsmen, lists evictee Josiel Mirkowicz [sic], registered in Krasnopol, evicted from Sejny to Mogilev Gubernia, along with wife, Sora, and mother, Golda. Josiel’s father’s name is given as Lejb, Sora’s as Orko (a variant of Aaron), and Golda’s as Chackiel. Etel is listed separately as Etel WOLFOWSKI, daughter of Josiel, registered in Nowogroduk (Minsk), and evicted from Sejny to Mogilev Gubernia. Accompanying Etel in the eviction record was her two-year-old daughter, Masza Liba (previously known to me as Marsha). Through the eviction records published by „Landsmen”, I was able to confirm that both sides of my paternal family were rooted in Krasnopol, a fact that had been suggested in an earlier Landsmen report of men wanted for military evasion: Missing in 1905 was 21-year-old Aron Leyb Markowicz, son of Josiel, registered in Krasnopol. (He was indeed missing; he was living in Brooklyn!)
Later research has proven my family’s Krasnopol roots to run very deeply: My paternal grandfather was descended from Mortchel of Krasnopol, whose three sons (two of whom were born at the end of the eighteenth century) took the patronymic surname Markowicz, while my paternal grandmother was descended from Peysach of Krasnopol, whose three sons (at least one of whom was born at the end of the eighteenth century) took the toponymic surname Krasnopolski. My parents, incidentally, are buried in the plot of the Chevra Bnai Aria Anshe Krasnopole, in Washington Cemetery, Brooklyn; and my father’s many MISHKIN cousins are buried in the adjacent plot of the Krasnepoler Young Mens Aid Society.
[A Genealogical Caution: Because my father had never made clear to me whose mother Golda was, I had assumed on the basis of grandmother Sora’s maiden name being Krasnopolski, and the fact that Golda lived in Krasnopol, that Golda was Sora’s mother. In fact, I initially questioned the 1915 eviction record’s indication of Golda as Josiel’s mother. As it turned out, the listing is entirely accurate: Later research confirms that Golda (daughter of Chackiel GRODZINSKI) was the wife of Lejb Markowicz (born in Berżniki) and the mother of my grandfather. (We must question our assumptions!)]
Now, back to Sejny.
I visited the synagogue, which was under the stewardship of the Miejsko-Gminny Ośrodek Kultury w Sejnach (the City and County Cultural Center of Sejny) and being used as an art gallery. There, it was my good fortune to meet the artist Wiesław Szumiński, the gallery’s supervisor. As a descendant of Sejny Jews, I was warmly welcomed by Mr. Szumiński, with whom I somehow managed to converse in an approximation of German. I learned of his interest in the past Jewish presence, and of his and other local artists’ depictions of Jewish subject matter. He was interested in my family’s connection to Krasnopol, and told me that his parents presently lived there. In response to my inquiry about the location of Sejny’s Jewish cemetery, he informed me, with regret, that the older Jewish cemetery was beneath the typically brutal communist ra apartment buildings in town; and he directed me to the later cemetery, about two kilometers out of town, on the Augustow road, where he told me I would find very few marked gravesites. I accompanied him to the headquarters of the Ośrodek Kultury, where I was able to obtain several copies of the synagogue brochure, for distribution among my family. Before parting, I gave Wiesław my home address; a most fortuitous act which became the key to my continuing connection to Sejny.
Following Wiesław’s directions, I found my way to the cemetery, rising above the Augustow road. Among the tall grass, there were perhaps half a dozen flat stones covering graves, but no standing matzevahs. None of the stones were inscribed, except for one stone marked by a crudely scratched Star of David.
All in all, I found my first visit to Sejny to be a most agreeable experience. This, despite graffiti on the outer wall of the cloister reading, “Jews Out – Lithuanians Out – Poland for Poles.” Curiously, when I arrived in Warsaw about a week later, I read a disapproving article about that inscription in an English language Warsaw weekly newspaper. There were, of course, no Jews to be forced out, but there remains in Sejny a large population of ethnic Lithuanians, who in the immediate post-communist period apparently provided a rallying cry for extreme Polish nationalists.
My bus to Augostow connected with a bus to Białystok, from where I visited nearby Tykocin, the birthplace of both my maternal grandparents. But Tiktin is another story.
In October 1990, I received a letter from Wiesław Szumiński, recalling my visit and expressing his desire to keep alive the memory of the Sejny Jewish community. Finally finding someone to translate his letter into English and then my reply into Polish, I responded, with an offer to the Cultural Center of an organizational membership in the Suwalk-Lomza Special Interest Group, all past issues of Landsmen and a continuing subscription. Mr. Szumiński passed my letter along to Krzysztof Czyżewski, the director of the newly established Fundacja Pogranicze (Borderland Foundation), which had displaced the Ośrodek Kultury as the occupant and steward of the Biała Synagoga. The Borderlald Foundation is a most unusual and worthy organization, founded to promote understanding and peaceful co-existence among the diverse ethnic groups of Central and Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on the ethnic minorities of the region’s borderlands. In his letter to me, Mr. Czyżewski accepted my offer of membership and the subscription to Landsmen and enthusiastically invited me to attend a forthcoming conference on tolerance, with the specific hope that I would meet with members of the foundation’s youth program. Alas, the conference was to take place in November, not my preferred time for visiting northeastern Poland. I did not attend the conference, but continued my contact with the Borderland Foundation primarily through my subscription to Krasnogruda, the foundation’s irregularly issued journal, written in a variety of languages with brief summaries in English. The journal is named for the manor of the family of the late Czesław Miłosz, who was the patron of the Borderland Foundation. The Krasnogruda manor is a few kilometers from Sejny, very close to the Lithuanian border.
Unable on short notice to book ferry passage from Sweden to Gdansk, I flew from Stockholm to Gdańsk via Warsaw, and continued eastward across the Mazurian Lake District, via a series of trains and buses, and even an eleven hour passage along the Elbląg- Ostróda Canal, a very impressive Prussian engineering achievement. The final leg of the journey was by train from Mikołajki to Suwalki, where I settled in for the night, continuing the next morning to Sejny, by taxi.
Although I had learned a few words of Polish since my previous visit, I drew upon my
approximation of German to converse with the driver, who told me that Suwałki had suffered financial and development setbacks because of the recent reorganization of the political divisions of Poland, making Suwałki now subservient to Białystok in the administrative hierarchy. He brought me to the Hotel Skarpa, which had undergone major improvements since my last visit, including basic en-suite bathrooms, a transformation of the former tavern-cum-restaurant into a more formal restaurant, and the addition of an additional, more casual, café.
The improvements to the Skarpa reflected improvements evident elsewhere in town. Among these were an upscale delicatessen in the ul. Piłsudskiego; a very pleasant new café, the Kafeteria z Pogranicza; new houses, and pleasant new apartment blocks. Sejny was part of the “New Poland”! A highlight of the town’s renewal was the recently reconstructed Hebrew gymnasium building, now “Borderland House,” the headquarters of the Fundacja Pogranicze. The building, being beyond repair, rehabilitation or restoration, had been carefully disassembled down to its very foundations by a very capable architect with family roots in Sejny, and then rebuilt in its original form, even carefully reassembling the original posts and beams, of local larch, which in the upper reaches of the buildings are left in plain view. The exterior of the building is distinguished by the addition of a base of flowing stonework, from which the foundation rises to indicate a connection with the past, and the building’s front is embellished by the bas-relief of a Jewish peddler with shoulder pack. The interior of the building, contemporary, warm and welcoming, houses administrative offices, exhibition space, and the documentation center, a crucial part of the foundation’s operation. My arrival in Sejny had been on a Saturday, and that evening in the synagogue I attended a concert of the foundation’s klezmer band. There was a full house! Having taken note of the schedule posted at the entrance of Borderland House, I rang the doorbell there at ten o’clock Monday morning, and was greeted by a young staff member, Robert, who spoke perfect English. I told him of my connection to Sejny and that I had been sending the genealogical journal Landsmen to the foundation. He was well aware of Landsmen, and lost no time in taking me to Agata, the head of the documentation center, who received me as a valued friend from afar, who was being seen for the first time. From her private workspace, Agata produced the copy of the 1915 Suwalki Evictions, which I had sent separately, and she led me to the stacks to show me the Landsmen holdings. Practically every issue was loaded with bookmarks; obviously, Landsmen was being used!
After a tour of Borderland House, I was taken to the basement media room, where I was brought tea while viewing a DVD, The Musicians’ Raft between New York and Sejny, depicting the “workshop” visit to the Borderland Foundation of a number of leading American Jewish klezmer musicians, along with Michael Steinlauf, professor of history at Gratz College, Philadelphia (who specializes in east-European Jewish history, Jewish-Polish relations and Yiddish theatre.). The connection between the Americans and the Borderland klezmorim had been made at a Jewish Music Festival in Cracow.
Later, Robert walked with me to the Jewish cemetery, so that I might see the memorial stone to the lost Jewish community, which, with the leadership of Borderland, had been placed there in May 2002 by the people of Sejny. It is of black granite, with a polished surface dissolving into rough edges, engraved with a brief inscription, “In memory of the Jews of Sejny – the inhabitants of Sejny,” in both Hebrew and Polish, and the depiction of candles tellingly interwoven. The stone had been designed by Wiesław Szumiński, who was, in fact, the person who had invited Krzysztof Czyżewski to establish his proposed foundation in Sejny. The dedication of the memorial stone had been the focus of a two day program of events in Sejny, attended by a number of dignitaries, including, representatives of the Jewish communities of Kaunas and Vilnius; Szewach Weiss, the Israeli ambassador to Poland; and the Sejny-born cantor, Max Furmansky, who, after many years in Argentina and Mexico, now lives in Israel. The weekend’s activities culminated in a procession by foot to the cemetery, in which a great number of the Sejny community participated. Heaped in a corner of the synagogue are fragments of matzevahs used by the German occupiers during World War II to pave local roadways, which continue to be found and rescued by local people. Ultimately, as a project of the Borderland Foundation’s youth program, they will be returned to the cemetery as components of a memorial wall.
Monday evening, I attended another concert at the synagogue, this time by the “Grey Goose,” a folk ensemble from Lewiston, Maine, who were touring under the sponsorship of the Department of State of the United States. In the synagogue, I realized that whereas my first visit to Sejny was on the centenary of my father’s birth, this visit was in the centenary year of his bar-mitzvah. Following the performance, I had the pleasure of meeting Małgorzata Sporek-Czyżewska, Krzysztof’s wife, and one of Borderland’s founding leadership. Among her various rôles in the organization, Małgorzata is the klezmer band’s superb vocalist. Expressing regret that Krzysztof was out of the country at this time of my visit, she invited me to their house for a late supper with the visiting musicians and others. Sadly, this tired and over-stimulated older traveler had to decline her kind invitation!
The next day I visited Krasnopol, and the following day departed Sejny for Warsaw, via Augustow, Białystok and Tykocin.
My father had told me that an “uncle” of his had emigrated to Sweden. With no more than this general information, and the two family surnames known to me at the time, I consulted with the Suwalk-Lomza Group’s affiliate in Sweden, Carl Carlsson, who provided me with information indicating a possible Trondheim (Norway) connection. Having learned through the pages of Landsmen that the Jewish community of Trondheim would be celebrating the centenary of its founding in 2005, I decided to visit Trondheim this year, en route to Sejny. I worked out an itinerary, based on Frankfurt as my European arrival and return point — leaving Philadelphia on July 3rd and returning on August 31st. I wrote to Krzysztof, telling him that I expected to reach Sejny in early August and hoped I would have the opportunity to meet him.
My travels from Frankfurt to Frankfurt, by means of rail, ferry, bus, catamaran and
Hurtigruten (Norwegian Coastal Steamer), were to describe an irregular clockwise circle. I stopped in Trondheim for two days, between steamers, where I had the pleasure of visiting the synagogue and Jewish Museum, to see the centenary exhibition. The volunteer docent at the museum was a young medical student. I gave her, for the museum, a copy of the spring 2003 Scandinavian Review (American-Scandinavian Foundation), which features an article on the Jews of Norway and contains photographs of some Trondheim families. I told her of my possible Trondheim connection, and we have since been in communication.
Leaving Trondheim, I traveled by Hurtigruten two more days to the north, and then continued southward by bus, nine-and-a-half-hours to the Arctic Circle, at Rovaniemi, Finland.
After continuing to Helsinki, I crossed to Tallinn by catamaran, continuing to Riga and Vilnius by bus. In Vilnius, I visited the Institute of Yiddish Studies at the University of Vilnius, as well as the Jewish Community Center and its museum. I sincerely wished to travel directly from Vilnius to Sejny, following the path of the Jews who had been recruited to Sejny by their Domincan sponsors.
However, this proved to be impractical, as there were only two buses each week that plied the direct route, and they each arrived in Sejny (Seinai in Lithuanian) after ten o’clock at night. Being unable in Vilnius to make a hotel reservation in Sejny, I decided not to take the risk, and opted for the bus to Suwałki, which would arrive there in early afternoon.
Suwałki looked very much on the upswing from my previous visits. The central square and a number of older buildings have been meticulously restored. When I commented on this to a local shop owner, she told me with pride that “the new administration cares about old buildings.” After my many weeks of travel, I stayed in Suwałki for three days, for rest, recuperation and laundry, before continuing eighteen miles by bus, to Sejny. The hotel reception in Suwałki had telephoned the Dom Litewski (Lithuanian House) in Sejny to reserve a room for me. The Dom Litewski, a functional contemporary building, besides offering overnight accommodation, houses the Lithuanian Consulate, meeting rooms, exhibition space, and the Karczma, a traditional tavern/restaurant. Just outside the Dom Litewski, the round-the-clock presence of police in a sentry-booth suggested to me the existence of some inter-ethnic tension, but I have since been told they are there because of the foreign consulate.
My visit coincided with some heavy wind and rain in Central Europe, which Sejny was not spared. After one particularly stormy night, there were the usual downed trees and electrical power outages. It reminded me of my past experiences in the Adirondacks! The day after the storm, cleanup crews were busily restoring order, and I made my call at Borderland House, where I was received as an old friend. I finally met Krzysztof, who was on the run, and we arranged to meet the following day. At our scheduled meeting, we were joined by Bożena Szroeder, who heads the Borderland’s youth program. Along with the Czyżewskis, Bożena and her husband Wojciech (who leads the klezmer band) were the founders of the Borderland Foundation. I was invited to meet two days later with Bożena and Krzysztof, and some members of the youth program, for a videotaped interview, in which, to enhance the young peoples’ knowledge and appreciation of their community’s history, I would tell them about my family history in Sejny, and about our later life in America. The interview took place in the main exhibition space at Borderland House, where, among the items displayed are photographs of a Jewish family in Montreal with roots in Sejny.
These will soon be joined by a photograph of my Sejny grandparents, along with a photograph of their daughter and two sons in America, and one of their daughter who joined them in eviction to Byelorussia. Borderland hopes at some point to find a polyglot scholar capable of conducting research in depth on the Jews of Sejny. Meanwhile, I would hope that members of the Suwalk-Lomza SIG with roots in Sejny may be able to contribute information to Borderland about their families.
The interview, which lasted over two hours, was exhausting, but it is a precious experience I shall never forget. The young people of Sejny are most endearing. Our meeting over, I once again left Sejny by bus, heading home by way of Augustow, Białystok, Warsaw and points west, all the while planning my next visit to this sweet and beautiful place.