Letters we receive from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and elsewhere beyond Poland’s eastern border always sound different from those we get from America, Australia or even Poland. There’s something in eastern culture that we refer to in Poland as ‘’the Russian soul,” which, even in the most prosaic of correspondence, always carries traces of poetry.
These letters contain not just the sound of weeping, but of mournful, bitter tears combined with a sense of hope and trust, not just of melancholy, but of genuine grief and sorrow. Theirs is a world of openly expressed feelings in which gratitude is always undying.
We don’t get many of these letters.
Ours is another world: suspicious, aware that the western world functions according to other sets of rules. So it’s only recently that those in the east have begun to seek out their roots in Poland. Those who write today are descendants of those who didn’t return to Poland, who started new families wherever it was that the Soviet authorities had sent them. They started new lives there. For years under Communism, contact with Poland was impossible. Besides, there was really no time: work, studies, children. Simply, everyday life took precedence. David was from the town of Jedwabne. In 2004, he contacted a TV program that was helping people search for lost loved ones. He made a plea for information, but nothing happened, no one responded, no one found anything for him at all. He writes of himself that, in 1940, he was sent to study at technical school in Grodno. When the German-Soviet war broke out, the school was evacuated beyond the Ural Mountains to Chelyabinsk. When he finished his studies there, he went to work. When he tried to find out what had become of his family, someone told him about the massacre in Jedwabne and said he shouldn’t go back, there was no one there left to find. But David knew that his mother’s family had left for Argentina before the war. He couldn’t remember his mother’s maiden name any longer, but he was determined to find them.
David died in 2008 and never lived to see his family reunited. Word of his search reached us through various intermediaries. David’s letter was posted by his grandson on the Russian web portal “Odnoklassniki” [Classmates] which brings together former school colleagues through the Internet. A woman saw the posting and she happened to know a Pole who was both a genealogist and fluent in Russian. So she passed on the inquiry to him and he, in turn, passed it on to us, because he had no idea how to go about conducting such a search.
David’s family, it turns out, is well-known. In a matter of seconds, you can find them by entering their surname and Jedwabne into a search engine. They, his brothers and a sister-in-law, were among Jedwabne’s few survivors, having been saved by rescuer Antonina Wyrzykowska. And, when the war was over, they left to Argentina to join their mother’s family there.
Moments later, we found a current address and phone number for Dov (known in Poland as Berek), the youngest of the brothers. The elder brother, Moshe, had died some years ago, as had his wife. David’s son is named Boris, as he later told us, a name he received in memory (as they thought at the time) of his brother Berek.
And, once again, our office is filled with a cacophony of languages. Boris speaks only Russian and Ukrainian. Dov speaks only Spanish. We speak Polish, English, German, Hebrew. But, as it turns out, Dov actually does speak Polish, but he’s too excited and we can’t quite get through to him. He doesn’t believe what he’s hearing: ”What? David’s alive? He survived? David? Why didn’t he come back to Poland? Why didn’t he come back?”
With the aid of some helpful translators, we manage to send off a letter to Argentina from Boris, translated into Spanish, in which he explains everything and encloses a photo of David. So that the family in Argentina will feel certain they’re really dealing with David’s family. And we’re a lit — tle uncertain ourselves if we should have believed the story we’d been told. Boris has a different surname and his ID card lists another father entirely. Boris explains that David lost his papers during the war and borrowed others from a friend. He altered a few of the details and took on a new identity. That sort of thing was certainly possible in the USSR. Luckily, Boris sent photos in his letter to Dov as proof. Photos of the earliest members of the family and photos of the latest as well, including his family, his wife, his children and his grandchildren. And everything connects. You can’t fake decades of family photos. They finally make direct contact — and we breathe a deep sigh of relief. Boris isn’t worried about any language barrier: that’s what they made Google Translate for! They’ve also spoken by phone with the help of a Russian-speaking fellow in Argentina. Boris and family are planning to visit their uncle.
It’s just a shame that David didn’t live to see it all.