I really had to pee. But, there was no bathroom. I stood on the sidewalk looking at the Stoczeck Jewish cemetery. Nothing is left – it is an empty lot, littered with garbage, dead leaves, trees and bushes. The empty lot has a well-worn dirt path that residents clearly use as a short cut to the next part of town.
Adjacent to the old cemetery is a small fenced-in area with a memorial to Stoczeck’s murdered Jews. It was erected in 1984. The tombstone-shaped memorial stands on top of a three-tiered granite platform. The fenced-in area is also home to a few tombstone fragments found in the old cemetery, set up in a soldier-like row.
I had given some thought to how I might feel at this place. I hoped that the memorial for the murdered Jews of Stoczeck would be a meditative spot to sit and allow my feelings to surface. I hoped for a good cry. After all, just one day earlier, Jan Stys told us how, as an eleven-year-old boy, he saw Jews marched to the cemetery and shot into a pit. I wrote about this (blog post July 13, 2016), but, what I did not tell you is that that I really had to pee.
When you have to pee badly, it is really all you think about. I looked at my family as we exited the van, and I said, I am really sorry, I have to pee, I’ll be right back. I walked straight down the dirt path which cut through the middle of the old cemetery. I took a branch of the path that went off to the right – sort of away from the main part of the cemetery. I thought if I venture off to the right far enough, maybe I won’t pee on a grave. I had tissues in my pocket – at the ready. I found a protected, private place to do my business. I silently asked forgiveness of those buried beneath my feet.
But what happened to all the other Jewish tombstones? There were hundreds of them here before the war. Well, after the war the Polish economy was in the tank. Recovery was slow and difficult, especially under Soviet control. The Jews were all dead anyway and the tombstones were good building material. So the Poles helped themselves and used them for walls and roads. This was not unique to Stozceck. It happened all over Poland.
Much relieved, I rejoined my family at the memorial. Shlomo was reading the Yiddish inscription on the memorial and my children were looking at the faded Hebrew lettering on the tombstone fragments. Because I felt so bad about peeing in the Jewish cemetery, I did not achieve even a fraction of the meditative state that I had hoped. Ok, that’s just how it is – I had to accept it.
While I was in my guilt-ridden state, I did not give much thought to the fact that the memorial was clean and the grass surrounding the tombstone fragments was freshly cut. Someone was taking care of this place. Good. It’s the least they can do, I thought. My bladder empty, we piled back onto the van and headed to the home of Eugeniusz and Alina Stys to meet their son, the cheesemaker and for a final goodbye.
A few weeks after returning to Seattle, Joanna Millick, my superhero travel agent and I had a joyous reunion. We could not stop talking about our experiences in Eastern Europe – me in Samke and Poland, she in Prague, Vienna and Poland.
But then Joanna told me something that made me go silent. She told me that during her visit in Poland with Grzegorz Maleszewski, he told her that prior to our visit he went to check out the Stoczeck memorial. What he encountered was a memorial covered in dirt and tombstone fragments covered in overgrown grass. He hired some locals to clean up the memorial and to cut the grass. So when I got there and thought – Oh, it’s the least they can do – it was really all Grzegorz.
Goodness seems to be a genetic trait in the Stys family. Grzegorz is the grandson of Wadyslawa and Stanislaw Stys, one of the families that was instrumental in Sam, Esther and Chayim’s survival. Grzegorz organized our entire visit to Lipki, Treblinka, the Bug River, Stoczeck and Wengrow. He made us two large family trees, encased in glass, with pictures, so that we understand the Stys families.
When I first met Grzegorz by I-phone, I knew I had met someone special. He explained that he had just finished spending the day volunteering his time with his Church in building a new meditation center in Wengrow, Poland. His generous personality was on full display as we spent two days with him and he provided us with strawberries, tee shirts, stories, photos, videos and many laughs. I may have been silent when I heard what Grzegorz had done at the Stoczeck memorial, but I was not surprised.
After hearing about Grzegorz’s “cleanup,” I felt even worse about peeing in the cemetery. It’s a good think that Yom Kippur is coming soon. I need some forgiveness.