[PHOTO – ABOVE: EUGENUISZ STYS]
The candle was the perfect gift. Esther and I gave it to Alina and Eugenuisz Stys at the end of a two hour visit in their small living room. Just a few hours earlier, we had visited Jan’s freshly dug grave, covered with beautiful flowers. As we stood before Jan’s grave, Grzegorz Maleszewski popped open a special cylindrical container and lit a large, white candle. He put the metal top back on the cylinder and placed it next to the grave. At that moment, I knew that our “yartzheit” candle was the perfect gift. As I explained the Jewish tradition of lighting a candle to burn for the seven days of Shiva, Eugenuisz and Alina nodded, understanding the significance of the candle as a symbol.
This made me think about why religious traditions related to death include candles. Candles are a unique devise. They can bring light to the darkness. They can light multiple other candles while not diminishing their own light and beauty. They can be extinguished with a simple puff of air. They can be used to start a fire – which can be beneficial – like cooking or heat – or they can be destructive – burning down a house, a forest, or even a whole town. I believe that it is a reminder of the fragility of life and the power we hold as humans. Our lives can be extinguished in a moment. But during our lives we can choose how to use our flame – we can pass the beauty and benefit of our flame to others or we can use our flame as a destructive force in the world.
Yesterday we visited the graves of both Jan Stys and Janina Golebiewski. But we also visited their children. We stopped at Jan’s house and visited with his son, daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Then, after visiting Janina’s grave in the Stoczek cemetery, we stopped at her home and visited with two of her children and son-in-law. Jan and Janina passed their flames of beauty and kindness to their children.
Now Eugenuisz is the last living Stys family member who knew Sam and Esther. Hard to believe that just last June we met three Stys children and now, ten months later, there is only one. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to meet all three and thank them personally for all they and their families did.
The Nazis knew about candles too. But they used them to burn homes, towns and people. I stood in the rectangular patch of grass and trees that was the heart of the Shtetl we know as Stok or Stoczek. Many of the buildings surrounding the small “town square” were burned down in September of 1939 when the Nazis first occupied Poland. Esther’s home, which was down a side street, was burned to the ground during that initial, terrifying attack.
This is the “town square.” We did not have time to visit here on our last trip. This was the place where the Stoczek market was held each Monday and Thursday. It is neither large nor impressive. I tried to imagine Esther Wisznia sitting here with a small table selling the shirts and blouses she made at home. I tried to imagine the Stys family coming to this spot and selling wheat and potatoes grown just four kilometers away. I tried to imagine Fievel Goldfarb’s father selling shoes. I tried to imagine the Stys children skipping down the street on Sunday morning for their post-Church treat at the Kwaitek soda factory. I tried to imagine Chana’s bakery on one of the street corners. Where was it? I could not tell. I had trouble conjuring the smell of fresh bread and lekach (honey cake) that surely emanated from her shop. It made me hungry!
Our guide through it all was of course – Grzegorz Maleszewski. Our first stop on yesterday’s journey was in Wengrow to visit with Grzegorz, his wife Grazynka and their daughter, Camilla. We sat around their table like old friends, sipping tea and noshing on fruit. We caught up with each other’s lives and of course discussed how my book is coming along.
“But when will it be done?” They wanted to know.
“I don’t have a time table,” I responded, “but I am currently working on the chapter about the four years Sam and Esther lived in Germany in the Displaced Persons’ Camps.”
Grzegorz hopped in his car and we followed: Jan’s grave; Jan’s home to visit his children; Stoczek; the memorial to the Jews of Stoczek; Janina’s home to visit her children; and finally Eugenuisz and Alina’s home to visit with them and give the gift of the candle. In giving this candle, it hit me that I too am sharing a flame – the story of Sam and Esther Goldberg and the Stys families. I hope through my research, this blog and my book, this story will teach us that even though life is not always pretty, we can choose to live in a meaningful and beautiful way.
[A special thank you to Aleksander Czyzewski, our Warsaw friend, who borrowed a car for me to drive and served as our teacher and translator for the day. We could not have done this without you. – Thanks]