The town where my grandfather was born is dead.
It isn’t just the name of the town that died, subsumed by a larger city, but the entire country is no more. The people fled before the war, and the ones who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, now lie in shallow graves all around the few kilometers that surround the city square.
It is a place so remote that there is no push to regenerate the Jewish people, to discover the grounds where the synagogue once stood. The people there don’t remember a time when there was a Jewish community. They don’t remember the names of the Jews who walked their streets.
Even so I find myself on a flight, to a flight, to a flight to try to get there to find something that I didn’t know I was looking for. The names, faces, and bodies that once called this place home are now dust scattered to nearby towns and float along the waters that in the past one hundred years only took people away from here. It gets emptier each year. And finally one day it will be wind.
But now I am on way looking for a hint of what was.
The town was never alive for me, now three generations removed. The faces in the faded pictures always looked so sad, like they knew it was coming, the way you feel a storm that is still miles away.
I always imagined it was a sadder time. Everybody had a sibling who died or a sister who didn’t make it through childbirth. Diseases wiped out families; fires weren’t put out in time. They must have always hurt.
Until I found the Torah. Or rather, the Torah found me.
I never asked how the Rabbi who found the Torah, found me, but there must be a list of all of us, the descendants from this deserted hamlet. Descendants who had decided that even if it was a shitty little town, good people came from it and so it was worth remembering, from a distance.
And so every year there was a dinner honoring the people who had settled. I think a lot of them came for the jobs, the factories, the Midwest. The American towns that couldn’t have been more different than where they came from, but they arrived nonetheless and became Americans.
Their children were real Americans, with American names like Bill and Johnny. But as these children aged, sometime in their 40’s or 50’s, they wondered anew about where they came from. In the morning when they looked in the mirror and noticed the cracks in the face, the lines along the eyes, this dispersed diaspora wondered where they fit in to the narrative.
That odyssey started for me when the Rabbi, who pitched himself as the “Torah Hunter,” called to tell me I was in luck.
Instead of erasing the town by burning it down, the Nazis just killed the people and changed the names. So the synagogue became the church, the Jewish center became the elementary school, and the kosher butcher became the grocery.
The Torah this Rabbi found for me had been stuffed in the staircase of a building he thinks used to house the synagogue. It wasn’t just the Torah from the town of my ancestors, but from the building where my grandfather likely had his bar mitzvah. It wasn’t just the Torah from the same room where my grandfather and my great-grandparents sat and prayed. It wasn’t just the four walls where cousins who may have looked like me sat in pews, separated by gender, genuflecting to the words and tunes that now escape my mouth.
No, it was more than that.
These were the scrolls that my family read from. The dust on these pages came from their clothes a hundred years ago. There was a yad, a pointer, they found in a back closet. A long silver stick with a molded hand at the top and a finger which helps the reader follow in the ancient scrolls, because humans aren’t supposed to touch the sacred manuscript.
So this pointer that they found just a few feet from the half-destroyed Torah most likely had my grandfather’s fingerprints on it, the Rabbi said.
When I heard these were discovered, the town came alive and I needed to see this place I’d rarely thought of. So I booked the flight from Detroit to New York, to Minsk, the train to Brest, the car to Pinsk, the bus to the small town nobody has ever heard of, to touch my past.
The Rabbi who found and repaired the Torah, the same man who found the yad and held it before my eyes with surgical gloves so as not to smear my grandfather’s DNA, led the way. His enthusiasm for the place, the story, and the history was only topped by my father’s eyes as he listened to the tale of the discovery. He sat by my father’s bed and told him this story with all the emotion of a Talmudic scholar:
“Walking through the church, the floorboards creaked, and the walls seemed to shake in the wind,” the Rabbi said. “No one knew how old the actual structure was because all the town records were destroyed. No one thought the building would survive the demolition of a people.”
“The floors were weak and at a point it felt unsafe. So I walked the final steps alone. I walked up to the proscenium, as they now called it, holding the railing which provided little support. I was being very deliberate with my steps; something about the place felt unsteady. I dragged my feet up, but in my earnestness to get my foot to the next level, the toe of my right boot smashed through the front of the final step.”
“The thin wood shattered as if it were glass,” he said. “I looked behind me at my hosts, worried about the damage I had caused, about the repair on this ancient step before Sunday services would commence in a few hours.”
“So I got down on one knee, knowing my long black coat would pick up the dust from the floor and whatever was under the floorboard,” the Rabbi said. “I turned on the flashlight from my phone and I surveyed the damage.”
“But it wasn’t the hole in that step that caught my eye. I saw something soft inside. At first I thought it was an animal, a rodent maybe. But something compelled me to reach for it, even into the dark space that had been dark for so many years. And I felt the feeling of cloth that I had held in my arms before. It was the feeling of a Torah scroll, the feeling of the dressing of the Torah that I carry around our synagogue every week. And I knew I had discovered the past.”
All of us who heard the story were rapt. We knew the touch of that velvet he felt inside that dark hole, inside that darkening synagogue. We could see in our minds how he pulled out that small Torah, the one that had been touched by my grand-relatives and all those faces in all those pictures on all those walls.
And now I was on a plane to see this place. With Rabbi sitting just a few rows ahead of me, my mind swirled of possibilities of what I might find. I was on my way to not just this place, but to walk across the bimah that had played such a central role in the stories of my youth. The stories my grandfather told me, the ones passed down to my father that were woven somehow into my imagination along with the stage productions of Fiddler and The Diary of Anne Frank, which were staples of my childhood.
My father’s stroke precipitated my trip. I did not want to wait another year. I wanted to come back with stories that could spark his imagination about a time and a place he felt closer to than I did.
The day I arrived in the town was rainy and cold, which is just as I suspected it would be. Nineteen twenties Russia in black-and-white pictures always suggested cold and wet, and here I was in a town with fewer buildings than I imagined, but it was as dark as the photos in that poorly lit hallway in my grandmother’s apartment.
When I approached the building, it seemed sturdier. It wasn’t a working church as I thought I had heard, but it felt like a religious structure without any overtly religious décor. There was a woman who kept saying the word “church,” her only English word, but now the building appeared to be used mostly for storing boxes, crates and empty wood pallets.
I asked if I could go inside, and she indicated she would have to find a light, which I think meant the fuse box, because when she unlocked the door, she headed to the basement, and when she came back there was a small light that hung above where the ark might have been. It was a single bulb hanging from a long cord, but it didn’t move or sway as I had pictured; it just sat there in its sixty-watt dullness, and I could see the dust mites hanging on for dear life.
The room, which is all it was, one large dark room, smelled of must and mold, again as I’d suspected. I shivered for a moment, maybe because it was cold and rain had started to fall, but more because I think I felt the presence of my family, the people whose nose I had, the ones whose hairline mine resembled, but whose voices I had never heard.
But in that room, all the noise being sucked out by the old wood and the lack of light, I felt my history in a way I hadn’t before. The black-and-whites became color, the voices turned loud, and for the first time I could smell them. Their heavy coats on Shabbat morning, their breath as we neared the end of prayers, the snuff they would take at high holiday services to stay awake, the weight of their hands on mine as I tried to stand for the Amidah at the end of a long day.
I approached the bimah with caution, remembering the words of the Rabbi, the frailty of the steps, the wobbliness of the railing. But I did not hear the creaks he spoke of. The wood flooring did not match the dark wood of the walls; instead it was lighter, newer, as if it had been replaced in the intervening years.
The railing, which wobbled so much in the story, seemed firm, with a fake wood that was splinter-free, smoothly leading me toward the place of worship.
There were five steps to the bimah, and halfway up I knelt down to feel the flooring, looking for the place where the Rabbi’s foot entered, the place where the Torah hid for all these years, the place where maybe, just maybe, a relative of mine had stuffed the small scrolls, as the Nazis broke down the door before turning them into memories.
But the floor was solid, almost like linoleum. There was no place for a foot to penetrate and no stain from where a foot had gone through. No opening, no decay, no remnant.
Once I reached the top and looked out, I was no longer a fifty-year-old man in search of his history. I was that thirteen-year-old boy who was weeks from being sent to the States to live with his cousins until the war was over. I was the father of the bar mitzvah as he chanted, and I spoke words to him in Russian or in Yiddish or in Hebrew. And I looked up into the balcony to see where my great-grandmother would have sat with her sisters, all fat faces from the photos, all burned in the fires.
And I cried.
The old woman who had let me in that day, the one I bribed to find a key to open the door, sat in the pew, unmoved, watching me. I figured she had seen dozens of foreign men come to this place to reclaim some memory, to memorialize the lives of the people they’d never met.
This stale old building with the refurbished floors and railings that she walked by each day, the building which to her was simply a place where she might get out of the rain or the cold. A building which for her was a source of income, a way for her to make a few dollars, which still went a long way.
I imagined she would stand and watch the men, and sometimes women, walk the length of the building looking for ghosts and asking questions in a language she did not know.
So when I was done crying, feeling empty of tears, but full of memories, I placed a twenty-dollar bill in her hand, and I walked into the cold street that had turned muddy.
I retraced my steps, the bus to the car to the train to the big city where I returned to my hotel. Eight hours had passed, but I had traversed centuries and now I was back. But the Rabbi was gone. He was too sick to come with me that day, but when I returned, a man at the front desk said he had checked out; his only message was that our flight was on time for the following morning and we would reconnect once back home.
“There are some exciting discoveries in another part of the country, and I am off to find more history,” the note said.
I dined alone that night in the hotel lobby, although I felt as if I was with the biggest family reunion. I spoke with my father about all that I had seen, the pictures I had sent. I stood out eating the schnitzel special at the hotel restaurant, white pods in my ears, speaking too loudly in English to a family across the ocean. But I didn’t care because I felt something that day that I had never felt before and in the intervening years have yet to feel again. It was the connection to a larger narrative, not just about my people but about myself.
It was the story going back more than a century, a story that included me in it. My story always started in the 1970s, and I could go through the decades and remember dates and songs and people and homes I’d lived in and schools I attended and jobs I’d had. Addresses, phone numbers, BlackBerrys, flip phones and iPhones, movies, television shows, and aol.com accounts. But now my story went further back. And I could dive into a world I’d previously only seen as scattered scenes and pictures.
Like pieces of a puzzle, they now formed a clear picture and a narrative that previously didn’t exist. It was like being told the words to a song that you thought was instrumental.
I sat alone on the flight home.
I thought about where the Rabbi might be. Could his discovery in another town be as miraculous and meaningful as mine had been? And so I let it be. Yes, it was my trip and I had paid for his flight and his rental car, the hotel, his meals and “incidentals,” along with the $25,000 price for the Torah, once he made it kosher by cleaning it up, as well as a $10,000 contribution to his “Save the Torah” foundation.
What price history? What price family?
I never saw the Rabbi again, except for his picture in the paper on the day of his sentencing.
He was indeed finding his next adventure, another fake story in a real setting.
He’d gone to the cities; he’d been to the camps. His description of the places was impeccable. The beggar outside, the weather, the cost, the trips to get there. And he could conjure stories in these far-off places, because he knew that even if someone was crazy enough to retrace the steps, he controlled the details, telling people what happened because there was no one to ask.
What kind of idiot takes a plane, a bus, a train to some smelly back lot of a town where the people are as inhospitable as the climate? Imagine a place where the townspeople know their only visitors come because of some ancestral atrocities.
And so he would go and find the place and take the story from there, because no one would ever know; there was nothing to verify.
I didn’t tell my father before he died.
It would be years until I admitted it myself and even more before I told my wife.
They hadn’t seen the story in the papers. By then my father’s eyesight was so bad he couldn’t read. And it wouldn’t have been a story my wife would have noticed. I’m not even sure she knew the name of the Rabbi.
In court he argued for leniency by telling the judge that he was reconnecting Jews with their heritage, even if “parts of it weren’t exactly true.”
“Do you believe every passage of the Torah just as it’s written?” the Rabbi asked rhetorically to the judge, the jury, and the universe.
“You are a Rabbi,” the judge said. “How can you not believe?”
“I believe in the long narrative,” he said. “I believe in believing. My stories served a purpose, they filled a need. They provided hope. They were the next chapter in our people’s story.”
They still got him on tax evasion, wire and mail fraud. He served four years. I can petition the court to get my money back.
But I got what I paid for.
Before launching MarketResearch.com 20 years ago Rob Granader was a journalist covering Capitol Hill for a number of news outlets. He launched a blog about moving his family to the London in 2011 where he concentrated on Market Research during the day and fiction at night. His blog focuses on the transitions of midlife, (https://expatlondon.blogspot.