"They called me Marml," my mother, Mariam-Yudis Cukierman, would smile, "when I was a little girl in Baizetshin." She was born in 1910 not far from the large grassy (often muddy) square called the Hill Market (Rynek Górna) in Baizetshin in Kelts — that’s what the Jews called the little town where they lived when it was still a shtetl with almost half its population Jewish.
Now, it’s again a wholly Polish town. To Poles, it's always been Bodzentyn (Baw JEN-tin) in the province of Kielce (Kih-YEL-tseh) — in a high mountain valley on the Psarka River. It’s about thirty kilometres on an upwardly winding road eastward from the provincial capital that’s also named Kielce.
Marml was born soon enough to have had her childhood scarred by the Great War that came to be called World War One. Though not so horrific in scope as World War Two, like any war, it was not without its personal tragedies. In the first ten years of her life, she lived through war, plague, and pogrom and near starvation. She'd struggled all her life to suppress ugly memories of those times.
A year or so after her birth, her father, Shmuel, left for Toronto to make a new life for his family. Marml’s maternal grandfather, Szaja-Dawid Szómsztajn died during a typhus epidemic when she was seven years old. Two days afterwards, Marml was alone trying to care for her mother, Fejge-Dwojre, who also succumbed to the disease.
Mariam-Yudis Cukierman’s paternal grandfather, Majer-Dawid Cukierman seated flanked by Kalman his youngest son and Kalman's wife, Chaja-Riwka, Bodzentyn ca 1908. In the corner: David Cohen as a baby in the arms of his mother Mariam-Yudis.
David Cohen is the son of Mariam-Yudis Cukierman. He visited Bodzentyn, the hometown of his mother, for the first time in 1996 in quest for at deeper knowledge of the times in which his forbears had lived there. In 2009 David Cohen took part in the Dawid Rubinowicz Days II.
Not everyone in that village was poor, but there was no philanthropy evident in her young life. Virtually abandoned by elder siblings, she was sent to one uncaring relative after another. The family all had their own problems and a starving orphan was a burden that they did not welcome.
Never in my life had my mother shared anything of the privation that she’d suffered as a child in Poland. I’d heard only pretty tales. As a mother, she’d been a cheerful and cheering person who gave us a wonderful life — my brother, me and our elder foster sister Anna, who was rescued to be reared and educated in her Catholic faith by my traditionally Jewish parents.
It was only when Marml came to live with me in her last few years that she told of the disturbing dreams that awakened her nearly each night — nightmares of sharp memories. While her mother lived, Marml was a happy child. She recalled each time a letter came from her father all the grown-ups sat around the big kitchen table in her zeyde’s big house listened while her mother read the letter.
“I played quietly with the other young children under the big table in my zeyde’s big house. I also listened. Daddy’s letters painted an enticing picture of the house in Toronto that he was buying. It’s odd, after so many years, I remember clearly how my father described that house in his letters — modern conveniences that seemed like a dream."
"The tiny cottage where we lived in Bodzentyn, mother and I, had a wooden shingled roof and a floor also of boards and there was a good stove — all a bit nicer than some of the others with their thatched roofs and straw-covered dirt floors.
Her memories of names and locations were fuzzy sometimes, but she recalled sharply some events of rare happy times and of distress or violence and unwaveringly described them in remarkable detail. Some were gruesome. “With the start of the war, the letters with money from my tateh stopped coming." She spread out her hands wide with a gesture of negative finality and said with heavy emphasis, "We - were - stuck! Money for food was scarce; my mother had apprenticed my elder brother to a tailor. My big sister was sent to live with a Jewish family to be a dinstmoid, a housemaid — they wanted someone who knew kashrut. I guess that we weren't all poor in that town. I, little Marml, was too young to be sent anywhere. And when Mama died, I was a hungry little Yossim (orphan) with whom no one wanted to share food — not even my older brother or sister came to my aid."
Marml told me how her mother worked as a seamstress and cleaned a doctor’s office. Sometimes when she had a few coins, she eked out her living. She’d buy remnants of cloth at reduced prices which she sold at a small profit. She’d trek out into the countryside to sell to the farmers’ wives to whom she passed along the savings — a happy arrangement for all.
As I listened to my mother, I closed my eyes and I saw. It was almost as though I'd been there, myself — watching. Summer Sundays, Feyge walked into the countryside with her little girl skipping along. Feyge, a pretty woman in her early thirties, her dark hair covered with a kerchief, is wearing heavy boots, a white shirtwaist, long brown skirt and a large bundle strapped to her shoulders. Skipping alongside is a child remarkably like her mother — barefoot little Marml, black curls bouncing. Through the big wooden gate, down the hill on a dirt road, you turn right past the mikvah (ritual bath-house) and on to the big road. In no time you’re out in the country. Mother and child sang together as they walked, stopping every so often to rest and have a few sips of water while listening to the birds. The sky, a brilliant clear blue echoes the blue of corn flowers sparkling in fields and along the road. The child picks bright red poppies and cream-colored Queen Anne’s lace. "Look, Mameh, so pretty."
Feyge smiles at her little girl with the rosy cheeks and sparkling black eyes who looked so much as she had as a child. Polish farmers' and their wives were warm and friendly to Feyge. Sometimes the farmers, charmed by Marml's happy antics, would give her some cheese or, along with their children she’d climb trees in the orchard to pick the fruit.
A year or so later, orphaned Marml was famished. She set out on her own to scavenge for food. She came upon a Polish girl with whom she’d once climbed trees. The girl was eating from a large bowl some fruit swimming in cream. Marml stretched out a hand. "Please, just a little." The older girl responded, "Get away you scabby Jew" and threw a stone at Marml.
Marml recalled paternal grandparents with her mother. They lived on a communal farm in Krajno, a satellite farm village (dorf) of tiny Bodzentyn. She did not see them at all during the war.
Marml remembers terror: "It was after Mameh died — after the war. Raiding Poles. I see them. Most of the time, this dream has been a blur. Not now. Now, it’s very clear. Oh, that terrible night!
They came to our street. It was ‘a Jesus day’. Poles in our town got drunk on those days. Well, it seemed that many Poles got drunk on most days."
"This night, the poyerim, the peasants, came after dark. I was just nine or ten — a young girl. A real pogrom. I heard. I saw. They must have started getting drunk early but they waited until it was night before they came to our street. They didn’t want us to see their faces but I saw them in the moonlight. We knew them. They were our neighbours."
She stared into the distance. "I see them now and I hear them yelling." She stopped and shuddered, screwing up her face in distaste. "Right now! Right now, David I can smell the branfn (vodka) from their breath just as I did all those years ago when the breeze carried it to our hiding place. Right now!" She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "They called out: ‘CUT OFF THEIR BEARDS!’ I heard the tumult, down on the road outside the courtyard. They cursed ‘damned Jews’ — ‘psia krew zhydi!’— and shouted that we killed their God. Huddled there in the semi-dark, to no one I asked, ‘How could any person kill God Almighty?’"
In a time like this, the Jews barred their doors and windows. Some hid their wives and daughters in root cellars. "Where is my mameh?" Marml whimpered little-girl-like as she told me. "There’s an old woman with me. Who is she? We were in the secret place near the shtib; the old lady and I sat close together until it was quiet. Was it she who had brought me away from the dark cottage? She held me close. It was nearly dawn and very quiet. I peeked out from the bushes and slowly walked to the market place. Someone tried to cover my eyes but I saw and I heard buzzing and heard the buzzing of the flies around the corpse of the butcher who was killed in the marketplace."
Several of my mother’s elder cousins who also had immigrated to Canada, shared similar recollections of that night with me.
Words from the Author: I, David Cohen, visited Bodzentyn in 1996 for the first time. In 1998, fragments of my mother’s nightmares flashed into focus. I believe that I was invited inside that same house at the Upper Marketplace. When my host mentioned as I was entering that his mother’s home had once belonged to a Jewish butcher, I felt as though the blood drained from my head. I visualized my mother’s dream. Then, as clearly as though I'd been there at the time — I saw her nightmare as though I were standing in it. I heard my mother’s calling to me in the night. I could hear her describe the scene after the pogrom; now, I could see her as a child clasping her hands to her ears and rocking with grief as she recalled the flies around the bloodied corpse of the butcher. And I? I too heard the buzzing of the flies.
I have been two more times in Bodzentyn. The second time in 1998 was indeed serendipitous. I met a young man, Jan Palysiewicz, who was interested in my quest for a deeper knowledge of the times in which my forebears had lived there. He was enthusiastic about helping me to start in my research and literally opened doors for it. He was one of several prime movers in establishing a vibrant ongoing educational project that was reflected in "Dawid Rubinowicz Days" in 2009 — a wonderfully comprehensive program to look honestly at history and to come away from hostility to mutual respect for differences.