Just one mile south of Rajgród, toward Grajewo, off Highway 61 and near the border of another small village (named Opartowa), we found another dirt road leading to another village (named Okoniówce), where we turned off toward the lake. We drove another mile, passed some homes and farms, and ended near a curve in the road where the forest began. There was a ten-foot green pole on the left side of the road, and the forest lay beyond it. We left the van, and the three of us wandered aimlessly into the woods.  Maciej had brought along a couple of shovels and some extra gloves, and I carried my umbrella because it had started to rain.

The forest was not quite in full bloom: green leaves had just begun to appear on all the trees and bushes. We brushed away branches in our path as we went deeper into the woods. Maciej saw a small concrete rock and walked toward it. He flipped it over and said that this must be part of a broken mazevah (tombstone). He surveyed the area, grabbed a shovel, and started to bang on the ground.  Eventually we heard it hit something hard.

“There is a grave here,” he said.

I saw another small concrete fragment lying 10 feet away, camouflaged by green moss.

“Here’s another piece of a mazevah. The graves must be here, too,” I shouted.

So I put down my umbrella and began digging and, as I did, I noticed the outline of a grave. Dirt and leaves had been tightly packed over these graves for decades, but I was determined to clear away the debris on this particular gravesite. I dug until I saw thick roots covering the top of a long slab of cement which prevented me from digging any farther. So I used the edge of the shovel and pounded it into the roots, but they didn’t completely  break. I put down the shovel, straddled my legs over the grave, grasped the roots with my hands and pulled hard. Eventually they snapped and I was able to dig deeper into the earth. The rain poured down, my back ached and my arms were tired but I was determined to uncover this grave. Then I noticed some etchings on the cement.

“Bobby,” I yelled, “look here, I found some Hebrew or Yiddish writing on this grave.”

“What does it say?” he asked.

“I can’t say for sure yet,” I said.

So I crouched down on my knees and cleared away the rest of the debris from the top of the gravestone with my hands. “It must be the last name, it looks like the name of Steinblatt.”

Then I placed the two fragments of the mazevot (gravestones) near the head of the grave and stood there quietly. In that moment of silence, I thought about my grandfather, Chaim Shlomo, my father’s baby brother, Yehuda Leyzer, and all the Jews from Rajgród who were fortunate enough to be buried in a cemetery with something like a dignified funeral. Yet, even in death, they could not escape the evils of anti-Semitism—because the Nazis desecrated these grounds, too. Standing on this forgotten piece of land that was untouched for over seventy years I felt these Jewish souls deserve to rest in peace in a respectable burial place, just like the other cemeteries in Rajgród.

Maciej had a waterproof magic marker, so as we left the forest, I marked the green pole with three Hebrew letters–Shin, Dalet, and Yud–which spells the Hebrew word “Shaddai,” God’s name. Those letters are an acronym for “Guardians of the Doors of Israel,” which sometimes appears on the mezuzah. Then, walking to the edge of the road, where I estimated that the cemetery ended, I found a large tree with a thick trunk at the edge of the road. Grasping the shovel tightly, I carved a Jewish star into the bark. These two markers would make it easier for other descendants of Rajgród to find the cemetery.

As we left the woods, I noticed that my clothes were drenched and my boots, jeans, and gloves were soaked with mud. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I gladly welcomed the three-hour ride back to Warsaw.

It was late at night and the skies were dark when Maciej dropped us off at our new hotel, a location closer to the Old Town Square of Warsaw.  As we passed the Warsaw Zoo, Maciej noted: “Recently I guided an Israeli couple from Haifa, and they requested that I take them to this zoo. A few of their relatives survived the Holocaust by hiding underneath the lion’s cage.”

I was taken aback and thought I heard all the horror stories of the Holocaust and yet there always seemed to be more to uncover. Truly grateful for all his guidance and insight, Bobby and I thanked Maciej and said good-bye. Deep down, I had a strange feeling that this was not going to be the last time I would see him. Tomorrow we would be leaving Poland and flying to Israel. I anticipated the warm and sunny Mediterranean climate and eagerly looked forward to visiting our living relatives and friends in Israel.

7 Responses so far.

  1. Raquel says:

    I have been lucky enough to read many chapters from her memoir. It is an unbelievable stories, one of those that you can barely believe happened. Every chapter kept me wanting more.

  2. Power to you Karen! Your book will be an eye opener on many levels. Nothing can be undone, but cleaning up the mess, uncovering the truth is a mitzvah that will continue giving back. No more suffering!

  3. Jeanne Swack says:

    I read this and started to cry. I know my family is there too, in the forest under all that muck.

  4. Karen Kaplan says:

    My name is alsi Karen L Kaplan. I was raised in west Rogers Park Chicago area and later moved to Arlington hts il Now in California My maiden name is polish and is Kowalski. I too have heard the hoffific and sad stories of our families ancestors but it takes courage to do what you have done and experienced I would love to purchase a book

    • Karen Kaplan says:

      Hi there. Where did you live in West Rogers Park? Maybe we knew one another. You may purchase my book on Amazon. Would love to hear from you.

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  • Rook Reviews

    MAY 18, 2016   A review from my speaking engagement at North Shore Senior Center …………….We had a speaker yesterday who brought a message of forgiveness which was riveting and memorable. Karen L. Kaplan is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who inflicted on his family the suffering he had experienced. She wrote and self-published her ...more

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