Nowy Targ, Autumn 2011
The map in my head contained only a street and a cemetery. I couldn’t remember how I’d found them the first time, not long after the fall of the Iron Curtain, only that it had been February then, perpetually overcast and numbingly cold, the sidewalks of this small Polish town ridged with gray ice that made every step treacherous. Now it was Indian summer, with a warm breeze stirring the sunlight. That wintry cemetery had been desecrated, I remembered, with beer bottles wedged into the snow between the few remaining graves, many of which had words in Polish spray-painted across them, their garish angularity requiring no translation. The street running along the cemetery’s edge had been renamed Jana Pawła II, as if the spirit of Poland, through the name of this Polish pope, had laid itself over the last remnants of Jewish life, effacing them.
I remembered that this street, this cemetery, lay outside the center of town, but I didn’t know in which direction. When I got off the bus from Kraków in dazzling sunshine—I was making a detour from my life that afternoon, wishing to retrace certain steps—I thought I’d just pick up a map at a kiosk, but then I walked for blocks without finding any such thing, much less a hotel or tourist information office. There were no tourists in Nowy Targ. It was late morning, and the streets were filled with people hurrying on errands past what seemed an endless string of drab little shops.
Eventually I did find a kiosk, on the Rynek or market square at the center of town. When I asked for a “plan” of Nowy Targ (letting the German cognate stand in for my lack of Polish), the middle-aged woman peering, beneath poorly bleached bangs, through the kiosk’s tiny window said she had no “mapa.” Indeed, who needed a map here? Eventually my wanderings led me to a travel agency where a kind woman who spoke a little English directed me to a nearby bookstore; here, the map I requested was sold to me at what must have been several times its usual price.
Outside the cemetery, a stooped woman with gray hair was sweeping red and yellow leaves from the tidy asphalt walk. The gate was padlocked, but with gestures the woman invited me to climb over the low iron fence. The cemetery inside looked like a forest clearing beneath high pine trees, filled with yellow light. The sunlight slanted down through the branches and dappled the stones of the graves, which were as few as I’d remembered. The ground was soft with moss and clusters of reddish mushrooms and strange little plants with round leaves. It looked idyllic.
Tonight, back in New York, I open a book about Małopolska that I bought in Kraków and learn that this very cemetery was where the Jews of Nowy Targ—two thousand of them from the ghetto that had been established across the river—had been rounded up and shot on August 30, 1942, filling the cemetery with unmarked graves now invisible beneath the grass. Many of the older headstones had been carted away and used to build roads. The Jews who were not shot that day were sent to the Bełżec concentration camp, where they died soon after. One Jewish man who somehow survived all of this, Dawid Grasgin, returned to Nowy Targ after the war and began petitioning to have the synagogue reopened and restored. He was shot to death in his own attic in 1946 by perpetrators who were never identified.
In the summer of 1914, the year my mother’s mother left Nowy Targ to make her way to Ellis Island and then Chicago, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin spent eleven days in the town’s small prison waiting for local authorities to decide he was in fact a political emigrant, as he insisted, and not a Russian spy. He had been visited for questioning in the nearby village of Biały Dunajec and then took the train to Nowy Targ on his own recognizance. As he walked to the police station to turn himself in, I wonder whether he might have passed my grandmother on the street and remarked on this adolescent girl with hungry eyes who was already on her way to becoming a poet and, like him, an exile. There is no map that shows their meeting.