Since I started writing this column I have been inundated with questions from my readers about various shtetlach. Often the places mentioned are well-known cities and, possibly, places I have visited. But it is not unusual to receive requests for information about a place, which I have not yet come across in my research. That is not to say these places do not exist, but that they might be very small villages or towns that have been incorporated into a larger nearby town or city, since the Shoah.
One case in point is the town that my own grandfather came from, Nowy Zukowice.
The story of my grandfather’s immigration to the U.S. in 1904 is a good example of the pitfalls of finding the shtetl of a family’s origin.
We had always been told that the family came from the comparatively prosperous city of Tarnow, which lies on the Krakow-Lvov rail line, in the south of Poland. Going through the records from Ellis Island during research, the family genealogist discovered that my great-grandparents listed Tarnow as the place of origin, while my grandfather, as well as his best friend, listed Nowy Zukowice.
It seems that the parents wanted to sound more cosmopolitan and claimed to be from the big city of Tarnow, but the children (my grandfather was 16 at the time) were proud of their small village of Nowy Zukowice. During further research we discovered that the family had lived on Plot Number 126 in Nowy Zukowice.
Looking at maps of Poland I realized that Nowy Zukowice must be very small. For a long time I would find maps that listed either Nowy (New) or Stare (Old) Zukowice but never both together. I speculated that the two towns were so small that they melded into one at some point or other. Finally I was able to find very good detailed maps of the region and discovered that the two towns still exist as separate entities but are literally two-street towns.
Old house and courtyard typical of those found in very small shtetlach such as Nowey Zukowice.
When I was in Poland last month I was determined to visit my grandfather’s hometown and see for myself how it has changed over the years and if there is any evidence left of the Jewish community that once lived there.
I first went to Tarnow and visited with Adam Bartosh, the expert on the Jewish history of the Tarnow region. When I mentioned Nowy Zukowice he gave me a quizzical look and had to look it up himself. But he was able to give me a lot of information. He explained that often in the small villages, the community was attached to the kehillah of a nearby town or city, in this case Tarnow. There probably was not a permanent rabbi in residence and any burials were brought to the kehillah’s cemetery in town. So if I were to go to Nowy Zukowice I probably wouldn’t find much of interest.
But I went anyway.
I took the local bus, as suggested by Mr. Bartosh, and arrived in Nowy Zukowice. The bus driver recommended that I start my exploration at the old cemetery and I didn’t argue. I looked around at the names on the graves in awe, thinking that these people possibly knew members of my family. I also checked out the back of the cemetery, where Jews might have been buried in cases when transportation to Tarnow would have been impossible, but I couldn’t find any. I also knocked on the door of the local church as the pastor might have access to records of Jewish life in the town but there was no answer.
The town is very spread out with fields of wheat and barley as well as orchards. Being a workday the town seemed deserted with dogs loudly greeting any stranger coming up the road. I remembered that my grandfather was always nervous around barking dogs and when he lived in Israel he only agreed to use a cane to ward off a barking dog. I could not help thinking that these dogs, greeting me, might be the descendents of his original nemesis.
The town has not changed much in the past 100 years. Most houses are made of wood, and each has a woodpile for heating and cooking. There is still the family well in front of each house, and at many, I saw an outhouse.
The family plot, Number 126 is now a wheat field with no traces of a house or well. The people in town that I did meet were very friendly and even asked the family name, hoping to spark a memory, but to no avail.
As proud as my grandfather was of this small farming village deep in Galicia, there is nothing left of his early childhood. Even though nothing Jewish remains in the town, there is still a strong sense of nostalgia. I took many pictures and a video to distribute to interested family members.
Looking forward, my grandfather had plenty to be proud of. At the time of his death in 1976, the family was large and prosperous with more then half, following his lead, living in Israel.
(Next week: How I Can Help You Find Your Old Shtetl)