When my great-grandfather came over from Eastern Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century, he probably came by steamship, and it probably took him more than a week to cross the Atlantic. I know he came through Ellis Island, spoke little or no English (Yiddish was his first language), and signed his name on the immigration form as “Krassel,” with an “a,” probably due to the hard Germanic inflections of his Yiddish tongue interpreted by the immigration official. After a lot of research by my father, myself, and others, we learned years later that my grandfather, Oser Kressel, came from a town in Austria-Hungary known as Podhadjce (or, alternatively, Pidhaytsi, pronounced “POD-HAY-ETZ” or “POD-HI-TZI”). At one point I was diligently trying to contact all the Kressels I could find on the internet to see how many of them came from this town. A few years ago, I had googled the name and very little came up.
Today there is a Wikipedia entry.
It’s ruined now. The Nazis marched off the Jewish population to concentration camps and death. But I wonder if grandpa Oser ever spent his Shabbats davening inside these walls?
I also found this picture of the town’s Jewish cemetery. I wonder if any of my relatives are buried here. In Hebrew/Yiddish letters, I’ve seen my last name spelled with a hard ‘Z’ instead of the double ‘S.’ Since there are no vowels in standard written Hebrew, I don’t know if the first syllable is “Kre” or “Kra,” as my great-grandfather had signed it. But I do know enough Hebrew to be able to find my surname among these teetering headstones. Are my great-great-grandparents resting among these stones?
I have often thought about Oser, but seeing photos of the shtetl he was from really connects the dots for me. This morning I suddenly realized my connection with history. It wasn’t some abstract concept we sometimes mentioned during the holidays. I am directly descended from this place. I wouldn’t exist if not for the actions of people who once lived, worked, and played here. Like Jonathan Foer in Everyting is Illuminated, I hope to one day take a trip back to my roots. I feel like the world has just gotten much smaller.
(For those curious, here are more photos)