Yesterday was the Mystery of Light and Darkness. It’s the time once a year when Brama Grodzka in Lublin organizes the reading of the names of some people who were in the ghetto. Some people. Not all, because the only list we have is one of people who had work permits. None of you are even on the list but I added you and read your names anyway because you are all Lublin Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and I wanted to speak your names. You are my great-grandparents, my greats aunts, my great uncle, my cousins and my mother’s beloved teacher. I should have known you and your descendants. I could have known you if circumstances had been different.
I wish more people had been there yesterday. I wish more of my friends had been. A lot of students were there yesterday reading the names. Some of them, I felt, were just reading words off a page. Did you notice that? But some of them were very aware that each name they read represented a whole life that was cut short. Their awareness gave me hope.
Sometimes when someone read a name, like when Witek was reading Goldbergs, there were so many of them that it was jarring. Were those all from one family? Did you know them? What was it like to hear the list when you know a lot of the names on it? I heard a lot of Bornsztajns— the name of my great-great grandmother Nechama Bornsztajn, (your mother, Saba Pejsach—was she really not a nice person, as has been handed down?) who was born in Lublin on Nadstawna Street in the mid-nineteenth century. Were all those Bornsztajns whose names I heard yesterday our relatives? Did you grow up with them? Go to synagogue with them? Do business with them? Play with them?
I heard the name Grajer, the notorious Jew who collaborated with the Germans during the war. Did you know about him? Did you hate him? I heard the name Burstein–there were a lot of them as well. And I thought of the article I am currently translating about the Burstein family and a story about a wise rabbi in their family.
I wondered how many of the names that were read were family of the Lubliners whom I know, descendants of Lublin Jews.
Behind all the names that were read last night are people, all kinds of people: little kids, wise rabbis (and likely some not so wise rabbis!), beloved teachers, collaborators. Lovable grandfathers like you, Saba Pejsach; timid, gentle people like you, Elke; little boys like you, Eljusz; elegant women like you Subta Syma, people who sang beautifully, like you Zelda, and so many whom we know nothing about. But at least we have their names, and if we don’t, we still remember.