In Polish town, tracing a path from long-gone mezuzah to our past

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We are standing in front of a yellow house in Klodawa, Poland, and my heart is pounding. It’s 90 degrees outside, but I am shivering as I walk up the steep concrete steps and look at the open front door, and see to my right the word “Brooklyn,” sloppily painted on the wall. My grandfather lived in this house until he came to America in 1913. I look up and see the rectangular cutout in the doorframe and it looks just like the picture Aleksander had sent me.

Until I was 10, I lived in the Bronx, a few houses away from my grandparents, Isadore and Sue Cooper. I spent many hours with them and I heard stories from Klodawa. I often saw people coming and going, “landsmen” who were members of the Klodawa Society organized by immigrants from their native town. I didn’t pay much attention at the time.

My cousin Larry Pizer had found letters with the return address of Rynek 10, which confirmed the exact location of our ancestral home. A few years ago, my cousin visited Klodawa. He took pictures of the house at Rynek 10, and said it was an easy drive from Warsaw.

My husband Alan and I made arrangements to visit in August 2015 with members of our synagogue, Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. The two-week itinerary included just one night in Warsaw, so Alan and I made plans to travel a few days before the group to explore the city on our own, visit the new Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews as well as visit Klodawa. We knew about the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland and their Jewish Heritage Tours, so I contacted Helise Lieberman, the director, and she set us up with city tours and a driver/guide to take us to Klodawa.

Everything was arranged for the trip when, in April, I attended a reception at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City for a new exhibition featuring works by Mi Polin, a Judaica project run by a young Warsaw couple, Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar. They explore towns in Poland where there is a history of a Jewish presence, going house to house and examining doorframes, searching for evidence of long-gone mezuzahs. When they find the spots where mezuzahs were once installed, they make tracings, molds and bronze castings — three-dimensional replicas of the originals. I told them that we would travel to Klodawa in a few months to visit my grandfather’s house; perhaps they would like to come with us?

They were so busy at the reception that I wasn’t sure they even followed what I was saying.

Carole Kushnir (right) at the door of her grandfather’s ancestral home in Klodawa, Poland, where a mezuzah was once installed

But in July, a surprising email came from Aleksander. “I want to share with you a great news that all of us did not even expect. Today me and my mom were going back from seaside to Warsaw. I had checked on map that Klodawa is not far away of our main route. We did a slight turn to left and went to Klodawa to check Rynek 10/Plac Wolnosci 6 if there is any mezuzah trace. And mezuzah trace WAS there — on front doors. We were shocked! Please check the pictures. Mezuzah trace is perfect to do a mezuzah.”

Aleksander included a photo showing a rectangular cutout where my family’s mezuzah had been.

The morning we left for Klodawa was hot. All Europe was experiencing a heat wave. We met Aleksander and Helena in our hotel lobby and set out for Klodawa. The drive, although a little over an hour, seemed endless. I was impatient and just wanted to get to my grandfather’s house. Finally, as we entered the small town and drove down Rynek Street, there was the yellow house at number 10, just as I had seen it in the picture. We walked up the stairs and saw the cutout in the old, weathered doorframe. The building was scrawled with graffiti at the entryway and in the hall. The stairs were falling apart. But most important, we saw evidence of a mezuzah, testifying to the Jews who once lived in this town.

Aleksander and Helena opened a large plastic bag, added powder and water, and mixed the ingredients to a rubbery consistency. They inserted the material into the opening in the doorframe, then, after waiting a few minutes, they removed the mold and gently set it aside. They repeated the process a second time to be sure they had what they needed.

As we were finishing up, I heard voices from inside the building. I asked Aleksander whether he thought the residents would be willing to meet us. He and Helena feared the occupants would think we had come to claim our grandparents’ property, but eventually they knocked and an elderly couple answered. They invited us in, we told them our story, and after about 10 minutes we were on our way. I picked up a small stone from the backyard and took it with me, to place on my grandfather’s grave.

Three months later, our 10 bronze mezuzot arrived, along with books containing photos and the story from our day at my grandfather’s house. Now Alan and I can share these with our family so they, too, can be connected to Klodawa.

Carole Kushnir
is a business owner living in Woodside who has a continuing fascination with her ancestry.