I had never heard of the Polish town of Kutno, where the great Yiddish writer Sholem Asch was born, until two years ago when I was invited to sing there as part of a festival held in his honour. I had absolutely no idea that I might have a personal connection with the town.
Shortly after my invitation, there was a series of unlikely events. I was commissioned to write a piece for this newspaper about finding my long-lost half-sister. While I was writing the article, a chance Facebook post from a friend of my editor led me to the realisation that Kutno had once been home to a quarter of my family. I would be the first Menche (my father’s mother’s name) to return to Kutno since the town’s Jewish community was destroyed in the Shoah.
The road from Warsaw to Kutno, 85 miles to the east of the Polish capital, traverses a patchwork landscape, flat as a chessboard. German tanks would have rolled across it easily in 1939, much as the Cossack cavalry of Chmielnicki, coming from the other direction, had done 300 years earlier, unleashing genocidal attacks on the defenceless Jewish communities lying in their way. A series of large factories line the approach to Kutno from the west, the biggest a producer of Pringles crisps.
On arrival in Kutno, my Israeli pianist Marc Verter and I am pleased to find a restaurant open in the heart of the town. Called Zycie Gruzji, it is, rather uncongruously, a Georgian establishment and chained off in front of it is a large and ugly boulder. A plaque explains that it is all that remains of the magnificent 18th- century synagogue that had once stood there.
Before the war, one quarter of Kutno’s 7,000-strong population was Jewish and when our festival director Magdelena Konczarek takes us on a tour of Jewish Kutno, what she is doing, in fact, is showing us Kutno itself. Pretty houses painted in pastel colours line a major thoroughfare to the huge market square where Jews once traded. My ancestors would have lived some distance from the former 19th-century sugar factory on the outskirts of the town to which the Germans had driven the Jews of Kutno in 1942. Photographs document their brutal expulsion before the eventual extermination of a community that had lived in Kutno since the late 15th century.
The derelict former ghetto, a pitstop to slaughter, fenced and wired off, looks, he says, much as it did in 1940, its ravaged walls barely hanging onto the broken, blackened teeth of its windows. It is not hard to envisage the appalling conditions in which its imprisoned Jews lived, one quarter of whom died here.
The other Jews of the Kutno ghetto were gassed on arrival at Chelmno in 1942.
Soon what remains of the ghetto will be demolished and a poultry plant erected in its place. Is this wise? It means the erasure of one of the last remaining pieces of Kutno’s Jewish past.
Yosef Kutner, founder of the Jewish Kutno Group, has traced my family tree back to a Wigdor, who was born in 1750. He made aliyah to Israel from France in 2010, changing his surname to reflect his family’s origins. He accompanies us on a tour of the extensive former Jewish cemetery, once replete with thousands of Jewish headstones. He shows me the one that belongs to my great-great-grandmother Shayne, her name running down the side of the tombstone’s Hebrew inscription in a beautiful acrostic:
‘Wear Sackcloth and eulogise in ashes,
A day of anger, that troubled day,
the crown came down and fell to earth,
plucked suddenly, few in years.’
Among the shattered vodka bottles and dog faeces, the imagination has to work hard to recreate what once stood there. Yosef wants to see the Jewish cemetery walled off and respected, perhaps by re-assembling some of the hundreds of shattered tombstones retrieved from roads and pavements that had been refurbished with them by the Germans.
We are taken to see where they lie now, broken and piled on top of each other like petrified bodies. In Yosef’s book Broken Memories, one finds many miraculously restored, at least in photographs, infused with new life.
From observation of the terrain, he believes he has located the probable area referred to in the town’s memorial Yizkor Book by a Gentile eyewitness: “Dear Sir! Believe me, I still tremble in every limb when I remember the frightful scene that I saw. I was there, in my father’s little house, with the windows covered with drapes. I stood behind them frozen to the floor and saw how the German murderers ordered all to undress naked. Old women and men, mothers, helped undress their tiny children. All, all cried a horrible wail and when all were finally naked, I saw how one clasped the other and suddenly I heard shooting from machine-guns and rifles.”
An unnaturally elevated section at the rear of the cemetery, overlooked by an ugly grey block of prefab flats, is where Yosef believes the atrocity took place.
We perform our concert in Kutno’s Music and Dance Centre Theatre, a pretty little frescoed early 20th-century building, formerly a fire station. All tickets had been sold, perhaps out of curiosity to see a descendant of the destroyed Jewish community return to sing in Yiddish, the language of his ancestors. Barbaric Verses, a recital dedicated to the music and poetry of victims of totalitarianism, communist as much as Nazi, meets both occasion and location only too comfortably.
The auditorium walls sport framed photographs testifying to Poland’s former Jewish greatness, surviving synagogues, varying in size and majesty that escaped the sad fate of the temple my family once prayed in. In the catalogue for this exhibition, Traces of Traces, its creator Gregorz Stemplewski, by remarkable coincidence, had included Zydek, a startingly prescient 1924 poem by the great Polish-Jewish poet Julian Tuwim, which I had just performed in a setting by the Warsaw-born composer Mieczysław Weinberg. Stemplewski begins to recite the poem I had just sung, but is so moved by the coincidence that he breaks down, unable to continue.
“And we move on each our own way. Wandering, sad and crazed.
“We will never find tranquillity nor a haven./ Jews singing, crazy Jews” cries the conclusion he never reaches.
At the end of the concert, Marc and I are each presented with a rose. Kutno is famed for them after the Eizyk brothers cultivated 1,100 varieties there before the war. Aaron Eizyk, who died in 1979, was the last Jew of Kutno. I, a descendant of Jewish Kutno, am holding a descendant of one of his roses.
Early on October 7, the day after we return from Kutno, I receive a message from Marc: “Boker Tov. Terrible news from Israel.”
Two days earlier, I had seen the killing fields where the last members of my family were exterminated. In the 25 pages of Holocaust martyrs in the Kutno Yizkor Book, the name Menche appears 33 times. Tuwim’s bleak prophecy, echoed in the empty mournfulness of Weinberg’s setting, was playing in my ear. It has never chilled me more.