The Rural Route

"AA78," Zdzisław Beksiński, Courtesy of Muzeum Historyczne w Sanoku


In the sorting area of the Superior, Wisconsin, post office, Mr. Poniatowski picked up his deliveries and left for the day. No office politicking or putting up the sign NEXT WINDOW PLEASE while the people buying FOREVER stamps grumbled and the lines got long. Thirty minutes later, he opened his first mailbox to insert letters, checks, and circulars. The seasons of his life passed this way.

Alone for the rest of the work day, he would think of odd things of little note. Inconsequential things. For instance, someone had told him about a Slovak church from long ago. In the sanctuary and vestibule of the church were stoves made from old oil drums. Because one winter the priest heated the stoves with coal he’d filched from the Soo Line trains passing nearby, the church was nicknamed “the Soo Line Cathedral.” Do you see what I mean about inconsequential thoughts?

Besides this Slovak church, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, there had once been other ethnic parishes in the city. In his spare time, Mr. Poniatowski studied such things. St. Adalbert’s and St. Stanislaus were the Polish churches, St. Anthony Belgian, St. Louis French and Indian, St. Patrick Irish. Now because of the shortage of priests, all but one of the parishes had been closed per order of the bishop. The postman was curious about the synagogue, too. After the churches were razed, a sad fate had befallen the Agudas Achim congregation when a second synagogue opened in town. Temple Beth El and Agudas Achim competed so hard for members that they both went under, but it is never quite that simple, Mr. Poniatowski thought. Other things must have happened. After standing for 100 years in the North End of the town, Agudas Achim was gutted by fire, and the second synagogue stood empty. He knew enough about the ethnic churches. But the Jews Mr. Poniatowski didn’t know about, except that they’d come from Lithuania, Latvia, and Russia. The postman thought that in this sorrowful way the Jews were tied to the Catholics here. With the synagogue or synagogues gone, the churches de-ethnicized and closed, no one could hear the old languages anymore.

When he told his wife this, she said he should attend a service in Duluth if he was interested in languages. She’d seen the announcement of a program that was going on.

“It looks like you say it, ‘Yom HaShoah.’ Remembrance Service.”

“What am I remembering?”

“You tell me. You’re the historian,” she said.

Yes, he thought. And around here I’m the demographer, the geographer. I know the bridges and roads on the rural route–and the Nemadji River, the Pokegama River, Bluff Creek.

The part of the county in which he delivered mail was indeed a wild place of such swamp bogs and deep forests. Water drains slowly through that soil. He’d heard a hydrologist, hired by the county to assess wetlands, say it could take 8,000 years for the water around Superior to percolate through clay. But percolate to where? Mainly, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, and Poles lived on his rural mail route. He knew them all, though he rarely saw them. Hidden by trees, their houses and farms stood back from the roads. The only real connection he had with patrons was their mailboxes on the dusty roads. On one of those afternoons when the mind wanders farther than it should, he’d been thinking that in the old country villages near Kolno or Ostrolęka, where the Narew River flows to the Bug, his grandparents would have depended on merchants with names like Handlovsky and Pomusch, and the merchants on the Poniatowskis and others.

By this time of the drowsy afternoon, the demographer had delivered to his patrons on the highway that passes Cemetery Road. He’d taken care of the Village of Oliver and dispensed with the postal customers on County Road C, including on Barnes’, Graves’, and Dedham roads, and was well down County Road B when someone on the radio mentioned Remembrance Week.

When he got home after this day of dreams, Mr. Poniatowski told his wife, “I’ll take my car in case the boys need yours for anything. I may as well go to the service.”

“Aren’t you tired?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” he said, wondering how you explained local history to someone like his wife who didn’t have time to think about the past.

On top of his rusted car, his “business” car as opposed to her “family” car, was a caution light the post office provided him. A sticker on the rear bumper read, “VEHICLE MAKES FREQUENT STOPS.” He hoped no one at his destination thought he’d be bringing bad news via air mail from the old country.

When he arrived, Temple Beth Israel looked almost new. Built of cream-colored brick, it stood on the East Hillside of Duluth. Partway down the hill, he entered a door. Inquiring what he was doing here, a supervisor or secretary, matronly and protective in the way she walked toward him, directed him up the stairs at the end of a hallway. “The children take Hebrew lessons after school in case you’re wondering,” she said as a young girl breathlessly asked her, “Have you seen Isaiah?”

“No. Run along,” she replied in the language the children were studying. When Mr. Poniatowski tried saying words like this in his father’s language, simple words for everyday use, they didn’t come to him. He could think only of his father’s sayings regarding the weather. “If frost holds fast in February, winter will be short.” For twenty years, he’d concentrated on other thoughts and on his postal patrons, their manila envelopes and post cards, their requests that he please close their mailboxes when the April wind blew them open. More and more, he’d forgotten his parents now that they were dead so many years. Eventually, the forgetting happens to everyone, he thought. Then with a rate hike, a new FOREVER stamp appeared in his life to remind him of what had been lost. Sundgard, Renquist, Olson, Taipala, Gustafson, Sutter. These were the people, his postal customers, who he thought about most days.

When the remembrancers, if that’s what you’d call them, pulled in and parked in front of the temple, they’d surely wonder, Who is here from Wisconsin in this strange car? Mr. Poniatowski thought. Scattered on the front seat was his own third-class mail, a letter from Mutual of Omaha pushing long-term health insurance, a circular from Miracle Ear urging him to have his hearing checked.

Probably ten minutes later, he watched the congregants of Temple Beth-El greet one another then enter the large sanctuary, where rows of pews faced an altar and the tapestries on a wall.

The woman he’d met downstairs was here with a few of the children. A white-haired woman walked in and men in yarmulkes and a woman who drove sixty miles with her son so they could remember. A businessman he recognized was here and the young woman Hebrew teacher and probably fifteen others.

“What better way to remember the past than through weekday afternoon prayers?” the rabbi asked. “Turn to page 213 in the Daily Prayer Book. ‘The Prayer of the Heart’ substitutes for the temple in Israel when we cannot be there.” After he read the prayer, he opened the printed program to begin the “Readings for Yom HaShoah.”

Rabbi Epstein had arranged it so that all who wished could read or speak. On page two of the program, the rabbi had written in parentheses, “each prayer to be read by one of the candle lighters.” The boy who’d travelled here with his mother and who was young enough to be Mr. Poniatowski’s grandson began a paragraph. Uncertain of himself, he read, “We remember our six million dead, who died when madness ruled the world and evil dwelt on earth.” With his mother’s encouragement, he continued, “We remember those we knew, and those whose very name is lost.” As he was directed, he lit a candle on a table in front then placed it in a holder. The smell of melting wax and smoke hung in the temple.

The young man sitting a row ahead of Mr. Poniatowski read his paragraph. Without looking up, he said, “We mourn for all that died with them; their goodness and their wisdom, which could have saved the world and healed so many wounds.”

A middle-aged woman read next, “We salute those who were not Jews, who had the courage to suffer with us. They are your witnesses, a source of hope when we despair.” After she lit a candle, someone else walked up then someone else.

After the “Mourners Kaddish for Yom HaShoah,” which Rabbi Epstein intoned, he said, “Now turn to the end of the program. You’ll see a page of names. Each program has different names. If you wish, you can come forward to read them.”

If the place of residence was unknown, the page read: “Perished at Bergen-Belsen. Perished at Neuengamme.” For those whose country of residence was known, the list went: “De Jongh, Rachel–From the Netherlands. Engel, Hugone–From Hungary. Seitz, Johann–From Germany.”

Mr. Poniatowski counted 54 names on his sheet. Two rows, twenty-seven names in each. Thirteen of the people on the program came from Poland. For fifteen minutes, he listened to other names read in a temple. “Kalman, Jolan–From Slovakia. Sieke, Walter–From Germany. Schaechter, Flora–From Romania.” More and more, he began to think something was expected of him; otherwise, why come to the temple if this was no business of his? What purpose could his being here serve? He thought of the non-Jews, the Polish gentiles, the Gypsies, the intellectuals who’d been exterminated in great numbers. What were their names?

“Wait!” he said when the name-readers finished. He’d neither stood up nor walked to the front, yet the word (what would it be in Polish?) echoed in the temple. “Wait! Wait! I have something to add!” he said from the last row. They looked at him, as if he should feel guilty for speaking or even attending the service.

Wait?” the rabbi asked. “For what? Do you have to go somewhere? We’ve been hurried too often. Do you have to interrupt us to make us hurry?”

Mr. Poniatowski wasn’t certain how to reply. How could you say you’d come to Yom HaShoah because you’d wanted to know what it had once been like in a synagogue in Superior?

This might seem like an odd thing to tell at this point while everyone waited in the synagogue; but, some years before, Mr. Poniatowski’s father had sent money to the old country for three or four cases of bottled water. When he was ill, he thought it would help him to drink this water from his native land. Nałęczowianka Naturalna Woda contains “fluoride ions” and “mineral salts.” Since 1817, it has been exported. On the green and white label, a Polish manor house nestles in a deep forest like you might find on the rural route.

The next day when he couldn’t stop remembering what he’d uttered in Duluth, he said to his wife, “Tell one of the boys to bring me the water. What good is sympathy if you wait too long to show it?”

There were six bottles of water.

“It didn’t help your father’s health,” Mrs. Poniatowski reminded him.

“That may be,” he said. “But tell the boys to get them. Something needs to be done.”

“What are you up to? You’ve been alone too much in your car, Adam. Those lonely places you drive to.”

“I wanted to say something about Superior. I was wondering where all the old ones went. I was sitting there yesterday and everyone stared when I said ‘Wait, let me tell my story.’”

“That’s what you get for your good will,” his wife said.

The water, the imported bottles of water, he wrapped in paper that afternoon then carried to the car, remembering how his father would say, “Kwieciń gdy suchy, nie daje otuchy . . . A dry April doesn’t give much hope.” He brought the photocopied program from the temple. On this hopeful day, the wind was brisk and sharp. It was a wonder it hadn’t swirled around him in the temple. Then last night, he couldn’t sleep with such dreams of another country.

As if repeating the mail route, he drove Stinson Avenue to Bardon Avenue, passed through the South End of Superior by the machine shop and the welding shop then crossed the tracks by the Duplex Manufacturing Plant to drive out Highway 106. Where the sign tells you to, he turned onto the Cemetery Road, which becomes gravel when it passes into the valley of the Pokegama River then goes up through the forest. The gravestones were black or gray at the top of the hill, clumped geometric and precise as if for protection from the outside world. He was mindful of how, in the old country, people broke the things of the living and the dead.

Alone on the hill with the wind at his back, he read the names and dates on stones that rose four of five feet high. The Hebrew writing on them was impenetrable to him. Such an ancient, mysterious language, he thought. Below a little ways, the Pokegama River wound here and there. Despite the cold northern spring, the aspen and birch woods were coming to life. Even with a cold wind blowing, the cemetery was peaceful for a person who’d come to learn about the past. The grass, the trees, seemed to welcome spring, as though no late-season snow, no gray sky, no Polish saying about April and hopelessness could hold back the season. The stones had messages that read, “Beloved Father Louis Weinstein” or “The Spirit Shall Return Unto God Who Giveth It,” which the grave of Sarah Benesovitz had on it together with a menorah carved over her name. He read other names, “Aronsohn, Ansell, Siegel, Goldfine.” Mr. Poniatowski wondered whether any of his ancestors had visited a Jewish cemetery in the boggy region of the Narew River.

Then he began to think he had no business here. No one had invited him, no one from the old temple in Superior or the one in Duluth needed his sympathy. The young girl there didn’t want it. The Hebrew teacher and the rabbi didn’t. At Temple Beth-El, they’d noticed but took no note of him until he’d spoken. Realizing such a thing as this, another person might break the bottles so the caretaker would find the glass and the labels and know what was exported.

If he walked down the hill, he wouldn’t be on their property. It would be city or county land down there. Or maybe this wasn’t true at all, for his family was tied to the Jews as much as the Jewish families were tied to his. Maybe property lines don’t mean anything. The names in the program reminded him of this.

From a little upstream in a sluggish current, he gauged that the water would take a half-hour to pass the cemetery. He wondered if the Narew, near where his people came from, ran through clay country like the Pokegama did. How did you purify a river in America with water from Poland? Could you purify yourself of things that could have happened as you waited and waited for something else to happen?

When he emptied the bottles of Nałęczowianka water, he began to read the names on the program. His eyes were first drawn to the Polish names. Softly, he said to the river: “Bugajski, Solek. Khaszewski, Sarah. Matashevsky, Erna.” Polish Jews. Then the other names:

“Mindel, Lazar—Perished at Natzweiler.

Glikman, Jakob—Perished at Buchenwald.

Loewy, James—Perished at Dachau.

Puelincx, Frédéricus—Perished at Neuengamme

Klein, Ilona—Perished at Bergen-Belsen.”

It would take him forever to read their names if he came each day. There were millions of them. By then, the water would have flowed on. But he could at least try to remember the twenty or thirty people, the Jews of Kolno or Ostrolęka, who’d surely have passed his relatives back then, waving to them on the way to the Narew River, which Mr. Poniatowski saw now, years later, was a tributary of the Pokegama River in Superior, Wisconsin.



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