Posted on October 31, 2018


It’s impossible to say what remains of a life departed. To loved ones, vivid memories, for sure.  To those who came in more casual contact, moments of memories less vivid. To those who never knew the departed, perhaps an awareness of who they had been in life.

What is left of those who were never known, who had no visible impact on our lives?  Those of us who believe we are all one life force may say that each death leaves a minute tear in the fabric of that force. Others may believe, a la six degrees of separation, that their lives impacted others, and those impacted still others. The web that was created ultimately reached us, even if we were unaware.

In Warsaw, at the Jewish Genealogical Conference, with an overwhelming amount of data and experience and emotion filling up whatever brain space I had, my most profound experience was meeting a woman exhibitor who helped to run a tiny company called Mi Polin. These are people who travel to towns and villages throughout Poland in order to see if there are any buildings left standing in which Jews used to live.

Once they find such a building, they look for evidence of a mezuzah that used to be nailed to an exterior door frame.  Every Jewish home had one. When many Jews fled or were taken, the last item they would have pulled out of the door frame would have been their precious mezuzah. Or, when non-Jews took over the building, the first items they would have trashed would have been the mezuzah. In either case, if enough layers of paint had been applied over time before the mezuzah was removed, there would have been an impression left of the outlines of the mezuzah the door frame.

This impression is what the people who run Mi Polin call “tracings.” In many cases there are no loved ones to mourn these dead, no friends or acquaintances to recall the merchants they bought from, the teachers who taught their children, the tailors who mended their clothes, the midwives who delivered their babies. In many cases, these tracings are the sole evidence that lives were lived.

If Mi Polin finds a tracing, they make a wax mold of that tracing on site. They then cast the mold in bronze. The result is beautiful but is nothing one can readily identify, unless one knows what one is looking at.  At the conference, I looked at the tracings Mi Polin had on display.  And then I found a part of me that was capable of even more emotion than I had already expended when visiting Auschwitz, the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, and in hearing the countless stories told by genealogists, and in listening to a panel of Polish Christians who had saved Jews during the war.

My tears seems to come out of nowhere.  I cried for the people whose lives were represented on the table in front of me. I cried for my own lost family members. And I cried in gratitude that the people of Mi Polin were giving something back to those who had lost so much.

When I stopped crying, I asked them if they would considered going to Pinsk, where my father was born.  They said they had been discussing that.  I was elated. I gave them my uncle’s address, on a street called Dominikanska. It was his last place of residence before being taken away. I had the address, because he had been communicating steadily with my father, heartbreaking postcards that stopped suddenly in 1941.

After a few months, Mi Polin went to Pinsk. And after several weeks, I received an email, simply saying “Amazing. We never expected this.”

Shortly after, I received photos of a small, decrepit apartment building, sitting alone. No building flanked it, only an empty lot. Interior photos showed an apartment, now unlivable, that might have been lovely at one time. The last two photos showed a mezuzah tracing on the door frame.

The street sign attached to the building exterior was not the street my uncle lived on. It didn’t matter. This would be as close as I could get to my father’s life and my family’s existence. I knew I would buy that tracing, after it was cast. But as an aside, I asked the woman from Mi Polin if they ever found Dominikanska Street. The answer she sent was accompanied by an ancient street map. The explanation: “This street was called Dominikanska until after the war.  We even found, on another exterior door frame, not only a tracing, but half of the mezuzah still in place. That almost never happens.”

Several days ago, as I was awaiting my tracing to arrive in the mail, I learned that eleven more Jews, eleven more human beings, had been deprived of life for no reason other than being who they were.

In this overly documented world, no one will have to search for evidence of their lives. It will be found in thousands of photos, videos, and bits of memorabilia. No mezuzahs have been ripped out of their door frames. None of them either fled or were taken in the night. Their lives were lived in daylight, with a belief that they were secure from what others had been subjected to.

But their loss is no less.  It is as profound as any other loss. It deprives all of us of whatever love these people could have given, whatever contribution these people could have made.

In the end, these people’s lives are all tracings.  Some of them leave tracings on our hearts. All of them leave tracings on our humanity.