As a physicist, Mikael Rechtsman would place little stock in untestable things like fate and synchronicity. But those notions played big roles in a trip he took through eastern Europe a few years ago.
Rechtsman, a Toronto-born PhD student in physics at Princeton University, concedes that for him and many others his age, World War II and the Holocaust have been abstractions, with little personal impact.
“You hear about the war, at least in my generation, and it kind of had this mythical element to it,” Rechtsman, 27, told The CJN. “It didn’t seem real. It almost seemed like a myth-slash-nightmare that didn’t have a real component to it.”
That changed when he took a trip through Europe in 2003. Before leaving, Mikael told his grandfather that he would be visiting Poland. Philip Rechtsman, a Polish-born survivor of Auschwitz, asked that his grandson visit his hometown of Kielce, and go to an apartment building at 11 Rynek Square, where he’d lived and worked as a lathe operator and machinist before the war. Mikael agreed.
Located in western Poland, Kielce, with a population of 200,000, has perhaps a half-dozen Jews left living there. But when Mikael arrived and found the address, he encountered one of them. “What are the chances of that?” he wonders (one in about 30,000, actually).
The address was a storefront with ceramic artifacts in the window. The man Mikael met did not speak English, so he took the young traveller upstairs to meet his brother, Marek Cecula, an artist who heads the ceramics department at the renowned Parsons School of Design in New York.
Mikael explained that his grandfather had lived at the address prior to being deported by the Nazis. The brothers showed him the Jewish cemetery, abandoned synagogue and other sites. Back at the building, they rustled around the attic and presented the Canadian with a musty old journal with dog-eared pages. The cover featured the words “Adolf Hitler Platz,” the name Rynek Square was given after the German occupation. The volume looked to be a registry of people who’d lived in the square.
Leafing slowly through the yellowed, ledger-like pages, Mikael suddenly stopped. The names of Herszel, Sura Laja, Natan and Adela Rechtsman jumped off the page.
“It was a bit surreal for a minute," recalls Mikael, who was not sure whether these names were relatives or not. “I really wasn’t looking for anything like this.”
The Cecula brothers demurred when Mikael asked to keep the volume. Instead, he photocopied the relevant pages and mailed them home, Priority Post.
In Toronto, Mikael’s mother Wendi, a retired theatre teacher and community volunteer, rushed them over to Philip Rechtsman, her father-in-law. He was ill by then, but “got very teary-eyed,” Wendi remembers. “He recognized all the names of his family, including the name of the woman who came to clean their home.”
Herszel Rechtsman had been Philip’s grandfather. He died before the war, as did Sura Laja, Herszel’s wife. Natan and Adela Rechtsman were Philip’s cousins, and they likely perished in the camps.
Philip Rechtsman, a co-owner of Green Park Homes, died two years ago at the age of 84.
Wendi Rechtsman let the matter lie until this past spring, when she took the pages to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and teaching centre. Officials there were excited. David Metzler, head of international relations at Yad Vashem, travelled to Kielce and persuaded the Cecula brothers to donate the registry, which was sent to Israel in a diplomatic pouch.
The volume “is unique because it is an original document,” Mark Shraberman, an archivist at Yad Vashem, told The CJN in an e-mail interview. “It is a kind of a registry submitted to the Germans. The significance of it is that it includes the names of the Kielce Jews who lived in that town before and during the war.”
Prior to World War II, about one-third of Kielce’s population of 75,000 was Jewish. Most were deported to Treblinka in the summer of 1942.
There are more twists to the story.
It turned out that 11 Rynek Square is the site of Marek Cecula’s studio. And Cecula, a famous artist, was commissioned by the mayor of Kielce to create a sculpture to commemorate the 42 Jews murdered in the notorious Kielce Pogrom, which happened July 4, 1946, when a mob was whipped into a frenzy by rumours that Jews, still fresh from the camps, had kidnapped a Christian boy.
The striking steel sculpture, a half-sunken menorah, was unveiled this past August at the gates of another Kielce address, 7 Planty St., where the slaughter occurred.
What’s more, Cecula is now curating a major exhibition of industrial ceramics, scheduled to open in May 2008 at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. The Rechtsmans plan to meet him and thank him.
Says Mikael Rechtsman: “Seeing a small detail of it really made me appreciate that it was all real.”
His mother shakes her head. “It’s all very fateful,” she says.