The way to Łomża
My brother asked me to tell this story.
The grandfather of my great grandmother's name was Markus, and Mordechai. His father had the crazy idea of settling in a place where Jews had never lived: in the land of dark forests and lakes of crystal of East Prussia. A few years ago this area was in the finals of the "seven wonders of nature." Two hundred years ago, to be exact in 1807, it was Napoleon who became with the "Peace of Tilsit" – after several battles, and one of them in this region, at a place called Johannisburg – the most powerful man in Europe did. Markus' father, Isidor or Isaac, was at that time a bar mitzvah. Maybe he had even then this idea. Anyway, Seven years later, Markus was born, the eldest son, in Johannisburg, a village 170 kilometers south of Königsberg and 190 miles north of Warsaw. His two names, Mordechai and Markus, had a hint for the terrible night, which happened about 16 years later.
Mordechai is Mordechai the Jew, from the story of Esther, which is told on Purim. He could pull his neck just at the last moment from the noose. Markus was one of the four evangelists. The New Testament tells us that Markus was taken by Paul in his first trip, but Markus went limp and returned at Pamphili.
Johannisburg was at the beginning of the 19th century a thriving little town. Markus’ father Isidor Borchardt selled wood, a resource that had no end. Wherever you put your eyes, and even if you made a ride of half a day – forests. Or lakes. Especially in the north. In the south was the border to Poland. And the rumor that it was possible for Jews to settle in Johannisburg, also reached the Polish neighbours. There, on the other side of the border with Poland, Isidor met the farm manager Stern in Łomża, to whom he sold his woods. When the young Markus went with his father once, he fell in love with Stern’s daughter, Charlotte, who was one year and two months younger.
In the meanwhile, stormy days came back to Eastern Europe. Tsar Nicholas I, who was also King of Poland, did not abide by the treaties the "Kingdom of Poland" was built on, when Markus was still a baby, in 1815. And in 1830 the polish nationalists started an uprising. The "Revolutionary Etude" by Chopin is named after this uprising. Łomża was not only close to the border with East Prussia, in the north, but also very close to the border with Russia to the east. The tsarist army was recruited and the Polish troops mobilized, and many criminal gangs used the time and in the name of every possible slogan they carried on their business and conceded bloody toll. The roads were not safe anymore, and Isaac Borchardt did not trade and travel anymore to Łomża.
Markus did not speak to his father about his feelings, but he could not stop thinking about Charlotte, who lived on the other side of the border. One night he decided he needed to see Charlotte, no matter what would happen. He knew it was crazy, but he decided to take off the next night and march all night. According to his calculation, the distance was forty miles, and if he went on all night long, he could arrive in the morning. The nights were freezing at this time in December, but the march would keep him alive. With these plans, he fell asleep. The next day was short, the night fall already three clock in the afternoon. He would have plenty of time. He hugged his mother, Anna, who was pregnant again, and his brothers and sisters. Maybe it was the last time he saw them. Ah – Nonsense.
Along the small stream that flowed from the Roś-lake led the way to the south. How much he loved this lake! He imagined, marching in the dark, how he would lead his Charlotte to the lake, a short walk from the center of Johannesburg, where they would sit and would see the sunrise. And one day he would take her to the big Śniardwy-lake. This one was so big that it looked like an ocean. Only far in the north you could see the other side. And they would walk in the endless forests. When he was tired of marching, he paused, but quickly understood that he would simply freeze to death if he sat still another minute, and passed on.
And suddenly it happened. Two men attacked him from behind, he had not heard them, had been lost in thoughts. They pushed him off the road to a small clearing where a fire was burning, and a few other Cossacks warmed to it. And on the other side he saw another group, poor figures like himself, shivering with cold and fear. So he was not alone, there were more victims. Markus did not understand exactly what is going on, but it did not take long, and the Cossacks started to hang one after the other on the trees. The eldest of the prisoners was said, "You have lived most, you'll be the first." And so it was. And soon he felt the rope to his own neck. When he thought he had already lost consciousness, without saying "Shema Israel", he heard them disputing between them about the best way to Łomża. He did not need to think too much, because he had prepared himself for the border step. He quickly said: "We are close to the border. I think it's less than an hour, even less than half an hour. You go another 15 minutes, then go down to the river and go right along the river… after a while… you see from left another small stream flowing into the Pisa, it’s the Winzenta. This is the border, but there are no soldiers, they're up on the way. Go a little further along the river, then you can back up to the way.” The Cossacks decided to give him his life, and told him that this was a gift for his advice and ordered him to run and not look back. And so he did, of course. Even more than the half of the way was still before him, but he did it now faster than the first half. He thought: Why he had given these criminals, these bloody murderers, the right information? Why did he not recommend them to go straight, then they would have fallen into the hands of the Border Police? Or he could have recommend going to the east? But there was Szczuczyn, a place with a large Jewish population. And all along the long walk pursued him the pictures of the hanged old men hanging from the trees and their legs dangling in the air. If he had hesitated for just a second, his legs would now dangling in the air. And while he walked so fast, Mordechai the Jew made a vow: That he would devote his life to the Torah. He arrived at Charlotte's father’s farm exhausted and feverish, in the early morning hours. He just managed to tell the astonished congregation what had happened, and Stern gave the important information further. (I should write Sztern, since this is the way, then the name was spelled in Polish.) Right after Markus sank into sleep, heat and cold waves shook his body. For weeks he lay there, and Charlotte took care of him devotedly. One day he asked her: "Why did your parents called you Charlotte and not Rokhele or Rivkale?" Charlotte smiled and replied: "I was born when Poland regained some kind of independence. There was an atmosphere of freedom in the air, liberation, and those who embodied this spirit, were the French." With these words, Charlotte examined whether the young Markus suited her, and his positive response confirmed that the boy would fit. When it was decided that the two young people marry, Markus immediately wanted to cross the border and notify his family. But Sztern stopped him: "Markus, that's impossible. And I have to tell you something, your father has decided to leave Johannisburg. They live now in Hohenstein…" Markus was dismayed. Had the Cossacks threatened his family? Had happened something to his siblings? His dear mother? Or was it the economic situation, the fact that trade with the Polish neighbors could not be continued? Hohenstein was not much bigger than Johannisburg, but it was a little closer to civilization and further away from the Russian border.
Markus never returned to Johannesburg, not to his family, and not to the lakes and forests.
Łomża was much bigger than Johannisburg, with a long-established Jewish community. Diskin was the famous rabbi in town. David Yellin and his family moved to Jerusalem, and Rabbi Moshe Diskin (the Maharil) had inherited from his father the post of rabbi of the city, when he was 25 years old, and when Markus's and Charlotte's oldest son just was born. They called him Neumann. And after two years and the birth of another boy, Isaac Isidor, Markus was appointed rabbi of Tremessen in Pomerania, and there were born Salomon and Zilusch, the mother of Johanna, my great-grandmother, who told us this story. And that day when Markus came out of the forest between Prussia and Poland, after the same night as the noose was close to his neck, this day was celebrated since as Markus’ birthday until the end of his long life. And if he had not given this advice to the murderers, there would have been no grandchildren, no shipping company Borchardt founded in Hamburg, and there would not – even after the terrible storm of the mid-twentieth century overturned many – have been around the world more than eighty descendants in Israel, Europe, America and Hong Kong.
And in the first days of 2015 happened, that I found, after 185 years, the descendants of Markus’ siblings, those who he left behind in that terrible night, in 1830. One of them, the poet John Hollander (1929-2013), wrote this song, which became a huge hit by the band EAGLES :
No more walks in the wood
The trees have all been cut down
And where once they stood
Not even a wagon rut
Appears along the path
Low brush is taking over
No more walks in the wood
This is the aftermath
Of afternoons in the clover fields
Where we once made love
Then wandered home together
Where the trees arched above
Where we made our own weather
When branches were the sky
Now they are gone for good
And you, for ill, and I
Am only a passer-by
We and the trees and the way
Back from the fields of play
Lasted as long as we could
No more walks in the wood