Part two in a series of three guests blogposts, written by Andy Romanoff. All photographs ©2014 Andy Romanoff.
Oh momma, is this where you come from? It’s October 2014 and we are in Poland. D and I have traveled to the little town of Stawiski. It’s on the road from Lomza, about 75 miles from Bialystok, the middle of nowhere. It is the place my mother was born and spent the first years of her life – leaving after the First World War and never coming back. We are standing in the town center, a church overlooking the square. It is a warm day for fall and it is beautiful. You might remember the feeling of being in this place if you were a little girl back then.
A few blocks away is a back alley, unchanged by time. Things move slowly here. You can still see the past. You can imagine a little girl walking by here bundled up in a dark coat and shawl on her way to somewhere, and I can imagine it is my mother.
Here on this spot in the town stood a great synagogue, but now it’s hard to imagine. The park is so present, so tangible it fills the space as if nothing else has ever been here, but once there was.
Once there was a great synagogue standing on this spot. A center for Jewish life; people came from far away to see it, it was famous. My mother never mentioned it to me but then why should she? She was a little girl then with a little girl’s point of view. What she remembered was living through the long cold winter in a little farm house outside of town. She remembered a little construction of green they kept in the window to remind themselves of spring. She remembered her grandparents left behind.
Wikipedia says the town was destroyed by Russians in 1915 so nothing is certain, but there are houses in Stawiski that could be, might be, houses my family knew. Look at them, imagine them in the middle of winter, no internet, no electricity even, snow and ice and months to go before the green came again. And forces much bigger than this little town shaping the world outside. There must have been talk, the grownups sitting around the wooden table drinking tea and wondering and worrying. This place, set between Russia and Germany, lends itself to that.
This picture shows what the great synagogue looked like. Our guide Hubert found this picture for my cousin Stan when he brought him here a few years back. You have to imagine how big it was in this small town, how important. Stawiski was a Jewish center with several thousand Jews living here. Now look carefully at the house over there on the left.
I look at the picture and then I look up and I see that house is still standing today. The windows are plastered over but I can see the outlines of them. I realize my mother the little girl must have walked by that house many times, and knowing that pleases me.
Once I see that I see more and I know in my heart that this is what Stawiski looked like to my mother a hundred years ago.
Because time does not work so quickly here, that house and many others are from the time my mother walked and lived and played and was afraid here, from the time when she waited for the green to come again.
I can see that now.
Andy Romanoff is a photographer and writer who also worked as a cinematographer, specialist camera operator and businessman for fifty years. Visit his website to see more of his stunning photographs.
Check out “The Cemetery at Stawiski,” part one of this three-part series. Andy has also written guest posts for this blog about his memories of growing up in the Hollywood Park neighborhood of Chicago: Ghost Chicago–Looking for Things No Longer Here–My Childhood, Ghost Chicago–Shaare Tikvah, Albany Park Cool, Bob and Ikey’s Wedding: An Albany Park Story.