At the same time, I started reaching out through the JewishGen databases to people who had searched similar name-and-place combinations. That’s where I found Kathy Herman. I had never heard of her, but she turned out to be my second cousin on the Russak side. Her grandfather, Benny, was the brother of my great-grandfather Joe. She was the first to tell me the names of their parents: Moishe Meyer Russak and Mindel Stetin.
“Family lore is that she was raped by a Cossack, and my grandfather killed the guy,” she wrote in an email. “They hanged my grandfather by his hair (I don’t even really know what that means), and then the Russaks had to get Benny out fast.”
That, Kathy said, is why the Russaks moved to the United States. Not exactly “Fievel Goes West,” but I was hooked. She had two addresses in Lodz where the Russaks had lived. Armed with these anecdotal scraps and scant genealogical documents, I was off. Old Country or bust.
In Warsaw I met a man who has been working for decades as a fixer for Jewish visitors researching their Polish roots. It’s a job that often stirs resentment in Poland, especially since the current right-wing government came to power, said the fixer, a retiree with kind eyes and a talkative, disheveled demeanor who asked that his identity be concealed. Widespread anti-Semitism persists, he said, and there is fear, especially in remote, provincial areas — shtetl country that the descendants of Polish Jews will come back and claim their stolen property.
“Keep in mind that Poland before the Second World War was like the United States. We had a huge mixture of minorities, and the Jews made up 10 percent of the prewar Polish population,” he said, as we drove past fields of black currants, lindens and the occasional roadside taverns, until we reached Plock.
Situated about 60 miles west of Warsaw, Plock is one of the oldest cities in Poland. Its antique grain silos and riverside Romanesque cathedral harken back to a time when the Kingdom of Poland was a bastion of liberalism that became a haven for Jews escaping persecution and exile elsewhere on the continent.
A local historian met us at a cafe on the edge of the Old Town Square with photocopies of what he thought were my family’s records. My great-great-grandparents Kasile and Cecile Hipsh seemed to match up with a Kasryel and Tsissa Hipsz in the archive. According to the book of residency, Kasryel was married twice and had at least eight children, including my great-grandfather, who went by Harry in Kansas City, where he started a textile business with his sons. But he had apparently grown up as Yakob, in the Jewish quarter of Plock, just a few blocks from where we sat.
With its cobbled streets and 19th-century rowhouses, Plock’s old Jewish district looks like a film set. Nearly all the remnants of its thriving Jewish community, which once made up nearly half the population, are long gone or repurposed beyond recognition. The one small remaining synagogue reopened in 2013, after decades of disuse, as the Museum of Mazovian Jews. The project, funded partially by the European Union, educates visitors on Jewish culture, and aims to tell their 700-year history in Plock and the surrounding region — a period in which they contributed greatly to the expansion of trade, crafts and industrialization, up until the Nazi occupation of Poland, when those who hadn’t fled poverty and persecution were confined to a ghetto and murdered in the camps.
I watched in numb silence as the faces of Holocaust victims from Plock flashed on a light box over a model of a dinner table set for Shabbat. I thought of my grandfather and namesake, Charlie Hipsh, who rose from poverty to become a banker and philanthropist, marrying my elegant grandmother, Dorothy Wengrover, and having four college-educated daughters. I thought of my own expensive American education, of my record collection and my German health insurance, of how it is such a shifting, fickle fault line that separates the privileged from the damned. Then I signed the guest book, “the great-great-granddaughter of Kasryel and Tsissa Hipsz of Plock” and headed for the car.
We drove about an hour east to Makow Mazowiecki, once a thriving market town. But as we approached, it was apparent how unkind the 20th century had been: Empty, snow-piled streets were lined with prefabricated residential buildings and billboards advertising outlet malls or fast-food restaurants with names like Western Chicken.
All of Makow Mazowiecki’s Jewish records were destroyed in a synagogue fire in 1897, so there was no archival research to be done. Instead, we went to the local school, where the principal, the mayor and a local historian, Piotr Matejuk, welcomed us. Mr. Matejuk walked us to the old town square, which today is a small park lined with discount shops.
It was here, he explained, that Jewish merchants would sell their wares on market days. They all lived in an area just north of the square, as was required by a 19th-century czarist decree limiting Jews to specific areas.
We walked through the old Jewish district, past a ramshackle house where Mr. Matejuk said the rabbi used to live, and where once stood “the most beautiful synagogue in this part of the country.” He told me he remembered as a small boy crawling onto the roof of his house and watching Nazis dismantle it and hang the leaders of the Jewish community on makeshift gallows.
We continued until we reached the empty, iced-over bus lot where the cemetery used to be. In the corner, Jewish gravestones had been cemented together into a semi-pyramidal mound.
“This is a memorial to Jews built by the current residents of Makow,” said Mr. Matejuk as my fixer translated. He explained that the Germans removed the stones and used them for paving streets and making curbs. After the war, locals excavated the stones and made this monument.
“You have to sift all these things and judge for yourself,” my fixer said. “After the war they decided to use this area as a bus terminal without any respect for this place,” he added, visibly angered. “They smashed what was left of the Jewish cemetery, and just to clean their conscience, they made this.”
Only then did the realization rip through me that my ancestors were probably buried beneath my feet, under this frozen bus lot. The “memorial” was a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster made of desecrated graves.
The following day, we headed to Lodz, Poland’s third-largest city. For about 200 years, it was one of Europe’s most important urban centers, a textile manufacturing hub and multicultural metropolis, home to Germans, Russians and Jews, who began arriving en masse when Poland was partitioned at the end of the 18th century.