If you know something of the world, then surely you are acquainted with the Oblast of Lvov in Galicia, and surely you know that in the Oblast of Lvov, on the banks of the Bug River, there was once a small village called Kamionka Strumilova. Sixty years ago they changed the name of the village to Kamienska Bugskaya, but they’re not fooling anyone; the whole world still knows it as Kamionka Strumilova.
For a long time, if I had to speak of an obscure minuscule place, almost too small or anyone to see, I would use as my measuring stick the village of Kamionka Strumilova. Later research told me that before the war it had about 8000 people, half of them Jews, a place big enough to be home to a Hasidic dynasty. Jews discovered Kamionka in 1456, thirty-six years before Columbus discovered America, and on the whole they liked it better. The renowned mystics Zvi Hersh of Kamionka and his grandson Samuel of Kamionka lived here – but where else would they live? My cousin Isak told me that our Kamionka family had been a Hasidic one, but our family history is not written down anywhere, certainly not in this world.
Citizens of Kamionka apparently swore an oath never to talk about their home town with anyone. There is a curse on those who do; the records of the first Kamionka Strumilova Benevolent Association in Brooklyn, together with its photographs, were all consumed by fire decades and decades ago, much like the collection of the ancient library at Alexandria and the lost plays of Sophocles. My father never spoke of his village, except once to explain how he developed certain skills that only a boyhood in Kamionka Strumilova would give a person.
For me, for a long time, Kamionka Strumilova was a place that existed only in the world of fantasy. My father came from there, but in that imaginary time before I was born. My mother and father both lived there in the early days of their marriage, when she was eighteen and he nineteen – but who can even imagine such a time? – and my grandmother presided there over a duck farm and twelve children, but I never saw her or her other children, or any of their photographs. It was a place of myth, a land that existed only so that my father could be born there, and it disappeared in 1910 when he left and there was no further need for it.
There is one Kamionka Strumilova that exists in the minds of rationalists and one in the minds of mystics. Neither place exists in the mind of realists, unfortunately; what had been the village was wiped out between 1941 and 1942, and replaced by something else.
There does still exist a drawing of the mural that was on a wall of the synagogue there, and a photograph of a carved and decorative gravestone in its cemetery. Perhaps you think that these show that Kamionka Strumilova had to be a real place, but they don’t. When Shabbos comes, even mythical people must pray, and when they die shall we leave them to lie in the streets where they’ve fallen?
My cousin once took me to an exhibit of replicas of wooden synagogues in the Tel Aviv Library. On one wall was a huge map of Eastern Europe with the names and locations of Jewish communities, among them, its name spelled out in Yiddish, Kamionka Strumilova. Perhaps the place is a concept that can exist in Yiddish but not in English. But then, Eastern Europe itself is a legendary place for us now.
We don’t have photos documenting our own existence there either. My sister Rose cut them all up when she was four. She says she did it simply out of idleness, but it was actually the hand of fate. A heavenly tribunal had decreed that we were never to lay eyes on likenesses of our grandparents and aunts and uncles who lived there, and we never have.
I am sometimes haunted by the notion that God’s first plan for me was to live my entire life in Kamionka Strumilova. I think I would have fit in better there than I have here.
I saw in a book the wooden synagogue, or anyway the replica, where I was supposed to have prayed. The description says that its painted murals – done in 1730, with the permission of Jan Prochnicki, Archbishop of Lvov – were never finished, and those that had been finished had deteriorated badly. That sounds just right for any synagogue of mine.
A drawing of one of the murals shows the Jerusalem Temple burning, and as a symbol of desolation wild animals roaming freely in the streets, devouring sheep. That seems right too, somehow.
Had I lived out my life in Kamionka Strumilova, I have seen the gravestone below which I would have been buried. The book in which I found its picture – an old book now, called A World Passed By – says that the gravestones in the cemetery of Kamionka Strumilova rival or surpass those in the cemeteries of Lvov. Imagine being famous for having gravestones that rival or surpass those of Lvov.
The stonecutter carves just deep enough so that the letters will remain clear and distinct for exactly one hundred years, when the last one who might ever have had a glimpse of the person below has himself died. Then the edges start to decay, just as people’s memories do, until finally only anonymous son of anonymous lies buried here.
The Soviet Union took over Kamionka Strumilova in 1939, Germany in 1941, the Ukraine in 1945. To soften the memory that it was once mainly a Polish village – the name means something like Strumilova’s Stone – the new owners renamed it Kamienska Bugskaya: the same village, but with different people and under new management.
Who are the people of Kamienska Bugskaya, I wonder? Are they ever haunted by the people of Kamionka Strumilova who still imagine they live here? While walking, do they ever have to step aside to let the people of Kamionka Strumilova pass, or long to rest on a bench only to find that someone from Kamionka Strumilova is sitting there already?
I tried to visit Kamionka Strumilova once, in 1989, when the Soviet Union still existed. Almost as its last official act, its apparatchiks wouldn’t let me go there, and wouldn’t say why. I realize now that as people who took materialism seriously they were embarrassed to admit that they ruled a place that did not exist in the real world but in some other world, especially in a society that did not recognize these distinctions.
On our way out of Lvov our bus passed a sign indicating the direction to Kamienska Bugskaya, twenty kilometers away. At the same time we spotted a small group of four or five ducks on the roadway, clearly descendants of the ducks my grandmother had once raised on her farm. They had come to pay their respects to her grandson, and to let us know that in better times they would have come in greater numbers and given me a more fitting greeting.
When my father died, two of his friends – as young boys, the three had grown up on the same street – accompanied us to the cemetery. On the gravestones that were already there were names of people my parents had sometimes mentioned but whom I had never seen. They were once the founding members of the First Kamionka Strumilova Benevolent Association, once more dwelling together as neighbors in the same village.
Judah Halevi, great poet of our Spanish years, wrote that his heart was in the east, but he himself in the farthermost west. If you should greet me when you see me walking in the street and I don’t reply, or should you try to stop me to ask directions and I just walk on, it’s not because I am unfriendly but because I am in the Village of Great Neck but my heart is in Kamionka Strumilova, a village that doesn’t even exist.