Talk about a literary roots journey.
Growing up on the Lower East Side, Chanan Kessler would hear stories from his Polish-born grandfather about life as a Jew in pre-World War II Zambrow, a town 73 miles northeast of Warsaw, and would see a Zambrow memorial book on a shelf in his grandfather’s apartment. Packed with pictures and recollections from the Jewish community that was virtually wiped out in the Holocaust, the book, mostly in Yiddish, with a little in Hebrew, was treated with reverence by young Kessler’s family, “almost like it was a holy book.”
The book, published in 1963, fascinated young Kessler, but it was inaccessible. “I didn’t know Yiddish or Hebrew well enough to read it.”
Now, with Kessler’s help, a new edition of “The Zambrow Memorial Book” — better known as a yizkor [memory] book — is available in English.
Kessler, who lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and works as a high school social studies teacher in the city’s public school system, served as editor of the 546-page tome that was recently published by the United Zembrower Society, a landsmanschaft organization of one-time Zambrow residents and their descendants.
The book is one of the few yizkor books that have been translated into English, said Kessler, recording secretary of the Zambrow landsmanschaft — which is now developing its own website and Facebook page.
The Zambrow group, most of whose members are children and grandchildren of former Zambrowers, now numbers about 100 men and women, and holds regular social events, Kessler said. They backed the book’s translation into English (by Jacob Berger of Mahwah, N.J., an experienced Yiddish translator), because “even the members are not fluent Yiddish speakers.”
The new book supplements the 1963 version with new photographs of Zambrow, and new identifications of people shown in old photos, many of whom died in the Shoah.
“The book will provide an invaluable resource for scholars seeking to better understand pre-war Jewish life as well as for those seeking to better understand their Polish roots,” said Kessler, who visited the town two years ago. It includes the town’s history, personal stories, the fate of its Jewish residents before and after WWII, profiles of notable Zambrowers (the most-famous native son was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former chief rabbi of Israel) and Zambrow organizations, photos and an index of family names.
While other yizkor books have appeared in English, a landsmanschaft’s setting up a website and Facebook page is “significant,” showing a forward-thinking attitude, said Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust expert and author. “The chiddush [new angle] is that they want to communicate with their children and grandchildren — and even their great-grandchildren. They want to speak beyond their generation. It’s more likely [that the younger generations] will pick up a yizkor book online than go to a library.”
Kessler said his work on the yizkor book took seven years. It was worth the investment of time, he said. “Zambrow was a part of me.”