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My Litvak Ancestor

By Barbara F. Lefcowitz, May 2000

A few Jewish gravestones survived Lithuania,
neither pulverized to pave a road nor hacked
for that grand staircase in the heart of Vilna,
muddy boots of men in Party suits stepping
on the fractured alphabet of Hebrew names--
here the tail of a Lamed, there the crooked finger
of a Shin--

By searching hard I might unearth some stones,
cracked but leaning as if still at prayer,
in cemeteries so remote
tall blond Lithuanians
couldn’t find them, these headstones hidden
in densely pined forests or behind the
broken slats that once enclosed
a country synagogue, its wood used for kindling,
scraps of charred Torah tossed to the pigs
if the goats didn’t grab them first.

I’ll sweep, then wash each stone by hand,
rub the most effaced with chalk to see
if by some wild chance
sparse letters spell a name
that suggests in any way
the ancestor I seek.

Remains of his shtetl? Forget it, whether
I probably won’t find so much as a brick.
Yet surely this townless, nameless
graveless man must once have laughed,
have coughed and cried and loved,
left a few small strands of DNA,
like whoever walked through all the world’s
lost cities, ziggurats and gardens,
splendid ladders we believe still intact
in a place not one person now living
has seen, nor may ever see.

about the author
Barbara F. Lefcowitz