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Bill Brostoff

Berkeley, CA

Trzcianne. Trestiny. Trostany. Poland? 

These are place names I heard as a child from my bevy of great aunts and mishpocha.  They conjured up images of a once idyllic Eden, invaded by Germans, and later Soviets, on the other side of the world that could never be visited.

Shortly after I retired from a career as a research scientist/environmental manager, which focused on restoring wetlands and other habitats, I decided to visit my mysterious ancestral shtetl.  My wife, who has ancestors from Goniądz, a nearby shtetl, accompanied me.  Our intent was to visit our ancestral shtetls and see the matzevot of our ancestors. 

The train ride from Warsaw, where we started our journey, to Białystok, the staging point for our shtetl search, started smoothly.  Things were great for the first 30 minutes or so as we passed through the city and the suburbs and into the forest.  My wife and I looked at each other with a sense of foreboding– the forests were straight out of the movies depicting German soldiers killing Jews and burying them in mass graves.

We made it to Trzcianne, with a rough idea as to where the cemetery was.  We slogged through nearly impenetrable undergrowth of an exceptionally lush forest to no avail.  After flagging down some cars and bicyclists, we were informed we were in the right place.  Finally, we found a few “boulders” (country style matzevot) with traditional Hebrew inscriptions and illustration.  It dawned on us that the reason the forest was so lush was because it was fertilized by the dead Jews in the cemetery and mass grave.  

I was hooked and knew I would return.  I had spent 40 years of my career restoring wetlands; surely I could “restore” this small Jewish cemetery.  

Bill is also the co-chair of Friends of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland.

Bill Brostoff
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