The city he could not forget A quest: Though he'd never lived in Konin, chronicler Theo Richmond's heart drew him to tell the story of the Polish town's pre-Holocaust Jewry.

November 08, 1995|By Judith Bolton-Fasman | Judith Bolton-Fasman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Like many explorers, Theo Richmond began with the outline of a map.

When he embarked on writing "Konin: A Quest" he carried a street map of Konin, his ancestral town in eastern Poland, with the intention of re-creating Jewish life as it was before World War II. The map acquires its own meaning during the course of the book, and the process of filling it in took Mr. Richmond to Britain, Eastern Europe, Israel and the United States to interview Konin survivors.

"I got to know Konin so well that I could correct people's memories, and they would engage me as if I had been there," says Mr. Richmond, who will be discussing his book at 7:30 tonight at the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills.

Theo Richmond's parents emigrated to England from Konin in the early 1900s, and Mr. Richmond lived the dual life common to many children of immigrants.

"Growing up, I heard this word 'Konin' repeated endlessly," he says. Although he did not visit Konin until 1988, on his first trip he felt as if he "were making a return journey there."

Konin assumed an unprecedented importance in his life shortly after his parents' death in 1987.

He found the Konin Memorial Book, a document in Yiddish and Polish published in the late 1960s, which includes the names of those murdered by the Nazis and also contains eyewitness accounts of Jewish genocide. He realized that if he did not immediately begin his book, the pre-Holocaust history of Konin Jewry, a microcosm of Polish Jewry, might be lost forever.

Mr. Richmond is a documentary filmmaker, and his cinematic sensibilities show in his interviews and in his re-creation of the town's Jewish square -- the Tepper Marik. Literally translated as the Pot Market, Mr. Richmond writes that "just as light and season transform the character of a landscape so the day of the week affected the character of the Tepper Marik. Tuesdays and Fridays were market days, when peasant farmers and villagers poured from miles around, bringing grain, firewood, chickens, geese, ducks, eggs, butter, cheese."

Along the square were small schools where little boys pored over Jewish texts and avoided eye contact with strap-wielding teachers. There were small congregations called shtibels, which reflected varying degrees of religious belief. There was also the large synagogue with its prominent dome that has since been restored as the public library.

"I didn't want a sentimentalized picture," Mr. Richmond says.

What emerges from "Konin: A Quest" is a complex and vibrant portrait that pierces shtetl stereotypes. At various moments, the bold and romanticizing colors of Chagall's palette dissolve into what Mr. Richmond describes as "the sooty images of a silent movie which at times might better convey life in Konin."

When Mr. Richmond walked Konin's streets, he says, he felt "the terrible absence of people who had lived there for 500 years. The Jewish quarter was razed out of all recognition. Only the rabbi's house was still there." Like most of his congregation, the erudite Rabbi Jacob Lipschitz died in a Nazi death camp.

Mr. Richmond also went to his father's home. "I couldn't fight my emotions when I stood in the doorway of my house in Konin. It was one of the most wrenching moments for me."

Another pathos-filled moment in the book comes when Mr. Richmond is interviewing his first cousin in Israel about the fate of her family during World War II.

Felunia was a girl when the Nazis liquidated the Konin ghetto. She had gone berry-picking early that morning and escaped detection. When she returned, Polish neighbors told her what had happened and urged her to run away.

She could not leave, though, until she was certain that her mother, Bayla, had been among those murdered in the woods. She asked a neighbor to bring back a swatch of her mother's dressing gown as proof of her death.

Mr. Richmond writes: "No detail pierces me as profoundly as this -- the piece of Bayla's dressing gown, probably one of the sales bargains my mother bought in Ilford or Selfridges in Oxford Street. Was I with her when she bought it? Had I perhaps touched this scrap of cloth cut from a blood-soaked corpse in a quarry in eastern Poland?"

Mr. Richmond objects to the suggestion that "Konin" should be read as Holocaust literature, contending that it defies classification. "In a way, one of my difficulties in writing the book was that I did not have a model to follow," he says. "I was collecting Konin and experiencing the jubilation of finding it."

One such find was the 1922 catalog of Konin's Jewish lending library in a long-forgotten archive in New York City. "A generation earlier, they were bending over holy books. Now they were eager to read Twain and Bronte."

Today the Konin public library is housed in Konin's old synagogue. When Mr. Richmond visited, there were no books about Konin Jewry. He sent the librarian a copy of "Konin: A Quest" to begin a collection.

As for all the material that he has amassed, Mr. Richmond says that he will eventually present it to the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv.

One gets the feeling, however, that Theo Richmond wants to live with his Konin artifacts a while longer -- to savor the fact that compiling his own map "was a twist on the cliche of putting a place on the map. I was putting these people on the map."

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