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SOKOLY (So-koh-wee)! The first time I heard the name of my grandfather’s birthplace was from my father’s cousin, Marie.  She lived in Paris, was a doctor, medical researcher, and reputedly a Polish Countess. Now what, you might ask, does my distant cousin and Polish Countess have to do with the story of Max Golanski?  

In 1989, when I traveled to Poland on behalf of Chicago’s Spertus Museum, I stopped in Paris to ask Marie to fill in missing blanks regarding our family heritage.  Grandpa Ross had arrived in the United States as a young man seeking to leave Russia rather than face the mandatory 12-year military service required of Jews.  (Non-Jews served four years for the Czar.)  He had followed his brother Willie to this country via Ellis Island, and couldn’t remember our family’s original last name, or why his brother had selected the surname Ross.  Fortunately, Cousin Marie remembered names and places that helped round out our family lore.

When Great Uncle Willie arrived at Ellis Island, Immigration officials asked where he was from and without hesitation he replied, “Białystok” (Bee-al-i-stok).  When asked his last name he said, “Białystokski” (Bee-al-i-stos-kee), which translates “from the Białystok region.”  Białystok shifted between  Russian and Polish rule over a period of several hundred years.

Immigration officials decided that Great Uncle Willie was either confused, or his name was too difficult to pronounce, so asked him to select “an American name.”  Of course, he didn’t know any “American names,” so when an attractive female Immigration worker walked past he pointed to her and asked, “Vat’s her name?” in a thick Yiddish accent.  “ROSS!” Without hesitation he said, “If it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me.  I’ll take it!”  And so my Eastern European Jewish family had a new, Scottish surname.

And SOKOLY?  Once Marie related the story regarding our family name she also remembered our family’s village.  Upon arriving in Poland I hired a driver to take me to the town (25 miles from Białystok).  Sokoly was a modest farming community of 3,500 people, distinguished by an impressive Catholic church in the town’s center. Surprisingly, my visit generated substantial excitement as word quickly spread that an American Jew was visiting.  People poured from their homes to meet me, saying “No ‘Shoah.’  We like Jews!”  I later discovered that the 9 1/2-hour film “Shoah,” by Claude Lanzmann, had recently found its way to Sokoly.  Residents seemed to feel that by convincing one Jew that not all Poles were anti-Semitic, they absolved themselves of participation in the Holocaust to all the Jews of the world.

Pulled into the kitchen of a humble farmer and his wife, I sat with them seeking the answer to my one burning question:  “What happened to the Jews of Sokoly?”  Their response was translated for me by my Polish driver, and the tape was donated to the Chicago Jewish Archives.

Years later, the Internet made possible more extensive research.  I was surprised to discover that Sokoly had been a renowned center of Jewish scholarship, claiming many doctors, scientists, literary scholars and other distinguished native sons and daughters.  The majority of Sokoly’s survivors immigrated to Israel.  A few others came to the States.  As one might expect, their stories were markedly different from the farmer’s original tale.  Folding differing perspectives of my impressions visiting in 1989, the farmer’s story, and researched testimony of Sokoly’s Jewish Survivors into a fictionalized tale gave birth to several chapters in GOLANSKI’S TREASURES.

As for my family’s Polish Countess?  A story onto itself for another time!

(Church in Sokoly, Poland - Photo by Leszek Zaremba)