Mystery in a Polish graveyard

Img_1894Who was Nat Litinger?  And when did he die? 

The second question should be easy.  We are looking at his grave stone.  (Click on the image.)

   N A T  L I T I N G E R
           OF NEW YORK
PASSED AWAY IN WARSAW
                        POLAND
      ON SEPTEMBER 1, 1939
          HE IS RESTING NOW

But look again at the year.  It can be read as

1939

or as
Img_1895_2
1932.

Here’s the date close up:

Something happened.  Either the 9 got changed to a 2, or the 2 became a 9.  My guess is that the number began as a 2.  Notice that its barrel (right term?) is much smaller than that of the unambiguous 9 in the series.  It began as a 2, I think, and someone closed the upper line on itself. 

Mr. Litinger’s date of death was first given as September 1, 1932, and someone made it September 1, 1939.

Who?  My guess is that the stone cutter forgot himself.  The year is 1939, but he makes a mistake and he wishes on Mr. Litinger an early death.  This is a benign slip, and in the historical circumstances,  a compassionate one. 

September 1, 1939 marks the official beginning of the German invasion of Poland and World War II.  Warsaw was subject to bombardment from this day onwards.  (The attack on the city began September 9, and a siege was imposed September 14.)  Nat Litinger died on the day that the war started and Warsaw was first attacked. 

For all we know, Mr. Litinger was a victim of the bombardment.  The stone cutter wishes on him another end, another date, another death.  He does this, of course, accidentally, at the very moment that a stone cutter must be most careful.  And now contemplating this record  of his misery, he has to stop and put it right.  Forget the professional embarrassment, and this is of course considerable, this is a man observing the most concrete evidence of what he really feels…at close to the very moment, the start of the Nazi invasion, he’s trying hardest not to feel Img_1841it. 

I found Mr. Litinger’s headstone today in a cemetery on the south side of Warsaw.  This cemetery doesn’t actually look like a cemetery.  Not now.  It looks this (image right).  (Click on the image if it’s hard to see.)

There are no grave stones in this cemetery. 

This because the Nazis took them.  It is one of the aspects of Nazi Warsaw from which head and heart scramble away in a sheer animal panic.   You hear what the Nazis did.  In this case, you can see what the Nazis did.  But this is a serial holocaust, an effort to exterminate not only the living but the dead. You can’t imagine soldiers (prisoners?) coming here and knocking down thousands upon thousands of grave stones.  And what if you did imagine it?  You’d be trapped and you couldn’t ever get back.  You would have tipped into their insanity or your own.   
Img_1863
A little further on, we find some of the headstones reduced to a virtual rubble (image right).  Apparently, headstones were used by the Nazis to pave roads, so we may be looking at the ones that were assembled but not yet used.  (The "concentration camp" principle at work even here: things brought together for eventual "relocation.")  Or, it is possible that these are stones discovered in and around Warsaw and then brought back to cemetery, only to be, shockingly, dumped.  We expect barbarism from the Nazis, this is what they were, but not from those who follow them. 

In fact, these stones, now some 60 years after the war, might as well be warehoused.  There is one small corner of the cemetery where it looks as if someone attempted to return some 30 stones to a circle.  Here and there, stones have been propped up as they might have been in the pre-Nazi era.  Mostly, these stones are as if stockpiled. 

Mr. Litinger’s is one of these.  Just lying there.  Next to the path.  You see the date.  As you pass by, out of the corner of your eye, you try to fix it.  It’s a 2.  It’s a 9.  It’s a 2.  It’s a 9.  Keep walking.  Lots of things in this world make no sense.  Just keep going.  Because there’s a vicious undertow here, and the moment you dwell on it, you can kiss your sanity good bye. 

But this headstone is in English and most others of course in Hebrew.  Clumsy, Scottish, Canadian, Protestant, needy, Anglophone, here’s a stone that speaks to me!  And Nat Litinger, that’s a name I feel I’ve seen before.  (And why is it in English, anyhow? Only because Mr. Litinger was born in New York?)  So you stick on the 2 that’s a 9 that’s a 2.  (How apt that what I can read should read dyslexicly, when, surely, the Hebrew would be limpid.) No, that’s not why I stick on it.  I stick on it for the same reason the stone cutter did.  Because if the 9 is a 2, well, if only the 9 were a 2.  If only time and stone were the same.

References

See the Wikipedia entry on the invasion of Poland here

14 thoughts on “Mystery in a Polish graveyard”

  1. Riveting post, Grant. I must say that you are certainly not merrily tripping around doing the “tourist thing.” Thanks for being our guide to the things that are truly important for us to remember.

  2. Not to make light of the tragedy you describe, but iteminds me of an old Unger cartoon:
    A monk is sitting in an old monestary laboriously working on an illuminated page for a manuscript. He has just finished applying the final touch – the gold leaf – to a large ornate letter in the top corner of the page that has clearly taken many days to complete. He turns his attention back to the manuscript he is copying to start work on the rest of the text, pauses, and then turns to his fellow monks. “Does anyone know,” he asks, “of another word for ‘Verily’ that begins with B?”

  3. My dad was 100% Russian and my mom 100% Polish. No better way to see the fine line differences in cultural perspective than that…let me tell you! As for your take on the “take what comes” Polish perception – well, any culture that’s been wiped off the map as many times as Poland, only to reappear (over the course of a thousand years) can only be assumed to know something about the value of persistence and “taking things as they come.” Just my 50% opinion đŸ™‚

  4. “Notice that its barrel (right term?) is much smaller than that of the unambiguous 9 in the series.”
    The typographic term is a “counter.”

  5. I read this post a while back, found it interesting, filed it away in the back of my head, and then kind of forgot about it. Until, last week, I was wondering through the Altstadt (“old town”) of Dusseldorf, Germany, and saw this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dotx3/535037556/ . The house number on this building is exactly the same as the number on the grave you describe.
    I think, although I am not sure, that the building is number 29, so it would seem Nat Litinger did indeed die in 1932. It looks very deliberate – I don’t see how it could really be an accident, and the cost of a house number is such that if a mistake was made, I expect you would simply start again. I can only imagine that it was a specific style of writing the number (be it a 2 or a 9), perhaps in central and eastern Europe, that has since gone out of style. Books were written in gothic type until much more recently than they were in the UK (as far as I know), and German handwriting has also changed. I certainly cannot read most handwritten documents from my grandmother’s generation, even though I can see that it is written extremely neatly. So maybe the written style of numbers changed at a similar time?
    So while there may not be a mystery as to when Mr Litinger died, and the imagined slipup of the stonecutter may simply be imagined, I still find the number fascinating, and it throws up new and different questions. Where was this alternative style used (Germany, Poland)? When, and why, did it change to ‘normal’/’modern’ numbers?

  6. I read this post a while back, found it interesting, filed it away in the back of my head, and then kind of forgot about it. Until, last week, I was wondering through the Altstadt (“old town”) of Dusseldorf, Germany, and saw this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dotx3/535037556/ . The house number on this building is exactly the same as the number on the grave you describe.
    I think, although I am not sure, that the building is 29, so it would seem Nat Litinger did indeed die in 1932. It looks very deliberate – I don’t see how it could really be an accident, and the cost of a house number is such that if a mistake was made, I expect you would simply start again. I can only imagine that it was a specific style of writing the number (be it a 2 or a 9), perhaps in central and eastern Europe, that has since gone out of style. Books were written in gothic type until much more recently than they were in the UK (as far as I know), and German handwriting has also changed. I certainly cannot read most handwritten documents from my grandmother’s generation, even though I can see that it is written extremely neatly. So maybe the written style of numbers changed at a similar time?
    So while there may not be a mystery as to when Mr Litinger died, and the imagined slipup of the stonecutter may simply be imagined, I still find the number fascinating, and it throws up new and different questions. Where was this alternative style used? when, and why, did it change to ‘normal’ numbers?

  7. Thank you for solving the Nat Litinger mystery! I didn’t realize I had taken a picture of that tombstone until after I uploaded the photos to my computer back in Montreal. This is also bizarre – I might have been in the cemetery on May 20, when you posted this! Pics will be up shortly on Flickr, or you can email me and I will send them to you.

  8. That is my great-grandfather. I was named after him. Amazing to see a headstone that we had only been told about by our grandfather.

  9. I am the real Martin Litinger living in Monroe Township, NJ
    The accurate date is 1932. I designed the tombstone and the inscription at age 11, and I thank each of you for your interest.

    Marty Litinger

  10. I’m curious… has anyone attempted to help those (all over the world) who are the post-holocaust generation, by cataloguing these headstones and their details?

    The generation that survived the Holocaust is aging. They are often taking their horrific stories, as well as the stories of their lineage and lost family members to the grave with them. In Judaism, genealogy is extremely important. It links one to the past, givibg anchor to their future.

    I should hope the Polish government would pay for this… if not surely someone locally should have a heart and preserve this history… entire family trees that may not be traced any other way, because of the gap in oral tradition created by the nazis.

  11. Hi all,
    I have visisted this cementary a week ago (August 2009). This grave stone is still there. But it looks worse than 2 years ago.
    Jacek

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