I was shocked to learn that the family burial plot is just 20 minutes from where I grew up. No one had ever told me about it.


Gravestone of Abraham and Bertha Pifko, Washington Cemetery. Photo credit: B Kosovsky

I met my 2nd cousin Bob right around the same time my 1st cousin Krysia found his photo of Abraham and Bertha Pifko’s gravestone. Abraham and Bertha were Bob’s great-grandparents, and Krysia’s and my great-uncle and aunt. Poking around some more on the Internet, I figured out that this photograph comes from Bob’s Flickr account, in a folder containing photos of all the tombstones in the Pifko-Winawer Circle in New Montefiore Jewish Cemetery.

Since I was on Long Island for a visit, I decided to see the Family Circle for myself. I went with my friend Krystyna, who is Polish, on our way to Copiague, a town on the south shore of Long Island with a large Polish community and several Polish delis. I’ve driven that route many times to get black current jam, kasha, makowiec, white cheese, and other foods I miss so much from Poland, as well as my son’s favorites: kielbasa and ptasie mleczko, rectangles of marshmallow covered in chocolate. I’ve tried buying kielbasa from the grocery store, but Ian won’t eat it; he insists only the real stuff from Poland is any good.

You can practically see the cemetery from the road, but I never knew it was there. Nor did I know that my relatives were buried there. This is what family silence does. Because we weren’t supposed to know about our Jewish heritage, I had never been there, not even to visit the graves of Stanley and Stella Winawer or Pauline Kanal, relatives whom I remember so fondly.

It’s a large cemetery. Krystyna and I had to figure out how the sectors, blocks, and rows are organized, but eventually we found the Pifko-Winawer Family Circle. The size of the plot is astonishing. It contains dozens of graves. A hexagonal pillar toward the front is labelled “Pifko Winawer Family Circle Organized 1938.” Other faces of the hexagon include the last names Pifko, Lewis, Davis, Kanal, Shapiro, Winawer, Jaret, Jacoby, Jacobs, and Portny. Written on the back face is “In Memorium; Abraham J. Pifko; Max Winawer Rosen.” I had only begun my genealogical research and only recognized a few of those last names. Even today, after six years of genealogical research, I’m still not sure how I’m related to the Davises, Jacobys, and Portnys.

We wandered through the rows of gravestones—raised blocks with blunted front corners, backed by low evergreen hedgerows. Among them, I found Babcia’s sister Sarah Winawer, “beloved mother, grandmother, great grandmother, March 16, 1880-Feb. 16, 1964.” This is the sister my immediate relatives called Lusia, the one who died a few months after I was born and who said before her death that she would look down on me from heaven. She rests beside her husband Saul, and near their children Nathan, Stanley, and Pauline. Another son, Milton, is not there; much later, I learned he chose a different cemetery because his wife Nettie, who was not Jewish, couldn’t be buried in New Montefiore. I recognized names of other relatives Aunt Pat has told me about—Abraham Pifko’s daughters: Eva Lewis and Sarah Lewis who share a last name because they married brothers; and Pauline who was there with her husband Fred Rosen.

I found Babcia’s brother Philip with his wife Goldie, whose graves are on the side of the family plot, facing perpendicular to the others. Their stones have Hebrew lettering on top and English on the side. The others either have both languages on top, or English on top and Hebrew on the sides. Could this signal something? Perhaps Goldie felt a closer affinity with the Hebrew/Yiddish language?

I did not find Abraham and Bertha’s grave. When I asked Bob about it, he explained that they are buried in Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. Abraham died before the family circle was established, and even though his great-grandmother wanted to be buried with the rest of the family, her spot was waiting for her with her husband. Another sister, Liba’s grave is not there, either, though she and her husband are remembered on a memorial bench with the inscription, “In memory of Jacob and Libe Winawer.”

Walking among my extended family, I felt the joy of finding them, and simultaneously the sense of loss that I never got to know, or even know anything about, most of them.

Is it odd that I spoke in Polish the first time I visited family graves in a Jewish cemetery? I don’t think so because Babcia’s family prided themselves in their ability to speak the language well. In some ways my ancestors straddled the boundary between Polish and Jewish culture. But the gulf was wide, and when my grandmother converted, she closed the door on her Jewish heritage, just as her father expelled her from the Jewish world in which she had been raised.