During the year of America’s bicentennial celebrations, I lived in a small, pale green house on the plains of southeastern Montana, about 60 miles south of the Yellowstone River. Just down the road from my house were the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservations. On the reservation, where Highway 212 intersects with Interstate 90, there is a barren, windswept hillside covered with Buffalo grass and yellow clover where a white monument remains mostly concealed by the broad branches of the cottonwood trees. This hidden monument identifies and commemorates the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which took place on a hot June afternoon in 1876.
Light rain fell that day in 1976 when near my home an Army band played and about 500 people gathered to commemorate the battle and George Custer, who was perceived by many as a heroic American military figure. Unexpectedly, a caravan of Sioux and Cheyenne arrived pounding a drum. Even though they were not officially invited to this ceremony they arrived and brought a peace pipe. Joining hands, they then recited a chant in the Lakota language.
At the same time, 25 miles away on Rosebud Creek on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, dozens of teepees were erected, and hundreds of Indians gathered proudly performing a victory dance. A Sioux leader proclaimed, “We have survived 100 years of genocidal policy.” The coinciding events of that day epitomized the contradictory perceptions of history that exist between Euro-Americans and the Native people in our nation. The gatherings and symbolism that I witnessed then encouraged me to reflect upon the history of American expansion and the government’s relentless acquisition of Indian lands. This occurred through treaties and military actions, with the goal of subjugating the tribes to reservation life.
It was this policy that brings us to that summer day that we now reconstruct in our imagination when General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment along a ridge from which he spied a river encampment of mostly Lakota Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne warriors and their families. Custer and his troops charged down the ridge on their horses for what they expected would be an easy victory, but they were soon overwhelmed. It is estimated that within two hours, he and all 263 cavalrymen were killed. It has not been confirmed how many warriors lost their lives in the defense of their village.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn that is often portrayed in works of fiction, including books, movies, as well as in paintings, may be fused with elements of truth, but are more often inaccurate. They present a myth, romanticizing the events of the day. The true story perished with those soldiers and warriors who died in the violent skirmishes that took place in the river, in the coulees, and on the hillside.
The Indian victory was short-lived, and 14 years later, at a place called Wounded Knee, a gathering of Lakota Sioux performed the ritual Ghost Dance. A detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment surrounded the dancers and opened fire with a battery of Hotchkiss machine guns. 250 men, women, and children were killed in those frantic moments, with others dying later from their fatal wounds. This massacre ended any further tribal resistance to the white man’s occupation of Indian lands.
However, when the deep winter snows of the distant Big Horn Mountains begin their spring runoff, and later when the hot summer winds fan the flames of prairie fires that sweep across the battlefield, artifacts not yet recovered by the archaeologists rise to the surface. At a local trading post that I often visited, the proprietor took me into a back room to show me objects that local prospectors found on the battlefield. Those articles included boot leather, cartridges from the Cavalry’s Springfield rifles, arrowheads, belt buckles, rusted canteens, horseshoes, and sometimes, even fragments of bone. I realized that these artifacts bore mute witness to the violence that transpired on that day, and they inspired my imagination, bringing me a bit closer to an understanding of those events, the struggles, the pain, and the bravery of the Native American warriors facing a well-armed cavalry.
The hillside today looks virtually the same as it did on that summer afternoon in 1876 except for the white markers placed where the bodies of the soldiers were found. There is an eerie silence. A teepee is silhouetted against the distant horizon. Magpies and eagles perch like sentinels on the branches of the cottonwood trees; rattlesnakes conceal themselves in the shade of the sagebrush and prickly pear cactus. In the darkness of night, when the moonlight glistens off the Little Bighorn River, you can hear the howling of the coyotes that emerge from their hidden dens.
I eventually relocated from the West to begin a teaching position and raise a family in Maine, far from the prairies and mountains of Montana. As my family grew, I became interested in piecing together my fragmented, incomplete Jewish history so that my children would understand their ancestral story.
In 1889, at an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, the Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh was recovering from recurring bouts of epilepsy. There, in the last years of his life, he created over 130 paintings, including Irises, which was to become one of the world’s most valuable paintings. When John Payson, a prominent Maine art collector, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, was seven years old, his mother purchased van Gogh’s masterpiece. And in 1987, when Mr. Payson auctioned the painting at Sotheby’s, it was valued at nearly 40 million dollars. The proceeds of the sale went to various cultural institutions in Maine, but a percentage was used to establish a foundation dedicated to the memory of Mr. Payson’s parents.
One goal of that foundation was to select and fund a Maine artist, enabling him/her to collaborate with those working in the field of science. So, in 1989 when the Cold War was collapsing, the Berlin Wall was being dismantled, and Soviet troops were pulling out of Eastern Europe, I learned about a wolf research project sponsored by the Polish Academy of Science. I applied to the foundation and received their support to join this expedition into the remote Bieszczady Mountains of southeastern Poland. This mountain range, an extension of the ancient Carpathian Mountains, creates an imposing ridge that runs deep into Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania. Joining this expedition would allow me access to a region where my ancestors had lived for centuries, far from the shores of the Kennebec, the tidal river that flows near my Maine home. I did not know at the time that I would uncover artifacts that would connect me to my family’s fate, like the fragments that I touched a decade before that revealed a hidden story from the Montana battlefield.
During World War II, the Nazis swarmed through Poland’s most eastern mountainous frontier, deporting and murdering most of the Jewish population. Fierce fighting ensued between German and Soviet troops and partisan fighters. After the war had ended, regional conflicts continued; in 1948, the Soviet-installed Communist Polish government de-populated the region, removing and relocating over 140,000 local citizens who had made their home in and around these mountains for generations. The land untouched by agriculture and sheep grazing for nearly 50 years, returned to its natural state. I hoped that by joining this expedition, I would find evidence of my family’s life in that region and their fate during and after the war.
For three consecutive years, I returned to those mountains. I joined the ongoing research studies photographing and writing about gathering data in this unique, pristine environment that included some of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests inhabited by populations of brown bear, boar, woodland bison, red and roe deer, and most important, packs of wolves.
The wildlife biologists and local hunters served as our guides on our daily, exhausting mountain hikes. The biologists were mostly graduate and doctoral students who were all born after the war. They had little knowledge that Jews had lived in Poland for at least 800 years and that they had comprised about ten percent of their country’s population. They knew few details of the murder of over three million Polish Jews by the Nazi invaders and their collaborators. They were unaware of the ongoing anti-Semitism sentiments in their country and the violent, often deadly, pogroms that continued on Polish soil until the mid-1960s.
Their parents and grandparents had shared little information about their Jewish neighbors, who had suddenly disappeared after living side by side with them for generations. They were silent about witnessing the ransacking and burning of their town’s synagogues. They did not speak about the forced marches through their village streets in broad daylight as the deportations began or of the trains slowly pulling cattle cars filled with terrified people heading to the extermination camps located on Polish soil. They never mentioned the brick walls that were quickly erected to force their neighbors into overcrowded ghettos rife with hunger and illness. They looked away from the forced labor camps and concentration camps that appeared throughout the Polish landscape. They ignored the piercing blasts of automatic rifle fire from mass executions of men, women, and children carried out by the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile Nazi SS killing units) in the local town squares or nearby forests. The distinctive, putrid smell of burning bodies and human ash floated in the air far beyond the barbed wire enclaves that were sometimes located in sight of towns and cities; yet, these brutal, tragic events remained concealed in the silence of many Polish citizens.
Each of my trips into Poland’s mountains inspired a variety of projects. On one expedition, I brought along a filmmaker to produce Season of Hope, a film that documented the vast environmental crisis in post-communist Eastern Europe. On another trip, I received sponsorship to develop an educational program called An Interactive Digital Field Season, during which we transmitted images and information back to Maine classrooms, giving local school children first-hand exposure to the wolf research that was being performed in this remote European mountain range.
During these journeys into the mountains, I shared the story of my Jewish identity with our guides who were sympathetic and often became determined to assist in my efforts to learn about the fate of my Polish family.
As we followed the signs of wolf activity, my guides would stop to point out to me well-concealed, overgrown mounds of earth deep in the forest. The mounds, they explained, had once been root cellars located near the site of homes and often rural Jewish shtetls that were burned to the ground by the Nazi invaders. We came across depressions in the forest floor that the local guides suggested were sites of mass executions and burials. And, deeply hidden in the recesses of the dark forest, we found stone remnants of Jewish cemeteries that the Nazis had failed to discover and destroy. Ornately carved headstones deteriorated by the years, and showing the failed efforts of recent vandals, still stood to mark the gravesites. Trees grew on and around some of the graves, reflecting the decades of their isolation and neglect.
However, at all of these sites, artifacts revealed themselves from under the wet leaves and the soft moss that blanketed the forest floor. Sometimes we would scramble up a steep, muddied slope, our hands, grasping for a branch or rock ledge, dislodged an unexpected object from the past. As I carefully lifted these artifacts from their resting place, they began to reveal layers of a story. The shards of household pottery, spoons and cups, implements of war, strands of rusted barbed wire, and other broken fragments spoke to me, revealing details and the untold secrets of the past.
These items, which I have carefully preserved in wooden boxes, provide an invaluable insight into history. They allow us to piece together the firestorm that swept through this region of Poland. Like the artifacts that I saw long ago, uncovered on the barren hillside of southeastern Montana, these objects serve as silent witnesses to the harsh, often unthinkable events of the past, compelling us to confront the stains of history and our inner humanity.