Among the framed photographs that cluttered my son's room for 20 years was a small, oval picture of a man in a uniform. He had a stern but wise gaze, neat hair and a fastidiously trimmed mustache. The uniform looked vaguely military, as did his bearing. The photo was of my father's father, Gabor Csillag, a soldier who died in the First World War. My son, Gabriel, is named for him.
My father, who died in 2009, never met his father. Gabor Csillag was killed in May, 1915, fighting with the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front. My father was born in October, 1915, meaning his father had the foresight to impregnate my grandmother before he shipped out, or else while home on leave.
These scant details I have known for years, thanks to a postcard my grandmother received notifying her of her husband's death. Now sheathed in protective plastic, the pinkish card declared in fading handwritten pencil: “We regret to inform you that your husband on the 2nd of May this year in the district of Luzsna (Galicia) was shot by enemy fire. He died for his country. May his memory be blessed.” Gabor was 41 and left eight children. His wife never remarried.
A few months ago, I took the sepia picture out of its frame and had it retouched to get rid of the many spots and scratches. It came back bigger and clearer, with the uniform in sharper detail. You could see two plackets on the front and a metal button on one shoulder.
“This is your great-grandfather,” I reminded my son, who is now 23. “He died in the First World War. You're named after him.” Gabriel waved his hand. “I know that,” he said wearily. “But where is he buried?”
I lowered the picture, looked at the wall and blinked. I had no idea. I had never inquired and no one in my family had either, so far as I know. The region of Galicia currently straddles Poland and Ukraine. Is he buried in one of those countries? Is he in a mass grave?
An online search of “Luzsna” and “Galicia” yielded nothing. But given the date and district of his death, further research suggested my grandfather likely died in the Battle of Gorlice-Tarnow, also known as the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive. What began as a minor German campaign to relieve Russian pressure on the Austro-Hungarians ended in the total collapse of the Russian lines.
It started, according to one account, at 6 a.m. on May 2, 1915. By the end of that day, the German and Austro-Hungarian infantry had captured the first and second Russian lines. In the next few days the Russian Third Army was routed. It was a decisive battle of the war's eastern theatre and showed the Allies the might of the Central Powers.
One date leaped out: May 2. If this was the battle that claimed my grandfather, he died on its first day.
I fired off e-mails to the embassies of Poland, Hungary and Austria asking about military archives in those countries. Only one, the Hungarian legation, responded with contact information for the Hungarian Museum of Military History in Budapest. In English and Hungarian, I crafted a letter inquiring about my grandfather's fate. With a date and precise location, I had detail on my side.
Amazingly, just two days later, there was a reply: “Your grandfather, Csillag Gabor, was a soldier and served in the Royal Hungarian 9 Infantry Regiment at Kassa [Košice, in present-day Slovakia] He was buried in Luzna, where you can find three (Nr. 120, 122, 123) military cemeteries. Your grandfather lies in the cemetery Nr. 120. The number of the grave [is]130.”
I gathered up my jaw and Googled “Luzna.” There are three places with that name, in Latvia, the Czech Republic and Poland. It had to be the last one. A village of 3,120 souls, Luzna lies in southern Poland about 30 kilometres north of the Slovak border in the former Galicia.
As if the information wasn't enough, photographs of the cemetery and of some individual graves were enclosed. That's when I went bug-eyed: All the graves, which looked unmarked, were affixed with large, very Christian-looking crosses. My grandfather was Jewish.
My letter to the “Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites” in Warsaw seeking explanation was forwarded to provincial officials in Krakow. Their brief response, copied to me, was not encouraging: “In accordance with the European tradition,” it proclaimed, “soldiers killed in the war [have] burials crosses on the graves [which]are purely military and not religious and do not relate to the origin or religion of [the]soldier.”
A second letter from officials in Krakow echoed that. The crosses “do not have a religious dimension” but a “military” one, it said. It added, hopefully, that the installation of “symbolism derived from [the]Jewish religion at the request of the family is possible.”
Friends have suggested that the crosses have conferred protection, ensuring that the graves went undisturbed for nearly a century.
I plan to visit Gabor Csillag's properly marked grave in the near future. My son isn't much of a traveller. I asked him whether he would come. He didn't say no.
My grandfather died in the larger struggle for freedom, likely on May 2, 1915 (the same day John McCrae began his first draft of In Flanders Fields), so that my father could be liberated from a Nazi concentration camp on May 2, 1945, so that I could have my bar mitzvah on May 2, 1970. The first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death is being marked (or celebrated) today, May 2. Spare a thought for freedom this day.
Ron Csillag lives in Toronto.