Hidden Message in the Mosque
For generations, our families have gathered in the Jamia to pray, eat, mourn, celebrate, and learn. But before our ancestors even had the brick-and-mortar mosque, they organized to create a bridge between the old country and their new home in the United States. Families tried as best they could to remain in contact with the relatives they had to leave behind, so it's no surprise that we hold traces of those correspondences today. Recently, the mosque caretakers revealed a nearly century-old story that had otherwise been lost to time.
You may recognize this poster from the prayer room of our mosque. In 2010, caretaker Alyssa Ratkewitch Haughwout discovered faint writing in pencil on the back of this print when she was having it reframed. The framers were generous enough to place glass on the back and front so that we can see, and protect, both sides of the aging paper.
However, what the faint, Cyrillic letters were saying remained a mystery for more than a decade. It has been difficult to get a translation of it for two reasons. First, the writing is very faded and thus difficult to read in the best of circumstances. In addition, the writing is in Russian, with Polish mixed in by someone who, we believe, may not have had much formal education.
That is where our friend, Alla Roylace comes in. Alla is the NYU librarian for Slavic and Eastern European Studies and we were connected with her through Dr. Diana Chester’s work with the Historic Preservation Committee. Alla was fascinated by the history of the mosque and came for a visit in early December 2022.
With her help, we could understand that it was a letter, dated 1926, from a man named Maciej Poltorzycki sent from Novogrudok, Poland—today in Belarus. In it, Maciej was pleading with his siblings (we presume in the U.S., although it doesn’t say where they were specifically) for help. Their mother was bedridden and he was the only one left to care for her. They were very poor and he couldn’t leave the town for work. The letter goes on pleading for support. There also seems to be a post-script, in which “Mama” requested three Turkish headscarves from someone she heard is going to the U.S. soon.
For a complete translation, see below.
We are very grateful for Alla’s contribution to our archive. However, there are many questions left unanswered by this fascinating piece of history. Primarily, did he get the help he needed? Why was it written on the back of this poster? Did Mama ever get her Turkish head scarves?!
Further research, aided by Sergi Miskevich in Minsk, led us to Maciej Poltorzycki’s family tree. Maciej was born to parents Mustafa and Fatima (“Mama”) Poltorzycki in Novogrudok, Poland, and lived from 1889 to 1974. He had several siblings and of those, three immigrated to the U.S.; Alex, Minnie, and Anna. Despite those being very common names in our society, we were able to locate some of their descendants.
Kim Poltorzycki-Kumas and her family were able to identify Maciej as their paternal grandfather’s uncle. Almost 100 years since this letter was written, Poltorzycki descendants still live near New York. The family was very grateful to learn about this piece of history as there were many stories left untold by their ancestors.
Interestingly, this letter was written five years before the Society purchased the building at 106 Powers Street. We assume the lithograph was printed first, and then repurposed for the letter- not the other way around. The family held on to it for a number of years and soon after the mosque was established, it adorned the walls of the new prayer space.
The poster itself, we have come to learn, is an instructional poster. Guy Burak, Alla’s NYU colleague, helped to translate the front of the poster during their visit. Guy is the Librarian for Middle Eastern, Islamic, and Jewish Studies and explained that it instructs what one should do in certain circumstances.
Guy also noted that it is printed in an older, formal Ottoman Turkic script as was the tradition with some Tatar religious texts during this time. We have seen the use of this language in other prayer books in the mosque’s library: though not written in Arabic, it uses the Arabic alphabet, much like Spanish and English are different languages that use the same Latin alphabet This has made some translations more challenging as it’s considered an old dialect so not all Arabic readers can decipher it.
We are extremely grateful for the friends and colleagues who have lent us their time and expertise to further the mission of our mosque. We continue to explore our history and tell these incredible stories through the artifacts found within. Journals, ledgers, paintings, and prayer rugs are all waiting to tell us about the extraordinary people who brought this all together.
Translation by Alla Roylance. December 8, 2022
Written in Russian and Polish.
“I ask you please read and be so kind and understand the situation in which I’m in. Day of 22nd (or 26th) of January 1926. Nowogrudnik.
My dear respected sisters and brother. Take and look on my life living and my misery and also that I am not happy that I am watching my mother and I feel sorry to leave so that I don’t feel sorry for my mother I would have … it would be good for me from the beginning I started working at police (Government office?) and served a couple of months. And then this is exactly when mother fell sick and ordered that I left. Then mother … and I had to resign and then I was taken to the army and in the end of my service, I wanted to remain in the army… I wanted to sign up to become a military officer for six years and they demanded to sign a …and I would receive a monthly salary and board. When I wrote to Mama, I wrote that I wanted to remain in the army for six years of volunteer service. After resigning then mother started writing letter after letter that she’s sick and there is no one that can watch her and she writes that I must return. Then she sends a telegram that she’s very weak that I must come but I am already signed up for the military training and I had to listen to my dear mother and return home. When I came home I found my mother bed-ridden and I became sorry My mother started asking me not to go back! (to the army) so I sent my resignation and now I would like to find employment wherever in any service and it’s difficult and now I’m … (maybe in debt?) I work as manual labor … I don’t even have money to buy a new suit that is to do Thank you God I am already 27 years old… unmarried and I’m staying home. It is shameful to even leave the house and show yourself to people… There was hope of supplies from outside the city but there was a poor crop. Everything was gone. Mother is often sick… There is nothing in the home and we must suffer… I had designs to get married and so my mother started asking not to get married yet… and now I am waiting to see what is going to happen next. If not for the mother I would not stay home even one minute. It is that only when mother gets sick there is no one that can watch her. It tournaments me. It’s a misery. And so I ask my dear sisters and brother-in-law and.. Alexander and also … I beg you to send me each of you a couple of dollars for a suit, I would be very grateful for your kind charity. I ask you my dear sisters and brother don’t deny my request. I bow to everyone I wish you all the best respectfully
Your brother Maciej Poltorzycki
Your mother asks through an acquaintance of a daughter-in-law for three Turkish headscarves of… and soon she leaves for America … and sends you all …she bows low to you and wishes you all the best. Bye. Thank goodness we are all alive and well respectfully best wishes
Felicia (?) Poltorzycki
I’m waiting for your reply as the nightingale waits for the summer.
Special thank you to the following people for making this possible:
Alyssa Ratkewitch Haughwout