Roberta’s Family Lived in Pshaytsh

Report #7 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Roberta was the main author of this report.

Kłodawa, September 10

Roberta tells a story: For a long time, she couldn’t locate the town of her Buks ancestors, until finally someone told her that the place she called Pshaytsh is known as Przedecz in Poland. The town’s Yiddish name had been passed down in her family.

Marysia and Roberta started our tour of Przedecz on September 7th, 250 km away in Bytom. We visited Halina Ziecik, who for years has collected archival records and personal stories about the Przedecz Jewish community. Roberta met Halinka on her first trip to Poland in 2019. When Halinka was a child, she spent many happy summers visiting her grandmother in Przedecz. Her strong interest in the history of Przedecz Jews began when the priest of the local Catholic church asked her to write a history of the church to commemorate its 100th anniversary. Through her research, she discovered that Jews had been housed in the church for three days without food, water, or proper sanitation before being transported to the death camp in Chełmno. 

The priest was horrified when Halinka told him about this. His reaction was: They defiled the church! Halinka was shocked by his disregard for the suffering of the Jewish captives. She tried to explain to him that they were forced into this horrible situation, but the priest was unrelenting in his disgust at the desecration of the church. That prompted Halinka to interview anyone she could find in Przedecz about Jews and Jewish life in the town.   

An eyewitness report of those three days can be found in the Przedecz Yizkor Book, written by a teenager who had been home on leave from a work camp. After being confined in the church with her family, she was allowed to return to the work camp. 

We asked Halinka if she could share her extensive collection of information with us. She showed us some photos and some of her notes, saying she just needs to organize it all so she can publish it. Here are some photos that show historical buildings and the current appearance of their locations:

Halinka put us in touch with Halina Mądrzejewska, a Przedecz resident and retired employee at the civil records office. On September 10, Marysia, Yosef and Roberta met Halina outside her home in Przedecz. 

We stopped at the nearby site where Roberta’s father and grandfather had lived, although a newer masonry home had been built on the site. Her grandfather’s brother, his wife and child had lived there and continued to operate a butcher shop where meat and live animals were sold, until being sent to the Chełmno death camp. Roberta said that on her first trip, she went into the store on the property that she imagined was where her grandfather had his shop. She bought a red hat, even though she never wore it.

Are people living in these towns occupying plundered property, Roberta pondered? On one hand, it’s normal. The buildings stood empty, most of the owners dead. Who else was going to live there? Life went on in these places, even though Jewish life did not. Yes, it’s understandable, but it’s also discomfiting.

On the outskirts of town, we visited the Jewish cemetery, unfenced flat terrain with large trees and grass underneath. Small, rotting fruits lay on the sparse grass under several massive pear trees near the road. A plaque mounted on a boulder sits near the road. The Polish inscription says:

Jewish Cemetery

Site is legally protected

Respect this place of rest for the dead

The plaque in the Kłodawa cemetery has exactly the same inscription. This stone is different because an added English-language plaque remembers Buks family ancestors.

The plaque had been put there in 1993 by cousins of Roberta with the help of the historian/archaeologist working at the Chełmno Memorial Museum. Jack and Josef Buks had spent the war years in Russia and returned to live in Poland (but not in Przedecz) after the war. Both brothers later emigrated to and died in the US.

The actual footprint of the cemetery is larger than the current plot. Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, sent Roberta a map. It shows that the garages beside the neighboring apartments are built on cemetery land. Also, at the back end, a rectangular bump-out is incorporated into an agricultural field. According to Schudrich, the Przedecz cemetery is now owned by the Jewish community of Wroclaw. Unfortunately, the Jewish community got back most but not all of the entire cemetery, and the garages were built illegally. 

If we want a fence to be built around the cemetery, we should first see about including all land within the legal boundaries, and removing the garages. According to Schudrich, in the case where we can build a fence only around part of the cemetery, we should build a proper fence/wall along the historic boundaries and a different looking marker along “the non-historical boundaries.”

Roberta’s cousin Michuel Przdecki (later changed to Pizer) from Kłodawa, who also survived the war years by escaping to Russia, had told Roberta stories about making sure that his deliveries to Przedecz were late in the day, so that he could go swimming in the lake. He said that it took him half a day to make the trip from Kłodawa by horse and buggy. The lake is large, wrapping around two sides of the town. Halina said that the lake used to be much deeper, but it has been drying out over the years.

Yosef photographing the Przedecz lake

We also visited the Catholic church and the medieval tower that are the most significant landmarks in Przedecz. On a previous visit, Roberta had gone to the top of the tower and visited the inside of the church. In those days, there had been a small museum in town, but Halina said the museum no longer existed. 

Kłodawa Remembers

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Report #6 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.

Kłodawa, September 10

It’s thanks to Roberta’s cousin Judy Muratore and her website Klodawa Tribute that I found my cousin Bob at the very beginning of my search for my own cousins ten years ago. He had posted a photo of his ancestors on the site, a photo that I also had found among my grandmother’s papers. Bob’s great grandmother Bertha, seated on the right, was from Kłodawa. I visited Kłodawa a few years later, but without a guide, I didn’t find the town’s Jewish history.

The Pifko brothers around 1908, New York. Front from left: Philip, Abraham, Paulina, Ewa, Bertha, Nathan. Back from left: Raphael Kolski, Sam and Max Alexander

After visiting Dąbrowice, Roberta, Yosef, and I continued 14 km to Kłodawa. All the towns in the scope of ADJCP’s “central Poland” are very close to each other, connected by narrow country roads.

We met Barbara Gańczyk, the founder and president of the Kłodawa Cultural Society (Kłodawskie Towarzystwo Kulturalne), who has been researching Kłodawa’s Jewish community for decades. A small woman with short-cropped white hair and dressed casually in jeans, she gave the impression of someone who is no-nonsense, authoritative, and eager to share her knowledge of Kłodawa’s Jews. Although she has a PhD, she doesn’t expect to be addressed by any title, preferring to be called by her nickname Bachna.

Bachna wanted to start our tour at the Orlen Gas Station outside of town because, she said, “This is where the Jewish history of Kłodawa began.” The first Jews came to the town in the middle-ages, during what she calls the first phase of residence, when the center of the town was closer to this spot. In addition, the Jewish cemetery is a short distance away.

The cemetery is mostly covered by calf-high grass and wildflowers, with small trees toward the back of the plot. Bachna pointed to a building on the other side of the concrete fence along the left-hand border of the cemetery, which she believes was the mortuary house where bodies were prepared for burial. A sign at the edge of the road labels the site “kirchol,” a regional term for a Jewish cemetery, and outlines the history of the town’s Jewish population. Further back, around the place where the land slopes upward, stands a boulder with a plaque saying (in Polish):

Jewish Cemetery

Site is legally protected

Respect this place of rest for the dead

Bachna believes Germans moved the earth from the front part of the cemetery and created the hill at the back as part of their munitions activities.

City landowners forced Jewish residents to leave Kłodawa in the second half of the 16th century, but they were invited back in the 18th century and remained until the Shoah. At that point, they built their synagogue, school, and other institutions closer to the contemporary center of town.

In the center of town, we visited the church where Jews were imprisoned on the night of January 9-10, 1942 a nd then transported to the death camp at Chełmno. An informational sign outlining “the last moments of the the Jewish community in Kłodawa” was mounted here in 2021.

We walked by the site of the synagogue, where the Community Center now stands. Bachna said that curve-topped archways across the front façade were designed to evoke the former synagogue. In front of the building, another informational sign dating from 2020 outlines the history of the synagogue.

Bachna will be a strong ally for ADJCP members with ancestors from Kłodawa. She has studied and written about the town’s Jewish history for decades and has amassed a great deal of knowledge. She is eager to collaborate with Jewish descendants and with our group. 

What little remains in Dąbrowice

Report #5 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.

We met Grzegorz Stęplewski on September 9 at the Kutno Community Center so we could talk about what remains from the Jewish community of Dąbrowice. Grzegorz lives in Kutno and is a member of TPŻK (Friends of the Kutno Region), but he grew up in Dąbrowice, a village of about 1,300 residents nearby. Grzegorz likes to paint and sketch; he imagines scenes as they would have looked based on historical records and the current configuration of streets, for example reinserting the synagogue next to his childhood home.

Grzegorz Stęplewski drawing in the open air. Photo by Ola Rzadzkiewicz. Source: https://ekutno.pl/pl/fotorelacje/kultura/spotkanie-tworcze-rysunek/15600,2

The next day, Grzegorz met us at the Krośniewice cemetery and we followed him to nearby Dąbrowice, just 9 km away. We parked outside his family home, a one-story house with a small covered wooden porch in front, which he continues to own. The house is on a small plaza called the “Nowy Rynek” that functions as green space with grass, pollarded trees and a green-painted kiosk. This rainy Saturday afternoon, the kiosk was closed and no one was on the streets.

Dąbrowice Rynek viewed from Grzegorz’s house

We climbed the rough wood steps and sat out of the rain on a single bench perpendicular to the front door. Grzegorz showed us hand-drawn street plans dated 1959 with his family property facing the plaza and the synagogue plot next to it on Sienkiewicza Street.

1959 map shows lot #4, the former site of the synagogue (labelled gmina żydowska, Jewish community)

The synagogue was destroyed during the war. Some years later, Grzegorz’s father added the synagogue plot to the back garden of his house. He has what is called a dzierzawa wieczysta, a perpetual lease; in effect, he doesn’t own the land but can use it indefinitely. It currently sits behind a stone wall, though we could see into the yard from the neighbor’s driveway gate. Based on the size of the lot and the space Grzegorz paced out for us, the synagogue was not large.

We continued on a roundabout route to the site of the cemetery. Gzegorz pointed out where the center of town was visible across agricultural fields, and explained the old, unpaved road takes a more direct route but it’s only suitable for farm vehicles. The cemetery plot stands forlorn, an overgrown thicket surrounded by plowed fields. Getting to it would require walking across those fields. It’s unlikely that any grave markers remain under the shrubs and small trees. Grzegorz said that at minimum, there should be a sign at the side of the road indicating the location of the Jewish cemetery.

Across an agricultural field, the Dąbrowice Jewish cemetery is an island of brush and trees

That was the extent of what remains of the Jewish community of Dąbrowice.

Krośniewice Brings Back Jewish Memory

Report #4 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.

Krośniewice Mayor Katarzyna Erdman, Sławomir Mikołajczyk, and his son Adam Mikołajczyk stood on the side of the main road from Kutno, sheltered from the rain under two umbrellas. Sławomir, a member of the Krośniewice branch of the Friends of Kutno (TPŻK), works at the city museum, while Adam a City Hall employee, shares his father’s passion for local history. They waited for Roberta, Yosef, and me in the rain so they could start our tour of Jewish sites at a memorial stone engraved with the statement:

People today should bring back the memory of those who are no more

At the 70th Anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto III X 1942

The Krośniewice Community

2012 (my translation from Polish)

Monument commemorating the Krośniewice Jewish community. Behind the chain-link fence is the synagogue, transformed into a funeral home

They pointed out that the building next to us was the synagogue. For years it served as a movie theatre, but when it was sold in 2004, the new owner converted it into a funeral home. The walls of the synagogue are hidden behind the utilitarian exterior of the current plaster façade.

We walked a couple of blocks to a solid historic building that houses the town museum (Muzeum im. J Dunin-Borkowskiego w Krośniewicach). The museum has co-sponsored activities related to the city’s Jewish history, including the program, “Bringing Back the Memory of the Krośniewice Jewish Community” (with the Friends of Kutno Association).

Adam Mikołajczyk and Mayor Katarzyna Erdman in the Dunin-Burkowski Museum, Krośniewice

During our meeting all participants affirmed their willingness to help organize a half-day event for descendants in May. Our hosts told us about Sol Rosenkranz, a Holocaust survivor who returned to his hometown and built a fence and monument at the Jewish cemetery. They told us that Sol’s son still returns regularly to maintain the cemetery. The mayor had the impression that the town does not have permission to cut the grass themselves. She also said they know about tombstones under roads, including 20 or more in a nearby town. The Jewish cemetery has a few tombstones incorporated into a makeshift monument, and she hopes more can be recovered. 

Roberta asked Mayor Erdman what she considers Krośniewice’s biggest challenges. Erdman replied employment and investment. As with so many small towns in Poland (and throughout the world, really) young people are leaving in search of work and a better life. Her greatest task as mayor is finding investors who will build businesses and create jobs. Later, I asked Adam what motivated him to return to Krośniewice. He responded, “Someone needs to stay.” Also, he feels such a strong attachment to the place and its history he decided to try and make a life for himself there.

Sławomir and Adam told us about other Holocaust survivors. 92-year-old Róża Aleksander (now Krysia Nowak) still lives in town. As a young child, she and her mother Saba were hidden by Józefa Dziewierska, a righteous gentile acknowledged for her actions in 1997. Saba’s maiden name was Flaster; her husband’s name was Gabriel Alexander. Their daughter Róża was born in 1931 to Gabriel Aleksander and Saba Flaster Aleksander. During the war, mother and daughter adopted false identities Zofia and Krysia Marczak. Róża, now Krysia Nowak (her married name), used to meet with descendants but is no longer well enough to do so. Her testimony was recorded by the Shoah Foundation.

Another child survivor, (Hanna Kałużna?) lives in Wrocław. She and Krysia remain friends. Hanna used to visit Krysia in Krośniewice, but now that she is in her late 80s she hasn’t been able to.

We concluded our visit at the cemetery, which is 900 meters from the center of town. Cars whizzed by on the city bypass running up the slope from the cemetery. A paved drive leads to a metal gate, and a plaque on the right contains a brief history of the city’s Jews in Polish, English, and Hebrew. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODŻ) installed it in 2014.

Only Adam and Yosef ventured through the long grass inside, to the pile of debris that someone topped with matzevah fragments and cynically labelled a monument.

In the 1980’s, an unscrupulous businessman decided the abandoned cemetery would be an ideal place to dump construction debris. His illegal use was reported to the authorities, and he was told to remove the debris. Instead, to avoid the expense of clean-up and a fine, he mounted tombstone fragments atop the rubble and claimed that since it is now a monument none of it can be disturbed. 

Adam made photos with my phone, so I can share them here.

An important update to this report

ADJCP president Leon Zamosc shared what he knows about Sol Rosenkranz and Sol’s efforts to restore the cemetery.

“The initiative to restore the cemetery came from Sol Rosenkranz, a survivor from Krosniewice. He had been born in Grabow, but the family moved to Krosniewice when he was a child.
“During the war, Sol Rosenkranz was in six labor camps until his liberation in Theresienstadt. He and one of his brothers were the only survivors of his family. He came to the US in 1946, lived in New York and Los Angeles (where he worked as a volunteer speaker in the Simon Wiesenthal Center), and spent his final years back in New York (where he was an active gallery educator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park). He passed away in 2019 at the age of 101.
“After his liberation in 1945, Sol returned to Krosniewice and saw that the Germans had paved the town square with gravestones removed from the Jewish cemetery (all deliberately placed with the inscriptions up). That memory stayed with him for decades. In 2002, Sol visited Krosniewice and found that the communist administration had re-surfaced the town square in the early 1950s. The matzevot had been removed but there was no record of their whereabouts.
“In 2013, Sol went to Krosniewice again. At the dilapidated cemetery site, there were only half a dozen fragments of matzevot that someone had cemented together. Sol was not a wealthy man, but during that visit he decided that he would fund the restoration of the cemetery (placement of a fence around the perimeter of the cemetery and installation of an iron-wrought gate with a memorial plaque). The works were carried out by FODZ (the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland) and the dedication took place in 2014.”


More details: 
  https://www.jta.org/2014/11/19/ny/a-cemeterys-renovation-and-a-responsibility-fulfilled
Links to pages in Polish (can be translated right-clicking “Translate to English):
  https://tpzk.eu/z-historii-cmentarza-zydowskiego-w-krosniewicach/
  https://tpzk.eu/sol-rosenkranz-nowy-jork-wspomnienia-z-lat-1939%E2%88%921946/
  http://cmentarze-zydowskie.pl/krosniewice.htm

Leon also reached out to Sol’s son Joel who tells a slightly different story about the ongoing maintenance of the cemetery.

“When we dedicated the cemetery in 2014 we were hopeful that city officials including the then mayor Juliana Herman, the clergy and teachers would advocate support and maintenance – however that did not materialize.”

Joel also reached out to me with more details:

At the Wiesenthal Center, Sol worked in the library translating Yiddish and Hebrew letters and other documents for families, asking only that they make a donation to the Center in return. He started talking about the Shoah after Joel’s mother Sally died in 1996. He returned to New York and began to volunteer for the Museum of Jewish Heritage even before it had a physical space. He “embraced his role as a witness, speaking to students at schools of all denominations. After the MJH was established, he was a member of the Speakers Bureau for more than 20 years and by their estimate had told his story to more than 10,000 people, one class or group at a time.”

He further explains “Regarding Krosniewice cemetery maintenance, because Nature remained unchecked in that spot for decades, trees and shrubs developed deep roots. According to Rabbinic law as Rabbi Schudrich stated, in clearing the cemetery grounds, it was not permitted to use any heavy equipment that would disturb bodies below the surface. As a result, the tools we used were chainsaws to cut trunks as close to the ground as possible, clippers  and weed whackers. Within a year, certainly two, nature asserted herself again and so a program of perpetual care is what is required. Local authorities don’t have any ownership authority, but they could certainly play a helpful, respectful role in maintenance if they wanted.”

Sol Rosenkranz (right) with Rabbi Michael Schudrich at the rededication of the Krosniewice Jewish cemetery

This just goes to show how hard it can be to maintain cemeteries and other memorial sites. Even when all sides approach a project with good will, plenty of room remains for misunderstanding. It is also a real challenge for information to be passed down from one government administration to the next, and from one activist to another.

Restoring Jewish Memory in Żychlin

Report #3 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.

Our visit to Żychlin began with a meeting at Town Hall with 8th graders and their teachers from the local school. The children were shy—reluctant to speak in English or in Polish with us—but clearly we had their full attention as we shared our family connection to central Poland and explained why we were visiting. We used a question and answer format to gauge their knowledge about Jewish culture, history, and religion, and to share some basic knowledge with them.

8th grade students with Yosef, Roberta, and Marysia. Their teacher is on the right

Because I heard Żychlin Mayor Grzegorz Ambroziak speak at the unveiling of the new monument commemorating Żychlin’s Jewish community, I had the sense he wants to preserve the memory of the town’s Jews. At our meeting, he confirmed this. He led the conversation with his concerns about the fate of the synagogue ruins, which are situated in an impoverished area just off the central town square. After the war, the city used the building as a warehouse, and they maintained it until the Jewish Community of Warsaw reclaimed the property. For years it stood empty as the city negotiated with the Jewish Community to obtain legal possession of the building. They envisioned turning it into a museum of regional history. The city was granted possession of the synagogue in 2007-8, exactly when the roof caved in. Since then, the decay of the building has accelerated due to the lack of a roof. Currently, wooden supports hold up the shorter walls of the building, but it looks like it could fall down at any moment.  The city would like to use the space for a museum.

Meeting at Żychlin Town Hall: Yosef Kutner, Roberta Books, Marysia Galbraith, Mayor Grzegorz Ambroziak, President of the Association of Żychlin History Enthusiasts (TMHŻ) Anna Wrzesińska

Mayor Ambroziak invited the ADJCP to cosign a Letter of Intent attesting to our interest in rebuilding the synagogue. With this affirmation that interest in the synagogue extends beyond the immediate needs of Żychlin residents, he is confident the city can obtain funds from the Ministry of Culture and the EU for the renovation. All such funding requires cost-sharing by the municipality, and he is prepared to provide those matching funds from the city budget.

We also gained the mayor’s support for 3 other ADJCP projects in Żychlin: the plaque for righteous gentile Szułdrzyński, cemetery restoration, and help organizing our memorial trip.

  • The ADJCP will provide a plaque commemorating a righteous gentile from Zychlin named Stanisław Szułdrzynski; Bożena Gajewska will arrange its manufacture for us. The mayor agreed to find an appropriate place for the plaque, and to arrange for it to be officially unveiled during our memorial visit in May 2023. 
  • The mayor welcomes our efforts to clean up and restore the Jewish Cemetery.  The cemetery is managed by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODŻ). The city does not take responsibility for regular maintenance. When they do cut the vegetation (as they did for the recent Forum for Dialogue project “In the Footsteps of Żychlin’s Jews”) they have to cut back thorny bushes (trzcina, black thorn). They said they are not allowed to dig the roots out or use pesticides, which means within a few months the bushes grow right back. Roberta has contacted Rabbi Schudrich for clarification of what maintenance practices are allowed and to confirm who owns the cemetery.
  • The Mayor will be pleased to greet ADJCP in May 2023. Anna Wrzesińska will walk around with them.

After the meeting, we stepped across the street to see the monument to Żychlin’s Jews, unveiled in June as part of the project “In the Footsteps of Zychlin Jews.” Bożena Gajewska of the Friends of the Kutno Region (TPŻK) ran the program with the help of Anna Wrzesińska and funding from the Forum for Dialogue. Mayor Ambroziak also contributed funds for the plaque; because of the length of the inscription, it exceeded the approved budget.

Memorial to Żychlin’s Jewish community

Anna Wrzesińksa took us to the office of the Association of Żychlin History Enthusiasts (Towarzyszenie Miłośników Histori Żychlinskiej, TMHŻ) where we met with members of the organization and learned about their recent projects. They showed us the display boards from an exhibition they put together about Żychlin’s Jewish Community. It was on display this spring during the Forum for Dialogue project “In the Footsteps of Żychlin’s Jews.” They also showed us the numerous publications they have released, including a photocopy of their latest work, still awaiting publication, about Żychlin’s Jewish history.

Jerzy Werwiński, 92-year-old member (born in 1931) shared his recollections of wartime, starting with the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in 1942. He was just a boy; he hid in an attic across the street and watched from a window as the Jewish residents were rounded up and placed in horse-drawn farmer’s wagons and carted 2 km to the train station. From there, they were transported by train to the Chełmno Death Camp. Once Jerzy started talking he couldn’t stop. Visibly shaken, he described his own wartime experiences. Essentially, he spent the next three years in work camps and prison, until he was liberated by the advancing Soviet Army in January 1944. He recounted living in barracks, sleeping on hard wooden planks with no blankets even in the coldest winter nights. They had very little to eat; each morning a loaf of bread would be cut in six pieces for six people for the whole day. He was told he can eat it all at once but then go hungry the rest of the day or he could nibble on it throughout the day. At night, they got a cup of soup that was mostly water with just a few chunks of potato or other vegetables. The other TMHŻ members were born after the war, but their parents told them stories of deprivation and forced labor. Clearly, they have more to say about the hardships experienced during the war; I asked if I can return so they can tell me more and I can record their stories.

We finished our visit with a walk to the synagogue ruins. The remaining walls are in bad shape and look like they could collapse at any moment. This is a shame because even a few years ago when I first visited, the walls were reasonably sturdy. Some of the interior wall paintings could still be seen through the empty windows; these all appear to have been erased by the weather. The first step of any project will need to be to assess the condition of the remaining structure.

Kutno: Partnerships for Preservation

Report #2 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.

September 8-12, ADJCP Members Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith, Jewish Kutno Member Yosef Kutner

Our visit to Kutno was organized by our tireless partner Bożena Gajewska, until recently the director of the Friends of Kutno (Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Żiemi Kutnowski, TPŻK) and the coordinator of multiple projects related to Jewish memory.

We started the day in the Kutno Jewish Cemetery.

Panorama of the Kutno Jewish Cemetery from the top of the hill, Roberta stands beside the memorial monument on the left

The cemetery is the largest one in our area, covering 3 hectares. Yosef’s mission was to inspect the boundaries to see the condition of the fence. We found some fragments of the prewar brick fence. There are several access points to the cemetery, making it a place where Kutno residents cut through on their way to school or home, or where they walk their dogs or children play. Despite signs posted by the TPŻK explaining this is a cemetery and should be respected, piles of trash in remote corners of the cemetery suggest it is used as a place to drink and socialize. We located a sunken area where a tree grows, the likely sight of the Ohel of Rabbi Israel Joshua Trunk (1821-93), and larger sunken area hidden by overgrowth that might be the site of a wartime mass grave.

Next, we met the Kutno Regional Museum Director Grzegorz Skrzynecki and others at a defunct brewery warehouse where the museum stores hundreds of matzevot fragments recovered from the places they were used in road and construction projects (a common practice during and after the German occupation). The volume of stones is astounding, though still just a fraction of the matzevot plundered from the cemetery. You can see many of them with English translations of the decipherable texts in Yosef Kutner’s book Broken Memories: Remains from the Jewish Cemetery in Kutno. Yosef compiled the book from photographs, so this is the first time he saw the actual stones. Piled as they were, most of their identifying numbers are not visible. Nevertheless, there on the surface, Yosef found the top of his great grandfather’s tombstone. Mr. Skrzynecki explained that more fragments were found during a recent road project. They didn’t make it into the book, but I’m sure Yosef will find a way to share that information once he has it.

Yosef scans the recovered matzevot fragments, many of which he includes in his book Broken Memories

Meeting to discuss cemetery protection and maintenance

The meeting to discuss the future of the Kutno Jewish Cemetery followed. It was attended by key figures from the Jewish Community of Poland (Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich), from the town of Kutno (Deputy Mayor Zbigniew Wdowiak, town attorney Agnieszka Wojkowska-Pawlak, museum director Grzegorz Skrzynecki, museum public relations and marketing Katarzyna Erwińska, library head Magdalena Konczarek, and Michael Adamski, head of the Department of Culture, Promotion, and Development), from the Association of Friends of the Kutno Region–TPŻK (Bożena Gajewska), and from international Jewish heritage groups (Yosef from Jewish Kutno and Roberta and me from ADJCP).

Yosef Kutner presenting his proposal for the Kutno Jewish Cemetery. Rabbi Schudrich seated on the right

This description is based on Roberta Books’ memo: The city deputy president opened the meeting with a presentation of the many actions the Town of Kutno has undertaken in support of remembrance of the Jewish history of Kutno, including the biennial Asch Festival.  

Josef Kutner followed with a slide presentation about the Jewish cemetery of Kutno, and his proposal for protection of the property. His proposal includes fencing the entire property with a brick wall that resembles the wall around the Christian cemetery, confirming the location of two mass graves mentioned in the Yizkor book and commemorating the mass graves with an appropriate marker, and limiting access to the site in order to prevent partygoers and others from disrespecting the site. Kutner also advocated creating a memorial with the preserved matsevot and marking the site of Rabbi Trunk’s Ohel.  

The town attorney then discussed the ownership of the site. Important records for verifying with legal clarity that the Jewish Community of Kutno owned the site, in particular the Land Registry Book, are missing and unlikely to be located. Despite 20 years of effort, the town has been caught between legal requirements and administrative rulings that have called into question their legal right to maintain the site. Although no interested party questions that the site belonged to the Jewish Community of Kutno, legally this remains a murky area.  

Rabbi Schudrich responded that he has dealt with similar problems in Poland on a number of occasions and he is confident that he can sort this out satisfactorily. He told the parties that they should begin planning while the legal issues were being sorted.  

Schudrich and the deputy president talked about the change in mentality that they expect will come about when the plans began to come to fruition. When Jewish cemeteries are protected, local residents begin to take pride in them and matsevot have a way of coming out of hiding and returning to the cemetery.  

The deputy president voiced his full support for the cemetery renovation, including covering the costs of a new wall. He noted that he, too, had drawn up preliminary plans for fencing the cemetery. They differ from Kutner’s proposal in two key ways. His design would be constructed of metal with brick pillars, not brick like the historical wall or the wall surrounding the Christian cemetery. Also, it would have multiple access points rather than the single access point in the Kutner proposal. The deputy president wants current residents to remain able to walk across the site; he pointed out that its location in the middle of the city would complicate closing it off. He wants the site to be respected as an integral part of the town. He noted that Rabbi Schudrich was consulted throughout the development of the plan, and he supported this idea. 

I want to emphasize the good will everyone projected toward each other as well as the resolve to push through the twenty-year roadblock that has stalled the project to secure the cemetery. Since the meeting, Yosef Kutner has continued to share materials about the likely location of the mass grave and to push for his vision for the cemetery restoration.

Additional meetings

After lunch, we visited the city library, where director Magdalena Konczarek showed us a short film they produced about Sholem Asch, his work, and the biennial Kutno Sholem Asch Festival. The library sponsors the festival, which has been held every other year since 1993. They also have an extensive collection of materials related to the Jewish history of Kutno and of Asch. They have published several academic volumes based on papers delivered at the conference that occurs in conjunction with the festival, as well as Polish translations of Asch’s work. For the memorial trip in May, Magdalena and library historian/regional specialist Andrzej Olewnik will mount an exhibition featuring their collection.

We continued to the offices of the TPŻK where we met Bożena Gajewska (until recently the organization president) and the vice-president Grażyna Baranowska (former librarian and organizer of the Sholem Asch Festival). Bożena reaffirmed her commitment to continue working on projects associated with Jewish Kutno, and Grażyna affirmed the continued support of the TPŻK.

The next day, we viewed an exhibition in the Kutno Community Center about the Eizyk brothers who bred and grew roses before and after the war. From this successful business, the city adopted the moniker “City of Roses.” The exhibition was part of the annual Rose Festival that attracts thousands of visitors to Kutno.

Students at the Jan Kasprowicz High School in Kutno, together with Roberta, Marysia, and principal Ciurlej

On September 12, we visited students at the Jan Kasprowicz High School (Liceum II). Roberta and I agree that such outreach to young people was one of the most important (if not the most important) part of our visit. We were welcomed by school director (principal) Artur Ciurlej, teacher Anna Ambrosiak, and a room full of students eager to hear from us. They showed us a short video about their recent activities related to Jewish memory (including dancing lessons!), and then Roberta and I each told our personal family story, explained our ancestors lived nearby, and talked briefly about our desire to restore Jewish memory. The meeting took place in English, but the students clearly understood us; they asked thoughtful questions and shared some of their own experiences with us. We spoke for more than a class period, even after the bells rang. Some students promised to meet us again in May, although they will have graduated by then.

Final note: Clearly, we have strong partners in the Kutno city government and with the TPŻK. They all expressed the desire to work with us and seem to have a sincere interest in preserving and promoting the Jewish heritage of the city. They are eager to participate in the memorial trip in May.

They Want to Know Our Stories:

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Report #1 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP’s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.

What stories were passed down in your families? Do you have any photos from Poland?

Roberta Books and I took a whirlwind trip through central Poland to meet with local government officials, as well as representatives of nonprofit organizations, local history organizations, and schools. Our primary goals were to introduce the the Association of Descendants of Jewish Central Poland (ADJCP), discuss ways we can collaborate on projects that commemorate and preserve Jewish history in the region, and develop partnerships with people who will help coordinate activities for the May 2023 memorial trip. I will post photos and brief outlines of our visits to 15 of the towns in our region, but first let me share some overall impressions.

First and foremost, everywhere we went, we met people interested in the Jewish history of their communities and most of them have already worked on projects preserving and publicizing that history. We are confident they will prepare an interesting program for our memorial trip.

Roberta and I made a great team. I initiated and translated most of the conversations, while Roberta kept notes on who we met and what we discussed. She also asked a lot of great questions that helped clarify what our Polish partners have done and the source of their interest in Jewish heritage.

The working itinerary for our heritage trip is as follows:

Proposed schedule for memorial trip for members of the Association of Descendants of Jewish Central Poland (ADJCP). Map shows the towns that will be included on the trip.

We asked our Polish partners to help plan half-day or full-day activities, depending on the size of the town. Specifically, we asked for a tour of Jewish sites, a visit to the Jewish cemetery, and one other organized activity such as a visit to a local school or a museum exhibition about Jewish residents of the town. Partners in Wloclawek and Kutno were asked to organize additional activities since we will be in these places for a full day. They will help us find translators wherever our partners don’t speak English.

We emphasized that our hope is to establish lasting connections. We asked our partners what they would like to see done in their community and how we might help. Pretty much everyone expressed the desire for personal accounts of the experiences of Jewish residents (even those told to our members by older relatives) as well as photographs. Our partners would use these materials in educational programs, exhibitions, and publications.

Do you have any stories or photographs to share? Please let us know and we will make sure they are delivered to our partners in the places where our ancestors lived.

Lesko Synagogue Model

Fred Ball contacted me a while back because he wanted to make a clay model of the synagogue in Lesko. He calls himself an amateur, but I think you’ll agree that this model shows remarkable skill in capturing the details and contours of this distinctive structure. Fred says this is his 8th synagogue model. He mostly does Polish synagogues because that is where his own family roots are; he says he finds the wooden ones particularly appealing. He looks for buildings with interesting and unusual architecture, and he also makes sure he can find plenty of photographs of all four sides of the structure. The model is 8″ wide X 8.5″ long X 7″ high to the top of the tower. The flagpole adds a little additional height.

Can you guess what the roof is made of?

Cardboard! That silver paint is a very convincing approximation of metal.

Marry Someone We Know

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My Mom was always looking for wives for my brothers. She favored people we knew—the O’Leesky girls next door or my best friend Kara. These were girls who were in and out of our house all the time and Mama came to love and trust them. All it took was noticing one of her sons was also friends with one of these girls and that was it. “June and Ronnie should get married,” she would say, noticing how they walked hand in hand at age ten. Then, she wanted Wilan to marry June’s younger sister Kim. Once Kara became a fixture in our house, Mama talked longingly about keeping her close and the best way to do so seemed to be marrying her off to one of her sons. First, she hoped Kara would marry Ronnie. Later, she hoped Kara would marry Chris. After all, they got along so well. Only now, years later, I realize Mama never tried to match me with any of the boys in the neighborhood. She never felt sure about me pairing off with anyone, though she began warm up to my first love—around the time we broke up—and she developed a fondness for my husband. Eventually.

Ron and June hold hands circa 1969. In front, my brothers Wiley and Chris, me, cousin Andrew, and June's sister Kim
Ron and June hold hands circa 1969. In front, my brothers Wiley and Chris, me, cousin Andrew, and June’s sister Kim.

Mama was slow to make room for people in her inner circle, but once she did, she wanted to keep them close for life.

This may well be a holdover from the Jewish family she was distanced from by her mother’s conversion. After all, that family is made up of a crisscross web of Piwko, Walfisz, Kolski, and Winawer ancestors. Her grandfather’s brother married her grandmother’s sister (Hil Majer Piwko married Hinda Walfisz, while Jankel Wolf Piwko married Tema Walfisz). My grandmother’s brother Abraham Jon married Bertha Kolska (the female version of the surname), while her sister Regina married Pinchas Kolski. I don’t know how Bertha and Pinchas were related, but it’s likely they were since they both came from the same town, Kłodawa. When Regina died, another sister, Rachel, married Regina’s widow.

The practice of marrying within these linked families continued even among descendants who moved to Switzerland, Israel, and the United States. A generation later, Pinchas and Rachel’s son Abrash married Jankel Wolf and Tema’s granddaughter Poili. So Abrash and Poili were second cousins twice over—their Walfisz grandmothers were sisters and their Piwko grandfathers were brothers.

Other overlapping relations tie the family web together even more tightly. Two of my grandmother’s other sisters married cousins—Liba married Jacob Winawer and Sarah married Saul Winawer. Sarah and Saul’s son married Sally, whose older sister was married to Sarah’s brother Philip.

It takes a 3-D chart to keep track of it all.

For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how another cousin, Arline Jacoby, was related to me. Eventually, I figured out the connection goes back to both sisters of my great grandmother Hinda Walfisz. Arline’s grandmother was Łaja/Leah Walfisz. Arline’s husband Harry was the grandson of Tema Walfisz, or more likely, Tema was his step-grandmother.  After Tema’s first husband Jankel Wolf Piwko died, she remarried Akiva Jakubowicz, who was also a widow and the father of two sons including Harry’s father. It took me a while to piece this all together because in the US, the family name was shortened to Jacoby.

Clearly, the family pattern was to marry within the group—what anthropologists call endogamy. Endogamy was very common among Ashkenazi Jews; they very rarely married non-Jews, and if they did it usually meant that the offspring were not raised Jewish. That’s why it is more common to find traces of Jewish DNA among non-Jewish Slavs than it is to find Slavic DNA within Ashkenazi Jewish populations. I wonder, though. How common was it to seek spouses among families that were already related to via other marriage ties? And what were the reasons for it? Was it akin to my mother’s desire to strengthen emotional links with people she already felt an intimate attachment to? Or was it more related to the pragmatics of religious and business connections?

That map got me thinking

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Looking at the map showing the movement of Polish forces against Nazi invaders right through the land of my ancestors, I imagine the shock they must have felt. From one day to the next, they became strangers in their native place. By comparison the disruption we’ve endured for the past nine months due to COVID seems far more manageable. As I walk past the “for sale” signs on businesses in Northport’s sleepy downtown, I envision post-World War II Warsaw, the national capitol reduced to a seemingly endless expanse of rubble. Things are falling apart right now, but at least for the time being we’re not at war. We’re not being forced out of our homes and crammed into substandard shacks across town. We haven’t been stripped of our citizenship or our right to work or to go to school. For all the tragedy and disfunction around us today, we have reasonable hope that vaccines will allow us to resume our normal lives in a few more months. In another year at most.

This map of the Nazi invasion of Poland got me thinking about the losses due to COVID

I thought about these things as I tried to walk my way out of a headache this morning. One consequence of being my mother’s daughter is that a part of me is always ready for the possibility that everything will fall apart, as it did for her when her junior year in France was preempted by Nazi’s overrunning her country, when her city was bombed street by street, when her surgeries left her more scarred than she had been beforehand, when a stupid accident killed her first born.

I’ve been lucky. But also, I keep expecting my luck to run out. On one hand, this makes me appreciate what I have. I don’t take it for granted because a part of me anticipates its loss. I’m reminded of a common response to challenges among my friends in Poland in the early 1990s as they struggled to adjust to the world transforming around them; they would say, “We need to be grateful for what we have.” That really resonated with me as I struggled with loneliness as the only non-native in the small town I lived in while doing fieldwork for my dissertation.

And it continues to resonate with me. Any time things don’t go my way or I struggle with loss, I remind myself, “trzeba się cieszyć z tym co my mamy.” The words flow through me in Polish and make my sadness and frustration easier to bear. I think being my mother’s daughter also taught me how to deal with loss. You don’t retreat from the emotions. You feel them, as hard as they may be. Loss doesn’t erase the good things about what is lost, either. Grief connects you with what you’re missing, whether it be a place or an event or a person. Living with grief means what’s been lost is still in your life.

Right now, I feel the loss of so much—of sociability, of travel, of normal interactions with students inside a classroom unmediated by masks and computer screens. But I’m also grateful for what I have. And for what I used to have.