My great-grandmother Hinda Walfisz was born in 1854 in Żychlin, a town near Kutno and perhaps 100km from Warsaw. Before World War II, its Jewish residents (the first of whom settled in the 16th century) comprised as much as 60% of the population. None returned after the war. Many were shot by the Nazis; others were moved into ghettos and then to the death camps. Today, Żychlin has about 10,000 residents, including descendents of prewar Catholic families and others who migrated to the town after the war.
My guides where local historians Henryk and Agnieszka Olszewski. Pan Henryk emphasized to me that local history is his passion, but that he is an amateur (his word). I found him through his blog http://zychlin-historia.com.pl/ in which he documents his ongoing discovery of historical information about the town. Henryk’s wife Agnieszka said she couldn’t avoid becoming interested in history through her husband. She took the lead when describing the places we visited, while pan Henryk talked more about the supporting documents he has found through the people he has met, in Polish archives, and online.
From the very beginning, pan Henryk stressed to me that Jews and Christians lived well together. There were no pogroms in Żychlin. He drove us through former Jewish neighborhoods to the synagogue, Jewish cemetery, and World War II ghettos.
The synagogue is in a neglected part of town, surrounded on two sides by the backs of buildings. The roads here have not been resurfaced in a long time. They have ruts and holes, and one paved with rounded stones probably dates back a hundred years. Pani Agnieszka explained that all the buildings around there used to be owned and occupied by Jews. Now they belong to the town and are rented. It doesn’t look like anyone bothers to maintain them. For instance, the wall of one house has a wide crack, windows are old, and plaster is falling off walls. Residents looked out at us from behind curtains and doorways.
The synagogue was used by the Nazis as a warehouse. They bricked up all but the tops of the long arched windows. For many years after the war, a state cooperative continued to use the building as a warehouse, but now it stands abandoned. The roof fell in five or six years ago. Pan Henryk said one day there was a loud crash as it just collapsed. Until recently, the wooden babiniec (2nd floor where women sat) was still held up by metal beams, and the wall paintings were still intact in places. But only a few fragments of paint survive today, barely visible through the gaps where the windows used to be.
The salvageable metal and wood were carted away. “You know how it is,” pan Henryk explained. The fate of the remaining walls is uncertain. Pan Henryk says the Jewish Community gave it to the local government after the roof fell in, but they have no money to renovate it, nor can they tear it down because it’s protected as a historic site. For now, it seems fated to continue to deteriorate along with the homes and roads around it.