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.
So gratifying that you were able to see the synagogue structure before it breathes its last. I wonder if others in search of their roots have been there over the years?. Did Pan Henryk mention other researchers? Did he have photos of the building before the roof came down?
Marysia Galbraith said:
I heard some stories from some of the residents I met about Jews returning to see where their ancestors lived, but the details are clouded by certain stereotypes about seeking lost treasure. Pan Henryk gave me some photos of the synagogue from various time periods. I’ll post them.
Tobias Kaye said:
Good question. My cousin and I visited Zychlin in 1992 and found the synagogue in better condition, although nothing like it’s former glory. My father was raised by his grandfather, Dawid Kruk, who was a hebrew school teacher at the same synagogue!
Dawid was a pious Jew and hebrew school teacher at the local synagogue in Zychlin. He and his wife, Dwojra (Devorah) raised their grandson (and my father) Peretz, after his mother died following childbirth. They were extremely poor and always hungry, but otherwise a very loving family. They lived at ul. Kilinskiego #11, steps from the synagogue.
My father tells me that several survivors told him of Dawid being taunted outside the Zychlin synagogue by Nazis during Yom Kippur, 1943. They poured gasoline on him and told him to “dance, Jew, dance”. When he complied, they casually tossed a match at him and yelled “burn, Jew, burn”, and “let’s see if your Hebrew God will save you now”. My great grandfather had enough time to say the first few words of Kaddish before dying an agonizing death.
Marysia Galbraith said:
Thank you for sharing your family history. What an awful, evil way to treat another human being.
Kinga Czechowska said:
There’s very interesting publication about those stereotypes (among others), both in Polish and English: Wilczyk Wojciech, Niewinne oko nie istnieje/ There’s no such thing as an innocent eye, Łódź 2009. Among photographed synagogue there is one from Żychlin. Another photo of this synagogue, with short information about history of Jews in this town, is in: Bergman Eleonora, Zachowane synagogi i domy modlitwy w Polsce: katalog, Warszawa 1996. Schul is one of Żychlin’s buildings described in: Popławski Bogdan, Najcenniejsze zabytki Żychlina, małego miasteczka mazowieckiego, Studia i Materiały z Dziejów Kutna i Powiatu, 2011, t. 1, s. 14-32 (there are photos and copy of plan. All of these photos were taken when roof was still on the building. I can send you copies of them 🙂
Marysia Galbraith said:
Thank you for this information. I would gladly see those photos. I have Wilczyk’s book but not the others.
Dziękuję za informację. Chętnie zobaczę zdjęcia. Mam książkę Wilczyka, ale nie reszta. Pozdrawiam.