The Jewish cemetery is on a hillside on the outskirts of Żychlin, surrounded by a metal fence. The place is overgrown, though not too long ago someone cleared out some of the underbrush, leaving cut branches in piles. The tombstones were decimated during World War II. The remaining fragments were assembled into roughly formed monuments, which are disturbing for several reasons. For one, there are so few remnants relative to the size of the cemetery. Second, most are just pieces of the original stones. Third, the monuments have a haphazard quality. I wished for something better able to display the details of the remaining tombstones, and more visually compelling. Three such piles (I don’t really know what to call them) are near the entrance gate. A fourth is behind a monument with the inscription in Polish and Hebrew, “In memory of our brothers buried in this cemetery as well as for those murdered by Hitler’s criminals at Chełm [Concentration Camp] 1942.” The plaques are covered with graffiti—mostly peoples’ names, though “Wisła,” the name of a soccer team, is also inscribed. The only grave in what seems like its full form is that of a rabbi. The upright rectangular stone has a plaque inscribed in Hebrew, and domed stones cover the gravesite.
No one remembered for sure, but pani Agnieszka said she thinks a foundation paid for the renovation of the cemetery in the early 1990s. Later, pan Józef at the local government offices recalled the work was done during the first term of the postcommunist local government, which would put it about 22 years ago.
Other events directly associated with the destruction of Jewish life and lives occurred in Żychlin. Nazi occupiers marched 200 Jews to the cemetery and shot them. Pan Józef recalls his father and two other neighbors were awakened by the Nazis and told to dig graves for murdered Jews. There were also two Jewish ghettos in town. The smaller one was on the grounds of an old factory. A long, low workers’ residence (which remains occupied today) was also where Jews lived in the ghetto. The larger ghetto was nearer the center of town. One side of it ran along Budzyńska Street, which was the most common address for Jews in the early 20th century (see Tomasz Kawski, Gminy zydowskie pogranicza Wielkopolski Mazowsza i Pomorza w latach 1918-1942, 2007, pp. 270-77). Pan Henryk explained that the area used to contain smaller, older homes. All the Jews were moved to the area on one side of Budzińska Street, and all the Poles were moved to the area on the other side. Jews were only allowed to walk on the side of street that was in the ghetto. The Jews were removed in 1942 to death camps in other parts of Poland. All the buildings in the ghetto were burned. Pan Henryk gave me a photo of Jews’ possessions stacked in piles in a barren field that had been the ghetto, and a thriving neighborhood before that. In total about 4000 people lived in both ghettos. Most were from Żychlin, though some came from the surrounding area. No one returned after the war.
The former ghetto area is now filled with block apartments dating from the 1970s. Some older homes survived along Budzyńska Street. Pani Agnieszka pointed out typical characteristics of Jewish buildings. They tend to be shallow with windows on just the front and sides, and a flat windowless back as if the owners anticipated adding on another home that would share the back wall. She pointed out one house where after the war bedding and other valuables were found above a false ceiling in the attic. There was mention of other places where hidden treasures were found or where former residents returned to dig up the valuables they left behind, but the details were fuzzy. So maybe they really happened, though maybe they are stories built out of the stereotype of rich Jews.