Although I knew the former synagogue still stands in Radymno, had to look several times before I actually found it. I’ve visited for years, and yet my friends never even told me the town had a prewar Jewish population. But until June, I never thought to ask them about it, either.
When I finally did ask, my friend couldn’t tell me much. She repeated a common refrain, especially in southeastern Poland: Jews used to say “nasze kamienicy, wasze ulicy” [“our buildings, your streets”]. It’s not clear that any Jews ever actually said this, but nevertheless, this is often what is remembered about them—Poles may have been the majority but Jews were richer. It’s a telling way of marking the distinction between Poles and Jews. Rather than all residents being regarded as Poles of various religions, Jews remained separate. Moreover Jews are remembered as being complicit in asserting their difference, and indeed their superiority. My friend didn’t mean it this way, but I’ve commonly heard this expression deployed as a justification for why Poles didn’t like Jews. Not only were Jews the property owners, they rubbed it in.
Jewish property ownership poses different challenges today. Some current residents fear prewar owners will return to claim what was theirs. My friend told me about two men who came to Radymno a few years ago and looked at some buildings that had once belonged to Jews. She also described a building in the center of town that is falling apart, but nothing can be done about it. It can’t be torn down because it is a historic structure, but no one will invest in its renovation for fear they will lose possession of it if the owner comes back. She also mentioned another property, a plot of land surrounded by fields whose last owners were Jews. The town hasn’t pursued a clarification of ownership because it isn’t worth enough to hire a lawyer and try and collect the few zloties of tax owed on it each year. So it just stands fallow. I suggested the owner is probably dead. She said of course, it’s been so many years. I clarified there probably aren’t even any descendants, and she responded “of course, because of what happened to Jews.” She didn’t elaborate, nor did she use the words Holocaust, murder, or genocide.
My friend’s mother-in-law had heard her mother’s stories about Jews. She grew up right next door to where they live now. Still, when we asked her about it, she responded she doesn’t know much. She was too young, and her mother didn’t tell her much. She remembers her mother complaining about the sound of the calves at the slaughterhouse across the fields. Kosher law demanded that they be killed with a single knife stroke, and with an empty stomach. Her mother could hear the calves crying in hunger as they awaited slaughter. There still is a slaughterhouse in the same spot, but it has been rebuilt and expanded. At first, my friend’s mother said it used to be owned by Jews, but then she said she wasn’t sure. Jews definitely used it, even if they weren’t the owners.
Her father opened a grocery store in Jarosław, a nearby town. All his neighbors were Jewish shopkeepers. He had to give up the business after a year and a half because they lowered their prices to the point that he could not compete.
Her mother also told her how all the Jews were collected by the Germans and taken to the cemetery where they were shot. She mourned the loss of two young pretty Jewesses, whom she knew because they did seamstress work together.
My friend’s mother-in-law said some Jews and Poles się przyjaźnili [were friendly with each other]. They lived side by side.
She also recalled where the Jewish cemetery was, not far from the water treatment plant.
My friend drove me down a dirt road past the plant, but there was no cemetery. When the road narrowed to two wheel tracks in tall grass, we turned around. My friend pointed to a stand of trees in the distance, saying she thought the cemetery was there. She tried to find someone at the water treatment plant but no one responded. From there, she stopped at a store, but chanced on a man who lives in a nearby city. The young men working at the car wash knew nothing about the cemetery, either. She finally found an older woman who pointed to a different, less traveled dirt road. We drove up it, but it didn’t get us to that stand of trees. My friend kept looking for a road leading in that direction. I can’t help wondering if maybe at some point in the past she hd been told the cemetery was there.
We drove past the slaughterhouse her mother-in-law had mentioned. It’s a big operation, rebuilt and expanded since the war. The building closer to the road, essentially a box shape, is probably the oldest.
From there, we took a back road up the hill into town and I finally got to see the former synagogue. It is now a beverage wholesaler. My friend’s uncle lives next door. I took some photos while she went to ask him if he knew where the cemetery might be.
The front of the synagogue is an imposing two-story square façade that has been renovated, leaving no clear elements of synagogue architecture. From the back, though, the bricked-in semicircular tops of the former synagogue windows are visible. Through windows, you can also see staircases on either side that used to go to the “babiniec,” the upstairs balcony for women. My friend’s uncle used this term when he described it to us, so clearly he knows a bit about the building’s former life as a synagogue. He said nothing has been added to the building. It still has the same footprint, and it stands at its original height. I asked him how he knows, and he simply responded, “after all, I live next door.”
My friend’s uncle also knew how to get to the cemetery. He said he last went there over 30 years ago. As a high school student and a young man, he and his friends used to go there sometimes to have fun (in other words to drink). He remembers some tombstones were still standing, though many others had been brought to the river where people would wash their clothes on them. The writing was still visible on them, but later, the stones fell apart. Today there is nothing left.
He took us past the slaughterhouse and up a different dirt road. It petered out in a cornfield, right beside the stand of overgrowth and trees that Jasia had kept pointing toward. Still, we still couldn’t reach it because of a deep gully that separated it from the cornfield. Besides, the overgrowth would not have been penetrable without proper footwear, pants, and probably a machete. I suggested returning in the winter might be best.
At least I know the site to return to.
Well you’re probably expecting this comment from me by now. It is so hard for me to not have my blood boil as I read this post in particular. I guess I should be numb by now to the rampant, open as well as subversive antisemitism that exists. Poles versus Jews reference is bad enough but to continue to demonize them in aggregate is simply ignorant or worse. The mere inference and subtext of “they deserved” what happened to them in the Holocaust is appalling. In the wake of the recent French and California terrorist attacks, it punctuates how pervasive, perpetuated, and prevalent these horrible sentiments are even today.
Marysia Galbraith said:
Yes, there is a subtext of antisemitism (past and present) in what I describe in this post. But it would be wrong to generalize about Poles from it, just as it is wrong to demonize any group on the basis of the misdeeds of some members. I don’t know exactly what part of this post makes your blood boil. Maybe because Jews were (and still are) often excluded from the category “Poles?” Yes, it’s a problem, but it is also very complex. Historically, Poles and Jews in his region lived very different lives, and those boundaries were drawn on both sides. In many cases, they were divided by language and custom as well as religion. I don’t say this to justify, but rather to explain. It’s also important to read the context of my friend’s reluctance to name the cause when referring to “what happened to the Jews.” These are things that we suppressed for over 50 years (so essentially two generations). I have another friend in Lesko who opened up to me about these things last summer, too. She explained that she grew up just knowing that these are not things that polite people talk about. So no one ever did. That fact that my friend in Radymno also felt comfortable talking to me, AND persuading her mother-in-law to also open up to me, AND to drive around looking for these places, AND get her uncle involved in the search speak volumes for how the silence is breaking. People are reconsidering the old stereotypes that have been passed down unreflectively through a period of political oppression. There still is antisemitism in Poland. But no more so than there is in France or the US. I’m watching anxiously to see whether the positive steps made to challenge antisemitism throughout Poland will be weighed down by the recent political success of a nationalist, pro-Catholic party.
It isn’t your text that makes me unnerved, it is the inferences from the expressed sentiments. First, looks like my spell check was not working well and regret the misspellings in my original post. Second, pls also forgive my erroneous and unintended inference to demonize “Poles” in aggregate. Regardless, as we have discussed before and you are witnessing – national status/citizenship has nothing to do with religion or at least shouldn’t. Being Jewish, is one’s religion, not their nationality. The commentary is also reminiscent of what many of the Germans said and continue to say. Often the sentiments motivation is an attempt at defensive posturing, justification, or simply to perpetuate ignorance rather than accept reality of the action, complicity, and/or inaction. We see this even in this country when referencing our slavery history. I concur anti-Semitism exists everywhere and sincerely would love to believe your comment that it exists no more so in Poland than in France or our country. I would submit that is just likely not the case. That is not meant to be interpreted that Poland has more or less. Just like we are appalled by a presidential candidate’s mention of limiting access of one religious group’s entry into our country, at least we can have that open dialogue in this country. It is not easy to “measure” the true volume of bias, prejudice etc. Since the two incidences of terrorism in France this past year alone, the migration of Jews out of France which was already occurring prior to the incidents has increased significantly since the attacks. I recall reading one recent article indicating a 30% increase. I reference same only to point out that Anti-Semitism is sadly on the rise in France and many other EU countries. This all harks back to my prior commentaries and our discussions about growing up “Jewish” versus observation. When one grows up Jewish culturally and /or formally, there are constant reminders, education, and awareness of these biases and sensitivities. How many Jews are left in Poland today of the 38.5M census from 2014? It is estimated that there are somewhere between 20-25,000 living there today which is 0.06494% of the Polish population. In stark contrast, Roman Catholic 91%, Orthodox 1%, Other 2%, atheist/non-believer/agnostic 5%, not stated 1% (Eurobarometer 2012). Even considering WWII impact was the death of ~20% of the Polish population and 90% the ~3M of Polish Jewry. Still the Jews were certainly given a lot more “status” then their numbers would seem to merit. And what happens when there are no Jews to “blame”? It seems a bit ludicrous, not logical or rational to blame this insignificant amount of the population for the “sins” or issues of the country. Yet, these sentiments prevail. Of course, Poland is not alone sadly. So this is a very long winded way to express the basis and fuel for my prior comments.