Report #11 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.

Gostynin, September 13

Our partner for Gostynin and the nearby town of Gombin (written Gąbin in Polish) is Piotr Syska, a high school geography teacher. We met at Wasiak’s Bakery on Gostynin’s main square. Despite intermittent showers, we sat under a tree in the café’s courtyard. Piotr showed us some materials from previous projects he’s worked on as well as the memoir of a Gostynin Jew, Living in the Shadow of Tyranny: How I Deceived the Nazis to Survive the War – The Isaac Kraicer Story, written by Stephan Helgesen on the basis of Kraicer’s recollections. Piotr said that he dreams of translating the Gostynin Yizkor Book into Polish, and also to translate the Kraicer story into Polish.

Piotr showed us a surviving kuczka, a narrow wooden balcony that was used by Jewish residents to build their sukkah. We peeked over the garden fence to look at the structure on the neighboring building. 

Gostynin kuczka. Source: Wielokulturowy Gostynin Facebook page

Piotr got involved in Jewish memory projects just a few years ago, in 2016, as he was pursuing his master’s degree. Soft spoken, but clearly devoted and effective, he has accomplished a lot in a short period of time. His wife Elwira teaches English through private lessons. She usually translates for him when he meets foreign visitors, but she had students on this particular day.

Piotr helped Leon Zamosc with the Gostynin and Gombin memorial trip he led in 2019. The trip included a March of Remembrance commemorating the liquidation of the town’s ghetto. It was also documented in a film.

Gostynin is larger than Gombin, with nearly 20,000 residents in contrast to Gombin’s 2500 residents. Piotr noted that Gostynin had been 35% Jewish and Gombin, 75% Jewish before the war. Piotr has mostly done Jewish heritage work in Gostynin, although last year, Gombin placed a marker at the former site of the synagogue.

Despite some challenges, Piotr has completed some exemplary projects. The first is a multicultural historical trail with key locations marked with informational sign boards. He got pushback on the idea of an exclusively Jewish history trail but found support for a multicultural trail recognizing the Jewish, German, and Russian influences in Gostynin, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Notably, many of the signs include texts in German, Russian, English, and Hebrew in addition to the more detailed Polish texts. The first sign on the trail explains:

The project named “Multicultural Gostynin” arose to preserve the memory of the past. We invite you to take a journey on the miniature tourist trail so you can get to know the interesting history of our town and the fate of its residents.

The banner at the top of the sign includes photographs of four houses of worship: the Catholic church, synagogue, Evangelical (Protestant) church, and the Russian Orthodox church. A map shows the location of the ten stops along the trail, three of which focus on the town’s Jewish history: at the town square, the site of the World War II ghetto, and the Jewish cemetery.

Piotr Syska at the start of the start of the “Multicultural Gostynin” trail

The tenth stop takes visitors to Gostynin’s Jewish cemetery, a short drive from the center of town. In addition to historical information in Polish, English and Hebrew, this sign includes information about Jewish cemeteries, written only in Polish: “In keeping with Jewish law, the human body is holy even after death and will stay that way until the Final Judgement. The land in which the dead are laid to rest belongs to them forever.” It goes on to explain proper behavior within a cemetery: men should cover their heads; people should remember the dead by placing small stones on their grave markers. Restricted activities include: any kind of work during the Sabbath; disturbing graves or any kind of digging within the cemetery; eating and drinking in the cemetery; and treating the road through the cemetery as a shortcut. “This is a place for the dead and they deserve respect,” it concludes.

The cemetery grounds are mowed but unfenced. They contain another project Piotr helped realize: a commemorative monument composed of matzevah fragments piled within iron mesh. Both projects were officially opened on September 20, 2018 with Israeli ambassador Anna Azari, mayor Paweł Kalinowski, and descendants of a holocaust survivor (Jacob and Tomer Naveh) in attendance.

Memorial at the Gombin Jewish Cemetery

A well-traveled dirt road goes along one edge of the cemetery and provides access to several houses outside the cemetery boundary.

Residents drive over cemetery ground to get to their homes

Piotr said they tried to close that road, but they met with too much local opposition. He communicated his frustration about this with a look and a shrug. Perhaps what he left unsaid is that sometimes you have to settle for what is possible to achieve. Maintaining the goodwill of the local community requires difficult compromises. The final admonition on the sign for the Multicultural Gostynin trail, to respect the dead and refrain from driving over cemetery grounds, serves only as an unenforced request. Hopefully, it will move residents to reconsider their actions.