Report #14 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Izbica Kujawska, September 15
Our contact in Izbica Kujawska, Premysław Nowicki, was called out of town and unable to meet us. He did, however, affirm his willingness to help us plan our memorial visit to the town.
Roberta and I stopped by anyway on our way to Kowal. We wanted to see the synagogue, one of the few remaining in the region and only the second we visited that retains the external appearance of a synagogue. According to an article in Izbica Kujawska Online, found by ADJCP member Michael Schoenholtz, the Jewish Community of Wrocław sold the building in 2007 to a businessman who renovated it and restored some features of the prewar exterior. The exact use of the building wasn’t decided yet. Originally, it was intended for “social and cultural purposes,” but in 2014 the when the article was written, it was being used as a warehouse for the neighboring Biedronka, a discount grocery store.
Eight years later, instead of serving social and cultural purposes or being used as a warehouse, the building houses a clothing store. The exterior retains the distinctive appearance of a synagogue with tall, curve-topped windows and a Star of David motif at the top of metal grates over the windows. This solid stone structure stands tall enough to have two or three stories, though doubtless the sanctuary was originally open to the ceiling with a women’s gallery reached by a staircase.
The exterior has been restored to its original glory, with the anachronistic addition of an electronic sign mounted high on its façade. Scrolling red letters advertise suits, shoes, and other forms of clothing. We had to walk all the way around the building to the western side to find the entrance. Without any sign beside the door, I expected it to be locked, but I tried entering anyway. It opened.
The interior looks nothing like a synagogue. The grey-painted space is broken up by large square columns, and although there is a high ceiling it doesn’t go up all the way to the roof. Stairs to the left behind a glass partition lead to an upper story. The former sanctuary is packed with racks of clothing for men, women, and children. A passageway at the back leads directly into the Biedronka.
Roberta offered to buy me something. She said that she did something similar in the store she imagined was in the same location as her grandfather’s butcher shop in Przedecz. She went in a bought a red hat. She never wore it.
I feel ambivalent about the presence of a store in a synagogue. On the one hand, it is a kind of erasure of the Jewish presence in the town. On the other, the restored exterior provides public evidence of the former Jewish community. Sadly, no Jewish population remains to frequent the building as a house of worship.
Because the building meets the contemporary needs of the current town residents, it continues to be cared for. Its roof remains intact and its walls strong, unlike the ruin in Żychlin. And unlike the Włocławek synagogues that were burned on Rosh Hashanah when the Nazis invaded, leaving no trace behind. Still, a more appropriate use would be for it to serve social and educational functions like the heritage center in the Lubraniec synagogue.
What do you think? How do you feel about shopping in a synagogue? Old houses of worship are repurposed all the time. The former synagogue in Tuscaloosa became a private residence until it was torn down several years ago to make way for an apartment complex. Are some uses more appropriate than others?
Report #13 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Lubraniec, September 14
The Lubraniec Synagogue stands as a testament to the Jewish residents of the town. It is one of only two synagogues in the ADJCP region that maintains the outward appearance of its original purpose, and the only one that retains original interior features.
Currently, the building houses the Lubraniec Center for Cultural Heritage. During World War II, the synagogue became a warehouse, and it maintained that function until about 1980 when it was renovated for its current use. Historical features remain inside and out, including fragments of the original polychrome wall paintings, the women’s gallery, and a hidden doorway with narrow stone steps leading up to the attic. The building was also adapted to its current function: the second-floor landing was enclosed for the director’s office, and a stage was added on one side of the sanctuary.
Director Zbigniew Wojciechowski and local historian Andrzej Tomczak shared some background information about the synagogue, the Jewish cemetery, and the Jewish community of Lubraniec. The community center has occasionally sponsored public events featuring Jewish history and culture, and Tomczak has written about the history of the town’s Jewish community. Wojciechowski is also a music teacher. He proposed moving the date of their annual Day of Jewish Culture event so it corresponds with our visit in May.
After touring the building, we drove to the Jewish cemetery, a rectangular grass-covered field off a narrow dirt road.
The site has a memorial stone, installed in 2010, with the simple inscription “Jews rest in this cemetery” written in Hebrew and Polish.
We walked up a few steps from the road, where a wall has been constructed out of matzevah fragments. There is a noticeable seam running about five feet from the ground which marks the original height of the lapidarium. After it was installed, more fragments were located and added on top, raising the wall another couple of feet. Many of these added fragments came from the rounded tops of matzevot. They contain symbols including crowns, candles, or water being poured from a pitcher into a cup. Three additional fragments sit at the base of the wall, brought individually from other sources. One small fragment has deep incisions cut into the inscription, probably where it was used to sharpen knives.
Even though there is no fence, the cemetery looks well-maintained. The grass isn’t too long and the path up to the lapidarium is in good condition.
Why did the synagogue and all of these matzevah fragments survive in Lubraniec, when so little remains in surrounding places? It’s a mystery I would like to solve.
Report #12 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Brześć Kujawski, September 14
Our visit to Brześć Kujawski illustrates the importance of local institutions and people committed to the restoration of Jewish memory. My first visit to this town in 2015 left me profoundly unsettled. All I could find of the prewar Jewish cemetery was an unkempt field scarred by a crumbling pool. No sign anywhere acknowledged the vibrant prewar Jewish community, which numbered between 630 and 990 people in the first decades of the 20th century. I felt the absence personally because my grandmother was part of that overlooked community.
Hence my surprise when in 2020, Anna Szczepaniak, who works at the Brześć Center of Culture and History: Wahadło, sent an enthusiastic response to my blog post about the ADJCP plans to organize a memorial trip for descendants. Anna said she welcomes the ADJCP to Brześć Kujawski and over the course of the following year, she and the vice-director of the center, Sylwia Czerwińska-Modrzejewska shared their plans for a memorial plaque at the site of the former ghetto as well as cultural programs about Poland’s Jewish community. They wanted to coordinate events to occur during our memorial trip. Sadly, COVID delayed our visit, but the Center of Culture and History, with the support of Mayor Tomasz Chymkowski, has gone ahead with substantive efforts to restore Jewish memory in their town.
As you enter Brześć Kujawski, a 12-kilometer drive from Włocławek, the brand new Center building looms up on the right side of the road. Roberta and I were greeted by Anna, who quickly made clear that they had prepared for our visit. She gave us a thick folder filled with copies of historical documents they have collected: photos, maps, and sketches of the town; artist Maya Gordon’s plans for a memorial monument in the Jewish cemetery; and archival records about the cemetery and official Jewish Community matters.
They told us about Mikołaj Grynberg, a Polish photographer and child of Holocaust survivors, who has published two photo albums and various books and articles, including stories of children of survivors. Grynberg was scheduled to come to Brześć Kujawski on October 15 to show his new film “Dowód Tożsamości” (“Identity Card”; can also mean “Proof of Identity”). According to a post on the Facebook page “Szlakiem Żydów w Brześćiu Kujawskim” (“Trail of the Jews from Brzesc Kujawski” ) the film explores:
how the memory of the Holocaust evolves and what role it plays in the minds of today’s twenty-year-olds. The interviews show a wide panorama of attitudes and experiences – the interviewees come from both large cities and the Polish provinces. The film is an attempt to show the specificity of being a Polish Jew, often incomprehensible to people outside of this circle.
We toured the new multimedia exhibition, located on two stories of the Center, which focuses on the history of Breść Kujawski from prehistoric times through the contemporary period. Reminiscent of the Polin Museum in Warsaw, it emphasizes active engagement with historical information rather than artifacts, although it includes some impressive prehistoric pottery and other items. The exhibition integrates the history of the Jewish community. For instance, one room reproduces a town street during the period between the world wars, complete with reproductions of signs for businesses, some which had Jewish proprietors.
We drove with Center Director Agata Kubajka and Anna to the Jewish cemetery at the outskirts of town. Anna couldn’t get the key to open the locked gate so we stepped over the fallen chain-link fence and walked through the knee-high grass to the edge of the empty, blue-painted pool.
Last year, the swimming pool was closed and they are seeking funding to transform it into a memorial monument. Recognizing that some people might protest the loss of the pool, they found a location for a new one; the old pool was built in the 1970s so it needed to be replaced anyway. The town wants to transform the space into a park with pathways and benches. Maya Gordon’s design for the memorial would put a circular medallion at the bottom of the former pool depicting a tree with broken branches, meant to represent mourning and destroyed lives, as well as echoing the broken tree motif commonly found on matzevot. In her imagining, water will naturally fill the basin and cover the medallion, representing spiritual cleansing and rebirth. The pool basin will become a part of the memorial and avoid the further disruption that would result from removing it. Maya Gordon lives and works in Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, and Warsaw. She was born in Poland but moved to Israel around age ten. She studied art in Jerusalem and in The Netherlands.
We drove back into town to see the former site of the synagogue (now an empty lot) and the square where Jews were gathered for deportation to the death camp at Chełmno nad Nerem. They have plans to place historical markers in each of these places.
Down the street from the synagogue site, Anna, popped into a doorway to ask an elderly resident if she could show us the basement of the building where they believe there was a ritual bath. The woman grabbed her flashlight and led us down a rickety wooden staircase into a basement with vaulted ceilings made of brick and stone. There was some debate about how the space could have been configured and what the source of the water might have been. Even if it wasn’t the ritual bath, the basement clearly dates back to the 19th century (I would guess even older). It probably saw many uses during its existence.
We returned to the Center of Culture and History, to the restaurant on the ground floor, where we joined Mayor Tomasz Chymkowski, his assistant Karolina Filipiak, Director of the Center Agata Kubajka, and Vice-director Sylwia Czerwińska-Modrzejewska for lunch.
We had a spirited, wide-ranging discussion over our meal. Sylwia made sure we tried some regional specialties, including kluski (homemade noodles) with farmer’s cheese and bacon. Mayor Chymkowski explained why Brześć Kujawski is in better economic shape than many neighboring towns. They built an industrial park before other places got the idea. Manufacturers of items such as clothing, auto parts, and bicycles provide jobs for town residents and commuters. Chymkowski said the town has the financial means to invest in preserving the town’s history. This includes renovating the town center and marking historical places, including those associated with Jewish residents. He described the plans for the Jewish cemetery, and explained the pool had been built by communists. He said there was no regional place of remembrance. That is the function he wants the renovated cemetery to serve.
Report #9 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Koło, September 11
Roberta, Yosef, and I met Koło museum employee Tomasz Nuszkiewicz at the Town Hall, and we walked across the street to the city’s museum of ceramics. Like Włocławek, Koło had factories specializing in faience, tin-glaze ware with painted designs, usually floral motifs. These factories were started by Jewish industrialists, who owned them until they were taken over by the German occupiers during World War II; after the war, they were nationalized by the Polish government.
We sat in an upstairs room at a table, where Tomasz had set out a copy of the Koło Yizkor Book for us, along with copies of a book of town postcards which he gave to each of us. The museum publishes a historical periodical that occasionally has articles about the town’s Jewish community. The room also has a Torah on display; it was found after the war and probably came from a neighboring town. Roberta suggested that based on its modest size, it might have belonged to someone wealthy enough to have a Torah at home.
We walked back past the Town Hall, which has a plaque mounted on its back wall inscribed in Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish:
In the years 1939-1943 German occupiers murdered about 5000 Jews, citizens of the city of Koło. Honor their memory! The community and city council of Koło, September 1, 2009.
We continued another block to the former site of the synagogue, an overgrown lot with a pile of organic debris under some trees. The site is owned by the Jewish Community in Wrocław, but they don’t maintain it. Tomasz said maybe the city should clean it up, but they rarely do because it is not their property.
These issues of ownership are fundamental and challenging. How do you maintain property when the owners are absent? Who has the rights? Who has the responsibility? What is legally mandated and what is morally correct?
A commemorative monument sits behind a fence in a square filled with trees, walkways, and grass across the street from the synagogue site. A plaque on a tall boulder reads (in Hebrew, Polish, and Yiddish):
Next to this place stood two synagogues built in 1860. The Nazis destroyed the larger synagogue and turned the smaller one into a resettlement point.
Inscribed in metal along the base, it reads:
In the years 1939-1943, Nazis resettled about 7500 Jews from Koło and the surrounding area to camps of torment and murder. Honor their eternal memory.
The buildings all around the square used to be owned and occupied by the Jewish population. Without clear ownership after the war, the city took over their management and rented them to people in need of social assistance. The same thing happened to Jewish property in Włocławek and other cities throughout Poland.
We continued by car to the Jewish cemetery, which is on the other side of the river on a hilltop behind the community center. A fence surrounds the cemetery, which can be accessed through an unlocked gate. The front section is covered with with trees and grass, and the cemetery extends across a grassy field. The city maintains this site because they own it. They keep the grass cut. Under the trees, a brick wall adorned with a Star of David pattern serves as a monument, with a plaque saying “The cemetery was destroyed by Nazis 1940-1943 and the Koło municipality 1945-1968; Koło June 24, 1993.”
Three matzevot, the only ones that have been recovered, lie on the ground in front of the wall.
As we left, Yosef commented that of all the towns we have visited so far, Koło has probably done the most to protect their Jewish cemetery. It has a fence all around it, a commemorative memorial, and benefits from regular maintenance.
Report #6 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.
Kłodawa, September 10
It’s thanks to Roberta’s cousin Judy Muratore and her website Klodawa Tribute that I found my cousin Bob at the very beginning of my search for my own cousins ten years ago. He had posted a photo of his ancestors on the site, a photo that I also had found among my grandmother’s papers. Bob’s great grandmother Bertha, seated on the right, was from Kłodawa. I visited Kłodawa a few years later, but without a guide, I didn’t find the town’s Jewish history.
After visiting Dąbrowice, Roberta, Yosef, and I continued 14 km to Kłodawa. All the towns in the scope of ADJCP’s “central Poland” are very close to each other, connected by narrow country roads.
We met Barbara Gańczyk, the founder and president of the Kłodawa Cultural Society (Kłodawskie Towarzystwo Kulturalne), who has been researching Kłodawa’s Jewish community for decades. A small woman with short-cropped white hair and dressed casually in jeans, she gave the impression of someone who is no-nonsense, authoritative, and eager to share her knowledge of Kłodawa’s Jews. Although she has a PhD, she doesn’t expect to be addressed by any title, preferring to be called by her nickname Bachna.
Bachna wanted to start our tour at the Orlen Gas Station outside of town because, she said, “This is where the Jewish history of Kłodawa began.” The first Jews came to the town in the middle-ages, during what she calls the first phase of residence, when the center of the town was closer to this spot. In addition, the Jewish cemetery is a short distance away.
The cemetery is mostly covered by calf-high grass and wildflowers, with small trees toward the back of the plot. Bachna pointed to a building on the other side of the concrete fence along the left-hand border of the cemetery, which she believes was the mortuary house where bodies were prepared for burial. A sign at the edge of the road labels the site “kirchol,” a regional term for a Jewish cemetery, and outlines the history of the town’s Jewish population. Further back, around the place where the land slopes upward, stands a boulder with a plaque saying (in Polish):
Site is legally protected
Respect this place of rest for the dead
Bachna believes Germans moved the earth from the front part of the cemetery and created the hill at the back as part of their munitions activities.
City landowners forced Jewish residents to leave Kłodawa in the second half of the 16th century, but they were invited back in the 18th century and remained until the Shoah. At that point, they built their synagogue, school, and other institutions closer to the contemporary center of town.
In the center of town, we visited the church where Jews were imprisoned on the night of January 9-10, 1942 a nd then transported to the death camp at Chełmno. An informational sign outlining “the last moments of the the Jewish community in Kłodawa” was mounted here in 2021.
We walked by the site of the synagogue, where the Community Center now stands. Bachna said that curve-topped archways across the front façade were designed to evoke the former synagogue. In front of the building, another informational sign dating from 2020 outlines the history of the synagogue.
Bachna will be a strong ally for ADJCP members with ancestors from Kłodawa. She has studied and written about the town’s Jewish history for decades and has amassed a great deal of knowledge. She is eager to collaborate with Jewish descendants and with our group.
Report #5 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.
We met Grzegorz Stęplewski on September 9 at the Kutno Community Center so we could talk about what remains from the Jewish community of Dąbrowice. Grzegorz lives in Kutno and is a member of TPŻK (Friends of the Kutno Region), but he grew up in Dąbrowice, a village of about 1,300 residents nearby. Grzegorz likes to paint and sketch; he imagines scenes as they would have looked based on historical records and the current configuration of streets, for example reinserting the synagogue next to his childhood home.
The next day, Grzegorz met us at the Krośniewice cemetery and we followed him to nearby Dąbrowice, just 9 km away. We parked outside his family home, a one-story house with a small covered wooden porch in front, which he continues to own. The house is on a small plaza called the “Nowy Rynek” that functions as green space with grass, pollarded trees and a green-painted kiosk. This rainy Saturday afternoon, the kiosk was closed and no one was on the streets.
We climbed the rough wood steps and sat out of the rain on a single bench perpendicular to the front door. Grzegorz showed us hand-drawn street plans dated 1959 with his family property facing the plaza and the synagogue plot next to it on Sienkiewicza Street.
The synagogue was destroyed during the war. Some years later, Grzegorz’s father added the synagogue plot to the back garden of his house. He has what is called a dzierzawa wieczysta, a perpetual lease; in effect, he doesn’t own the land but can use it indefinitely. It currently sits behind a stone wall, though we could see into the yard from the neighbor’s driveway gate. Based on the size of the lot and the space Grzegorz paced out for us, the synagogue was not large.
We continued on a roundabout route to the site of the cemetery. Gzegorz pointed out where the center of town was visible across agricultural fields, and explained the old, unpaved road takes a more direct route but it’s only suitable for farm vehicles. The cemetery plot stands forlorn, an overgrown thicket surrounded by plowed fields. Getting to it would require walking across those fields. It’s unlikely that any grave markers remain under the shrubs and small trees. Grzegorz said that at minimum, there should be a sign at the side of the road indicating the location of the Jewish cemetery.
That was the extent of what remains of the Jewish community of Dąbrowice.
Report #4 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.
Krośniewice Mayor Katarzyna Erdman, Sławomir Mikołajczyk, and his son Adam Mikołajczyk stood on the side of the main road from Kutno, sheltered from the rain under two umbrellas. Sławomir, a member of the Krośniewice branch of the Friends of Kutno (TPŻK), works at the city museum, while Adam a City Hall employee, shares his father’s passion for local history. They waited for Roberta, Yosef, and me in the rain so they could start our tour of Jewish sites at a memorial stone engraved with the statement:
People today should bring back the memory of those who are no more
At the 70th Anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto III X 1942
The Krośniewice Community
2012 (my translation from Polish)
They pointed out that the building next to us was the synagogue. For years it served as a movie theatre, but when it was sold in 2004, the new owner converted it into a funeral home. The walls of the synagogue are hidden behind the utilitarian exterior of the current plaster façade.
During our meeting all participants affirmed their willingness to help organize a half-day event for descendants in May. Our hosts told us about Sol Rosenkranz, a Holocaust survivor who returned to his hometown and built a fence and monument at the Jewish cemetery. They told us that Sol’s son still returns regularly to maintain the cemetery. The mayor had the impression that the town does not have permission to cut the grass themselves. She also said they know about tombstones under roads, including 20 or more in a nearby town. The Jewish cemetery has a few tombstones incorporated into a makeshift monument, and she hopes more can be recovered.
Roberta asked Mayor Erdman what she considers Krośniewice’s biggest challenges. Erdman replied employment and investment. As with so many small towns in Poland (and throughout the world, really) young people are leaving in search of work and a better life. Her greatest task as mayor is finding investors who will build businesses and create jobs. Later, I asked Adam what motivated him to return to Krośniewice. He responded, “Someone needs to stay.” Also, he feels such a strong attachment to the place and its history he decided to try and make a life for himself there.
Sławomir and Adam told us about other Holocaust survivors. 92-year-old Róża Aleksander (now Krysia Nowak) still lives in town. As a young child, she and her mother Saba were hidden by Józefa Dziewierska, a righteous gentile acknowledged for her actions in 1997. Saba’s maiden name was Flaster; her husband’s name was Gabriel Alexander. Their daughter Róża was born in 1931 to Gabriel Aleksander and Saba Flaster Aleksander. During the war, mother and daughter adopted false identities Zofia and Krysia Marczak. Róża, now Krysia Nowak (her married name), used to meet with descendants but is no longer well enough to do so. Her testimony was recorded by the Shoah Foundation.
Another child survivor, (Hanna Kałużna?) lives in Wrocław. She and Krysia remain friends. Hanna used to visit Krysia in Krośniewice, but now that she is in her late 80s she hasn’t been able to.
We concluded our visit at the cemetery, which is 900 meters from the center of town. Cars whizzed by on the city bypass running up the slope from the cemetery. A paved drive leads to a metal gate, and a plaque on the right contains a brief history of the city’s Jews in Polish, English, and Hebrew. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODŻ) installed it in 2014.
Only Adam and Yosef ventured through the long grass inside, to the pile of debris that someone topped with matzevah fragments and cynically labelled a monument.
In the 1980’s, an unscrupulous businessman decided the abandoned cemetery would be an ideal place to dump construction debris. His illegal use was reported to the authorities, and he was told to remove the debris. Instead, to avoid the expense of clean-up and a fine, he mounted tombstone fragments atop the rubble and claimed that since it is now a monument none of it can be disturbed.
Adam made photos with my phone, so I can share them here.
An important update to this report
ADJCP president Leon Zamosc shared what he knows about Sol Rosenkranz and Sol’s efforts to restore the cemetery.
“The initiative to restore the cemetery came from Sol Rosenkranz, a survivor from Krosniewice. He had been born in Grabow, but the family moved to Krosniewice when he was a child. “During the war, Sol Rosenkranz was in six labor camps until his liberation in Theresienstadt. He and one of his brothers were the only survivors of his family. He came to the US in 1946, lived in New York and Los Angeles (where he worked as a volunteer speaker in the Simon Wiesenthal Center), and spent his final years back in New York (where he was an active gallery educator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park). He passed away in 2019 at the age of 101. “After his liberation in 1945, Sol returned to Krosniewice and saw that the Germans had paved the town square with gravestones removed from the Jewish cemetery (all deliberately placed with the inscriptions up). That memory stayed with him for decades. In 2002, Sol visited Krosniewice and found that the communist administration had re-surfaced the town square in the early 1950s. The matzevot had been removed but there was no record of their whereabouts. “In 2013, Sol went to Krosniewice again. At the dilapidated cemetery site, there were only half a dozen fragments of matzevot that someone had cemented together. Sol was not a wealthy man, but during that visit he decided that he would fund the restoration of the cemetery (placement of a fence around the perimeter of the cemetery and installation of an iron-wrought gate with a memorial plaque). The works were carried out by FODZ (the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland) and the dedication took place in 2014.”
Leon also reached out to Sol’s son Joel who tells a slightly different story about the ongoing maintenance of the cemetery.
“When we dedicated the cemetery in 2014 we were hopeful that city officials including the then mayor Juliana Herman, the clergy and teachers would advocate support and maintenance – however that did not materialize.”
Joel also reached out to me with more details:
At the Wiesenthal Center, Sol worked in the library translating Yiddish and Hebrew letters and other documents for families, asking only that they make a donation to the Center in return. He started talking about the Shoah after Joel’s mother Sally died in 1996. He returned to New York and began to volunteer for the Museum of Jewish Heritage even before it had a physical space. He “embraced his role as a witness, speaking to students at schools of all denominations. After the MJH was established, he was a member of the Speakers Bureau for more than 20 years and by their estimate had told his story to more than 10,000 people, one class or group at a time.”
He further explains “Regarding Krosniewice cemetery maintenance, because Nature remained unchecked in that spot for decades, trees and shrubs developed deep roots. According to Rabbinic law as Rabbi Schudrich stated, in clearing the cemetery grounds, it was not permitted to use any heavy equipment that would disturb bodies below the surface. As a result, the tools we used were chainsaws to cut trunks as close to the ground as possible, clippers and weed whackers. Within a year, certainly two, nature asserted herself again and so a program of perpetual care is what is required. Local authorities don’t have any ownership authority, but they could certainly play a helpful, respectful role in maintenance if they wanted.”
This just goes to show how hard it can be to maintain cemeteries and other memorial sites. Even when all sides approach a project with good will, plenty of room remains for misunderstanding. It is also a real challenge for information to be passed down from one government administration to the next, and from one activist to another.
Report #3 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland. Reports include contributions by Roberta.
Our visit to Żychlin began with a meeting at Town Hall with 8th graders and their teachers from the local school. The children were shy—reluctant to speak in English or in Polish with us—but clearly we had their full attention as we shared our family connection to central Poland and explained why we were visiting. We used a question and answer format to gauge their knowledge about Jewish culture, history, and religion, and to share some basic knowledge with them.
Because I heard Żychlin Mayor Grzegorz Ambroziak speak at the unveiling of the new monument commemorating Żychlin’s Jewish community, I had the sense he wants to preserve the memory of the town’s Jews. At our meeting, he confirmed this. He led the conversation with his concerns about the fate of the synagogue ruins, which are situated in an impoverished area just off the central town square. After the war, the city used the building as a warehouse, and they maintained it until the Jewish Community of Warsaw reclaimed the property. For years it stood empty as the city negotiated with the Jewish Community to obtain legal possession of the building. They envisioned turning it into a museum of regional history. The city was granted possession of the synagogue in 2007-8, exactly when the roof caved in. Since then, the decay of the building has accelerated due to the lack of a roof. Currently, wooden supports hold up the shorter walls of the building, but it looks like it could fall down at any moment. The city would like to use the space for a museum.
Mayor Ambroziak invited the ADJCP to cosign a Letter of Intent attesting to our interest in rebuilding the synagogue. With this affirmation that interest in the synagogue extends beyond the immediate needs of Żychlin residents, he is confident the city can obtain funds from the Ministry of Culture and the EU for the renovation. All such funding requires cost-sharing by the municipality, and he is prepared to provide those matching funds from the city budget.
We also gained the mayor’s support for 3 other ADJCP projects in Żychlin: the plaque for righteous gentile Szułdrzyński, cemetery restoration, and help organizing our memorial trip.
The ADJCP will provide a plaque commemorating a righteous gentile from Zychlin named Stanisław Szułdrzynski; Bożena Gajewska will arrange its manufacture for us. The mayor agreed to find an appropriate place for the plaque, and to arrange for it to be officially unveiled during our memorial visit in May 2023.
The mayor welcomes our efforts to clean up and restore the Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery is managed by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage (FODŻ). The city does not take responsibility for regular maintenance. When they do cut the vegetation (as they did for the recent Forum for Dialogue project “In the Footsteps of Żychlin’s Jews”) they have to cut back thorny bushes (trzcina, black thorn). They said they are not allowed to dig the roots out or use pesticides, which means within a few months the bushes grow right back. Roberta has contacted Rabbi Schudrich for clarification of what maintenance practices are allowed and to confirm who owns the cemetery.
The Mayor will be pleased to greet ADJCP in May 2023. Anna Wrzesińska will walk around with them.
After the meeting, we stepped across the street to see the monument to Żychlin’s Jews, unveiled in June as part of the project “In the Footsteps of Zychlin Jews.” Bożena Gajewska of the Friends of the Kutno Region (TPŻK) ran the program with the help of Anna Wrzesińska and funding from the Forum for Dialogue. Mayor Ambroziak also contributed funds for the plaque; because of the length of the inscription, it exceeded the approved budget.
Anna Wrzesińksa took us to the office of the Association of Żychlin History Enthusiasts (Towarzyszenie Miłośników Histori Żychlinskiej, TMHŻ) where we met with members of the organization and learned about their recent projects. They showed us the display boards from an exhibition they put together about Żychlin’s Jewish Community. It was on display this spring during the Forum for Dialogue project “In the Footsteps of Żychlin’s Jews.” They also showed us the numerous publications they have released, including a photocopy of their latest work, still awaiting publication, about Żychlin’s Jewish history.
Jerzy Werwiński, 92-year-old member (born in 1931) shared his recollections of wartime, starting with the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in 1942. He was just a boy; he hid in an attic across the street and watched from a window as the Jewish residents were rounded up and placed in horse-drawn farmer’s wagons and carted 2 km to the train station. From there, they were transported by train to the Chełmno Death Camp. Once Jerzy started talking he couldn’t stop. Visibly shaken, he described his own wartime experiences. Essentially, he spent the next three years in work camps and prison, until he was liberated by the advancing Soviet Army in January 1944. He recounted living in barracks, sleeping on hard wooden planks with no blankets even in the coldest winter nights. They had very little to eat; each morning a loaf of bread would be cut in six pieces for six people for the whole day. He was told he can eat it all at once but then go hungry the rest of the day or he could nibble on it throughout the day. At night, they got a cup of soup that was mostly water with just a few chunks of potato or other vegetables. The other TMHŻ members were born after the war, but their parents told them stories of deprivation and forced labor. Clearly, they have more to say about the hardships experienced during the war; I asked if I can return so they can tell me more and I can record their stories.
We finished our visit with a walk to the synagogue ruins. The remaining walls are in bad shape and look like they could collapse at any moment. This is a shame because even a few years ago when I first visited, the walls were reasonably sturdy. Some of the interior wall paintings could still be seen through the empty windows; these all appear to have been erased by the weather. The first step of any project will need to be to assess the condition of the remaining structure.
Fred Ball contacted me a while back because he wanted to make a clay model of the synagogue in Lesko. He calls himself an amateur, but I think you’ll agree that this model shows remarkable skill in capturing the details and contours of this distinctive structure. Fred says this is his 8th synagogue model. He mostly does Polish synagogues because that is where his own family roots are; he says he finds the wooden ones particularly appealing. He looks for buildings with interesting and unusual architecture, and he also makes sure he can find plenty of photographs of all four sides of the structure. The model is 8″ wide X 8.5″ long X 7″ high to the top of the tower. The flagpole adds a little additional height.
Can you guess what the roof is made of?
Cardboard! That silver paint is a very convincing approximation of metal.
The Atlas of Memory Maps exhibit features maps drafted by non-experts in an effort to preserve the memory of their hometowns, which had been destroyed or radically transformed during and after World War II. Most were published in Yizkor books, memorial books compiled by Jewish survivors. The exhibition is mostly in Polish, but includes some English-language information. The maps contain notations in Yiddish or Hebrew. This virtual exhibition by Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre Center includes maps from Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Moldavia and Slovakia.
I found a map of Skierniewice among over 150 included in the exhibition. My grandfather Hil Majer Piwko was born in there in 1854, as were his siblings Jankel Wolf (1857), Urysz (c. 1861), Dawid (1862, d. 1865), Nusen Dawid (1866), Chawa (c. 1871), and Fajga (c. 1878). It’s where Hil Majer brought his bride Hinda Walfisz in 1873, and where they started their own family. It’s also where his parents were buried (Cywia Rajch in 1862 and Chaim Josef in 1912), and probably his stepmothers, too.
Here is the map from the exhibition:
Map of prewar Skierniewice drawn from memory by an unknown author
Comparing it with a contemporary map, it’s hard to figure out exactly how they match up. Maybe someone who can read Yiddish can help me by translating the words on the map. Please leave me a comment if you do! I think the rivers on each map are the same, and the space marked with crosses in the bottom center of the prewar map may be the green space marked “Church of St. Stanislaus” in the bottom right of the contemporary map.
Map of contemporary Skierniewice. The site of the synagogue is marked with a black dot surrounded by a grey circle. Source: Google Maps
I’ve been to Skierniewice twice, with my cousin Krysia in 2013 and with my cousin Bob in 2018. Little remains of the town’s Jewish heritage.
Skierniewice Rynek in 2013
Krysia and me in Skierniewice, the birthplace of our great grandfather. April 2013
With cousin Bob, the former synagogue in the background–it’s now an electrical supply store
The synagogue, though the exterior is well maintained, now houses an electrical supply store. On the road running parallel to the river, a few tombstones have survived in the old Jewish cemetery, but they are in what is currently the backyard of a private residence. I wonder if this cemetery was included on the prewar map? The newer Jewish cemetery contains many more surviving tombstones as well as commemorative markers outlining the history of the town’s Jewish population. It is located beyond the bottom edges of these maps, off a dirt road a short ride south of town.
Located in Lublin, Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre is one of the oldest and most active Jewish heritage organizations in Poland. About its origins, Tomasz Pietrasiewicz writes:
The changes brought about by the fall of communism in Poland in 1989 initiated the process of regaining Memory by the Polish society, and Lublin was among many Polish cities which had to face their forgotten past.
When we began our activities at the Grodzka Gate [which historically separated the Jewish and Catholic districts of the city] in the early 1990s, we knew nothing about the history of Jews in Lublin. We were not aware that the enormous empty space on one side of the Gate conceals the Memory of the Jewish Quarter. We did not realize that the Gate leads to the non-existent town, the Jewish Atlantis.There is a huge parking area, lawns and new roads where there used to be houses, synagogues and streets. A large part of this area, including the foundations of the former Jewish houses, was buried under a concrete cover, and the memory of those who lived here was hidden as well. You cannot understand Lublin’s history without these empty spaces near the Gate. For the NN Theatre, they have become a natural setting for artistic actions, Mysteries of Memory, which uncover the memory of the past while mourning the victims of the Holocaust. (from “History of Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre“).
More information about the exhibition and Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre can be found at the following websites: