A dark stain in the history of Warsaw University was the decision to follow a nationalist trend in the 1930s and mandate segregated seating for the university’s Jewish students. Over 80 years later, a student-initiated campaign resulted in a permanent, public acknowledgement of this institutionalized discrimination. On May 22, University Rector Alojzy Nowak and Israeli Ambassador Yacov Livne dedicated a commemorative plaque before a crowd of about 200. Dignitaries, scholars of Jewish history and culture, and prominent members of Warsaw’s Jewish community gathered behind a red retractable belt barrier under the watchful eye of an Israeli guard, while a younger crowd of students and onlookers looked on from the other side.
I learned about the event serendipitously, when fellow ADJCP board member Ken Drabinsky invited me to accompany him to the Warsaw University Department of History to donate a copy of the self-published autobiography of Henry Balaban, nephew of renowned historian Meir Bałaban. I accompanied Ken as he presented the book to Łukasz Niesiołowski and Marzena Zawanowska at the Department of History.
The commemorative ceremony began with songs in Yiddish performed by students from the Multicultural High School of Humanities named after Solidarity hero Jacek Kuroń, followed by predictable remarks by the rector and the Israeli ambassador about the need for unity across cultural and religious differences and the importance of remembering the dark as well as light moments in history. Both celebrated the university students who initiated the project.
The audience’s enthusiastic applause was reserved for the third speaker, Antonina Dukowicz from the Student Antifascist Committee. It didn’t come in response to her diplomatic discussion of the five years it took to persuade the administration and work out the appropriate language for the marker. Rather, the crowd responded to her expression of support for the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Science, which is under attack by the government because of the work scholars are doing there that highlights some of the less noble behavior of Polish people against Jews during the Nazi occupation. The specific trigger for the latest attack was a brief comment by Holocaust Scholar Barbara Engelking that “Jews were unbelievably disappointed with Poles during the war.” The remark caused such a strong reaction because it challenges the official narrative that Poles helped the Jews more than any other nation and that they couldn’t do more because they were under occupation and subject to persecution themselves.
The student speaker called the commemorative marker a symbol that sheds light on the current darkness in Poland, and urged viewers to let it be a model for remembering the difficult truth. She ended with a call to cut out all kinds of antisemitism and oppression, so that it is never repeated. The final applause erupted, falling into rhythm as it continued.
Some commentators criticized the university for failing to issue an apology, or for not making a bolder statement. I’m impressed by the way Antonina Dukowicz connected historical discrimination with contemporary political battles, and the way those in attendance affirmed those connections. Battles are being fought here to acknowledge the less noble moments in Polish Jewish history and to reaffirm values of unity and diversity.
When Poles say “jestem stąd” (“I’m from here”) it usually means more than just living in a particular place. It signals long-term residence that goes back for generations. I mentioned this to Roberta in September when we were planning the ADJCP memorial tour, and she immediately adopted it as the perfect motto for our trip. For most of the 35 descendants here in central Poland, this is a kind of homecoming. Even though most of us have never been here before, generations of our ancestors built homes in Brześć Kujawski, Chodecz, Gąbin, Gostynin, Izbica Kujawska, Koło, Kowal, Kłodawa, Krośniewice, Kutno, Lubień Kujawski, Lubraniec, Przedecz, Włocławek, and Żychlin.
Our trip has drawn the attention of the regional press, too.
On September 28, I returned to Żychlin so I could visit the Jewish cemetery. I was eager to see the area that had been cleared earlier in the year as part of the “In the Footsteps of Żychlin Jews” program spearheaded by Bożena Gajewska and funded by the Forum for Dialogue.
The first challenge was finding the cemetery. Even though I have been there several times and I had checked the location on Google Maps, I passed it the first time. I recognized the houses along the road from Google street view and guessed that the cemetery must be mismarked on the map. I backtracked to #55 Łukasińskiego Street and spied the cemetery gate at the end of a narrow gravel and grass-covered driveway. I parked on the shoulder of the road, careful not to block the driveway which leads to a farmhouse on the right-hand side. A plowed agricultural field is on the left side of the drive. The homeowners and their ducks and chickens watched me as I walked by their yard to the cemetery gate.
The cemetery gate needs repainting, though it remains sold. A padlock hangs from the latch but the gate is unlocked. The area that was cleared around the monuments remains accessible. I took a closer look at the three irregular monuments made from matzevot fragments held together with concrete. Some of the tombstones have come loose and lie on the ground. Others appear to be missing. Red graffiti scars the front of one.
Rabbi Shmuel Abba‘s grave marker has fallen into disrepair. The curved stone over the site seems to have lost its top layer, and the vertical section of the marker has collapsed. The black stone with the inscription that used to be mounted on this vertical section has broken in half; part sits half-hidden in a groove and half lies flat on the broken surface of the monument. Notes left by visitors poke out of the cracks, and the remains of an Israeli candle sits on the ground near the grave. Photos show that this grave has deteriorated over the past few years.
The rest of the cemetery ground is overgrown with 9-foot blackthorn shrubs that make an impenetrable thicket. The sharp thorns on this plant pose a particular problem for cemetery maintenance. Bożena told me that it took a crew of four to clear a narrow pathway through the overgrowth to the memorial monument and a fourth concrete-and-matzevah obelisk. I had to watch my step to avoid the stumps of the blackthorn bushes that were cut six inches from the surface of the ground. I didn’t see signs that the bushes were growing back, but I have been warned that they will unless everything is trimmed back again before next spring.
Old candle lanterns sit below the monuments—a testament that someone remembers this place.
I inspected the fence from the outside of the cemetery, walking from the gate to the southwest corner. Only a small section of fence around the gate is constructed of solid iron spikes; the rest is made of rusty chain-link. The fence continues along the west side as far as I could see, which wasn’t far because of the small trees along the fence line. Stone curbs below the fence seem to mark the cemetery boundary.
The Żychlin Jewish cemetery needs help. Fortunately, the ADJCP has good allies in Bożena Gajewska, Żychlin mayor Grzegorz Ambroziak, regional organizations TMHŻ (Association of Żychlin History Enthusiasts) and TPŻK (Association of Friends of the Kutno Region), Steven Reece and the Matzevah Foundation, and Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis and the Jewish Community of Warsaw. Together, I’m hopeful we can make lasting improvements on the cemetery and maintain it as a testament to the Jewish community that called Żychlin home for centuries.
I ended the evening with the Association of Żychlin History Enthusiasts. My intention was to record some of the members’ recollections about wartime in Żychin. Serendipitously, my visit coincided with that of a guest of honor, Marianna Rybicka, who was a child during WWII; her memoir was published by the TMHŻ. She arrived from Płock with her daughter Iwona who brought a table full of food. Here, Marianna is telling her story:
Can you help us restore the Żychlin Jewish Cemetery?
Since September, Bożena has done more research about cleaning up the cemetery. The biggest challenge is the the blackthorn that grows over most of the terrain. Jewish law restricts any disturbance of the ground which means the blackthorn can’t be dug out by the roots or treated with herbicide. A professional landscaping firm told Bożena that the charge for cutting it all down by hand will be 80,000-100,000 zloties ($19,000-$24,000). Without additional treatment, it will grow right back.
Steven Reece of the Matzevah Foundation has some experience with blackthorn and he is confident a dedicated group of volunteers can use loppers to remove it. He hopes to join us in May to inspect the cemetery and suggest a course of action. A lot depends on how much territory needs to be cleared and the size of the bushes that need to be cut.
Can you help us? What do you suggest for removing a thicket of thorny bushes? Would you like to join a clean-up project and help restore the Żychlin Jewish cemetery? Let me know!
Report #15 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Kowal and Lubień Kujawski, September 15
Longin Graczyk, the director of the Ari Ari Foundation, promised to meet us in Kowal at 1 PM for a meeting with the mayor and others involved in Jewish heritage work. From there, he said we could meet some activists in Lubień Kujawski and still make it to Chodecz in time for our scheduled 5 PM meeting with heritage association members there. Roberta and I were understandably skeptical everything could be accomplished within such a narrow timeframe. But true to his word, Longin shepherded us through the afternoon and made sure that we did everything as planned. Longin and Justyna Marcinkowska, another activist with the Ari Ari Foundation, met us outside city hall and accompanied us up to the second-floor office of Mayor Eugeniusz Gołembiewski. The room overflowed with people eager to share their knowledge of local history.
Several conversations ensued at once, providing a flood of information about past heritage projects as well as future plans. Notably, Edyta Dorsz had brought vital records books dating from between the world wars. The town retains these records until they are 100 years old, and then they will be sent to the National Archive. Tears came to Mayor Gołembiewski’s eyes as he explained that the books document the life transitions of the Jewish community that was wiped out during World War II. He said studying history is one thing but holding a physical trace of that community in your hands is another. The book contains the names of 1300 Jewish residents. He feels their loss viscerally. He asked, what would their city have been like if not for the war? Probably, it would have been a much more vital place with 30,000 residents instead of their current 2000.
Kowal resident Tomasz Kulicki shared his family story, explaining how his Jewish father survived the war. Roberta and I were also led into a neighboring office to view photographs of recent commemorative activities.
The mayor affirmed his commitment to recognizing the Jewish history of Kowal and his willingness to greet descendants during the memorial trip. He asked for any photographs or historical information that our members may have and be willing to share. This is something he has asked of others, and been promised, but no one has ever followed through with resources. Does anyone have photographs or historical information about Kowal’s Jewish residents?Please let me know!
We could have talked for much longer, but Longin cut the conversation short, reminding everyone of our tight schedule.
Longin guided us to the Jewish cemetery, a grassy field on the outskirts of town. Residential houses sit across the street and to the right is the fenced yard of a building supply company. Since there is no fence or marker to indicate the cemetery boundaries, Longin pointed them out to us. The cemetery begins somewhere in the middle of the field, extends beyond a brush-covered mound at the far end of the field, and includes part of the terrain under the water treatment plant (see the blue roof ). Longin was told that for some reason the plant had to be built in this spot. He didn’t elaborate.
The Ari Ari Foundation plans to mount a commemorative marker since nothing indicates this field is a cemetery. The marker will be wooden, in the shape of a tall matzevah. He showed us a photograph on his phone of one already on display in another town.
We continued to Lubień Kujawski, to a dirt and gravel parking lot at the site of the Jewish cemetery. During the summer, swimmers park there and walk down a narrow dirt trail to the river.
Andrzej and Magdalena Dominowski, Lubień Kujawski residents who have collaborated with the Ari Ari Foundation on regional history projects, met us for a brief conversation on the edge of the cemetery/parking lot. They described some of the activities they have helped spearhead. Both are schoolteachers, and Andrzej has led historical walks that feature the town’s Jewish history. His next walk occurred several days after our visit, on September 26. Andrzej also sent the ADJCP materials about the Jewish community of Lubień Kujawski: the relevant section of Tomasz Kawski’s book Gminy Żydowskie Pogranicza Wielkopolski, Mazowsza, i Pomorza w latach 1918-1942 (Jewish Communities in the Wielkopolski, Mazowsza, and Pomorza Regions 1918-1942), and archival postwar questionnaires documenting material and personal losses during World War II.
We didn’t have time to learn more about the Jewish history of the town, but Virtual Sztetl provides a good outline. Jews first settled in Lubień in the 2nd half of the 18th century. They filled important positions in the local economy and in local government. Jewish community properties included a wooden synagogue, prayer houses, schools, rabbi’s apartment, and the partially fenced cemetery. At the beginning of the War, most of these properties were burned and the Jewish population was sent to work camps and ghettos. Only a few survivors returned briefly in 1946.
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 #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.
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.
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.
A well-traveled dirt road goes along one edge of the cemetery and provides access to several houses outside the cemetery boundary.
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.
Report #10 about Roberta Books and Marysia Galbraith’s trip to meet Polish partners in preparation for the ADJCP‘s memorial visit to central Poland.
Włocławek, September 12-16 and September 28
With a population of 107,000, Włocławek is the largest town in this part of central Poland, followed by Kutno which has 42,700 residents.
Włocławek will be the home base for the ADJCP memorial trip in May 2023. Roberta and I spent several days there to plan the trip and I returned a couple of weeks later to follow up on a few things. We reserved a block of rooms for the memorial trip in the Pałac Bursztynowy, a three-star hotel built to look like an old manor house, with an elaborate formal garden all around it. Roberta and I sampled the menu at the hotel restaurant. They have a good assortment of soups, salads, appetizers, and main courses, all tastefully prepared. The white asparagus soup with smoked salmon was particularly tasty. We also made arrangements with a bus company that will provide transportation during the memorial trip.
In Włocławek, we met with partners who agreed to help organize activities for us. Included among our partners are schoolteachers Anita Kaniewska-Kwiatkowska who teaches history at the Automotive High School, Robert Feter who teaches computer science at the same school, and Monika Lamka-Czerwińska who teaches at a school for children with disabilities. They have led several award-winning programs in which their students learned about and did research about the city’s Jewish community. See for example Włocławek Zapomniana Ulica, a Facebook page that was developed as part of one of these projects. Another outcome of this project is a sign posted on Piwna Street with a QR code linking to a recorded message outlining the wartime history of the Jewish population in this place.
On the morning of September 13, Roberta and I met students at the Automotive High School. We were escorted to the library, a room the size of a large classroom. Extra chairs filled all the space between the round tables. A reporter from the local paper came and took photos. Two students shot video for a class in television production with the plan to create a short program about our visit.
Students filed in one class at a time. In attendance were students studying psychology/pedagogy, computer science, and technical studies. This school also has classes for students with physical and mental disabilities.
Before we began, I spoke briefly with the first group that arrived, girls studying psychology and pedagogy. Their teacher Anita Kaniewska explained they will work with her on a project about Jewish history and culture and they will participate in our memorial trip. The room filled up. Over 80 students attended. We delivered our presentation in English and I’m surprised how well it went. A good number of the students understood, and those who didn’t know much English seemed attentive nevertheless.
Roberta and I took turns explaining our family connection to central Poland. Then we asked them what they knew about Jewish culture and religion, mostly as a way to fill in some details and point out similarities and differences to Polish culture and Christian faith. Finally, we invited them to ask us questions, which we answered. Their questions included:
What emotions do you experience when telling us your story?
Do you have any relatives in Poland today?
Did you know there is going to be a statue for Jewish people in Brześć Kujawski? There was a public pool but they closed it, because people found out it was a graveyard for Jewish people.
Afterwards, one of the teachers said she was very pleased with the students’ level of engagement. Even one of their students who has autism asked a question. Five girls from Anita’s class thanked us and told us how moved they were by our stories and our presence. They asked if they could give us a hug. It was very sweet.
We had to hurry to our appointment with the mayor. Anita accompanied us. Marek Wojtkowski, whose official title is President of Wloclawek, expressed support for the ADJCP and efforts to memorialize the city’s Jewish history. He agreed to meet memorial trip participants and to welcome us to Włocławek.
Together with Anita, we proposed two projects: a Jewish history trail with signs and QR codes outlining events that occurred in particular places around the city; and a portable exhibition on retractable panels that can be moved and set up easily. President Wojtowski supports both these ideas. He agreed to help obtain permission to mount the historical trail signs on buildings.
President Wojtkowski noted his background as an historian, and said it is important that this history return, especially for young people.
Few traces remain of Włocławek’s Jewish community, which before the war numbered 20,000 people (20% of the city’s population). The two synagogues were burned down during the first days of the Nazi invasion on Rosh Hashana 1939. The cemetery was cleared of tombstones, and during the communist period a school was built on the site. In 2000, a group of descendants in collaboration with the city erected a memorial in front of the school in the shape of a matzevah. The text says in Polish and Hebrew “At this site Germans created a ghetto from which in 1942 they deported Polish citizens of Jewish origin to death camps.” Roberta and I lit candles for my relatives and all the others buried at this site.
Meeting with Mirka Stojak, September 28
When I returned to Włocławek on September 28, I met with Mirka Stojak, who for over 20 years has been meeting with and assisting Jewish descendants who have visited Włocławek. Mirka has documented the lives of Włocławek’s Jews in historical texts, prose, poetry, and on her webpage Żydzi Włocławek. Each year, she gives presentations at schools where she tells the stories of the city’s Jewish residents and reads her original poetry and stories. She has also worked with students on theatrical and musical productions on related themes. Longin Graczyk of the Ari Ari Foundation has worked with Anita and Mirka on other projects. Most recently, Mirka led a “Sentimental Walk” around historic Włocławek in which she told the stories of Jewish residents who used to live at various addresses. The Ari Ari Foundation and the local government where among the sponsors of the event. The ADJCP is listed as well!?!
Mirka will join Anita and Longin on the organizing committee for our memorial trip. She is also happy to prepare a presentation or to lead a walk for our visit, though she does not speak English so it will need to be translated.
Since retiring last year, Mirka has devoted even more time to writing. I bought her latest book Pamięci Włocłaswkich Żydów (In Memory of Włocławek Jews), a combination of history, stories, poems, and the memoir of Jakub Bukowski, who turns out to have been a neighbor of my cousins. Bukowski mentions Mirka Kolska, my mother’s first cousin, was one of classmates.
I visited the city museum to see the extraordinary exhibition of faience pottery. This industry was started and dominated by Jewish industrialists. Many of the woman who painted the floral designs were Polish. During the war, the industry was taken over by the Germans and then passed into Polish hands after the war. During communism, the factories became the property of the national government. The last factories closed right around the time communism fell. They were unable to reorganize within the emerging capitalist economy.
I hope we include the exhibition in our memorial trip.
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.