My visit to Żychlin began and ended at the railway crossing. I had meandered up from the highway, passing through the small communities of Bolimów and Sobota where my ancestors lived over a century ago, and had to stop as a train sped by. I called pan Henryk to make sure I was on the right road. He assured me I was, and met me a few minutes later. Henryk, whom I met in 2014 through his website Historia Żychlina, had arranged meetings, tours, and interviews for me with resident fans of local history.
Tadeusz Kafarski, Vice President of the Association of Enthusiasts of Żychlin History (TMHŻ) joined us for a look around the train station. He and Henryk pointed across the tracks where during World War II transports took 2500 Jews from the Żychlin ghetto to Kulmhof (Chełmno) Camp near Poznań. They debated exactly where the trains had stood, but later, Henryk and his wife took me to a platform across from the main train station, saying that is where it happened.
The station building signals the effects of communism and its demise on this community. My guides told me the prewar station was imposing and beautiful. The postwar building that stands today—boarded up in places, broken windows and graffiti in others—is more functional than attractive. Its size shows that this used to be a major stop on the route from Moscow to Berlin. But since the express tracks were laid following the fall of communism, only a few trains stop here each day. Instead, every few minutes, one zips by at breakneck speed. The place was deserted, except for a group of teenagers who were hanging out.
Tadeusz told me he remembers the transports as they left the station with their human cargo in 1942, even though he was only four years old. During the war, when his family was forced to move from their home, as were many residents, they were resettled in a former Jewish residence. From the street it looked like a normal cottage with a living room on one side and a kitchen on the other. A distinctive feature of this house, though, was the stairs from the kitchen to the basement and the door from the basement to the courtyard behind the house. This private entrance was used sometimes by the men of the family who didn’t want to be seen returning in their dirty clothes.
Others whom I met during my visit shared similar memories of childhood. Janusz Tomczak, who was a teenager during the war, remembers seeing the land covered with wagons. Only later, he understood that these belonged to the Jews who were being taken to the camps. Józef Staszewski was with some older boys when the ghetto was being liquidated. It was a few days before Easter. He was a scout at the time and he made a vow to God he that he would choose death before he betrayed his friends. A couple of blocks from where they stood, Nazis loaded people into wagons and took them away. Now he knows that the captives were segregated by age and ability, and the children and elderly were led to special vehicles and then gassed inside them.
To be continued….