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Aug 2012 Journal

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Seventy years on: The lost community of Polish Jews is remembered

Throughout mainland Europe, the summer of 1942 was scorching hot. The German army was fully stretched. In spite of this, in what has been termed ‘the fateful months of the summer of 1942’, the Nazis put into effect the plan for the ‘Final Solution’.

The Nazis created, specifically as extermination factories, four new camps: Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. In addition to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Europe already contained a web of concentration camps. Croatia alone housed six of these. As ghettoes and villages were cleared, the camps were effectively holding places as inmates waited their turn for the train ride to eternity.

In Paris, a timely warning by a sympathetic policeman saved my mother, my sister and me from the infamous rounding up known as ‘la rafle’. Here 13,000 Jews, many of them women and children of Polish origin, spent several days in a velodrome in stifling heat without facilities before being sent to the camp at Gurs and then onwards to the death camps. As I was a two-year-old, it is unlikely I would have survived even the long weekend without water. We were smuggled into Vichy, then still ostensibly not under Nazi command. For the majority of Jews trapped in Europe, there was nowhere to run.

In the Treblinka death camp, over 800,000 Jews, mainly from Warsaw and the Bialystok region, were murdered in less than a year. Conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were so desperate that medics euthanised infants to spare them a long drawn-out death from starvation.

For my paternal family in Tarnow, these months of 1942 witnessed the mass murder of almost all the town’s Jews. In 1939 Tarnow had a population of 56,000, of whom about 25,000 were Jews. A book by Adam Bartosz, the historian and Director of the Regional Museum, states: ‘A significant part of them constituted the intellectual and cultural elite of Tarnow; they were lawyers, physicians, musicians, teachers, and industrialists ... The majority, however, were among the poor.’ Soon after the start of the German occupation, they, together with approximately another 16,000 Jews, herded together from surrounding villages, were forced into ghettoes. Notices posted warned Poles of certain death for themselves and their families if they hid or in any way helped a Jew. On 11 June 1942, the mass murders started. Jews were murdered in the town square, 3,000 shot in the cemetery. In the nearby woods of Zbylitowska Gora, 7,000, mainly the elderly and the young, were shot and buried in mass graves. A further 10,000 were sent by train to the death camp of Belzec, the first to use stationary gas chambers. It is currently estimated that about 450,000 Jews from that region of Poland died in Belzec. By December 1942 Belzec had served its purpose: there were no Jews in that part of German-occupied Poland left to gas. The camp was dismantled, every trace of its purpose eliminated. Only one person survived this camp to give witness to the terrible events which happened there.

For two decades and more Adam Bartosz has worked tirelessly not only to commemorate the terrible fate of this region’s Jews but to portray the lives they lived and their involvement with and contribution to their local communities. This June my husband and I joined the commemorations organised each year by Bartosz. As every year, they commenced in the woods. Here, surrounded by local cadets, schoolchildren and adults, as well as journalists and reporters, Bartosz spoke of the terrible events which took place here exactly 70 years ago. Professor Jonathan Webber, an orthodox Jew living in Poland though originally from London, sang the traditional prayer for the soul of the departed, El Moleh Rachamim, and Dr Tadeusz Bukowski, the priest from Tarnow Cathedral and Director of the Diocesan Museum, recited prayers in Polish. Together with another survivor, I took part in laying flowers in honour of our families murdered there. A local elderly Pole gave witness to how, as a young boy playing with his friends in the woods, he had witnessed the event when 800 children had been marched from the local Jewish orphanage and shot in the woods. This area is now enclosed and a memorial stone dedicated to these unnamed children.

On the Sunday, we travelled with a group organised by Jonathan Webber to the village of Brzostek. Professor Webber, a social anthropologist, first travelled many years ago to this town, from which his grandfather had emigrated at the turn of the last century. The only apparent evidence that Jews had once lived there was a strip of uncultivated land at the edge of a field which locals identified as the ancient Jewish cemetery. Except for the fact that the topography differed from the rest of the cultivated field, there was no evidence of its being a cemetery. It was not walled off; no tombstones remained. Determined to reclaim and re-dedicate this as Jewish sacred ground, Webber located an old map. He contacted another descendant of Brzostek and together they financed the work. Determined that the local community should feel connected with this project, he hired local contractors. The area was not to be walled in but enclosed with railings. When the contractor finished the work, he reported to Jonathan that several gravestones had reappeared over night. In all, 55 gravestones of the estimated 450 Jews buried in this cemetery were returned by the local villagers.

On this summer’s day in 2012, we said prayers for the Jews buried in the cemetery as well for the 500 Jews of Brzostek who are not buried there but who were murdered by the Nazis. We were accompanied by two elderly survivors of the massacre in Brzostek. Now in their 80s, they recounted their experiences on the terrible day in August 1942 when the Nazis rounded up the Jews in the square and humiliated them before shooting them. The few who survived were hidden by neighbours.

We then travelled to the Catholic cemetery, where the son and daughter of Rivka Reiss dedicated a memorial stone to Maria Jalowiec, their mother’s neighbour who hid Rivka and another Jewish girl for two years right under the noses of the Germans camped on their farm. Maria’s grandson, Tadeusz, now an elderly man, bore witness to how, as an eight-year-old boy, he smuggled food into the barn for the two girls. His grandmother told him the food was for the cows, but he understood the reason for the secrecy and kept it. When the Germans confiscated their house, Maria smuggled the girls out to a local priest who she knew was hiding Jews. He took them in, saying he might as well be shot for 16 Jews as the 14 already hidden. These Poles deserve to be commemorated as Righteous among the Nations.

After this we travelled to a local school, where a magnificent lunch was put on for us and we were welcomed by local dignitaries. Students from the creative arts department put on an entertainment based on their own work created in memory of the Jewish people who had lived and died in the area. We were greeted with Hebrew words and poems and songs about vanished neighbours and a need for tolerance. Professor Webber has initiated an annual prize for the work of the most creative student and last year’s winner put on a powerpoint presentation of his travels to Greece paid for by the prize. This year five students were awarded scholarships, financed by an elderly survivor who had been hidden by a local farmer.

Then, the most gruelling event of the day: in temperatures nearing 40 degrees Centigrade, we climbed up into the Podzamcze forest outside the town of Kolaczyce. On another sweltering day on 12 August 1942, 260 Jewish men, women and children were brought to this lonely place from Brzostek, Kolaczyce and the nearby villages to be brutally murdered and then buried here in a mass grave. Then, as in forests all over Poland, the evidence was covered over. An unknown person at an unknown time had placed a stone there marking the site of this mass grave. Now, in co-operation with the Gmina (district) of Kolaczyce, a new memorial has been created by the Brzostek Jewish Heritage Project funded by Professor Webber and other descendents of the Jews of this area. It retains the old memorial stone but now covers the full extent of the mass grave. Although a rough path into the forest had been prepared, in the heat of the afternoon the climb into the forest almost defeated many of us. It was the need to pay homage to those so cruelly murdered there that drove us on.

It would be naive to ignore Poland’s record of anti-Semitism. Stories of pogroms and the blood libel propagated by Catholic priests cannot just be swept away. But the history of the Jews and their Catholic neighbours is a complex one, and not always negative. In Tarnow, documentation dating back to1667, issued by the owner of Tarnow at that time, reiterates guarantees of freedom given to the Jews by previous owners dating back to 1582 and 1637. In 1906-11, Dr Elijah Goldhammer, a Jewish attorney, was the vice-mayor and a street named after him remains. It is important to note that of all the names of the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ on the wall of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the names of Poles who sheltered Jews are more numerous than those of any other country. In recent times, Pope John Paul II, who, as a young priest, is on record as having helped the Jews, did much to change the Church’s teachings, which historically had poisoned relations between the two religions’ communities. The work of inter-faith educators like Bartosz and Webber has done much to erode stereotype notions, which perpetuate fear, which in turn creates hatred.

Throughout these commemorations, we walked openly as a group of Jews. Nowhere did we encounter any evidence of hostility. In every place we were welcomed by the local mayor and local people walked with us. In Tarnow, with only a handful of Jewish visitors, it was local people who filled the seats at a play based on the testimony of the last commander of the Jewish uprising in Warsaw. At a concert in front of the bimah, the only relic remaining in the town of its many synagogues, again there was a full house of locals who clapped hands enthusiastically in time with the Yiddish music. I sat next to a tiny lady beautifully dressed in Roma costume, another of Tarnow’s population decimated by the Nazis.

In the woods of Zbylitowska Gora, a bishop stood alongside an orthodox Jew. In the Jewish and Catholic cemeteries of Brzostek and the forest of Podzamcze the Dean of the Parish, Fr Dr Jan Cebulak, and the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, stood side by side. Jews recited their prayers, Catholics theirs. In our tradition we placed stones in remembrance of the dead, Catholics placed flowers. Two communities united in remembrance of the horrific fate of the Jews of that area.

Every nation has its thugs and hooligans who express their self-hatred in acts of hatred against an often unknown and sometimes fictitious enemy. Sadly, anti-Semitic graffiti and desecration of graves occur even here in England. But I can only hope that, thanks to the work of Bartosz and Webber and people like them, the Jews of Tarnow, Brzostek and Kolaczyce will lie undisturbed in their graves.

Joan Salter

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