Jul 2006 Journal

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More Miracles from Poland

Last year, the AJR Journal published my article 'How I came to believe in miracles', following a visit to the town in which I was born. It was called Koslin before the war and became totally Polish in 1945, when Pomerania and other parts of eastern Germany were handed to the Poles by way of compensating them for the eastern territories of which the Soviet Union had deprived them. My wife Carol and I had been invited by the mayor of Koszalin, as it is now called, as guests of honour of the city and in my article I described some extraordinary events they laid on. The most significant of these was the solemn rededication of the old Jewish cemetery, which was destroyed in 1938.

This May, Carol and I returned to Koszalin, on this occasion as guests of the Technical University. I had been asked to give a lecture to staff and students on immunological research. But the main reason for the invitation was the unveiling of a monument dedicated to the new Jewish cemetery, built over by the Technical University. It was yet another breathtaking event that forced me to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

The inspiration for this development came from two local activists who have taken a deep interest in the pre-1945 history of the city and especially its long-forgotten Jewish population - Zdzislaw (Zibi) Pacholski, a photographer and artist, and Henryk Romanik, a Catholic priest, local historian and poet. After discussion with the university authorities, their suggestion of a memorial on the site of the cemetery was accepted and the Rector and his staff carried it through swiftly. Thus it was that Carol and I joined the Rector and Vice-Rector (Professor Tomasz Heese, who was responsible for much of the organisation), Henryk and Zibi, Jewish representatives from Gdansk, Szczecin and Warsaw (the latter representing the Chief Rabbi), the Mayor, and the Bishop of Koszalin in a moving unveiling ceremony of remembrance. The sculpted monument, with its broken tree and Star of David and text in Hebrew and Polish, is very fine indeed.

This was followed by a talk by Henryk Romanik about the Jewish cemeteries and German Jews of Koszalin, his book on this topic having been published on the same day. A 20-minute video, created by Zibi and a cinematographic colleague of his when I visited the city last year, was shown for the first time. The afternoon concluded with a lavish reception in the university, where I spoke not only with some of the Jews from other cities but also with two messianic Jews from Koszalin.

Messianic Jews are ethnic Jews who observe the Sabbath and the festivals and read the Torah but recognise Christ as the Messiah. Yet, like conventional Jews, they still await the return of the Messiah, presumably personified by Christ. Most of the Koszalin Jews, who are Russian or Polish, evidently belong to this sect.

The unveiling of the memorial was for me almost unbearably moving: after all, three of my grandparents and other relatives were buried in the cemetery that was being remembered. The wheel had turned full circle. Who says miracles do not happen?

One other extraordinary event concerns my great-uncle David Baruch's (born in 1840) gravestone, which in 1938 had been thrown into the stream that flows alongside the old cemetery and which, after its identification with my family a few years ago, had been exhibited in the local museum as the only Jewish artefact in the city. It was quietly returned to the old cemetery by courtesy of the mayor and the director of the museum and is now the only gravestone in it. A few of us placed stones on it and left red roses. I was deeply moved at my great-uncle's symbolic return.

Al though the cemetery has large blocks of flats on one side, it has generally been respected by local youths. With the help of Henryk Romanik I chatted to some boys playing football nearby: as for their English counterparts, for them the Holocaust is a million light years away, but evidently they had learnt something from the plaque near the entrance of the cemetery, and the history of the Holocaust is taught in Polish schools.

All this has happened because of the dedication of two men, Zibi and Henryk, at a time when the government of Poland has been joined by a minister (for education!) coming from a highly antisemitic smaller party. Yet events like this are happening in other parts of Poland too, as evidenced, for example, by the experiences of Peter Fraenkel, who wrote about them in the April issue of the Journal. The Pope's recent visit to Auschwitz is, of course, another story.

Carol and I have already received an invitation to return in May 2008 for the opening of a major exhibition on the Jews of Pomerania and Koszalin, carefully researched by the devoted staff of the city's archives.
Leslie Baruch Brent

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