We began day 10 of the Holocaust Study Tour in Dabrowa Tarnoska, a town in southern Poland of about 12, 000 residents. Last night when we arrived, we unloaded our bus, said farewell until next year to our Czech guide, Kamila, and were greeted by our Polish guide, Paulina. We had been joined for dinner at our hotel by our friends, teachers Jurek and Yola Stelmech, who both teach at the high school in Dabrowa Tarnoska, Zespol Szkol Ponadgimnazjalnych No. 2, and Pawel Chojnowski , the director of the Cultural Center. We first met these three wonderful educators in 2014 when Shalmi brought us here to see the synagogue which had been restored in 2012, and meet Jurek, Yola and Pavel, who had been instrumental in its restoration and conversion into an education center and museum of Jewish culture. Last year we had been invited to spend the day with them and this year we were excited to again have this opportunity. This morning after breakfast, Jurek and several of his students came to meet us at our hotel and walk us to the restored synagogue, stopping for a group photo on the steps of the city hall.
In the synagogue, we were greeted by Karolina Pikul, the director. She told us about the history of Dabrowa Tarnoska and the Jewish presence in the town. Dabrowa Tarnoska, she said, was a typical shtetl in Poland before the war. In 1939, about 2,500 or 80% of its residents were Jewish, so they effectively were in charge of the town. Only about 150 of them survived the Holocaust and few returned to Dabrowa Tarnoska. She told us many of the survivors emigrated to the United States, especially the city of Chicago.
After the war, under communist rule, the synagogue became the property of the state. No one cared for the building and it became a dilapidated building on a main traffic artery through the town. Following the 1989 fall of communism the town tried to obtain ownership of the synagogue without success. The building continued to remain uncared for. In 2006 when the building was at risk of collapse, the state treasury decided to give the ownership rights to the town, but the town had no money to restore it. In the 1980’s the synagogue had been listed as a heritage site, so they could not destroy it. The Jewish community in Krakow had expressed interest in acquiring the building before, so the town offered to sell the synagogue to them for 1 zloty [approximately 25 cents] but when experts in restoration came back with the total cost of 10 million zlotys to do the job, the Krakow community declined. The town next tried to find other buyers, including an orthodox Jewish group in New York, but when each potential buyer learned of the bottom line, they withdrew from the negotiations. The town next went to the European Union which has declared that preservation of Jewish history anywhere in Europe is a top priority. So Dabrowa Tarnoska received 7.5 million zlotys from the EU and 2.5 million zlotys from the town budget and began the restoration which was finished in 2012. Karolina told us that the synagogue looks exactly as it did before the war, the same paintings on the walls and the same floral and animal drawings [the zodiac] on the ceiling.
Karolina showed us the original Torah of the synagogue which they had acquired in 2014, and told us the story of how it returned to the synagogue. In 1940 the Nazis had made a warehouse out of the synagogue and an unknown person secretly stole the Torah, taking it by horse and cart to deliver to an orthodox Catholic monastery about an hour away to ask them to preserve it. The monastery did not want to do it initially, as they were conservative Catholics, but they were also concerned that the Nazis had made their monastery a headquarters, so German officers were sleeping there. They finally agreed, however, to keep the Torah. Two years ago, members of the monastery came to the synagogue and said they wanted to return the Torah to its home. According to them, the person who gave them the Torah in 1940 had asked that they keep the Torah safe “until Jewish prayers are heard again in the synagogue”. She said that much is made of the Polish-Jewish relationship and is often negative, so the fact that orthodox Catholics would protect an orthodox Jewish Torah for over seventy years was noteworthy.
Next we walked across the street to the office of the Regional Superintendent for the Malaposka region, Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, who greeted us, along with the Headmaster of the high school where Jurek and Yola teach, Jan Kiljan, told us a little about his job and gave each of us a gift bag from the town.
Our next stop was the Jewish cemetery located near the Superintendent’s office. Jurek told us how in 1942 1,800 Jews from Dabrowa Tarnoska were deported to Belzec death camp. We also learned there had been two mass murders of Jews in the area. In 1942, 180 Jews had been forced to dig their grave and then were executed. In 1943, 36 members of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] in charge of the ghetto were executed. Jurek also told us how the Nazis had taken headstones from the cemetery and used them as walls for a pool they were building as well as some for paving some roads. After the war, local residents found all the tombstones they could and brought them back to the cemetery, but without records they had no way of knowing which gravestone belonged with which grave, so they are randomly placed in the cemetery. The locals did know, however that the tombstones should face east, towards Jerusalem, so they did place them all facing east. In the 1990’s a Jewish community in the United States paid for the building of a fence around the cemetery. There was also a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in the cemetery, built by the Samuel Roth Foundation in 1993, using the fragments of tombstones which had been too damaged to be placed as a grave marker. One Polish student and one American student participated in the lighting of a candle to place at the memorial.
We walked to Jurek’s school nearby where we once again met with the Headmaster Jan Kiljan who told us about the school and gave us a brief tour of the school including a visit to the library.
We then walked down the hill to the cultural center where we were thrilled to be able to once again attend the afternoon session of an all day artistic program put on by students from 13 local schools for the 14th annual Holocaust Day of Remembrance. 8 high schools and 5 middle schools in the counties of Tarnow and Dabrowa Tarnoska hold competitions in their schools in which students chose a Yiddish or Hebrew song, or a poem or excerpt from a book, story or play written by a Polish Jew. Students not only learned the song or passage, but had to write essays to explain why they had chosen the piece and what it meant. In addition to the categories of Singing and Recitation, there is a third category: Dance. The teachers then chose the finalists from each school and today they all competed in the final competition. We learned that the finals had originally been scheduled for another day, but it was switched in order that we might attend. The Master of Ceremonies was Jurek’s wife, Yola, who is also the person who initiated the competition fourteen years ago. She felt it was important to address the absence of Jewish culture which had been such a part of Polish history and so started this competition with her school. Initially there were some questions about why this should be done, but it was well received and students enjoyed it. The competition expanded over the years as new schools wanted to participate, even in a neighboring county, and now it is an annual contest that students eagerly anticipate. Yola introduced Mrs. Tambuscio as the leader of the Holocaust Study Tour and asked her to say a few words about our program and how we had connected with the town, the school and the teachers. The competition then resumed and we were treated to outstanding singing and dancing presentations. It was such a joyful celebration of Jewish music and words and we were so glad that we had this opportunity to witness this. In a town with no Jews, these students and their schools and teachers had chosen to keep Jewish culture alive through this celebration of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Shalmi reminded us that a story doesn’t die if it remains in people’s memories, so through teachers like Jurek and Yola and Pavel and their students, that memory continues to live. We were reminded of the Jewish saying Mrs. Niclasen and Marouan said at the Loecknitz school in the Bavarian Quarter in Berlin: If people are forgotten, they die a second time.” The winner and the runner up of the singing competition are featured in the clip below.
After the performances, while the judging was underway, we went upstairs where the Polish students and our group shared pizzas and cokes, breaking the ice and making new friends. We learned from more than one Polish student that “Pizza isn’t pizza in Poland without ketchup!” The mayor of Dabrowa Tarnoska, Krzysztof Kaczmarski, dropped by the room to officially welcome us to his town, and thank us for making new connections between American and Polish students, saying ‘together the young people can shape a better future.’
Back on the bus, our last stop in the town was to visit a memorial to a rescuer family, the Medalas, built in 2005, to honor this family which had been executed for hiding Jews. Several Jewish families were living in the adjacent woods and were supported by the Medalas. The German authorities made a raid on several homes and in the Medala home found no Jews, but a large amount of food, which indicated to the Nazis that they were hiding Jews. On July 5, 1943, the mother, father, son and daughter, mother-in-law, and a neighbor were shot and their bodies thrown into the burning house. Assistance offered to Jews came at a great price. Jurek told us that of all of the occupied nations, Poland was the only one in which helping Jews in any form, whether it be hiding them or merely providing some food, was automatically punishable by death. And, he noted, this harsh law was not just applicable to a single individual, but one’s entire family would often suffer the same fate, as a deterrent to other Poles. In 1942 there were 62 residents of the town who were executed for hiding Jews. Eight residents of Dabrowa County have received the title of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem for their rescue efforts. And there are 12,000 Polish Righteous who have been similarly recognized. As in the Jewish cemetery, a memorial candle was lit and placed at the site by a Polish student and an American student.
On a lighter, happier note, Jurek took us to briefly visit a nearby town, Zalipie, known as the Painted Village, for all the homes which are colorfully decorated with painted art: flowers, patterns, fauna. There is also an annual competition – last year 85 local artists took part – in re-painting their home. They do this, we were told, not for a prize, but more for fun and ‘bragging rights’. Everything was decorated – even the doghouses and the picnic tables. It was a great end to a spectacular day. And we were amazed at how lucky we had been with regard to the weather: In the synagogue, it started raining, but as we stepped out it had stopped. This pattern would continue throughout the day — the rain held off as we walked from place to place until we were inside a building and then it poured. As we drove back to Dabrowa Tarnoska, we dropped off the Polish students and Jurek and then headed west towards our last hotel stop in Krakow, where we had a delicious dinner before our nightly debriefing.
** Video material taken during the trip via Periscope is available on a YouTube channel, just search “Colleen Tambuscio” on YouTube. We are uploading these videos as fast as possible. They take some time to upload and get approved by YouTube. Keep checking the status. As of today we had 39 Periscope live video feeds that we saved and can upload to YouTube.