Our visit to Dąbrowa Tarnowska, a town in southern Poland of about 15,000 inhabitants, is one of our most anticipated stops on the Holocaust Study Tour. The town’s name means ‘Oak Tree Village”. Last night as we were heading into town, Shalmi gave us some historical background on Poland and the status of Jews in Poland over the years. For 400-500 years prior to the Holocaust, Poland was the largest and main spiritual center of Judaism. From the 16thcentury, Jews from Western and Central Europe had come to Poland in large numbers because at that time Poland became known as the land of opportunity, much like the United States had been viewed during the 19th century.
Jews came to Poland because they were invited by the aristocracy, and they formed communities called shtetls in the rural, mostly unpopulated areas. Jews provided capital for the seeds that needed to be planted, and also had a monopoly on the sale of vodka and this became a very lucrative business. Jews became the tools of the nobility, who didn’t like them, but needed them for commerce. However, this put the Jews in a precarious position with the local serfs, who were Catholic. Shalmi reminded us that Jews were outside of Christian law [ex lex] and therefore received their protection from the king who regarded them as his property.
Unlike the Jews in Germany and Prague, the Jews here did not assimilate; they acculturated. In Germany the Jews wanted to be German, but in Poland it was different. By the 20thcentury, most Jews here spoke Polish. They enjoyed the culture but did not seek to take on the identity as Poles. This had much to do with the Polish-Jewish relations at the time. By 1919, this caused problems with Poles who wanted to be identified by their nationality, and did not see Jews as a part of their nation, but instead saw them as outsiders, “the other”. By 1939 in Poland, because of many factors, including a bad economy, the Poles had a very grave relationship with all minorities here, including the Jews, who represented 10% of the population nationally. However, because so many Jews lived in the heart of big cities, the population of Jews in these city centers, perhaps 40% – 60% and even higher, their presence was felt more by the non-Jewish residents. In Dąbrowa Tarnowska we would learn that the Jewish population in 1939 was 80% Jewish.
Only 150 Jews from Dąbrowa Tarnowska and surrounding towns survived the Holocaust, most saved by locals, including Catholic priests who would issue false baptismal certificates and neighbors who would offer hiding places. This assistance offered to Jews came at a great cost. In 1942 there were 62 residents of the town who were executed for hiding Jews. Eight residents of Dąbrowa County have received the title of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem for their rescue efforts. In 1945 less than 100 Jews returned to Dąbrowa Tarnowka. Today, there are no Jews in the town.
Arriving at our hotel, we unloaded the bus and said a sad goodbye to our wonderful Czech guide Kamila and our bus driver Milan, as they headed back to Prague immediately. We then were welcomed to Poland by our new local guide, Yolanta. We checked into our rooms and then had dinner in the hotel, joined by our local teacher friends, Yola and Jurek Stelmech, who Shalmi had introduced us to about four years ago. Jurek and Yola, both high school teachers in Dąbrowa Tarnowska, along with the Director of the Cultural Center, Pawel Chojnowski, have been very active in keeping alive the memory of Polish Jewish life in the town for over a decade. In the very center of town stood a large Jewish synagogue which, from the end of the war, stood abandoned and surrounded by a fence. They had started the process whereby the town received funding from the EU to restore the synagogue as a place of historical significance, and which now served as an education center and museum of Jewish culture. Jurek showed us a recent news story, featuring Yola and Pawel, which chronicled the state of the synagogue in 2002 and the process of restoration, which was so fascinating we had the students watch the 8 minute clip at our debriefing session so they could more fully understand their visit to the synagogue tomorrow. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJQbxxqwkas&feature=youtu.be]
Today we transferred all our luggage to our new bus and drove to the center of town, to begin our day at the restored synagogue.
As we drove, Shalmi told us about a book he had recently read, Hunt for the Jews, which chronicled the search for Jews in Poland, and specifically mentioned this region and Dąbrowa Tarnowska. He said that this area had many people who collaborated with the Nazis but something these teachers have done, have changed Dąbrowa Tarnowska from an area which hunted Jews to an area which celebrates Judaism and its culture. That, he said, means we have much to learn from these teachers and makes him feel optimistic.
As we arrived, Jurek, who teaches English, was there with about 20 of his students, along with Pawel Chojnowski, the Director of the Cultural Center. Pawel showed us the two paintings of lions symbols of Judah (strength and power) guarding the door. A new statue, ‘Rebbe of Dąbrowa” also stood outside the main door. Pawel told us how a local artist had been commissioned to make the statue. As he was working on it, he noticed an old man who kept coming by and watching from a distance. The artist finally asked the old man what interested him and the man said “I see the rebbe of Dąbrowa has returned from the river.” An old Hasidic Jew had been hidden by a Catholic family and used to go at night to the river to wash. Another resident of the town went to the police. The Germans soon caught the man, shot him and threw him in the river. The old man, as a child, had been a witness to this incident.
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. Pawel 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. He explained to us the meaning of many of the drawings and writings on the walls.
Pawel 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. Three 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”.
Shalmi also explained Hasidism to us. Founded by Ba’al Shem Tov, it represented not a change in Judaism, but a change in the fundamental relationship between Jews and God. Judaism is a legal way of living, according to the laws of the Torah. Hasidic Jews believed that following Judaism should be less of a cerebral process about learning, and more about an emotional connection to God.
Upstairs was an exhibition of Jewish life. One custom Shalmi spoke to us about was that involving marriage. A girl’s father, he told us, had to promise, as part of a dowry, that he would keep them for the first ten years of the marriage. They married quite young, around age 16. One outcome of this would be many children. What would the boy do? He would study the Torah; he did not have to work. If after ten years he was very good, he would continue to study, but if not, would then begin a trade. This meant that when modernity came and Jews could go to universities, it was a much more natural transition for them than for peasant families.
We walked across the street to the Jewish cemetery where Jurek explained the Nazis had removed all the tombstones and had used them to build roads and a pool in the area. After the war, the locals 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. He told us 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. There was also a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust 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. Jurek said it was a Polish custom to leave lighted candles at memorials, and two of the students placed them here. .
We next drove to the Cultural Center, headed by Pawel, where we attended the 15thAnnual Holocaust Day of Remembrance. Fifteen years ago, in an effort to have her students understand and appreciate the rich cultural heritage of the Jews, Yola Stelmech had initiated a competition in which students in each school in the county select a Yiddish or Hebrew song, poem or excerpt from a story written by a Polish Jew, or learn a dance. 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. The teachers then chose the finalists from each school and today they were all in this final competition.
The Master of Ceremonies was Jurek’s wife, Yola. She introduced Mrs. Tambuscio as the leader of the Holocaust Study Tour 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, dancing and dramatic presentations. It was such a joyful celebration of Jewish music and words and we were so glad that we once again had this opportunity to witness this. The competition continues to grow as more and more schools in the region wish to participate in the celebration of pre-war Jewish life in Poland.
We all walked to the high school where Jurek and Yola teach, Zespol Szkol Ponadgimnazjalnych No. 2 and were welcomed by the Headmaster, Jan Kiljan. We had pizza and drinks and then the American students and the Polish students gave a presentation about their schools. Our 3 schools had each prepared a power point slide on different aspects of their schools: Schedule, Courses/Electives, Sports, Spirit, Student Government, Technology, Community Action, etc. so as each slide topic appeared for each school, the student representatives from New Milford [NJ] and Midland Park [NJ] and Bishop O’Dowd High School [CA] would talk about that aspect. The last slide topic was social events which included proms and one of our New Jersey students introduced the Polish students to the concept of a ‘promposal’ by inviting ASKING another New Jersey student on the Holocaust Study Tour to her junior prom. [By the way, he accepted]. Then a Polish student told us about his school with a power point presentation highlighting their international activities with students from Israel and also past visits to the school of the Holocaust Study Tour. Jurek then introduced us to a Polish prom tradition, showing a video of their recent prom in which the Headmaster and the students danced the Polonaise.
We left the school and boarded to bus with Jurek and the Polish students for a short trip to a very special little village Jurek had taken us to last year for the first time, the town of Zalipie, known as the Painted Village. All the homes are colorfully decorated with painted art. There is also an annual competition in which residents repaint their house each year. Last year 85 local homeowners participated in the competition; not for a prize but for ‘bragging rights’. Everything was decorated including doghouses and picnic tables. We were able to see some local artists as they painted items for sale.
Our last stop back in Dąbrowa Tarnowska 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 had been supported by the Medalas. The German authorities made a raid on several homes and in the Medala home, though they found no Jews, they did discover a large amount of food, which led them to believe the Medals 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. Jurek told us that assistance offered to Jews came at a high price. That of all the occupied nations, Poland was the only one in which helping Jews in any form, whether it be hiding them or merely providing 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 in this case, as a deterrent to other Poles. In 1942, we learned, 62 residents were executed for hiding Jews. Eight residents of Dabrowa County have received the title of Righteous Among Nations from Yad Vashem for their rescue efforts.
We all then drove to the town’s newly built Banquet Hall / Reception Center where we were joined for an early dinner by the Mayor of Dąbrowa Tarnowska, Krzysztof Kaczmarski, the Regional Superintendent of Education, Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, the Headmaster of the School Jan Kiljan, and arriving from the Holocaust Remembrance competition, Pawel Chojnowski and Yola Stelmach. Following a wonderful lunch of soup, pierogis and apple cake it was time to leave. The mayor pinned a special city pin on one of our students, who is Polish, we said our goodbyes and headed to Krakow, the last stop on the Holocaust Study Tour.
At our hotel, we checked into our rooms and then took a leisurely stroll into the Market Square were we had some sausages or churros, and did some souvenir shopping before heading back to the hotel for our nightly debriefing.
Day 10 Padlet Reflections at https://padlet.com/daufiero/5u90glxa82pa