Today we headed south to visit two cities: Rabka Zdroj and Zakopane. The weather called for rain and clouds, but we hoped the weather would cooperate with us.
As we left Krakow, Yola gave us maps of Krakow and explained the layout of the city. She talked about her grandmother who had died a few years ago at age 96 and all of the changes that Poland had experienced in that one lifetime — before World War I as a partitioned nation, then World War I (1914-1918), the establishment of the independent Polish nation (Second Republic) from 1918 until Hitler marched in in 1939; World War II and Occupation by Germany and the Soviet Union (1939-1945), the Communist period and role as a Soviet satellite (1945-1989) and the establishment of democracy and the Third Republic 1989-present) – six regime changes, highlighting the great changes Europe has tended to see in comparison to the stability of the United States. She also spoke to us of growing up under communism in Poland and the changes in her life since the fall of communism.
She told us how surprised she was as a teenager, to learn of the choice of a Polish bishop to become the next pope. We knew some of the ties of Pope John Paul II, now Saint John Paul, to this area. Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, near Krakow, in 1920, he grew up in an apartment building which was owned by a Jewish family and had many Jewish friends growing up. He also was an avid sportsman who loved hiking and skiing in the Tetra mountains bordering Slovakia that we would see today. He was named Archbishop of Krakow in 1964, made a cardinal in 1967, and was elected Pope in 1978. He visited Poland during the communist era and is credited with helping to bring about the fall of communism in Poland.
Our first stop on today’s journey was the small town of Rabka Zdroj, often just referred to as Rabka. Many of the towns in this area also have ‘zdroj’ [meaning ‘spa]] added to their name. This area of Poland is well known for a number of spa towns and health resorts. Rabka has been a source of fresh air for people suffering from lung ailments and allergies for more than a century.
We came to visit a Jewish cemetery we had first visited in 2012 and then again in 2014 and last year, 2016. Each of those years we had trudged up a hill, and taken an unmarked path into the woods which ran before a convent, to a Jewish cemetery virtually hidden in the woods. Shalmi had told us what was known about this area. Before the war, there was a Jewish community here in Rabka, and although the exact numbers were unknown, they were probably about 1/3 or perhaps more of the townspeople, inasmuch as much of the health business was in the hands of Jews. There was also a convent here; the same building but run by a different order. During the war the Gestapo took over part of the convent and used it as a school for interrogation. Part of the experiential learning phase necessitated that they practice on human subjects, and members of the Jewish community were to serve this function. Their interrogation practices involved torture and ended when the subject was dead. They then just threw the bodies out behind the convent building. Our knowledge had been that the sisters knew that they were Jewish and wanted to give them a respectful burial, but they knew nothing about the Jewish rituals for burying the dead. They knew the Germans would not approve, and they were possibly risking their lives, so in secret, they dragged the bodies from behind the convent into the woods where they buried the corpses, one by one, trying as best they could, to provide a respectful burial in this hidden cemetery.
Five years ago, we had attempted to talk to the new order of sisters about the cemetery but they said they knew nothing, clearly did not want to speak with us and did not encourage us to go see it. There was also a neighbor who watched us trek into the woods and was visibly upset with our presence. The same had been true of our visit here, in 2014. But last year Shalmi had said, before we entered the woods, that he thought the mayor had been paying attention to the site. We had carefully maneuvered through muddy sections of the unmarked, barely distinguishable path, and as we turned a corner came upon an unanticipated but wonderful sight: a stone path had been established, a footbridge constructed over the stream, and an information guidepost marker stating what had happened her (in Polish and in English) had been built in front of the gated Jewish cemetery. Inside the cemetery, we had discovered that much work had been done. The weeds had been pulled, the trees and shrubs had been pruned and one could see the memorial markers and the gravesites.
This year we had been in contact with the mayor of Rabka and hoped that we would be able to meet with her and talk about the changes we had seen last year and why the town had chosen to focus efforts on fixing up and marking this site. She was unable to meet with us, but put us in contact with a local resident who, we were told, would be able to speak with us about the Jewish cemetery. It was raining heavily as our bus pulled up in front of the building we had thought was a convent in Rabka ,so we decided to have our meeting with this gentlemen aboard the bus. We could not have anticipated what we were to learn from this special man, Narcyz Listkowski.
Narcyz was an electrician who became interested in the history of the Jewish community in Rabka about ten years ago. He had grown up and still lived in a house that had been owned by Jews in what was a Jewish neighborhood of Rabka. He said that since his early childhood, people had spoken about his house and other homes on the street as also previously owned by Jews. Many residents of these houses felt that if the Jews returned they would be expelled from their homes, so Narcyz said he was raised with a feeling of anxiousness. He also said he had never seen a Jew in his childhood. In 2008 a book had been published, Dark Secrets of Tereski Villa, and in that book he saw a photograph of his home and first learned that it had been the building which house the ritual mikvahand that during the period of 1941-1942 Jewish workers had been brought there and disinfected. He then began to do more research about Jewish history in Rabka.
Today Rabka has a population of 16,000 but no Jews. The first mention of Jews in Rabka was in an 1830 church document which mentioned one Jewish family. Ten years later there were 35 Jews and the Jewish population continued to grow after a spa was established here in 1874. By the end of the 19thcentury under the Austro-Hungarian Empire there were 280 Jews. Before World War II, the region of Rabka had a population of 7,000 and about 450 Jews. The town of Rabka, itself, was a village of about 3,000 people and 400 Jews. Narcyz said that there were still inhabitants of Rabka who were alive during the war and remembered Jewish neighbors. He had located many of these people and chronicled their oral testimonies.
He told us that the building, since 1995 is the School of St. Theresa, run by an order of nuns. It is a school for children who are blind or partially sighted, as well as children with physical or developmental disabilities. In 1941 it became a Gestapo school for interrogations as we had thought, the German Police Academy under Hans Kruger as its first commandant. The second commander was Wilhelm Rosenbaum who hated Jews. Under Rosenbaum, all Jews more than 10 years old had to be assigned work details such as sweeping, building and cleaning roads, and working in a local quarry. Rosenbaum determined whether the Jews were to be given work or used as test subjects in the interrogation school. Steps to the school were created with headstones from local Jewish cemeteries, though none ever existed in the town of Rabka.
Narcyz said that when the Jews that served as interrogation subjects died, their bodies were just dumped, but contrary to what we had believed, it was not the nuns who buried the bodies from what was the convent across the street, but that other members of the Jewish community came and secretly buried them. It was not until after the war that the nuns began secretly taking care of the Jewish cemetery, but they had no part in its creation. In August 1942 there was a mass deportation of the Rabka Jews to Belzec. At the end of the war, less than 20 Jews of the 450 who had lived here, remained in the area, most having survived in hiding.
Narcyz showed us a detailed map of the Rabka region. He said that in the spring of 1942, there were 690 names on a list created by the local Judenrat (Jewish Council). He had marked in yellow the homes of Jewish families, including the house where he lived. For several years he and two others who are similarly interested in this history, Grzegorz Moskal an Michal Rapta have been working to commemorate sites and make the local people aware of the history. Grzegorz Moskal is a history teacher and Michal Rapta works in a shop. They have been cleaning Jewish cemeteries in the area, and dug out the original steps to the Rabka synagogue on the street where he lives.
We disembarked from the bus and entered the path marked by a signpost reading “Jewish Wartime Cemetery”. We walked to the cemetery where we had a chance to walk around. It turns out that the visits each year of the Holocaust Study Tour and the work of Narcyz and his friends had not gone unnoticed in the community and by the mayor. One thing led to another and the mayor authorized the building of the path and the signposts, and more and more people started to talk about what they knew.
Shalmi told us this was again a subject of human behavior. Why some people, like Narcyz, gaining certain information, became interested and started doing research and others, the majority, having the same information choose to do nothing.
Narcyz said that in 2011 he found the steps leading to the synagogue and started digging them out.
He offered to show us the steps and our bus followed him to the market square. We walked up the street to where the synagogue once stood and he showed us the steps. The building next to the steps is now owned by the town and is slated to become a museum to the history of the town, including its Jewish history, when funds become available. Narcyz showed us the one known photo of the synagogue, a wood synagogue and where it would have been situated on the now vacant land.
He brought us a few houses down to his house where he asked if we would sign his guest book, which we all did. We promised to remain in contact and learn more about his project and the history. Narcyz recommended a local restaurant for lunch and we headed there for a great lunch. After lunch it was raining heavily and we concluded that it was best to head back to Krakow as the outdoor market was likely to be closed and we would be unable to take the funicular to the top.