Our visit to Dąbrowa Tarnowska, a town in southern Poland of about 12,000 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, Mr. Barmore 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 16th century, 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. Mr. Barmore 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 20th century, most Jews here spoke Polish. They enjoyed the culture but did not choose to 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. Poland was one of the few nations in which the Nazis imposed the death penalty for those aiding 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.
Last night we said a sad goodbye to our wonderful Czech guide Kamila and our bus driver Milan, as they headed back to Prague and met our new local guide, Lidia and bus driver Peter.
We then had dinner in the hotel with Yola and Jurek Stelmech, who Mr. Barmore had introduced us to about five years ago. Jurek and Yola, both high school teachers in Dąbrowa Tarnowska, 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 serves as an education center and museum of Jewish culture.
This morning, we transferred all our luggage to our new bus and walked to the Cultural Center, where we met our friend, the Director of the Center, Pawel Chojnowski. For the last several years we have had the honor of attending the Annual Holocaust Day of Remembrance, Yom Ha’Shoah celebration. Sixteen 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 all the finalists were in this regional competition.
The Master of Ceremonies was Jurek who welcomed the contestants and all guests especially the American schools on the Holocaust Study Tour. He said that they were all wearing yellow daffodils in honor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising April 19, 1943 and passed out daffodils to all of us. He introduced the Mayor of Dąbrowa Tarnowska, Krzysztof Kaczmarski and the Regional Superintendent of Education, Tadeusz Kwiatkowski who officially opened the competition. Jurek then introduced his wife Yola who invited 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 began. This year they began with all of the vocal presentations, to be followed by the literary and dancing presentations. For an hour we were treated to outstanding singing by students. It was such a joyful celebration of Jewish music 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 were joined at the Cultural Center by about 15 of Jurek’s students who would spend the day with us.. The mayor had asked Jurek if we would please join the school march this morning from the elementary school to the town hall to commemorate Katyn. In 1940 the Russians murdered 22,000 Polish officers and buried them in mass graves. Why? For political reasons, we were told by Mr. Barmore. The Russians wanted to take over Poland and eliminating the military leadership would make this an easier task. the Nazis found the mass graves and used this as propaganda against the Soviets: “See what horrible things the Russians do!” After the war, and during the Soviet era, there was a concerted effort on the part of the Soviet government to claim that Katyn had been committed, not by the Soviet Union, but by the Nazis when they invaded the Soviet Union. When Poland became truly independent in 1989 and was no longer a member of the Soviet bloc, Katyn, once again became a topic of discussion in Poland.
Eight years ago there was a kind of rapprochement between Poland and Russia over the subject of Katyn. For the 70th anniversary of the massacre, the Russians invited the Polish leadership to Smolensk where they were going to hold a joint ceremony honoring the Polish army officers. The plane carrying the President and First Lady of Poland, the Prime Minister, many cabinet ministers and legislators as well as top military leaders and clergy crashed on approach to the Russian airfield.. All 96 people on board were killed.. We were actually in Prague when the plane crashed in 2010, and in Krakow during the state funeral of the President and First Lady which we were able to watch.
To commemorate the anniversary of Katyn, the schools of Dąbrowa Tarnowska had planned a march from their schools to the Town Hall.. We met the children of the K-8 school who were carrying Polish flags and commemorative signs about Katyn with names of locals who had been killed there.
We also met a family member of one of the victims. Mayor Kaczmarski also showed us a scrapbook of a young man, Jakub Kowalik, born in Dąbrowa Tarnowska where he lived for the first ten years of his life and then his family moved to the United States.. He joined the Marine Corps and was killed in Iraq. One of his teachers had kept in contact with him and the family when they left for the U.S. and she had made a scrapbook honoring him.
The Mayor invited one of our students who help him lay a lighted candle in honor of Katyn and then we joined the procession to the town hall. We were proceeded by a police car and police stopped all traffic on the road as our procession walked down the main street several blocks to the city center. Jurek said this was a very special occasion and that it was a unique event to stop all traffic on the main road in the town. When we arrived at the town hall, were joined by another school group.
We took a group photo of the Polish and American students and then walked to their school
where Jurek and Yola teach, Zespol Szkol Ponadgimnazjalnych No. 2.. First the Polish students presented a power point highlighting their school, their international activities with students from Israel, their school trips such as to Greece, their social events and past visits from the Holocaust Study Tour. The American students had collaborated on a power point with a slide for each school 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], Bishop O’Dowd High School [CA] and Oakland School for the Arts [CA] would talk about that aspect.
Next we walked to the restored synagogue in the center of town. We had a quick lunch of pizza and drinks with the Polish students outside the synagogue. A statue ‘Rebbe of Dąbrowa” stood outside the main door.
On entering the synagogue we were met by Director Karolina Pikul who talked to the students about how the synagogue was restored, the meaning of the paintings on the walls, and explained the artifacts.
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 Dąbrowa Tarnowska 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. She explained to us the meaning of many of the drawings and writings on the walls.
In the front of the synagogue was encased the original Torah of the synagogue which they had acquired in 2014, 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. Four 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”.
Karolina took us downstairs to see examples of village culture. On the walls were brightly painted flowers. She told us of the nearby village of Zalipie, known as ‘The Painted Village” which we had visited before but which we were told is closed for a year for restoration. The residents of this village compete to have the most colorful house and even paint their picnic tables and doghouses.. She also told us of the Galicia straw shoes which were worn, not to walk in, but to warm your feet because temperatures in the winter could get as low as negative 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
On the first floor we visited the Women’s Gallery. We saw collages of women and their styles of dress through the decades on the wall. On one side were Jewish women and on the other were Catholic women.. We continued up to the top, second floor where Karolina showed us some of her favorites artifacts from an exhibition of Jewish life. One was a porcelain Mellita coffee filter made in the 1880’s. She told us that tea was more expensive than coffee in those days, and so more people drank coffee. There were also large holes in the filter because people ground their own coffee and it was rougher. She also showed us a zither and a device to take off high boots, nicknamed “the boy”.
We then sat down and listened to the story of Zofia Romaszewska, a child survivor, who had been brought to Dąbrowa Tarnowska to see the Yom Ha’Shoah celebration at the Cultural Center and speak of her experiences to the Polish and American students. She told us that when the war broke out she was 4 years old. She told how her father had been sent to a ghetto but her mother decided not to go and to take Zofia and go into hiding. She was old enough to know she could not let people know she was Jewish and they had to move a couple of times when they felt unsafe, but they survived the war. Her father, she learned later, had been sent to Auschwitz where he had been murdered.
Next we walked across the street to the Jewish cemetery where Karolina 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. 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. We were told it was a Polish custom to leave lighted candles at memorials, and two of the students placed them here.
Our last stop before dinner was a 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.
Mr. Barmore then said we should think about where we had been yesterday and what had happened in Trsice and compare it to this memorial and what had happened in Poland.
Mr. Barmore 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 and turned in their neighbors. In Trsice, the people knew Zladek was getting more food than he needed for himself, but no one turned him in. He also said that he had been hopeful that Poland was beginning to confront her past with reference to the Holocaust but then this recent law was passed which made it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany, in an effort to defend the national pride and honor.
We all then drove to the town’s newly built Banquet Hall / Reception Center where we were all joined for an early dinner by the Mayor of Dąbrowa Tarnowska, the Regional Superintendent of Education, and arriving from the Holocaust Remembrance competition, Pawel Chojnowski and Yola Stelmach. Following a wonderful lunch of soup, chicken, 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 to the Polish students and town leaders 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 ice cream and pizza slices, listened to the trumpeter from the church after Mr. Barmore told us the story and headed back to the hotel for our nightly debriefing.
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