Once again we lucked out with the weather as today we headed south to visit two cities: Rabka Zdroj and Zakopane. It was sunny and mild as we drove through the countryside to our first stop on today’s journey, 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. In the early years we had to trudge up a hill, and take an unmarked path into the woods which ran before a convent, to a Jewish cemetery virtually hidden in the woods. In 2016 we were hiking our usual path when we came upon a stone path and a footbridge which had been constructed over the stream, leading to the cemetery. There was also an information guidepost marker stating what had happened here (in Polish and in English) which 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.
Last year we had met Narcyz Listkowski. an electrician by profession who became interested in the history of the Jewish community in Rabka about ten years ago. He had grown up and still lives 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 mikvah and 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 as a hobby.
As we have returned to Rabka over the years, the story of what happened here continues to evolve. Things that we had believed occurred here, given Narcyz’ research, may not, in fact, have happened. Our understanding of the events in Rabka during the war is also limited due to the language barrier. We look forward to finding out more about these events through Narcyz’ continued research efforts as well as our own.
This morning we met Narcyz and Michal Rapta, who had written the book Dark Secrets of Tereski Villa, at the entry to the Jewish cemetery where a signpost directed visitors to the “Jewish Wartime Cemetery”, and they gave us more information about the area and the Jewish cemetery.
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 19th century 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, so most of the region’s Jewish residents lived in the town of Rabka. 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 before us was the School of St. Theresa, established in 1995 and 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. Before the war it was a girls’ junior high school. 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 as Jews in the area were always buried in a Jewish cemetery in Jordanow.
We walked down the path to the Jewish cemetery. The winter storms had done much damage in the cemetery as several trees had been uprooted.
Narcyz last year told us 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. This year he also spoke of executions which had occurred in the Jewish cemetery in May 1942. On May 20, 1942 the first group of 32 people were executed here. A special group of soldiers collected people whose names had been placed on a list from their homes and they were put in prison cells in the German Police Academy building until all were rounded up. They were undressed and walked down the new stone path that had been built to the cemetery location, where mass graves had been dug. Planks had been laid across the pit and the prisoners were lined up on the planks, shot in the back of the head, their bodies falling into the pit below. Then disinfectant was poured on the bodies and they were ready for the next group of victims. Narcyz said that in the case of families, the children were shot first to cause the maximum suffering for the parents. The large cement blocks marked the mass graves.
We were also told that the large memorial which stood in the center of the cemetery had been constructed by local workers after the war who found Jewish gravestones in the area which had been stolen from the Jewish cemetery in Jordanow and used for footpaths and for other utilitarian purposes by the Nazis.
We all climbed aboard our bus and drove to the market square of the town where Narcyz home was and where he had discovered the Jewish neighborhood. He showed us the building on the corner which had been a kosher butcher shop.
In 2011 on the street where he lives, Narcyz found the steps leading to the synagogue and started digging them out. We had seen them last year. This year we walked again to the stairs and saw the remnants of one of the wooden synagogue’s foundation posts. Now there is a banner with photos and some of the history of the area to educate locals and visitors. The building next to the steps is owned by the town and is may become a museum to the history of the town, including its Jewish history, when funds become available, if the town mayor approves of Narcyz’ and Michal’s project, which includes rebuilding the wooden synagogue.
Wooden churches and synagogues are common architecture in this region and we saw a wooden church in Rabka.. The beautiful church was 450 years old and had been constructed with no nails.. It is now a museum..
Narcyz’ research is taking him next month to Israel where he has arranged for an interview with a former Jewish resident of Rabka who left in 1939. We look forward to hearing what he learns from her about Jewish life in the region.
Narcyz brought us his guest book which we all signed and then headed back to the bus for the drive to Zakopane.
The next stop was just for fun: Zakopane. The weather continued to be beautiful and we had a warm and sunny day in this lovely ski resort town in the Tetra mountains. This was a favorite spot for Krakow Jews before the war, for skiing. Many photos and videos we had seen in the Berlin Jewish Museum had been filmed in Zakopane.. We took the funicular to the top of the mountain from where we could see the city of Zakopane below, the spectacular view of the mountain which looks like the “Sleeping Giant’, and walked along the ridge before taking the funicular back down. We had some time left for shopping in the market for gifts before heading back through the beautiful Polish countryside to Krakow.