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 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.
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 were given. a monopoly on the sale of vodka by the king 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 20th century, most Jews here spoke Polish. They enjoyed the culture but did not seek to take on the identity as Poles. Poles never considered Jews as Poles and Jews never considered themselves as Poles so from both the Polish and the Jewish point of view Jews were outsiders. 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 again, 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.
Hasidism, which appeared in the 18th century in Eastern Europe, caught on like wildfire as a sect of Judaism and Poland quickly became primarily Hasidic. 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. Hasidic Jews focused on piety and family and their lives revolved around their spiritual leader, the rebbe. One of the results of the growing Hasidic movement was that these families had many children; a Hasidic family was likely to have between 7 and 10 children, so that the Jewish population of Poland increased quickly.
This is the country that the Nazis invaded in 1939, and when the Nazis began to eliminate the Jews, the Nazis were solving a Polish problem in a way that Poland would never have done because Poland was Catholic and a central tenet of Catholicism is the Witness Theory which requires the presence of Jews to witness the second coming of Christ and convert, realizing that they had been erroneous in their belief that Jesus was not the Messiah, the son of God. Shalmi said that one of his teachers had stressed that without Christian anti-Judaism, antisemitism and the Holocaust would have been less likely to occur.
Today, Shalmi said, there are officially only 3,000 to 4,000 members of the Polish Jewish community.
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.
This morning we checked out of our hotel and drove to the Cultural Center to meet our teacher friends, Yola and Jurek Stelmech. Shalmi had introduced us to them 5 years ago. As we drove, our guide Paulina said that today we would be seeing how memory of the past is being built by the local population. 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.
Paulina gave us a geography lesson about Poland’s neighbors: Sweden to the north (which had invaded Poland twice), Russia (the Kaliningrad province; Paulina said the Poles called these Russians “ants” as they scurried back and forth doing a great deal of shopping), Lithuania, Byelorussia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany. “Neighbors have made our history both tragic and beautiful,” Paulina said. She also told us about the currency of Poland: the zloty, which means Golden One. Poland is a member of the EU but does not use the common currency of the euro.
The Polish teachers were currently involved in a nationwide teacher strike which began April 8th but because there had been some progress between the two sides, today had been declared a one day suspension of the strike so the teachers were able to proceed with the plans for the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program but we were unable to meet at Jurek’s school and the mayor and superintendent did not come this year.
We took our seats for the 17th Annual Holocaust Day of Remembrance. Seventeen 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 and she introduced Jurek and Pawel who welcomed everyone, especially the American students. We had each been given a yellow daffodil to wear as we had entered the theater. Jurek explained that this Daffodils Campaign had been begun by the POLIN Museum in Warsaw several years ago to commemorate the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Every year hundreds of volunteers hand out paper daffodils to raise awareness of the ghetto uprising and its significance. Why the daffodil? One of the leaders of the Warsaw ghetto uprising was Marek Edelman who survived and remained in Poland. Every year on April 19th, the anniversary of the beginning of the uprising, he would receive a bouquet of yellow daffodils from an anonymous donor. Edelman would leave the flowers at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes each year. The Daffodils Campaign was inspired by this practice.
The program began with a young man, Bartok, who brought the certificate which had been given his great grandfather in 2011 by Yad Vashem, honoring him as a Righteous Among Nations for his actions in saving two Jewish men whom he had known before the war. He rescued them from the ghetto and hid them in his home, first in the attic and then in a bunker he built in the cellar of the house with a dog kennel in front disguising the entrance. These two men survived the war and eventually emigrated to Israel. He was one of the 8 individuals in Dąbrowa County to receive this honor. When the medal was given to the family, the grandfather was no longer alive, but his son accepted the medal and now his grandson was showing it to us as one of the famiy’s most prized possessions.
Jurek then introduced Shalmi and asked him to explain to the Polish and American students the importance of the Righteous Among the Nations honor. Shalmi said that Israel was established as a nation in 1948 and right away the idea of recognizing the non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust came right away as part of Israeli law. Later on, he said that as Director of Education at Yad Vashem he was responsible for the teaching of the Holocaust and one of the things they asked themselves was why is it important to teach this evil? At the same time in this terrible darkness, there was a ray of light which came from a small number of individuals who behaved completely opposite and risked their lives to help.
The medal is inscribed: “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he saves the whole world.” Shalmi said that when many Righteous in Poland were identified and awarded the medal, the individual or family would just ask to have the medal and certificate sent, but that they declined a public ceremony. “I remember this embarrassment at the time about telling what they did to save Jews. So that a boy could come here and be so proud of his grandfather is wonderful because times change and attitudes change. This is really the main hopeful message.”
The competition then began and we were treated to outstanding singing. 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.
Next we watched the powerful new film, “Who Will Write Our History” based on the book by the same name written by Samuel Kassow which tells the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oneg Shabas Archive, the secret archive he organized and created in the Warsaw Ghetto to counter the Nazi propaganda films about the Jews that were being disseminated. The archive consisted of more than 30,000 pages of diaries, posters, photographs, and artifacts which documented how the Jews lived in the ghetto.
We walked with Jurek and the Polish students to the beautiful restored synagogue of the town where we all shared a pizza lunch and then we had a tour of the Hall of Prayer in the synagogue.
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. We were told 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.
We were shown the original Torah of the synagogue which they had acquired in 2014, and were told 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”.
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. Samuel Roth was the last practicing jew in Dąbrowa Tarnowska. He died in 1995 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery.
We boarded the bus with Jurek and the Polish students for a short trip to a very special little village Jurek, 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. Everything was decorated including doghouses and picnic tables. We were able to see some local artists as they painted items for sale.
We all then drove to a wedding hall where we had an early dinner with the Polish students, Jurek, Yola and Pawel, and then headed to our final city, Krakow, about two hours away. At our hotel, we checked into our rooms and then took a leisurely stroll into the Market Square were we walked around the square and had some ice cream before walking back to the hotel for our nightly debriefing. Tonight we spent our time talking about the film we had seen today, “Who Will Write Our History??”
So interesting to follow y’all (the four NM Principals just returned from a workshop in Dallas) and to view the many interesting, historical, inspirational, and important stops along the way. There is much to learn from the personal stories of the many people with whom you encounter. I hope that each of you find ways to convey what you’ve learned and how that will impact you – from your personal interactions with others back home to your broader view of the world.
Each generation should know of the history of the town they live in. It might just surprise them what they may find.