Day Thirteen – Rabka Zdroj – Zakopane, Poland

Last night the weather forecast for today was rainy and cold. But once again we lucked out with the weather as today we headed south to visit two cities in the Tetra Mountains: 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.

On the way Paulina told us about the mountains we would be visiting. In Poland the range is the Tetra Mountains and in Slovakia they are the Carpathian Mountains, but they are the same range. About 25% of the range is in Poland and 75% is in Slovakia. The people who inhabit the Tetra Mountains are the highlander people. Known as ‘gorals’, they are a very proud people, who don’t like foreigners which, as Paulina told us, meant anyone who wasn’t a highlander, including the Poles of Krakow. They celebrate their folklore. They are very Catholic. They have their own dialect but also speak Polish. In the 1880’s a professor from Krakow popularized Zakopane as a health resort.

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.

Two years ago we 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.

This morning we met Narcyz who took a couple of hours off work today to be able to meet us and tell us about Rabka. 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. 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.

He showed us a map of homes in the area and on the map he had highlighted the homes owned by Jews. He said that there were 7,000 people before the war in six villages which were incorporated into Rabska. Rabka itself has about 3,000 people and 400 Jews. The building we stood before before the war had been a sanitorium or hospital for Jewish children. More than 3,500 Jewish children had been treated here for lung ailments or tuberculosis, which even today is a specialty of Rabka. From 1936 the building was a girls’ junior high school, and then started its tragic history. On September 3, 1939 German military units entered the area – many of the people had escaped east. About 20 kilometers from Rabka the Germans had met strong resistance and more than 50 tanks had been destroyed so the Germans entered the area furious. In one town 60% of the buildings were burned to the ground and townspeople were randomly killed. Christians and Jews had fled the area but soon returned because the Soviets had entered from the east. Jewish families that lived in the east behind the Soviet line, for the most part survived, but 90% of the Jews who fell under German control were murdered.

The Germans established in 1939 a school for training security police in Zakopane, but quickly the area became popular with Germans for its leisure activities and it proved not conducive to having the training school in such a popular area, so in 1940 the school was moved to this building, replacing the girls’ junior high school, under the command of Wilhelm Rosenbaum. Steps to the school were created with headstones from local Jewish cemeteries. There was no Jewish cemetery in Rabka. After the war, they were removed, but not immediately. Narcyz showed us a photo of the building in 1962 and the stairs were still there. In this school Germans were trained in this process. This building for bureaucratic training showed the tentacles of Nazi ideology and how they infiltrated even the smallest of towns.

Jews living in Rabka could stay in their homes unless occupied by Germans. There were three villas over the hill, we were told, which accommodated Jews taken from nearby towns and brought here. This was called the ghetto. So the who process of organizing a ghetto, with a Judenrat, continued here. It was not the traditional ghetto as we had seen in Terezin and Krakow, but is was a ghetto situation , organized with Jewish leadership under the Nazis.

The registration of all Jews in the area took place here, where we were standing. They had a table and officers and the Jews arrived to be categorized into who could work and who could not. 695 Jews, including about 160 children, gathered here in May 1942, and were classified. After registration the people went home, but the Nazis had all of their names and personal information. Then the Judenrat created lists. People were told they were going to be resettled. They came back here when called, but were locked in the cellar of the school or taken to nearby stables. When it was dark they were taken to the forest. Jewish workers had already prepared mass graves. Then there were scheduled executions: May 20, May 25, June 28, June 29 and July 17. An estimated 204 people were murdered from Rabka in this fashion. Narcyz was not aware of the number of Jews from other towns who were in the three villas, who might have similarly been executed. On the list of Jews from Rabka, names of those executed had been scratched out with the date of execution noted.

Shalmi told us to note that these people were not sent to camps. It was more like the Einsatzgruppen which had operated in the Soviet Union, going from village to village, rounding up the Jews, taking them to previously dug mass graves and executing them.

On August 13, 1942, Narcyz said that the remaining Jews of Rabka, along with about two thousand Jews from neighboring towns, were brought to the train station where a train which had been picking up Jews from various communities arrived. They were loaded onto the train and it proceeded to another town, ultimately arriving in Belzec where all of the passengers were murdered.

We walked down the path to the Jewish cemetery. Last year the winter storms had done a lot of damage in the cemetery and several trees had been uprooted.   That had all been cleared and the cemetery was well manicured. A new memorial had been erected which had inscriptions in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish. In part it said “In memory of the Jewish victims who were killed and interred here….May God avenge them. They’re our memory.” The memorial had been funded by Leo Gaterer from Dobrej.

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 had some time left for shopping in the market for gifts before heading back through the beautiful Polish countryside to Krakow.

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