Back in 2014, Mr. Barmore first introduced us to three amazing teachers in Dabrowa Tarnowska, Jurek and Yola Stelmach and Pawel Chojnowski. He had met these teachers on a visit to the region and thought that we would be interested in the educational work they were doing. Jurek and Yola continue to teach at Dabrowa Tarnowska High School and Pawel is now the Director of the Cultural Center which was the Dabrowa Tarnowska Synagogue. They were all influential in the renovations of the synagogue which opened in 2012. The synagogue had stood as a ruin in the center of town until these teachers worked with the local municipality to restore this place.
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.
We began the day at the local theatre in which Yola was the master of ceremonies for the 20th Annual Yom Ha Shoah program she has created and implemented. 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.
At the beginning of the program 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.
We presented Mayor Krzysztof Kaczmarski, Pawel, Yola and Jurek with a 20th Anniversary of the Holocaust Study Tour certificate artistically designed by a former trip participant to show our gratitude for all their efforts and hospitality over the years. They continue to be an integral part of our learning.
Each year we visit Dabrowa Tarnowska they plan this major event for so we can take part in witnessing the incredible work of these students. As Mr. Barmore said to me at the end of the program – “Never doubt that change isn’t possible.”
After the ceremony, we made our way to the synagogue where Pawel took the students on a tour and explained the rich history that existed before the Holocaust period and how they utilize the space to teach their local community and visitors from all over the world about this lost community.
The Polish students then presented aspects of their school community that are unique and we had a chance to dialogue about school culture.
The mayor, Krzysztof Kaczmarski, presented Mr. Barmore and Mrs. Tambuscio with plaques dedicated to their work with the teachers and thanking them for this long-lasting partnership that has developed and encouraged positive relations between the American and Polish students.
Additionally, we were surprised to find our dear friend and former guide, Jolanta Koziol, was there to meet us with her daughter Renata who was opening a new exhibit in the synagogue. We will meet Jolanta again on our last day as she is now the Education Director of the Ukrainian refugee center we will be visiting.
Renata created an exhibit based upon a family photo she found in which an aunt and grandmother were photographed entertaining the Blue Police at the time who were responsible for killing the remaining Jews in the region after the deportations. She was so troubled by this photographed she research continued to search for more photos and came upon many of the images you see in this exhibit of local individuals at the time. Knowing they were alive during the time and witnessed these killings she was searching for answers. Part of the exhibition includes Pages of Testimony from submitted to Yad Vashem which tell the story of individuals victimized by the Nazis.
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 2005 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.
The last monument we visited in Dabrowa Tarnowska was erected to remember the rescue efforts of the Medala family who help hide a Jewish family. Sadly, all of the members of the Mendela family and a neighbor were murdered by the Gestapo who were alerted by a neighbor. This monument is on the property of the house that once stood there and is maintained by the municipality. A lesson for the students in the dangers of rescue efforts and the complexity of this history.
We ended our day in Dabrowa Tarnowska by hosting a dinner for our dear Polish friends at a wedding hall. We enjoyed our time socializing over fantastic Polish food!
The restored synagogue breathtakingly gorgeous! The love and dedication of the teachers to undertake the restoration project, and getting the municipality involved to help, is absolutely remarkable.
Thank you, Colleen, for sharing this special day. I know how emotionally exhausting this journey must be… for you to write such a detailed story every day is the true definition of an incredible, deeply dedicated and inspiring educator. How very fortunate these students are to be in your company, experiencing such a life-altering journey.
Day 10, there were a lot of cool things visited and new information learned. Interesting to see the ceremony that occurred to honor the students on the trip. As well as the places visited afterwards. I enjoyed learning about the experience and facts about the synagogue they visited. On top of this, I found the little painted village they visited very cool as well because of the meaning behind it, and the idea of the competition each year so there is a new style of painting done. One very interesting thing that I found out, however it was not a nice thing to do. Was how the Nazi’s used the Jewish tombstones as building materials and dug them out and used them to make roads.
its very interesting that they let others visit the jewish cemetery
The ceremony and the monuments that were mentioned in this blog to were truly moving. I think it is important to commemorate the lives that were lost and to keep the history alive.