Our visit to Rabka and Zakopane usually take place on the last day, however, this year we had to rearrange programming due to availability at Auschwitz. Today’s visit to both communities was both educational and restorative. The air in the mountains is what they say it is, refreshing and healing.
Our first stop was Rabka with our dear friend Narcyz Listkowski. We started coming to Rabka in 2010 and Mr. Barmore took us to the location related to the Holocaust. After a few years, we contacted the mayor who put us in touch with Narcyz as he was the town’s historian on the Jewish history of the region. Narcyz is an electrician by profession who became interested in the history of the Jewish community in Rabka about fifteen 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 in his free time.
Narcyz took part of the day off to meet us and taking us on a three hour tour of the community. He first took us to what once was the Jewish Quarter. He showed us a building that made up the marketplace and even pointed out steps (see below) that were once belonging to the home of a Jewish family – remnants of Jewish history embedded in modern structures. As we walked through this section of town, Narcyz pointed out homes and businesses and showed us historic photos to verify their existence. He knows every single place in Rabka that is associated with its Jewish history and the people who lived there. At the end of our walk we arrived at the Rabka Synagogue steps that Narcyz had dug up himself – another remnant visible today because he is truly a righteous person. He does this work for no other reason than to shed light on a Jewish community that once was in his hometown.
We then drove up the hill to the area of the now convent and former site of the interrogation center during the Nazi period. 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.
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.
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. A few years ago 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.
As we walked out of the Jewish cemetery I could hear the students talking about how different this cemetery was from all the others, how they felt the efforts of the nuns were quite remarkable because surely if the Gestapo found out their owns lives would be at risk. Again, we walk away with the juxtaposition of the horror of the history and the beauty of the surroundings.
We ended our time with Narcyz by presenting him with our 20th Anniversary certificate thanking him for all he has done to afford our students an opportunity to learn about the history of Rabka.
Our last stop was visiting the nearby mountain region of Zakopane for lunch and more fresh mountain air!
The idea that the Nazi’s reach extended even to the small town of Rabka shows their cruelty. However, the beauty of Rabka today kind of hides the history if you do not look close enough. It is important to look closely at these things because they are easy to overlook and forget nowadays.
Day 11, the amazingness of Rabka and how pretty it really can disguise its history and portray a different image than its true one. Therefore, to really see what once occurred here and the history on it, you have to take a more in depth look and really dive deep to find more about Rabka and see what it once was. Seeing how the Nazi’s decided they wanted to take everything from the Jewish even small areas like Rabka, truly shows how cruel and overpowering they were. I enjoyed seeing the break down of what is consisted in Rabka and a little information behind it giving me the reader more information.
It is saddening to read about the erasure of Jewish culture since the Holocaust in Europe. The line “we walk away with the juxtaposition of the horror of the history and the beauty of the surroundings” conveys a powerful message about the repercussions of World War II.
Thank you, Colleen and students, for taking time to learn from Narcyz the incredible history of Rabka. Having visited there in 1992 and again this past summer, I witnessed the transformation of the “cemetery” and the surrounding area. Narcyz is truly a righteous man, who’s keeping the memories of prewar Rabka’s Jewish population alive and known. His dedication to this mission is absolutely vital as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles daily.
My father’s brother was a prisoner at Rabka who escaped and was murdered when he was discovered hiding in a local farmer’s barn. May his memory, and those who suffered and died in Rabka and Belcez, be a blessing.