A friend calls on a whim and says he’s going kayaking for three days near the Ukrainian border. He’s leaving tomorrow. Do I want to come? Why not? The days of glorious weather are numbered. Better get out to nature fast, before the dreaded Polish winter starts inching its inevitable way towards us.
Kuba comes by that evening and whisks me off to the Krakow version of REI – actually bigger and cheaper. I buy a small tent, water shoes, a microfiber towel, plastic plate and cup, and a waterproof bag to hold supplies. He has an extra sleeping bag. I feel prepared for whatever happens.
The next day he picks me up at 10:30 in the morning in an old Fiat, and we’re off. We’re headed to the San River in the southeast corner of Poland, the heartland of former Galicia. In the early days of World War II, the river was the border between German and Soviet- controlled territory. Today, at the end of summer, the water is mostly shallow, cold, but not freezing, with a current strong enough for us to drift downstream when we take a break in paddling. For three days our canoe sails past fields, forests and villages, lone fishermen and herons, as well as flocks of ducks. We are the only boat on the river. While we intend to camp, every day we have an option of a bed and a hot shower in the summer domki or bungalows built for tourists near villages along the way. With the end of the season they are mostly in the process of closing and charge us a fraction of their regular cost, about ten dollars each.
At the end of our first day out, Kuba suggests we land on a riverbank by the town of Dynow. He has been there before and knows of a site of Jewish interest. Leaving our stuff in the canoe, we head down a country road under a threatening sky towards a raw cinder block building. It looks like it might have been a factory gone bankrupt. I go around back, knock on the door and a young man opens. Hello, I say in Polish. I only speak English and German, he replies. The next words I hear him say to another young man next to him are in Hebrew. We’re deep in the heart of rural Poland. Who is this guy? Before I can find out any more, he’s on a cell phone.
The building turns out to be deliberately non-descript on the outside, rented by a Chassidic rabbi from Jerusalem. The phone call was the rabbi calling from Israel. He had seen via his monitored video cameras that two strangers had come around. My friend Kuba, active in Jewish affairs, knew him. All was OK with Rabbi Pinchas, and the young man who initially opened the door, Benjamin, invited us to come out of the rain and spend the night. Inside, the place reflected the passion of a man on a mission. Kuba and I stepped into a large open room with several rows of long dining tables and chairs, enough to seat at least a hundred. A group of the rabbi’s family, friends and followers had just left that morning, after spending Rosh Hashanah there. The refrigerator still had leftovers of chicken, gefilte fish, kugel and honey cake.
Borrowing a wheelbarrow, we walked back in the rain to the canoe and our supplies. At the house by the river, Kuba asked if we could leave our boat on their property. No problem. We hauled it up out of the water, slid it onto the wheelbarrow and maneuvered it into their yard. The Hebrew-speaking German young man staying with Benjamin expressed surprise that the neighbors were so obliging. Along the way though, whenever we stopped to explore and asked a fisherman or ferry man to watch our things, the answer was unfailingly yes. We repaid such kindnesses with chocolate or vodka. The second night when we expected to camp along the bank until it also began to rain, we asked permission from the old man who owned the land. No problem. He wouldn’t even charge us, because the tourist season was over.
Back at the building, named the Polish Jewry Heritage Center by its founder, Rabbi Pinchas Pomp, Benjamin told us the story. An Israeli artist living in Berlin and a family friend of the rabbi, he had stayed behind to paint decorations on the walls of the newly built synagogue room. The shul was the jewel of the complex, which included a mikveh, kosher kitchen, and eleven dorm rooms, replete with new beds and bedding, showers, sinks and hot water. Signs hung from brightly lit new chandeliers in the synagogue, letting visitors know how much the fixtures cost and soliciting contributions. Indeed, the center with its renovations, furniture, hot water still in the two mikveh pools, and video surveillance system, must have cost a fortune.
Located on a nearby hill were the walled, overrun remnants of Dynow’s Jewish cemetery, including an ohel, or structure over the graves of the holy Tsadik, Issachar, and two disciples, now strewn with freshly placed dozens of paper notes bearing prayers and wishes. The Center has several purposes that I learn from the pamphlet Benjamin gives me, titled “The Scream of the Wandering Jew: I Want to be a Jew!” Conceived as a memorial of the lost Jewish communities and sages, it also serves as a place where religious Jews visiting Poland on roots trips can have a place to stay, and where Poles who have discovered they have Jewish ancestry, who he calls “wandering Jews,” can learn more about Judaism. Because part of its goal is outreach to such people, Benjamin says activity such as picture-taking during a services, ordinarily strictly forbidden, is allowed.
In today’s Poland, stories abound of grandparents on their death-beds telling their children or grandchildren for the first time about their Jewish roots. The tragic reality was that explicit Jewish identity was a matter of life or death during the war, and a social and psychological burden in the increasingly anti-Semitic environment of the post-war Communist regime. I recently heard a particularly heartbreaking story. An old woman, known to be an anti-Semitic, zealot Catholic lived for thirty years alone with her granddaughter. As she was dying, she talked almost incoherently about eating roots in the forest. Only after she died, and the granddaughter saw her exposed body for the first time, did she discover the tattooed numbers of a concentration camp on her grandmother’s arm. Such stories are why accurate demographic statistics on the country’s Jewish population simply do not exist.
The fluid ways that increasing numbers of Poles of all ages find, experience and identify with Jewishness make this country fertile ground for novel, sometimes absurdist, forms of cultural expression, such as the superstar Kaya’s use of kabbalistic symbols as a backdrop in her performance at the Singer Jewish Cultural Festival. Catholic-identified Poles draw on signs of Jewishness for their own reasons. A young couple renting a new apartment, for instance, hangs on the wall a cheap reproduction painting of an old pious Jew writing out accounts with a feather pen upside down, next to a picture of Jesus on the cross.
The initiative of an Israeli Chassidic rabbi whose own roots go back to Galicia, the Center in Dynow returns Jewish presence to a place where hundreds of years of Jewish life were wiped out. While Rabbi Pinchas comes as often as he can, Jews no longer live in the town and public relations consequently has an important role to play in the project. Before Rosh Hashanah, local residents were invited to participate in an event on site that included mutual musical presentations of music, and an exhibit of local children’s art of the region, including a church, still hung in the dining room of this ultra-orthodox community. It remains to be seen whether such efforts will build and sustain the public goodwill necessary for the Center to succeed. Even with the best of intentions, the rabbi from the insular, ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim inhabits a radically different universe from that of his new Polish neighbors.
This example of cultural entrepreneurship, possible only since the collapse of Communism after 1989, is one of many, however. The largest festival of Jewish culture has existed in Krakow for more than two decades, and the Singer Festival in Warsaw celebrated its tenth year earlier this month. A growing number of projects focused on restoring Jewish symbolic presence, ranging from monuments to museums and arts events with differing levels of local involvement are in various stages of production in smaller towns and villages throughout the country.
These projects are the antidote to the more familiar history of horror that exists so close to the surface for anyone who reads the memorial plaques on buildings or the increasing number of articles and books published; sees the films produced, or takes the tours or courses readily available. After three sublime days on the river, lulled by the water, birds and wild flowers, we decided to seek out evidence of the region’s tortured past.
Our first stop was the small town of Przeworsk, where the former Communist authorities had built a bus depot on land of the former Jewish cemetery. Off to the side, a small stone monument honored the memory of the town’s Jews. Kuba had heard that a local resident was responsible for creating it. Then to Kanczuga, where local residents matter-of-factly directed us to a dirt road on the outskirts of town that led into the fields, and a walled-in forest with scattered Jewish gravestones. Most had been removed. Kuba had been told that Germans had used them to pave a road, which we couldn’t find. On the hill below the cemetery, stood a small monument placed by a Jewish relative marking the spot where thirty local Jewish families, about a thousand souls, had been massacred.
From there, we drove to Gniewczyna, a small, picturesque village whose modest houses were surrounded by carefully tended gardens. Here and there, old wooden cottages still stood, evoking another time, as did the local church in the village center, built a century ago. Nearby, in the midst of the orderly, cultivated scene, between two houses, was an empty lot overrun with weeds. From a map Kuba had from a recent Polish book, Does It Matter if They Did It Out of Greed?, it looked like this was where a house once stood that in 1942 belonged to the Jewish Trynczer family.
As a child during the war, the book’s now deceased co-author, Tadeusz Markiel, had stumbled on a scene of rape and torture of the Jewish residents at the house by locals he described as mafia. The Jews, including children, had then been handed over to the Germans, who shot them. According to Kuba, the now neglected piece of land had been for sale, but taken off the market when word got out that a relative of Mr. Markiel wanted to create a memorial there.
The enormity of the crime only sank in later, at home, when I read Markiel’s detailed description of what had happened in that village to people he knew, (available in English online.) My first reaction was an immediate emotional understanding of why most Jews do not want to have anything to do with Poland. But I soon came back to the awareness that, with so few Jewish Poles, it is mostly non-Jewish Poles, or Poles with various degrees of Jewish affiliation, who have taken on the responsibility of telling the Jewish story, perpetuating the memory, and even creating new expressions of Jewish culture.