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In Poland, unburying a nation's Jewish past

Adam Galicia / msnbc.com

Holocaust remembrance advocates plastered images of Polish Jews on buildings in Warsaw that were part of the Jewish ghetto before World War II wiped them out.

WARSAW – Zuzanna Radzik wants Polish children to know that almost every Polish town and village was part of the Holocaust.

There were about 3.5 million Jews in Poland before World War II, making up 10 percent of the overall Polish population. And some pre-war Polish towns Jews comprised as much as 70 percent of the residents.

But although Polish children learn about the Holocaust in school, many believe the killing was confined to death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka.

However, the Holocaust also happened in little known places like Stoczek Wegrowski, a town of about 5,000 where 188 Jews were shot dead on September 22, 1942. The massacre took place on Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holiday.

“We bring history to children in towns and villages who have never met a Jew or seen a synagogue,” Radzik said. “When we show them where the ghetto was in their town and that Jews were killed there, it all becomes real.”

Radzik represents an increasing number of Poles who believe Jewish heritage is integral to Polish history and that citizens must learn about that aspect of the past to understand contemporary Poland. The Holocaust all but wiped out the country’s Jewish population – today the number of Jews in Poland is estimated to be just 15,000, according to government estimates.

Teaching the next generation
Faith motivates Radzik, a 28-year-old Catholic theologian. “We have a long history of Christian anti-Judaism,” she said. “We should do our repentance for that and be strong about fighting anti-Semitism.”
Radzik supervises The School of Dialogue, sponsored by The Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Polish non-profit organization that seeks to eliminate anti-Semitism and to foster better relations between Poles and Jews.

The school deploys educators throughout Poland to teach young people about Judaism and the places in their towns where Jews once lived and worked. These educators highlight shared religious traditions and teach about Jewish holidays and their connections to Christian calendars. 

In Kielce, where 24,000 Jews lived before the war, making up approximately one-third of the city’s population, the educators’ effectiveness was clear after they visited. 

“I’ve been living here since I was a baby,” a local teenager wrote, “and I did not know the meaning of the monuments for Holocaust victims I passed by every day and where the Jewish cemetery is.” Thanks to the program, she now does.

Bringing life back to the old ghetto
But it is not just Radzik’s organization that is highlighting the role of Jews in Poland’s past.

Adam Galicia / msnbc.com

Beata Chomatowska, meets with a committee to plan education projects to teach residents about the Warsaw Ghetto's history.

Beata Chomatowska, a 34-year-old journalist who lives in Muranow, a neighborhood built on the rubble of the former Warsaw Ghetto, has created the web site Stacja Muranow (Muranow Station) to educate residents about their neighborhood’s history..

It’s estimated that up to 300,000 Jews from the area were sent to death camps, particularly in the wake of the famous Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April 1943. After brutally quelling the insurrection, the Germans leveled the site, leaving countless victims buried in the ruins.

“This area is still dead 68 years after the Germans destroyed it,” said Chomatowska.  “It is my obligation to remember the people and the place that was here before.”

There are few physical reminders of the former ghetto. One of them is Muranow’s sometimes hilly terrain, which results from the fact that much of the rubble was not cleared and new housing was built on top of the ruins.

However, Chomatowska is proud of recently completed murals by Warsaw artist Adam Walas in the entryway leading to an apartment complex. The artwork features prominent Jews who lived in Muranow before the war, such as Ludwik Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto.

Zamenhof intended Esperanto as a common language to unite people of different cultures. “I transferred Zamenhof’s hope to the mural with hope that people would see what is universal,” said Walas.

Thirty Muranow residents participate in Chomatowska’s education project. They meet in a ground floor office intended as a meeting place where neighborhood residents and Jewish visitors can learn about the district’s past.

Asked what motivates her, Chomatowska said, “I was always interested in Jewish culture and history, and a world that disappeared.”

Donald Snyder / msnbc.com

Zbigniew Nizinski found an unmarked grave near Lublin, in southeastern Poland, where 70 Jews, mainly women and children, perished during the Holocaust. After researching the story, he discovered the names of 26 out of the 70 people killed and the tombstone seen here was erected.

Looking for unmarked graves
Like Radzik and Chomatowska, Zbigniew Nizinski brings to light a world that disappeared. Inspired by the Bible and a fervent belief that the memory of the dead must be preserved, Nizinski has dedicated his life to finding unmarked graves of Jews murdered by the Germans.

In particular, the 52-year-old Baptist travels to tiny villages in eastern Poland.  “We discover and rescue the graves from complete oblivion and place memorial stones,” he said. “It is so unjust that there are so many Jewish burial sites that are not visited because there are no relatives left.”

Nizinski usually travels by bicycle, finding elderly people who remember where murdered Jews are buried. That’s how he met 90-year old Wladyslaw Gerula near Przemysl in southeastern Poland.

The Germans killed Gerula’s parents for hiding Jews. They also killed the hidden Jews. Although Gerula does not know his parents’ burial place, he knows where the three Jews are buried and he placed a large stone, carved with a Star of David, on the spot. He considers the spot his parents’ memorial, although they were also honored at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, on April 25, 1995.

One of the unmarked graves Nizinski discovered is near Stoczek Wegrowski. Buried here are Rywka Farbiarz and seven other Jews murdered by the Germans on November 26, 1942. Farbiarz’s 10-year-old daughter, Chasia, survived the massacre, lying silent beneath the dead.

Chasia, who now lives in Israel, visited the grave with her two sons in June for the unveiling of a memorial stone Nizinski placed there.

‘We miss them’
Nizinski, Chomatowska and Radzik’s work reflects growing recognition that acknowledging the nation’s Jewish history is essential to Poland.

Dr. Alina Molisak, who teaches Jewish literature at Warsaw University, cites the tremendous influence of Jewish authors on Polish literature. “You can feel the Jewish absence,” she said, reflecting on the Holocaust, “Not only in literature, but in culture and science. We miss them.”

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