Behind the Headlines: American Jews See Some Poles Care During Tour of Polish Jewish Sites

American Jews on an intensive study tour of Jewish historical sites in Poland this month called the weeklong trip “an eye-opener” that will influence some of them in their own Jewish-oriented activities back home.

The group visited synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish quarters in Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, Zamosc and Tarnow, as well as in scattered former shtetls such as Szydlow, Pinczow and Gora Kalwaria, known to Jews as Gur, the seat of the Gerer Hasidic dynasty.

“The trip was an eye-opener on so many levels,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, a writer on urban affairs who is associated with the Eldridge St. Synagogue museum and project on the Lower East Side of New York.

“I leave with more questions, challenges and thoughts than I came with,” Gratz said.

“We face some of the same preservation dilemmas at home — how to treat (Jewish) history as well as preserve buildings,” she said. “Preservation is a very recent issue with American Jewish communities.”

The trip, organized by the Jewish Heritage Council of the New York-based World Monuments Fund, took 16 American Jews, mainly from Chicago, Memphis, Washington and the New York area, on an in-depth visit to a full range of Jewish sites in the areas of Poland most deeply associated with Jewish history.

GROUP LED BY ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIANS

The group was led by two architectural historians, including New York University Professor Carol Herselle Krinsky, author of the book “Synagogues of Europe,” and was treated to lectures by local Jewish leaders, scholars, politicians, historians, urban planners and preservationists.

The aim was to examine the ways in which Jewish culture is remembered and preserved in Poland half a century after the Holocaust, and the itinerary included sites that showed the best and worst examples of how these places are cared for today, when no Jews live in most of those towns.

Marcie Cohen, project director of the Jackson, Miss-based Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, said she had found “many parallels” with her own work in documenting Jewish life and history in the deep South of the United States.

“I had real similar feelings in finding communities here,” she said.

The group found that historic synagogues in Tykocin, Krakow, Lancut and Leczna have been beautifully restored as Jewish museums, and the ruins of the synagogue in Tarnow, destroyed by the Nazis, are preserved as a striking memorial to the town’s 45,000 victims of the Holocaust.

But the synagogues in Szydlow and Chmielnik were abandoned and partially ruined; the synagogue in Gur is a warehouse and the one in Kazimierz Dolny is a cinema.

Only in Krakow and Warsaw, among the cities visited, are there synagogues still used as houses of prayer.

Group members said they were surprised to learn the extent of involvement by local Polish authorities and individual Polish Catholics in research on Jewish issues and the restoration and maintenance of Jewish sites.

They were also surprised to see so many traces of Jewish life still remain.

“It’s fascinating how much of Polish Jewish culture is left,” said Gratz. “There are traces everywhere.” She said that in Tarnow, the town built a protective wall around the Jewish cemetery, and non-Jews have taken it upon themselves to conserve Jewish heritage.

“I was also fascinated by the Polish interest in Jewish culture,” she said. “In every restaurant you go into, the musicians play music from ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”

In one restaurant where the group ate, she said, a group of Poles from another table got up and started dancing a sort of hora when the restaurant musician struck up such music.

Cohen of Jackson, Miss., explained that one of her particular interests in making the trip was to compare what remained of Jewish presence, in a country whose Jews were wiped out in the catastrophe of the Holocaust, with the deep South of the United States, where many once-flourishing Jewish communities were dying out through gradual population movements.

“In the U.S., I find there’s more evidence. Here, in Poland, what’s amazing is the absence of memory,” Cohen said. “Such a complete job was done of annihilating a people that little evidence is left. My job in the South is to document the places there so that even in towns where there are no Jews, the memory will still be there,” she said.

“When I came here, I saw how easy it is; that people are gone, and when they are gone, they’re gone,” she said.

This, she said, gave her a greater sense of urgency in her own work in the South.

“Here in Poland, I wanted to see the roots, to see the other end of what was played out in the States,” she said. “It has been really helpful for me to see where they came from.”

VISITORS MEET WITH POLISH JEWS

In Warsaw and Krakow, the group met members of the small Jewish communities who still live in these cities and learned about their attempts to maintain a Jewish life.

There are only about 10,000 Jews today in Poland — compared with nearly 3.5 million before the Holocaust.

“This, too, was an important tie with the South,” Cohen said, “that you can live Jewish in places where people think no Jews live.

“People have lived Jewish and eked out Jewish lives in all sorts of places; it’s a strong feeling,” said Cohen.

The American Jews on the trip participated directly in a restoration project of the World Monuments Fund’s Jewish Heritage Council, which is aimed at preserving an important Polish Jewish landmark in a way that will also serve surviving Polish Jews.

Each participant donated, as part of the tour’s cost, a contribution toward the restoration of Krakow’s historic Tempel Synagogue, the only intact 19th-century synagogue left standing in Poland.

The once-splendid house of worship, still owned by the Jewish community, is shabby and needs important structural work. But it is still used occasionally for services, and the group was able to pray there on Shabbat.

NEXT STORY