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Around the Jewish World in Polish Catholic Pilgrimage Site, Exhibition to Open on Jewish History

Czestochowa is known around the world as the site of the Jasna Gora monastery, a pilgrimage place for Poles and other Catholics who flock there to see a famous painting of the Black Madonna.

Soon, residents also will be able to learn about local Jewish history. An exhibition on the subject, based on materials from the town archives, prepares to open for a three-month run later this month in Czestochowa before traveling to several larger Polish cities.

Behind the newfound interest in Czestochowa’s Jews is a long story of cooperation.

Two years ago, Jerzy Mizgalski, historian and dean of the local Pedagogical Institute, was doing research in the city archives when he found thousands of documents and photographs dating back to 1618 connected to Czestochowa’s Jewish history.

He elicited the help of Elizabeth Mundlak, a professor of thermodynamics living in Venezuela, who was born to Jewish parents in Czestochowa and rescued by Christians during the Holocaust.

Together they conceived of an exhibition to display the archives and tell the story of the Jewish history of Czestochowa, which before World War II was home to 30,000 Jews, about one-third of the city’s population. Today there are 37 Jews living in the city.

After his find in the municipal archives, Mizgalski decided to teach a course on Jewish history, expecting about 35 students — but 400 signed up.

Mizgalski and Mundlak moved forward with their plans for the exhibition, and Mundlak approached two American businessmen and cousins, Sigmund Rolat and Alan Silberstein, to underwrite the project. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the city of Czestochowa and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Three days after the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, launching World War II, they were in Czestochowa, Silberstein said.

During the war, the city was a centralized concentration point where Jews living in smaller towns were sent. A large ghetto was established, and then a smaller one which eventually was liquidated.

Jews were deported mostly to Treblinka and to the HASAG forced labor camp located in Czestochowa.

Rolat was born in Czestochowa, and was a young teenager when he was sent to HASAG. His parents and brother were killed by the Nazis.

He is quick to point out that not all Jews went to their deaths quietly: Many, like his father — who took part in the Treblinka uprising — and his brother, the youngest member of a partisan group, died fighting.

Rolat survived with the help of his aunt and uncle, Leon — an underground leader — and Rose Silberstein, Alan’s parents.

Alan Silberstein was born after the war, and the two branches of the family made their separate ways to America.

Once the cousins got involved, the project rolled ahead. With no precedent for an event that encompasses such a long history in Czestochowa, the group was free to be creative. They wanted to be sure the archives showed the broad range of Jewish people and practices, from the more “quaint, religious” Jews to the fully assimilated ones, like Rolat.

“I was called a goy,” he remembers.

The team obtained the help of Czestochowa’s mayor, Tadeusz Wrona.

“It’s important for the younger generation to look at the past and future, a future that should be created together,” Wrona told JTA in an interview in his office. “We should look not to a future concentrating on prejudice and stereotypes, but creating a future free of this.”

The mayor agreed to use city funds to help restore the local Jewish cemetery.

“A trip to the native city often starts with a visit to the cemetery, the killing fields for Jews during the war,” Rolat says.

The cemetery is accessed through the gates of the large steel mill that grew up around it, and which has afforded it a measure of protection.

A month ago the cemetery was “a jungle,” says Rolat, who always has made sure that his brother’s grave is meticulously maintained. Now, workers clear trees and clean the landscape in a precise process so as not to disturb any graves.

The restoration comes just in time for the exhibition, which opens April 21 for three months and then is to travel to Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw. The exhibition and accompanying academic symposium are entitled “Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory.”

In addition to the rededication of the cemetery, events include a film premiere, Klezmer music, a military commemoration ceremony and a performance by the Czestochowa Symphony Orchestra, which will take place in what is now Philharmonic Hall. Before it was burned in World War II, the philharmonic building was the New Synagogue.

Silberstein stresses that the exhibition has several objectives.

“We want to acquaint the youth of Poland with what happened to the Jews during the war, and stress the viable coexistence between Poles who were Jewish and Poles who were Christian,” he says.

Above all, the backers hope to convey a program that is about Jewish life, not Jewish death.

Standing in the cemetery, Mizgalski looks wistful.

“You can’t talk about the history of a Polish city without mentioning the one-third that were Jewish,” he says. “The Germans wanted the memory of Jews to be erased. But we’re not allowed to forget.”

Members of the Czestochowa Diaspora community are invited to attend the exhibition and symposium. For more information, contact Stan Steinreich at 212-786-6077 or 201-982-2373.

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