The future of a Polish city’s Jewish past

KRAKOW, Poland, May 19 (JTA) — The messages have been pouring in to the Internet news group from Jews with family ties to Czestochowa, Poland. Marilyn Levin, from Dallas, wrote, “My father said that in the ghetto, he and his brothers sold pickles. If anyone remembers anything like that, I would love to hear from you.” Yossi Feinreich, an Israeli living in Paris, writes of his family, “Edja (Esther) is still living with her husband (may God bless them with many more years).” The messages are being sent to the news group from people who attended a recent event commemorating the Jewish history of Czestochowa, known as a pilgrimage site for Polish Catholics. Last month, some 350 members of the Czestochowa Diaspora gathered together in their native city for a three-day conference called Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory. Even though most people didn’t know each other, the event had the feel of family reunion as former members of the city shared information about landmarks and neighbors. Andrew Rajcher, whose family was from Czestochowa and who developed the news group and will soon launch a Web site — czestochowajews.org — described his connections to Czestochowa as stemming from an epiphany he had on his first visit to the city six years ago. “I realized that if it wasn’t for a failed Austrian house-painter, Czestochowa would be my home city, and not Melbourne, Australia.” The painter, of course, is Hitler. The conference, sponsored by American businessmen Alan Silberstein and his cousin Sigmund Rolat, who was himself from Czestochowa, included cultural events centered around an academic symposium, as well as an archival exhibition about the Jewish history of the city. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews played an important role in the city. On the eve of World War II, more than 28,000 Jews lived there. Jewish Resistance fighters were active there during the war; but by June 1946, there were barely 2,000 Jews left — and there are only 37 today. Mark Kiel, a New Jersey rabbi whose parents came from Czestochowa, spoke at the conference about the plight of second-generation survivors. Kiel, an expert in Yiddish, delivered half of his speech in that language, and he got positive reactions from both Jews and some Poles who are fluent in Yiddish. While many at the conference tried to educate non-Jews about the city’s Jewish history, Kie called for a stark reckoning of truth in the face of commemoration. “I prepared my speech very carefully,” he said, “having in mind that the commemorations and celebrations should not hide the actual history of Polish-Jewish relations. This was my third trip to Poland, and in all three times I felt very strongly that our memory is desecrated in Czestochowa.” He pointed to the fact that there is no sign marking the location of the Hasag labor camp, where many Czestochowa Jews, including Rolat, were imprisoned during the war. Also, the tombstone commemorating the street where a massacre of Jews took place in 1942 has been shoved down a long alleyway, with plans for a new building to be erected on the site. Others were optimistic about the future of Polish-Jewish relations and the conference’s role in fostering those ties. “The event’s success in bringing Jews and non-Jews together is a harbinger of things to come, I predict,” said Shana Penn, director of heritage programs for the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. “These initiatives and others encourage us to connect with our history and to overcome our own stereotypes. After all, if Poland was always anti-Semitic, then why did Jews remain there and how could it have become the lodestar of Jewish existence for centuries?” Before the conference, Silberstein, one of the organizers, contacted the few remaining Jews in Czestochowa for their input. “They told us that the cemetery was their top priority, as it was to many of us who live elsewhere,” he said. Before the conference, the city, led by Mayor Tadeusz Wrona, allotted funds to restore the Jewish cemetery, which many said had come to resemble a jungle. “Now the surviving Jews who live in Czestochowa know they are not alone,” Silberstein said. The cemetery was rededicated in a moving ceremony that included a Polish military roll call. Silberstein spoke at the conference of the pull of Czestochowa for those with family roots in the city: “Wherever our families found refuge, Czestochowa was in our hearts,” he said.

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