Poles flock to exhibit on Jewish life

A photo of a scene from a school play put on in a Jewish school in Czestochowa, Poland, on display in the exhibit, ´Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory.´ (Carolyn Slutsky)

A photo of a scene from a school play put on in a Jewish school in Czestochowa, Poland, on display in the exhibit, ´Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory.´ (Carolyn Slutsky)

KRAKOW, Poland, Oct. 31 (JTA) — Magdalena Mizgalska had already learned about the Holocaust, but not on a local level. “In school I only learned about Poland and Jews, not about Czestochowa,” she said, referring to the Polish city that was the subject of a recent exhibit. “Now I have a better picture. I learned about the ghetto, I have talked to survivors, and it’s easier to talk about this now.” Mizgalska, 17, is not alone in having gained insight into the Jewish history of this Polish city from the exhibit, which was recently moved to Warsaw, where it opened on Oct. 18. More than 11,000 people, mostly Polish school students from the Czestochowa area, saw “Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory,” which featured the Jewish history of the city of Czestochowa, roughly 90 minutes from Krakow. “Teenagers came to visit and started to have a vision on how to understand Jewish history,” she says. “People had stereotypes and few knew the true history, but now everything changed. In Czestochowa we not only think about Jasna Gora but think also about the Jews who helped build this city,” she said, referring to the monastery that is the city’s main tourist attraction. Anna Maciejowska, an art historian and director of a fine arts high school for 13-20 year olds, was so moved by what she saw in the exhibit that she developed a program, “Inspiration of Jewish Culture,” in which her students are making artwork connected with Jewish life. “My pupils started thinking about Jewish culture in Czestochowa, then in Poland, then in Europe,” she said. Before World War II, Czestochowa was home to 30,000 Jews, about one-third of the city’s population. Today there are 37 Jews living in the city. The exhibition enjoyed a successful reception in Czestochowa, home to the Jasna Gora monastery and a pilgrimage site for Christians the world over, and recently it reopened in Warsaw. The exhibit, which is housed in Warsaw in the Blue Tower, a building adjacent to the Jewish Historical Institute that used to be the site of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, shows several hundred photographs and copies of documents all focusing on Jewish life and culture in prewar Czestochowa. Photographs of destroyed synagogues, pictures of youth clubs, financial documents and Yiddish newspapers are represented along with hundreds of photographs of individual people. Sigmund Rolat remembers posing as a young boy for a photograph while on vacation with his family. In the picture, he is standing on the ground in front of a horse-drawn carriage, scowling. Up front by the driver sits Rolat’s beloved brother, Jerzyk, smiling. Rolat remembers how jealous he was that he could not have the coveted seat. Seventy years after that snapshot was taken, it has been included in the exhibit. Rolat, himself a native of the city, is a co-creator and underwriter, together with his cousin Alan Silberstein, of the retrospective. The exhibit opened originally last April in Czestochowa after Polish professor Jerzy Mizgalski, Magdalena’s father, and Elizabeth Mundlak, a professor from Venezuela with roots in Czestochowa, enlisted the help of Rolat and Silberstein to display some of the thousands of archival items Mizgalski had discovered in the city’s annals. The majority of the current population knew nothing about the rich Jewish history of their own city. But when Mizgalski offered a class on Jewish history and reserved a room for 35 students, several hundred signed up. The organizers found special help in Czestochowa from Mayor Tadeusz Wrona, who attended the opening in Warsaw along with other dignitaries. Since the fall of communism, Poles have become fascinated with the rich Jewish history of Poland. There are an estimated 5,000 Jews in Poland today, but Warsaw itself had a pre-World War II Jewish population of 300,000. The crowded lobby of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw was standing room only, a common site at Jewish events in Poland today. The original opening in Czestochowa also launched a Web site and message board, czestochowajews.org, which has since been a meeting place for hundreds of Jews with roots in that city. Often, some of the elderly communicate through their children, since they themselves don’t use the Internet. They talk about genealogy, their memories of their city, and even reveal crushes from long ago. Silberstein, one of the organizers, said, “the virtual community keeps growing, and everyone who joins is trying to find ways to connect. Our web keeps expanding.” The organizers are now deciding where to show the exhibition after it closes in Warsaw at the end of this year.

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