In Poland, a renewal of memory — from Belzec to Rychwal

A small crowd attends the dedication ceremony of a monument at the Jewish cemetery in Rychwal, Poland. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

A small crowd attends the dedication ceremony of a monument at the Jewish cemetery in Rychwal, Poland. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Two very different events I attended this week, hundreds of miles apart, demonstrated the wide range of ways in which the memory of Jews and the Holocaust are commemorated in Poland.

One was a simple grass-roots ceremony to dedicate a monument at the site of the destroyed Jewish cemetery in a small town called Rychwal, in central Poland.

The other was a high-level, international event marking the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the vast memorial at the site of the Nazi death camp at Belzec, on the Ukrainian border in southeast Poland, where about 500,000 Jews were murdered.

On June 23 in Rychwal, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich and another Warsaw rabbi joined local officials, including a priest, in cutting the ribbon on a big boulder set up as a memorial at the long-forgotten site of the cemetery, now an open field.

In addition, new signage recounting the history of Jewish in the town has been set up, and the perimeter of the cemetery has been marked with stones.

No Jews live in Rychwal today, but local activists had worked for years with town officials on the project.

“It’s very reassuring that these steps were taken by a community that is not the Jewish community, and they even did it from their own funds,” Rabbi Stanislaw Wojciechowicz told the Polish news agency PAP.

“It is something that we had to do,” activist Pawel Mazur told me. “It was the right thing to do, the moral thing to do.”

Two days later, and 300 miles across the country, Schudrich joined the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors, Polish officials including a representative of the Culture Ministry, a Catholic bishop and a senior American Jewish Committee delegation to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belzec memorial.

Participants in the ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the memorial at the Belzec death camp walk through the field of slag toward the memorial wall. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Participants in the ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the memorial at the Belzec death camp walk through the field of slag toward the memorial wall. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Dedicated in 2004, the Belzec memorial was a joint project of the AJC and the Polish government and is one of the most powerful and devastating Holocaust commemorative sites.

The Nazis had obliterated all traces of the death camp, so Polish artists Andrzej Solyga, Zdzislaw Pidek and Marcin Roszcyk turned the entire area into a giant memorial sculpture.

The whole site is covered in slag, to resemble ashes, and a deep pathway cuts down to a memorial wall bearing the first names of Jews. Around the perimeter are twisted lengths of iron and the names of the scores of towns, mostly in southeast Poland and western Ukraine, whose Jews were killed there.

After the official ceremony, participants made their way down the path to light candles at the memorial wall.

“There are two things going on in Poland,” Schudrich, who chanted El Male Rachamim at both ceremonies, explained. “Some Poles are discovering that they have Jewish roots. But also Poles are rediscovering a Jewish presence and patrimony, both at the grassroots level and at the highest level of government.

“It’s happening again and again. The country is becoming a model of how to deal with lost memory, and to get it right.”

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