KRAKOW, Poland, July 23 (JTA) – Katarzyna Bielawska organized local schoolchildren to clear up and fence the abandoned and overgrown Jewish cemetery in the small Polish town of Narewka.
Ewa Lesniewska created a unique exhibition of Judaica and Jewish history in the renovated former synagogue in the town of Leczna.
Krzysztof Guminski and his family found the lost manuscript of a diary written in the Lodz Ghetto during World War II, traced the author’s daughter, preserved the manuscript and arranged for its publication.
Bielawska, Rutkowski and the Guminski family are Roman Catholic Poles who have dedicated parts of their lives to preserving and honoring Jewish heritage.
They, and four other people like them, were honored this summer by the Israeli Embassy and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation at a ceremony held at the conclusion of Krakow’s annual Festival of Jewish Culture.
It was the third year in a row that such awards were presented.
“It was great,” Michael Traison, an American Jewish lawyer who spearheaded the effort to honor Poles involved in preserving Jewish heritage, said after the ceremony.
“Next year we will present certificates of recognition to eight more people,” he said. “I am sure it makes a difference.”
Traison, who lives in Detroit, has spent much time during the past decade in Poland on business.
He developed the idea of the awards to honor people he met during his trips around the country.
On such trips, he made it a point to visit the synagogues, abandoned cemeteries and old shtetls that remained as haunting stone witnesses to the rich Jewish heritage that was wiped out in the Holocaust.
“I’ve met many Poles who, at their own expense, endeavor to save the remains of the Jewish culture,” Traison said at the time the first awards were presented, in 1998.
“Their efforts are not even rewarded with the words ‘thank you.’ Frequently these people don’t know about each other. I wanted Jews to learn about them. I wanted somebody to tell them thank you.”
During the past three years, awards have been presented to more than three dozen people throughout Poland.
The majority became involved by cleaning up and restoring some of the hundreds of Poland’s abandoned, overgrown and sometimes vandalized Jewish cemeteries.
Others wrote books on local Jewish history or retrieved tombstones from refuse dumps or sites where they had been used as building material.
Honoree Krzysztof Czyzewski established a foundation called Borderlands in the town of Sejny that is dedicated to promoting the cultures of various Central European minorities. The foundation is situated in a renovated synagogue and Jewish school, and fosters exhibits, seminars and even a klezmer band.
Some of the laureates encountered hostility from local people, had their motives questioned by foreigners or were harassed by police during the Communist era for their activities.
Polish Jewish writer Konstanty Gebert described the honorees as “rescuers of Atlantis,” referring to the legendary island that sunk into the ocean.
“Listening to these rescuers of Atlantis,” he wrote in the Polish Jewish monthly Midrasz, “one will notice no cheap sentimentality, no superficial fascination with Jewish exotica, no ‘fiddler on the roof’ syndrome. These people simply do what they think is right.”
Jews lived in Poland for 1,000 years, and there were 3.5 million Jews in the country on the eve of World War II, making up about 10 percent of the population. Some 3 million were killed in the Shoah.
Poland’s postwar Communist regime made Jewish history and culture virtually taboo. In 1968, the government launched an anti-Semitic campaign that forced most remaining Jews in Poland to leave the country.
Many of the Poles honored over the past three years for their efforts in preserving and honoring Jewish heritage began their work as a means of counteracting Communist denial – “filling in the blank spaces” in Communist history books. Their personal history is often wrapped up with the development of their interest in Jewish history.
Tomasz Wisniewski, for example, a journalist in Bialystok, was honored for his work in the first round of awards, in 1998.
Poland’s martial law regime jailed Wisniewski in 1982 for his underground anti-Communist activities. He discovered his region’s rich Jewish history when he came across a book on the Holocaust in the prison library.
Once out of prison, Wisniewski tried to learn more. He found no books about the Jews of Bialystok in the public library and nowhere to study Jewish history or Jewish subjects, so he began his own investigations.
Barred from many jobs because of his dissident politics, he managed to convince a local newspaper to let him publish brief articles about Bialystok’s Jewish history.
He called these articles “Postcards From Atlantis,” and wrote more than 100 of them.
“Without knowing much, I tried to tell the story of what before the war was practically a Jewish city,” he said. “Soon, elderly people and even a few Jews began to seek me out at the news office. I talked with them for hours, I taped these conversations, I roamed through the city. They showed me the buildings of old prewar Jewish schools. At the same time, I read, read, read, all that I could get my hands on.”
Like many other award recipients, Wisniewski said he felt an emotional obligation to carry out this work.
“The history of the Jews of Bialystok is not just history for me,” he said. “It is also the present. The history of the Jews in Bialystok, and of Polish Jews in general, is a major part of Polish history.”
Rediscovering Jewish history and culture, and reintegrating it as part of general Polish history, is a means, he said, toward creating a truly democratic post-Communist society.
“In Polish bookstores there are many, many books on Polish Jews now and there is a big, authentic interest in the history of the Jews,” he said. “This makes me happy because it is as if the Polish Jews ‘had returned’ in a metaphorical sense to Poland. Today, though, the main scope is to unmask the many half-truths and prejudices that uselessly divide Jews and Poles.”