“And, behold, the Lord passed by. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. But the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire : a still, small voice – Kol Dmamah Dakah (I Kings 19 : 11-12)
My first encounter with Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow occurred by chance in the spring of 2005 when I had the honor of guiding a March of the Living group of primarily non-Jewish students of Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Stockton University. We toured the “standard” sites of Krakow on Friday and the following day they were to continue for an excursion to Częstochowa. As I observe Shabbat, I sent the group off with our Polish guide and had the day free, allowing me to participate in Shabbat prayers in the Ramah Shul and then enjoy a good cholent lunch with another March of the Living group.
With the afternoon free, I began to wander around Krakow and happen to notice the sign of the Galicia Jewish Museum. As I was in need of a ‘pit-stop’ and curious to see what exactly this museum was all about, I wandered in and discovered that it was empty. A man, who I assumed was the guard responsible for selling tickets, greeted me and, despite the fact that I had no cash due to the Shabbat, urged me to tour the exhibit for free. Without any further to do, he literally took me by the hand and for next few hours blessed me with a personal tour of all the photographs exhibited. The “guard” was of course the photographer and founder of the Galicia Jewish Museum, Chris Schwartz.
Aside from describing and explaining each photograph in a manner which showed how close the subject matter was to his heart, Chris also shared his personal story with me – I was totally blown away by his very moving, inspirational presentation. I couldn’t believe that this museum wasn’t on the “standard” itinerary, since in my opinion it deserved to be at the top of the list. Towards the end of this personal tour Chris suggested that I bring the group to the museum. I explained to Chris that the group had a very tight schedule and that I was not permitted to change the itinerary, but Chris wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He offered to open the museum early Sunday morning (way before the official opening hour) and grant the group free entrance.
That evening at dinner I reported my experience at the Museum and the special offer by Chris to the group’s staff. To put it mildly, they were not impressed or enthusiastic, convinced that I was going to get a “kick-back”. Upon boarding the bus early Sunday morning, despite continued objections by the staff, I instructed the driver to take the group to the Museum and announced to the group that we were going to see a very special exhibit and spend 20 minutes with an extraordinary person. After over an hour with Chris I literally had to force the group to leave. The group leaders not only apologized to me, they thanked Chris for what they described as one of the highlights of the group’s tour of Poland. To my sorrow, and eternal regret, in further visits to the Museum after 2005 I never met with Chris again as he passed away in 2007…..
Over the years on occasion I did come across articles praising the Galicia Jewish Museum and interviews siting Chris’s dedication and goals:
“Rather than coming here just to mourn, we should come with a great sense of dignity, a great sense of pride for what our ancestors accomplished (New York Times).”
The recent ‘Through Polin Seminar’ which I was privileged to attend, was for me a continuation of the private tour with Chris and an opportunity to witness the contribution the Galicia Jewish Museum is making towards “preserving traces of memory – remnants of a world that no long exists – but also to restore memory and actively participate in the revival of Jewish communities”.
One of the opening lectures of the ‘Through Polin Seminar’ was given by Prof. Jonathan Webber, who I learned co-collaborated with Chris in establishing the permanent exhibit – ‘Traces of Memory’. In his stimulating and inspiring talk, focused on his Brzostek Jewish Heritage Project, he vividly demonstrated that a positive ‘grass-roots’ change of attitude among Poles towards Jews and Jewish Heritage is not only possible it is actually happening. His “diplomatic” approach of not imposing and demanding preservation of Jewish Heritage sites as an outsider, but rather engaging local Polish communities to actively want to implement restoration as part of their cultural history was an eye-opener. Having said this, I found it hard to accept his opening remark that, ‘Memory belongs to everyone’. Do Poles and Jews really share mutual memories?
As an Israeli my immediate ‘Pavlovian Response’ was that his thesis was simply an oxymoron. While I was aware that many Poles insist that Poland has served as Paradisus Judeorum, the fact that anti-Semitism is deeply entrenched in Polish society cannot be ignored. Having lived my entire adult life in Israel, I have been heavily influenced by “mainstream attitudes” held by Israeli Jews in regards to Poland and Poles. This “attitude” was once blatantly stated by the late, Polish born Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamir (Ysernitzky). He often spoke about his father who was murdered during the Holocaust by Polish farmers, friends of his youth. His sister, her husband and their children were also murdered by a Polish forest guard that previously worked for them, and in whose home they tried to hide. Shamir’s memories and attitude were summed up in one sentence :“Poles suck anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk. This is something that is deeply imbued in their tradition, their mentality….”
However, Prof. Webber’s talk reinforced a not often quoted addendum that Shamir added : “Today, though, there are elements in Poland that are cleansed of this anti-Semitism.”
Prof. Webber’s talk had been preceded by a meeting with Mirosława Gruszczyńska who is recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile, having risked her life to save a young Jewish girl, Anna Allerhand . While the story of Mirosława Gruszczyńska is one of great heroism she refuses to regard herself as a heroine. She insists that her actions were motivated out of pure humanitarian values. These values are now enshrined in the new the Ulma Family Museum located in Markowa, honoring Righteous Gentiles who indeed gave their lives to save Jews, and championed as revered by Poles: “The Polish legislature, in the name of the Polish nation, praises those who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination, and especially those who were killed by the occupiers in retaliation for helping Jews,”
These “autonomous altruists”, as defined by Nechama Tec, acted despite both the immediate death sentence imposed by the Germans if discovered and in spite of ostracism from general Polish society. As we discovered in the continuation of the Seminar “autonomous altruists” appear to have ‘spiritual descendants’ active in contemporary Poland. The visit to Będzin know as the Jerusalem of Zaglebie with Piotr Jakoweńko was for many of us a truly exemplary demonstration of dedication to preserving Jewish Heritage without any ulterior motivate. Together with his wife, Karolina, they co-founded along the Brama Cukierman (Zukerman’s Gate) Foundation, restoring the walls of a former Shtiebel (small prayer hall) found on the second floor of a now run-down tenement building once owned by the Cukierman family. Being able to say Kadish in this now preserved Shtiebel, redeemed by a contemporary “Righteous Gentile”, was a truly remarkable moment.
Later in the evening some of us went to another “Shul” in Krakow to – the rundown Chewra Tehilim (Psalm Brotherhood) Beit Midrash, now utilized as a bar, where having a beer was certainly no Mitzvah. As the structure is apparently not on Krakow’s list of protected heritage, perhaps this is more representative of contemporary Polish attitudes toward “shared memory”? Should skeptics, like myself, recognize that indeed ‘memory belongs to everyone’ in light of the projects we saw and heard about in the Seminar? Are the projects and people we met during the Seminar representative of contemporary, mainstream Polish society or are they simply a peripheral “fad” being promoted as Polish cultural heritage in order to increase tourism?
As one who also deals with Israeli commercial real-estate projects – my other hat when I’m not guiding in Israel – usage and development of real-estate assets left behind by the Jews murdered in the Holocaust makes sense to me. It is certainly in the interest of local Poles not to allow significant structures, often centrally located, to remain abandoned and neglected. However, why the interest and desire to also use these properties for the perpetuation of Jewish Cultural Heritage? Do Poles really regard Jewish Heritage as an integral and positive part Polish national memory? Perhaps one of the best examples of this contemporary dilemma faced by Poles regarding “usage” was presented during our tour of Chmielnik.
We first visited a very impressive preservation project of a synagogue now serving as a state-of-art museum dedicated to the perpetuation of the Jewish Heritage of Chmielnik. The $3 million project was financed primarily by the European Union, supplemented by funding from the Polish Ministry of Culture, the city of Chmielnik and regional governments. We then met with a developer Marian Zwolski, owner of a building that once housed the Chmielnik mikvah. He hopes to find an investor to restore the mikvah as part of a boutique hotel, from the point of view of the developer, also a legitimate real-estate project……
Another example of usage, was shown to us in the remarkable project of the Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance in Gliwice, promoted by the mayor and fully financed within the parameters of the local city budget, further demonstrated that Polish initiatives for preserving Jewish Heritage seem to be becoming mainstream. As Prof. Webber emphasized, appropriate usage of Jewish properties initiated by local Polish communities is essential for the purpose of perpetuating a “shared memory” and the successful forging of positive links between Jews and Poles.
Obviously, presenting the joint history of Poles and Jews, interlocked for over 1000 years, without being totally overshadowed by the Holocaust is imperative for creating a basis for changing existing stereotypes and pre-conceived notions. Programs like March of Living focused primarily on camps, ghettos and mass graves, almost inevitably leave participants with the conclusion that the Holocaust is the only relevant episode of Jewish history to be found in Poland. That is why the new Polin Museum is of such great importance for both Jews and Poles. What was especially impressive was that our non-Jewish guide, Pawel Sczerekowski, eloquently presented a scholarly overview of the history of the Jews of Poland as a “shared memory”, equally cherished by Poles.
Perhaps one of the leading Israeli “skeptics” of change in attitudes is Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who recently wrote the following article (Jerusalem Post 8/31/16) – Hope for Change in Lithuania :
“If anyone had told me prior to this week’s Holocaust memorial event here that numerous people from all over the country, the majority of whom were ethnic Lithuanians, would participate, I would have considered them delusional. Yet that is precisely what took place earlier this week here in Moletai (Malyat in Yiddish), where at least 3,000 persons, the majority of whom are not Jewish, marched about two and- a-half kilometers from the center of town to the main site of the mass murder of 2,000 Jewish residents of Moletai exactly 75 years ago.
in the wake of the march in Moletai, it appears that there are many Lithuanians, and especially young people, who realize that a profound change in the approach to the subject of the Holocaust is absolutely necessary to help heal their country. They also understand that the only way to emerge from the shadows cast by Lithuanian complicity is to shed light on them, not to hide them. So let us all hope that the new spirit on display in Moletai will mark the beginning of a new era in Lithuania.”
It appears that examples like Brzostek, Będzin and Gliwice may indeed represent a growing mainstream desire of Poles to perpetuate a shared memory of Jewish Heritage. The Through Polin Seminar, was in many ways an enlightening epiphany, showing that fundamental values of mutual respect, tolerance and, perhaps in time, that true friendship can develop and exist between Poles and Jews.
Rabbi Akiva (one of the most important Rabbinic figures of the 2nd century) was once asked what is the essence of the Torah, the heart of Jewish Heritage? His answer was: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
This indeed appears to me to be the fundamental Jewish value embraced by Chris Schwartz, being echoed by the Galicia Jewish Museum and, as the Bible describes, can only barely be heard: ‘a still, small voice – Kol Dmamah Dakah‘
Erev Yom Kippur 2016