By Estera Flieger

The All Saints’ holiday is a time of mourning and reflection in Poland. This year, in the town of Grybów – whose Jewish population was wiped out in the Holocaust – it was followed by the reopening of the newly restored Jewish cemetery. The driving force behind the renovation and remembrance of the Jewish heritage in the area came from a surprising source.

“Did you expect that so many people would come?” Barry Kerster asked me, as the Jewish cemetery in Grybów – a town of 6,000 residents, surrounded by the Low Beskid mountains that mark the border between Poland and Slovakia – filled up with families of Holocaust survivors, local residents, students, children and officials.

About 450 people were there on Sunday to commemorate the 1,774 Jews from Grybów murdered by the Germans and buried in mass graves.

Before the war, one third of the town’s population had been Jewish. At the end, only one Jew was left. Today, the old synagogue, lying in ruins, and the cemetery are all that is left to remind of the former Jewish presence.

But now the victims finally have names again, all placed on a monument unveiled in the cemetery last Sunday.

“They were like phantoms. And now they are real,” said Barry, whose grandmother was born in Grybów and whose parents were both Holocaust survivors – his mother among the prisoners liberated from Auschwitz and his father managing to escape a train to the Treblinka extermination camp and join the partisans. Barry had travelled from Connecticut to be there on Sunday.

That this commemoration of Barry’s family and the other Jews of Grybów took place at all was in large part thanks to Dariusz Popiela, a Polish Olympic athlete who has led efforts to efforts to restore the Jewish heritage of the region. It was he, along with a team of volunteers, who raised funds for and organised the restoration of the cemetery.

A few days later, he returned with a lawnmower

Dariusz is from Nowy Sącz, about half an hour’s drive from Grybów. The history of local minorities is his passion. And it is difficult to believe that he only has 24 hours in his day.

As a professional athlete – who competed in the canoe slalom at the Beijing Olympics and is a double European champion – he starts every day with a training session in the water, even in freezing temperatures. But he ends it reading archival materials, and organising commemorations and charity activities.

One might well wonder how Dariusz’s involvement came about. For many years he trained in Krościenko, on the Dunajec River, near the old Jewish cemetery. One day, his physiotherapist, who was aware of his interest in history, recommended a visit to the cemetery. Dariusz followed the suggestion. “It hit me. And I stayed there,” he explained.

A few days later, Dariusz returned with a lawnmower. The cemetery was forgotten, neglected. Now, thanks to the efforts of Dariusz and others, there is a monument with the names of Jews from Krościenko who were murdered there, many of which were uncovered by Dariusz himself by combing the archives. Local schools now take care of the site.

Why does he do this? His reply is to the point: “For the victims,” he says, adding that: “It is so natural – there is nothing extraordinary about it; that’s what being human is about.”

How did Dariusz feel on Sunday? “Exactly one year ago I was standing in front of the closed gate of the cemetery. It was impossible to get in. It was literally a jungle. And I heard prayers from the Catholic cemetery and I was so sad that no one was praying here. And yesterday I saw so many people coming though this gate and that was it, something had changed.”

The most powerful moment for Dariusz was when all 1,774 names of the murdered Grybów Jews were read, as well as the speech of the honorary consul of Germany in Kraków, Michael Gross.

“I assure you that we, Germans, are aware of our historical responsibility,” said Gross. “Today, all of us, Poles and Germans, live under one roof of the European Union and share the same values. We must ensure the safety of Jews living in Europe. The dignity of others is inviolable.”

Tikkun olam – repairing the world

“I recognise the bridge. My mother took a photo here,” said Esther Gilboa from Israel, in a bus going to Grybów. Esther’s mother was 18 years old in 1936, when she emigrated from Poland to Israel. Esther’s grandparents, who stayed behind, were murdered by the Nazis.

In late 1941, the German occupiers created a ghetto in Grybów that housed Jews from the town and surrounding area. Less than a year later, on 20 September 1942, they liquidated it, executing over 350 Jews and burying them in mass graves.

The remainder were forced to walk to the ghetto in Nowy Sącz, which was itself liquidated a few days later. Those who still survived were transported to the Bełżec extermination camp, where all were murdered.

Among the 1,774 names on the new monument in Grybów cemetery are those of 500 children.

Gail Blauner had come to Grybów from New York with her sister Dalia and brother Sidney. They walked around the town, stopping to knock at the door of the house where their father, Max, had once lived. He survived the Holocaust by fleeing to the Soviet Union, where he ended up first in a Siberian labour camp, then in a Polish division operating under the Red Army, before leaving for the US in the 1950s.

“He wanted to come back to Poland one day,” said Gail. If their father were still alive, he would have celebrated his 100th birthday on the day of the ceremony.

Howard Unger and Lorie Unger-Aronovitz first visited Grybów 15 years ago with their father Simon, a survivor of Auschwitz and other camps, who was born here in 1922. Simon lost his whole family in the Holocaust, among them his father Chaim, also born in the town. Howard and Lorie walked the same streets as before, again passing the ruins of the synagogue. This time, however, their emotions were different, more positive.

“There is something in Judaism called tikkun olam, which is defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world. Tikkun olam is the reason we are here today – because of the acts of kindness by Dariusz, Kamil, Anna, Jolanta and many others [in the team behind the cemetery restoration]. It is remarkable for us to all witness and be part of what has been accomplished,” said Howard in his speech during the ceremony.

“My sister and I, our spouses and our children are grateful to be here today and for the opportunity to offer these few words.”

Many people from the local community were involved in organising the ceremony. Information about the event was posted on the website of the Catholic church parish. A week before the ceremony, the priest advertised the ceremony during Sunday Mass. He was also present. The cemetery was tidied and cleaned by children from local schools, along with their religion teacher. And many, many others.

But who was responsible for finding the families of Grybów’s Jews? Kamil Kmak, who has been called a guardian of Grybów’s collective memory, has been working on the project for the last nine years. Numerous people have him to thank for their knowledge of their family stories, as parents who survived the Holocaust often did not talk too much about the past, to protect their children from trauma.

“Much of the population of Grybów was made up of members of the Jewish faith, and they remain a significant part of the history of this town,” Howard continued in his speech. “I am overwhelmed that you are honouring and remembering that past. I believe this healing and reconciliation is important to continuing to build the bond between the Poland of today and the many Polish descendants like myself who recognise their Polish heritage. Thank you for helping to repair the world – for your tikkun olam.”

L’chaim – For life

The great philosopher Jan Woleński, whose uncle was killed in Grybów, said after the ceremony that it was very touching to see children taking part . Among them was a one-year-old boy. “His name is Isaac,” said Martin, his father, who had travelled from Slovakia. “Like my great uncle, whose name is on the monument.”

Families of survivors gathered together on the evening before the ceremony. They made a special Jewish toast: “L’chaim”, which means “For life”. Saying these words, and watching the children there, one wants to believe that life wins in the end. But life will not win without memory.

Poles and Jews need more stories like this. Polish-Jewish relations have, over the last two years, experienced one of the worst crises of recent decades. And the reason is history: something that should bring us closer together has been used to divide us again.

Yet, while there are populists and nationalists for whom history and collective memory are tools to achieve political goals, there are also people like Dariusz and his team, reminding us of how even (or perhaps especially) the most tragic history can bring people together.

All images copyright of Tomasz Mróz

Estera Flieger is a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza. She has published texts in The GuardianDuży FormatNewsweek Historia and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna

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