Part One of a three-part series (Read Part 2 and Part 3 here). J. Senior Editor Sue Barnett traveled to Poland in June with the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the S.F. Federation’s Young Adult Division, and privately with a group led by JFCS director Anita Friedman. She documents the experience in a series of reports.
Gniewoszow, Poland — Twelve years ago, Anita Friedman brought her family from San Francisco to Poland to visit the ancestral village of her father. It would be her first time in Gniewoszow, one of the many towns dotting the Polish countryside where Jews made up a majority of the population before the war — and none after.
More than 200 of her relatives had lived here. All were killed in the Holocaust in death camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz. Only her father made it out alive.
Friedman, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, wanted to share the stories her father had told her about this place — a place where several generations of the family had lived, loved and flourished. Though she knew that signs of Jewish life had disappeared, she planned to show her husband and three sons where the synagogue had stood and where her father spent summer days with his friends along the Vistula River eating cheese and fresh pears.
Friedman anticipated the 2005 trip would be a nostalgic, bittersweet journey to honor her father’s memory. What she didn’t expect was to be chased out of town.
Accompanied by a Polish translator, the family went to look at the former synagogue, now a fire station. Suddenly, two local men emerged and began shouting, grabbing at their cameras, shoving Friedman’s sons and accusing the group of coming to steal their fire truck. As the tension escalated and a crowd started to form, the visitors agreed: It was time to go.
The family turned and hightailed it out of there, or, as Friedman’s son Aaron Tartakovsky said, “We hit the gas and split town.” But it wouldn’t be their last visit. Over the years, as the American Jews became a more familiar sight, some attitudes began to shift.
In fact, on Friedman’s most recent trip to Gniewoszow this summer, the town rolled out the red carpet, right up to the mayor.
Friedman is board president at the Koret Foundation, a significant benefactor of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014 in Warsaw, about 70 miles from Gniewoszow. During her business trips over the dozen years the museum was being planned, she saw firsthand the nascent signs of a Jewish revival in Poland, home to 3.5 million Jews before World War II. It further piqued her interest in connecting with her father’s origins and her family birthright.
Friedman is among hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world, primarily from the U.S. and Israel, who have returned to Poland since the fall of communism to see the land of their parents and grandparents and explore their heritage in what was once the richest center of Jewish culture in Europe. Some come to make peace with the past, some to mourn it, some to rebuild it, and all to better understand it.
Friedman is also among many with roots in Polish lands — 80 percent of all American Jews, by some counts — who are determined to reclaim Jewish sites, revive the culture and keep alive the thousand-year story of the Jews in Poland, one that until recently risked being buried with the dead.
A staggering 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust. Most who survived left in waves for Israel, the U.S. and other countries. For the small number who remained (ranging from 5,000 to 30,000), living an openly Jewish life in postwar Poland was neither desirable nor possible. Jewish life as they’d known it had all but vanished.
Yossel Frydman was one of the survivors. Anita Friedman described her father, owner of a leather factory in Gniewoszow, as a “peppy, bon vivant, life-of-the-party kind of guy” who sold his shoes and products as far away as Ukraine. The married father of two was on a business trip in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. The Jews of Gniewoszow were subjugated and forced into a ghetto in 1942; Frydman’s wife and his children, Tauba, 7, and baby Menachem, were murdered, as were his parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
Frydman spent the war evading the Nazis, fighting with the partisans and risking arrest before fleeing to Central Asia. After the liberation, he made his way back to Gniewoszow to see what was left of his family and his beloved hometown. On the outskirts of town he ran into a former employee in his factory. “Yossel, what the hell are you doing here?” he was asked. “They’re killing Jews here. They’re planning to kill you tonight if you go back.”
In towns throughout Poland, many Jews who survived the war had no such warning, and were killed after returning to their towns by hostile neighbors who had taken over Jewish businesses, land and homes.
Frydman, who had remarried in the interim, fled with his new wife to the local train station and from there to a displaced persons camp in Germany. In 1949 they immigrated to New York, where Anita was born, and later joined a large community of Holocaust survivors working as chicken farmers in Vineland, New Jersey, “because with chickens you don’t have to speak English,” he explained to his daughter.
Despite the horrors in the family legacy, the fond stories Friedman’s father told about times before the war always loomed large in her mind. “It was a little Polish town, not fancy, built around a central square with Jewish homes surrounding it,” she recounted recently. “He fished for fresh fish for Shabbos, and his mother would keep the fish alive in the bathtub until she was ready to cook.”
Friedman knew one day she would come to see Gniewoszow for herself. “I always felt it was home,” she said, “but I didn’t remember it.”
After that first ill-fated visit in 2005, Friedman returned with her family five years later. When they went to see the Jewish cemetery, they found an empty field littered with trash. To their shock, she said, “we saw human bones all over the surface” due to the high water level from the nearby river.
In a practice common throughout Europe after the war, Jewish tombstones had been taken and used as construction material — to build stables, pave roads, even to sharpen knives. Friedman suspected there might be some matzevot (tombstones) lying around, and started to put the word out. She decided to devote energy and resources to restoring the cemetery as sacred ground, working with local experts to clean up the site, identify the boundaries, and design and build a stone wall and iron gate featuring Stars of David; a formal rededication would take place at a future date.
In contrast to the discovery of callous neglect at the cemetery, another finding around the same time told an extraordinary story about wartime Gniewoszow, one that revealed its humanity.
Researchers at the Polin Museum found documentation of a secret meeting held May 3, 1942, between the town’s Jewish and Catholic leaders, who convened in the synagogue basement to develop a plan to save the Jews. Minutes of the meeting included the names of those present, along with their ideas: sabotage against the Nazis, hiding Jewish neighbors, giving them non-Jewish Polish names, having them disguise themselves by shaving their beards and wearing Polish peasant clothing, acquiring false identification papers.
By all accounts it was an unprecedented example of such collaboration during the war. Friedman said one of the men at the meeting, Boleslaw Paciorek, has been nominated for recognition as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for risking his life to save Jews.
“You see the worst people are capable of, but you also see the best of what people are capable of,” she said last month while traveling on a minibus to Gniewoszow. “There’s a Yiddish saying, ‘On this Earth, you can find both heaven and hell,’ and that’s how I feel about this place.”
In 2014, Friedman returned for her third visit, this time to formally rededicate the cemetery. Joining her family were invited VIPs Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi; Anna Azari, Israel’s ambassador to Poland; representatives from the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and the Polish Foreign Ministry; and a couple of other descendants of Jews from Gniewoszow.
She expected a modest crowd, but when she arrived, Friedman was amazed to see hundreds of people gathered at the site. Just about everyone in the town showed up: the city council president, a local priest, the school’s principal and teachers and all of the students. The school was shut for the day so they could attend. American, Polish and Israeli flags were raised together, speeches were made, and a memorial plaque was dedicated to “the destroyed Jewish community in Gniewoszow.”
Missing tombstones, meanwhile, started to reappear during the construction project. One was found alongside a pile of junk in someone’s yard where it had languished for decades. In all, 13 complete or fragmented stones were recovered and mounted on the wall inside the cemetery. “Some we found,” Friedman said, but “I bought most of these. The whole thing probably cost $200, but I had to buy them back.”
Other relics trickled in, too, including an old, crushed dreidel.
“People started to come forward with items they wanted us to have,” she said. At the rededication, “two guys appeared with a big plank in Polish and German. It was the sign from the front of the ghetto, and had been in an attic,” Friedman recalled.
“I asked why they saved it, and they said, ‘We knew you’d come back.’”
Friedman has spent more than 10 years building relationships and trust with the community, which was understandably wary about outsiders coming in with an agenda.
“They feel embarrassed. There’s a lot of ambivalence in how people relate to all this,” she said. “It’s hard for them to tell the truth, because the truth is painful.” Her intent, she said, wasn’t to cast blame but rather to encourage residents to know their history and teach it to future generations.
A year after the rededication, Friedman returned to Gniewoszow to speak at the school and sponsor an essay contest. “I wanted to educate the town and the kids to ‘find out the Jewish story of your town,’” she said. High school students interviewed their elders, many of whom spoke for the first time about the Jewish past. “It is hard to believe that nowadays the residents of Gniewoszow often have no idea how their town came to be and who its residents were long ago (but not so long ago),” wrote one of the three winners.
While the rededication and essay contest were high points in her efforts to return Jewish history to Gniewoszow, Friedman continues to press on. In June of this year, she brought family and close friends to visit the cemetery, meet the mayor and keep the conversation going.
In a brightly lit conference room, Friedman told the 37-year-old mayor about her family’s roots in the town, relating how happy they were up until the war and sharing the tragic losses suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
“I wish that now, 70 years later, I could tell [my family] I’m sorry what happened to you here. I wish I could have protected you and taken care of you when you were in trouble,” she said to the mayor through an interpreter.
“I’m very sorry about what happened here to you and your family during the Second World War,” the mayor said. “I’m too young to remember those times, but I’ve heard a lot of stories from my grandfather and I’m aware of the fact that you were here. I know that your family led a normal, everyday life in Gniewoszow.”
The mayor also said that the town of about 700 recently set up a historical association not only for visitors “but also for our inhabitants to get to know this history, because it is the history of your nation. It is your history. Everybody who comes here should know that you lived here and this was your town.”
Just before Friedman’s group prepared to board the minibus to leave, an elderly woman emerged from a red wooden house next to the fire station, telling the visitors she remembered when it was a “Jewish church.” Mrs. Janina, a lifelong resident of Gniewoszow, acknowledged that she was living in property that had belonged to Jews before the war, and she invited the Americans to take a look inside.
“It belongs to you, I can’t deny it,” she said. “This was your place.”