Jews from many corners of the globe travel to Poland and other Eastern European countries every year — to learn more about their heritage or to see with their own eyes the historical horrors of the Holocaust.
But while many go, only some go back.
On June 17, Berkeley resident Diane Mintz was one who returned to Poland, some 13 years after her first journey to her ancestral homeland. This time she went not on a heritage trip, but to attend a ceremony in Kroscienko, a Polish village about 75 miles from Krakow, to honor the 300 Jews who used to live there.
One was Mintz’s grandfather, Chaim Rappaport. Though Rappaport survived because he left for the United States before World War II, approximately 280 of his fellow Jews did not. A plot of land in the town along the Dunajec river was used as a mass grave for those murdered by the Nazis.
During her first trip in 2005, Mintz was devastated when she realized that no visitor or newcomer to Kroscienko would even know that a burial ground was there. When she and her son, Ilan Kayatsky, stood over the area, it looked like any other verdant part of rural Poland: Grass had grown over the mass grave and there were no tombstones.
The area was “totally derelict,” she recalled. “We couldn’t find anything definitive about who was there, and when.”
Enter Dariusz Popiela.
A young, non-Jewish Pole, Popiela felt the same way as Mintz. For many years, the Polish Olympian trained in his kayak on the Dunajec near Kroscienko, where he learned about a plot of land that was the burial site for more than 130 Jews. This not only startled him, as Polish schools do not offer a substantial Holocaust education program, but made him angry that nothing had ever been done to honor the victims.
He felt he had to do something about it.
Through historical records, Popiela tracked down the names of 256 women, men and children who were murdered in the village and nearby between 1939 and 1942. Those names were engraved on a large stone monument (which resembles a broken gravestone), along with a Star of David and a Bible quotation that begins (translated): “Earth, do not hide my blood.”
With support from the Jewish Historical Institute Association and the Nissenbaum Family Foundation, Popiela raised the $30,000 needed for the monument and the ceremony.
“He spoke in a way that was fascinating,” Mintz said of Popiela’s speech, which was translated into English. “He said this will never heal until we acknowledge it. He said he wants every [town] to uncover the names of the victims.”
One of the other speakers at the ceremony was Rabbi Avi Baumol, a New York native who lives with and serves the Krakow Jewish community. Baumol spoke about his grandfather’s reminisces on life in Kroscienko.
“When he started to talk about what was going on during the war, he cried,” Baumol recalled, according to a translated version of a report in the Polish periodical Wiezź. “He struggled with contradictory memories and never returned to Poland. I sadly thought about the history of my family and the place where he lived, where there was one lonely matzeva [monument] in the local cemetery.”
A 93-year-old man who also spoke at the ceremony recounted being 16 in 1942, and he and others in the town found out from the village administrator that the Nazis were going to bury murdered Jews in Kroscienko.
“I have seen many terrible things during the war, but I have never seen such stacks of corpses,” he was quoted as saying. “This picture will stay with me forever. My days are already numbered, but I want to speak because I am the only living witness of what has happened. I knew many Jews in Kroscienko.”
Popiela said he wants every Polish town to find out the names of the Jews who lived there and perished there in the Holocaust.
Mintz found out about the Kroscienko ceremony earlier this year from her son, Kayatsky, a former communications and marketing director for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and her nephew Jesse. Both saw an item on Facebook by Popiela and followed up on it.
Now, after making the trip and attending the ceremony with what she estimated to be 80 to 100 others, including Jesse and his cousin, she remains grateful to Popiela for refusing to let the area’s dark past fade away.
“He is a very unassuming guy without any ‘me, me I did this,’” Mintz said. “He is just a kayaker with a great ethical concern and historical concern. He and his friends were so shocked, and that really motivated him.”