A Polish Olympian on a Mission to Remember

Photo: Dariusz Popieło

Helo Dear Rabi

My name is Dariusz Popiela from Nowy Sacz.I am good friend of Lukasz Polomski we are working together in Sadecki Sztetl. We meet once in Nowy Sacz.
I start project to rescue Jewish cemetery in Kroscienko nad Dunajcem. Cemetery is in very bad condition. We clean it we cut huge grass now it s much better but it s still empty there are just two Macewas:(. When I stand there few hours I get idea and we start our project to commemorate Jewish from Krościenko and region. I already spoke with major of Krosicenko in city council they will built road to cemetery becouse now is just meadow. But the thing is that it will be unique monument! Becouse we have list of all Jewish people life in Kroscienko till 1942. We can put no just the number but all names and surnames! Thats our goal! I am preparing official letter wizualization etc. I would like to welcome You to the project if You are interested. And I hope that we will pray tohether in 17 of june when we will presenting our monument.

Receiving this letter, I was delighted to know that there were more non-Jewish Poles who wanted to remember Poland’s Jewish past. I figured it was written by one of the righteous souls who spends his life researching Jewish Poland, perhaps teaches in university or works for a non-profit organization commemorating the Jewish heritage in Poland.

Then I met Dariusz.

He came to see me from Nowy Sacz (an hour and a half away) with his daughter, to talk about the prospect of working together to memorialize the Jewish community of Krościenko, through cleaning up its dilapidated and destroyed cemetery.

But Dariusz is no teacher, no typical Pole either; in fact, he is quite well known in Poland as one of the best, if not the best, kayakers and canoers, six time Polish champion and consistently scoring high in national and international tournaments and a participant at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and is now preparing for 2020! This past year’s European championship garnered Dariusz a silver medal in the men’s final kayak race.

Photo: Nina Jelenc

And so, I was quite shocked and excited when Dariusz sat before me outlining his plans for the restoration and commemoration of the cemetery. Why was I excited? Because my grandfather and his family lived in Szczawnica/Krościenko for many years being the rabbis of these joint towns. My grandfather Rabbi Joseph Baumol was born in Buczacz, now Ukraine, but moved at an early age to Krościenko/Szczawnica when his father was offered the rabbinic position there. His grandfather Rabbi Nahum Baumol served the community of Krościenko for over fifty years and after his father’s passing, my grandfather’s brother, Rabbi Yehoshua, (who was murdered in Treblinka in 1942) took over for him.

So, for me, it is especially significant that in the year 2017, a young, non-Jewish Polish citizen should want to restore a bit of the Jewish past to that city. More-so in fact; he wants to clean the cemetery, erect a plaque in memory of the victims and teach Poles in the vicinity of the great Jewish heritage that once was, but is no longer.

Dariusz grew up in Nowy Sacz, (the second largest Jewish city in pre-war lower Poland) and during school he developed an interest in the history of the Jews in Poland, especially during the Holocaust. He joined together with a remarkable young man named Łukasz Połomski who created a organization for the commemoration of Jewish Sacz as well as spreading the heritage of Polish Jewish past.

One of their first activities in commemoration was to try to collect funds to honor Jakub Muller, a Jew from Nowy Sacz who worked tirelessly to restore memory of Jews in Nowy Sacz: collecting stolen matzevas, rebuilding the fence of the cemetery, commemorating aktions taking place during the Holocaust. He would come back every year to Nowy Sacz and continue with his mission. After he passed away a small group of non-Jews wanted to memorialize his actions in the form of a plaque at the entrance to the cemetery. It cost money and the small group couldn’t afford the plaque.

Photo: Sądecki Sztetl

At that time, there was a professional kayaking race in Nowy Sacz and Dariusz was so invested in this idea of Jewish commemoration that he told Lukasz that if he wins the race he will give all the money to the memorial. He won, and they were able to make a day celebrating the life of Muller and restoring a bit of the Nowy Sacz past. It also catalyzed the group of Dariusz, Łukasz and Artur Franczak to form an organization dedicated to remembering the Jewish past in Nowy Sacz and other cities in the area. The organization is called Sądecki Sztetl– http://en.sadeckisztetl.com

Photo: Sądecki Sztetl

Among the many projects they engage in, they invited me three years ago to teach the community (150 showed up) about Jewish Passover and what a Seder would look like. The next year I was invited back to teach about Rosh Hashana. In addition to the education programming they also look for new cities in which to help restore Jewish memory and that led Dariusz to Krościenko and its cemetery.

Photo Dariusz Popieło

What’s left of the cemetery is one lone matzeva! The rest of the probably hundreds of matzevot were stolen over the years but especially, according to reports, by the Nazis who used them as the floor of a building in the area (they are still looking for that floor…).

Photo: Dariusz Popieło

Dariusz realized that he needed to raise money to restore the cemetery. While the Mayor of Krościenko (as opposed to the Mayor of Nowy Sacz) is supportive of this endeavor and committed to make a road leading up to the cemetery, for the plaques and restoration he would need additional funding. He made a crowdfunding page for the cemetery which began to raise some funds; as well, he spoke to foundations in Poland and outside such as the Nissenbaum foundation who have been instrumental in restoring graves throughout Poland for decades.

He also possesses something unique; a list of around 270 Jewish victims of Krościenko who were murdered in 1942. The list was composed by the Judenrat together with City Hall during the war. He plans on putting up a memorial of all names at the entrance of the cemetery in or to properly give them the respect due.

He plans on raising funds, designing the monuments, continuing to clean the premises, pressuring the city to fulfill its promise of supporting the access to the cemetery, creating an event of memory on June 17th in Krościenko and much more, all the while training for the European Kayak and Canoe championships which take place in May of this year!!

It is a long, arduous process but Dariusz is not giving up; he is driven much like the other members of the team, to teach Poles about the great Jewish heritage lost in Poland, to memorialize the Jewish past and to educate Poles about the opportunity—responsibility –they have to learn about the Jewish past and memorialize it.

Photo: Sądecki Sztetl

I told Dariusz that when Jews hear about his efforts they are at best confused and at worst suspicious. I am sure non-Jewish Poles hearing about his interests would be even more shocked. What does he respond to these questions? Dariusz sees things very clearly. When Poles tell him ‘it’s not your story’, he responds saying “Yes it is! They were my neighbors and it is impossible that their memories should disappear from our minds.”

In a world which is marching towards a more nationalist and isolationist political stance and a Poland whose government has also become more iinsular and nationalistic, it is heartwarming that there are people like Dariusz and Łukasz and Artur, part of a new generation of young Poles who invest time, funds, efforts in order to restore a part of Poland that few know about and most don’t care about. They are part of a grass roots movement of young Poles who want to remember a time when Poland was 10% Jewish and there was co-existence.

Photo: Joanna Fabiańczuk

I look forward to participating in this initiative and working together with Dariusz and his orgainization to help out with more important programming bout Jewish life and history. If you are interested in finding more information please access the website or the facebook page of Sądecki Stetl, or check out the crowdfunding page at: bit.ly/2BaiJzV.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He is also the Emissary of Shavei Israel in Krakow, Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible--https://theisraelbible.com/bible/psalms