Standing in front of the Menora reciting the blessings to light the sixth candle of Chanuka is a very typical experience for a Rabbi; standing next to a Bishop, less so. Lighting the Menora where NO Jews are participating in the service despite the crowd of a hundred or so young and old, including the Mayor and honorary representatives—well, that is highly unusual. But the circumstances are highly unusual. The story begins one hundred years ago with my great-grandfather, Rabbi Yehoshua Baumol. He was a scion of a rabbinic family which went back tens of generations throughout Poland. Young Yehoshua was ordained with Semikha at the age of 13 by Rabbi Shlomo Engel having learned in a well-known Yeshiva in Tarnow and reached the title ‘ilui miTarnow’. The son of the Rebbe of Shinow, Rabbi Halberstam was the leader of this ‘kloiz’, school where elite youngsters went to immerse themselves in Torah and Mitzvot. Years later his son in-law, my grandfather Rabbi Joseph Baumol, received Semikha from the last chief rabbi of Tarnow—Rabbi Meir Arik. While my great-grandfather passed away before the war, my grandfather took a position as Rabbi in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1932, thereby surviving the horror physically, yet, with the loss of many relatives including his beloved brother, he never truly survived emotionally. He always hearkened back to the blissful pre-war times in Sczawnica, Lemberg, Buczacz and Tarnow. The story of the Jews of Tarnow is sadly characteristic of many Jewish towns and cities during the Holocaust: Roundups, deportations, a horrifying local massacre of thousands of Jews (which in Tarnow took place in the main market square or ‘Rynek’), 7000 additional Jews (including 800 Jewish children from a local orphanage) murdered in the forest, Ghettoization, ‘selections’ and ultimately exterminations until not one of the 25,000 Jews (living there for over 500 years!) remained in the city. About 700 Jews returned to Tarnow after the war but found that the Old Synagogue had been destroyed, and all that remained of it was the monumental Bimah; the Jewish quarter which had become a Jewish ghetto, was destroyed, void of any Jewish presence and unfriendly to any Jewish return. Nevertheless an active Jewish community was re-founded in the city, and it erected a number of monuments memorializing the Holocaust dead, including a monument to the 800 children. But most of these Jews emigrated, and by 1993, when Abraham Ladner, the last Jewish male in Tarnow died, the post-war community came to an end. What was left for the Jew? Though a few buildings remained (especially the majestic mikveh dating from 1904) and some indentations for a mezuzah were visible, it seemed that an entire history of the Jewish presence was evaporating.
Then Adam Bartosz entered the picture. Not Jewish by blood but surely in spirit, he almost singlehandedly built up and directed the Tarnow Regional Museum, specifically the Jewish heritage component, for 32 years. He founded the Tarnow Committee for the Protection of Monuments of Jewish Culture which not only acted as one of the first organizations in southern Poland to concern itself with Jewish memorials but also sponsored an annual “Jewish Galicia” festival, an annual commemoration at the mass graves in the forest near Zbylitowska Gora (just outside Tarnow), with the participation of the bishop, local scouts, and other children from local schools. He is also responsible for enhancing Jewish sites, raising funds to clean up Jewish cemeteries, writing guidebooks about Jewish culture and history of Tarnow. All this has earned him the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, bestowed upon him by the Bobover Rebbe after working closely together for many years.
Adam introduced a public Chanuka candle lighting ceremony at the Bimah in 2011—it would have been the first time that Chanuka candles would have been lit there since 1939! He invited the Rabbi, Bishop, Mayor and children from various Polish schools to witness this event as part of his ongoing desire that Tarnow residents appreciate the Jewish heritage which was so prominent before the war and was so tragically cut down during and subsequent to it. One more connection was needed in order to get me to Tarnow—the personalities of Dr. Jonathan and Connie Webber. This remarkable couple find their residence in Krakow as Jonathan is a professor at the Institute of European Studies at Jagiellonian University and holds a D.Phil in Social Anthropology from Oxford University. Jonathan and his wife Connie (an accomplished scholar, editor of the Littman Library Press) are a warm, welcoming as well as brilliant Orthodox couple living in Krakow. Truly an Island of Yiddishkeit and Jewish scholarship in a place where those things were almost extinguished.
Most importantly I consider them wonderful new friends as they invite me every single Shabbat to share a meal with them and other Krakowian Jews. Jonathan struck up a relationship with Adam Bartosz over 25 years ago when he was doing anthropological fieldwork in southern Poland; more recently they cooperated when Jonathan started a project to restore an unmarked Jewish cemetery in a small town called Brzostek and erect a monument in a forest where its Jews were massacred.
Their friendship has brought them together with mutual interests in Jewish restoration, as well as anthropological and ethnographical Poland. When Adam suggested a Chanuka lighting ceremony with a Rabbi presiding, Jonathan asked me and I jumped at the opportunity as I knew it would be for me the closing of a circle which started so many years ago.
The night was blisteringly cold but a strong group of participants from Tarnow showed up as well as some Krakowians who drove up to partake in this special ceremony. I spoke (in Polish!) about my great-grandfather and how my grandfather used to tell me wonderful stories of Pre-war Poland. I mentioned about the miracle of Chanuka and the Maccabees fighting for their right to live on their land in peace, a sobering message for post-war Tarnow, yet a comforting one as well when one acknowledges the steps taken by Non-Jewish Poles and the various municipalities and the Polish Government in recognizing the great Jewish heritage of Poland and memorializing them.
Bishop Andrzej Jeż of Tarnow followed my candle lighting and aptly read out loud and spoke about Psalm 27 “God is my light and my salvation”. He first mentioned that he too recalled conversations he had with his grandfather about Tarnow before the war and the positive relations Jews and Christians had then. We had a chance to talk afterwards and I found him to be warm and interested in my story and cultivating a stronger relationship between our faith communities.
Tarnow is a microcosm for Poland as a whole. It had a once very proud and bustling Jewish community who lived together with their non-Jewish neighbors but was destroyed in the most heinous way by invading Nazis and their collaborators. Communism reigned for forty years after the war and rendered any serious encounter with the Jewish past impotent. Over the last 25 years however, much has been done to remember, and much to improve relations between the two communities. Much more can be done and I hope to be part of this important endeavor.
*With thanks to Dr. Jonathan Webber who contributed to the article.