Close to a year ago I received a Facebook message from a young Pole who asked me if I had any connections to the town of Krościenko in southern Poland. He asked this because in his research he found the names of victims of the Nazis with a similar last name as me—Baumol. After answering positively and telling Dariusz that I have a long family history there, in fact my great grandfather and great-great grandfather was the rabbi there, he became quite excited and we met in Krakow to discuss his plan. He accepted upon himself to clean up the dilapidated Jewish cemetery and make a memorial to the lost Jews of this area who were murdered in 1942 by the Nazis.
It’s not east to undertake such an operation: There are legal issues about the ownership of the cemetery land (apparently some of the land was sold to a private individual!); there are Jewish law issues about the holiness of the land since on the site they knew of a mass grave and had the names of the 256 victims but they didn’t exactly know where it was; there are political issues in a country which Jewish Polish relations has had its challenges recently, it was important to ensure that the chief rabbi’s office, the Church, as well as the municipality were all on board. And then of course there was the issue of raising the funds required to properly and respectfully memorialize the Jews of Krościenko.
A typical person would not be able to overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges. But Dariusz Popiela is anything but typical! He is a sportsman! Dariusz is no stranger to adversity in his field. At an early age he was told he did not have the body for a professional slalom kayaker, he was too short, too weak. That, he took as a challenge and spend the better part of the last 25 years overcoming the obstacles and becoming one of the world’s best kayakers.
To date he has an impressive list of medals: 7x national champion of Poland, 2x European champion in relay, 2x bronze medalist at the World cup, and the most recent silver medal at the European championships (relay) which took place just two weeks before the event in Krościenko!!
I did everything I could from the Jewish and rabbinic side to help Dariusz in his quest to turn the dilapidated, forgotten cemetery of Krościenko into a reality on the hearts and minds of Jews and non-Jews in Lower Poland. But Dariusz found an amazing team of supporters in his endeavour including: Jakub Dyda, who secured many technical issues and liaised with the city of Krościenko and Joanna Kurczap who designed the magnificent monument and all the graphic design for the event. Karolina Panz, a doctoral student in Warsaw University, helped Dariusz piece together the tragic story of the mass murder of the last 256 Jewish residents of Krościenko and their subsequent unceremonious burial in a mass grave. Karolina found all the facts about this sad event as well as remarkably finding an archive of all the names of the victims. Today their names are displayed on the magnificent memorial which is the focal point of the site. Everyone on his team was working for free! Volunteering of their time and talent in order that this event should succeed.
We at the JCC became supporters right away as we are always excited when we continue to see proof of Jewish-Polish cooperation in restoring Jewish memory in Poland. We sent a group of members including child survivors to participate in the event and everyone appreciated the professionalism that was exhibited at this memorial.
There were many speakers because everyone who came wanted to show their support and express their gratitude to Dariusz and his team. The team of Maria and Maciej from Sadecki Shtetyl led the proceedings and continue to play an important role in preserving Jewish heritage in Lower Poland. The Mayor spoke beautifully about pre-war Krościenko as a place of coexistence and our desire to return to that state; the priest from a local church in Krościenko recited a prayer; members of the Warsaw Jewish council, the AJC from Warsaw, the cemetery committee spoke, as well as the representative of the Nissenbaum Foundation, dedicated to restoring Jewish cemeteries in Poland for over thirty years. They were big supporters of the project here and the fence is financed completely by this foundation.
I spoke about how I grew up listening to my grandfather recollect fondly about life in Krościenko, growing up there, and the wonderful feeling of Jewishness which permeated the city. He would speak of the great rabbis who visited these towns and of the peaceful life that he enjoyed until he left Poland to become a rabbi in America. But then he would start to cry as the memories led to the horrific end when his family was murdered here during the Holocaust. He struggled all his life with these conflicting memories and he never returned to Poland as a result.
I always knew the place was special but when I visited a few years ago I was quite saddened to see the dilapidated cemetery with only one matzeva. 50 years of communism and disinterest had taken its toll. I felt sad that my history was almost extinct as there were virtually no traces of the vibrant Jewish life about which my grandfather spoke so fondly.
And then one day I received a message from Dariusz, a young, non-Jewish Pole who saw the same disregarded cemetery and decided to act. I asked him why he got involved and his answer was that as a Pole this story is his to remember as well and we all have a responsibility to guard the memories of our shared heritage.
This all came to fruition when over a hundred people joined together to share in the restoration of memory. In fact, Dariusz called the event, ‘people, not numbers’ and as the Susskind family (son of survivors from Krościenko who was good friends with my grandfather) unveiled the monument with the named etched into the stone, his mission was actualized.
Attending the ceremony was an elderly gentleman with a testimony to give. He was there on that cursed day in 1942 and he saw the mound of bodies to be thrown into the mass grave. That man came to the microphone at the end of the ceremony and gave us all chilling testimony and with tears in his eyes he recalled the horrors of the past.
Today, you can drive to Krościenko and visit the memorial, the mass grave and the monument as well as reading about the lives of those last Jews of Krościenko and the lives they led. The memories of those murdered are memorialised in Krościenko thanks to a few individuals who wouldn’t simply stand by and accept the dismal state of Jewish cemeteries and holy sites; instead, they acted sometimes against great odds and continue to play an important rule in the new Poland. One, filled with non-Jewish Poles who believe in our shared past and are taking steps to honor that past and pave the way to a greater future.