A Most Extraordinary Family: A Portrait of Modern Poland

She does not speak English and I do not speak Polish.  How did we meet? Who initiated the contact? My memory constantly fails me when it comes to details.  Urszula Antosz-Rekucka and I have only known each other for just over two years, but our bonds go back nearly a century.

I have been to Poland more times than I can remember.  My parents are survivors, and for nearly three decades, I have been driven to find out what life was like before the War.  I have met with scholars, community leaders, rabbis and scores of wonderful people.  I always declared that whatever trip I would take would be my last one, but my appetite is never sated, and each journey is cathartic.  The key of going to Eastern Europe is to have no expectations and to keep an open mind and then life changing events will happen without your realizing it.

Aerial view of Mszana Dolna. Breathtakingly beautiful.

Then came correspondences with Urszula Antosz-Rekucka.  I do not remember who started the exchanges, but this much I know.  Urszula Antosz-Rekucka is a teacher in Mszana Dolna.  Mszana Dolna, the village where my mother grew up, is south of Krakow in Galicia, on the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.  To say the beauty of this region puts the State of Vermont to shame is an understatement.  For over twenty years Urszula Antosz-Rekucka passionately dedicated herself to teach her students and Mszanskas about Jewish life before the war, and its lingering presence to this day.

Urszula Antosz-Rekucka is not only a teacher, but a catechist.  She and her family are devout Catholics.  She is on a mission to reassemble the fragments of life that existed in Mszana Dolna and her country before the war.  She is actively finding out what it means to be Polish. That identity was denied to the Polish people for five decades, since the occupation by the Nazis and then by the Communists.

She discovered that to understand Poland, through the vehicle of Mszana Dolna, one had to uncover the integral Jewish component of this town  She only had fragments to work with.

The only photograph of the synagogue in Mszana Dolna, 1920s or 1930s. In our opinion This is most probably the Purim festival – triangular hats of the children indicates that. Photograph from the town library collection through the offices of Town Hall of Mszana Dolna.

After all, a lot of documents, photos and artifacts were destroyed during the six decades after the War.

She, with the support of her family, were stalwart in their efforts.  She did her own research, and when she heard of original Mszanskas or their children living abroad, she reached out to us with a list of seemingly simple questions asking about our connections and if we have any photographs or artifacts.

Her questions were really not so simple.  I knew many of the answers, but “pumped” Mom for information and went to Israel to meet with my cousins in order to help Urszula further piece the puzzle.  She was pleased, but of course being an educator, she had even more questions.

She is not just a researcher.  Over the years, she has shared her findings with her students.  Her students were given assignments to find out more about Judaism as it relates top Mszana Dolna.  It was an exercise in identity as well as what it means to belong to a community.

Urszula’s students celebrating Purim.sm and its relationship to life in Mszana Dolna.  It was an exercise in finding out about self as well as community.

Her students, along with Urszula Antosz-Rekucka’s family regularly cleaned up the two mass grave sites, tried to restore the cemetery as much as possible, and celebrated the Jewish holidays.

Students valiantly restoring headstones in Jewish cemetary

Urszula Antosz-Rekucka has received numerous national teaching awards including, in

Urszula Antosz-Rekucka receiving the prestigious Father Stanisław Musiał Award, March 2018. Pictured on the left is her daughter Rachela.

March 2018, the prestigious Father Stanisław Musiał Award  granted to those who rendered meritorious Christian-Polish-Jewish dialogue.

Then at the last minute, in August 2018, I decided to attend the  International Commemorative  Conference of Yiddish Language and Culture in Czernowitz, Ukraine.  I figured this was a most opportune time to make a stopover in Poland to finally meet this extraordinary woman and her family.

Urszula was excited to finally meet her “pen pal.” She invited me to join the family for a Sunday lunch but had the sensitivity to ask whether I kept kosher.  I assured her that as long as shellfish or pork was not served, we could break bread together.

It was a memorable meal, one of two that I experienced in my lifetime. Urszula is an unbelievable cook.  The homemade compote and apple pie, as well as cold borscht and salads were from the fruits and produce of her garden. Loving to cook myself, Urszula and I discussed Polish culinary skills at length.

Breaking bread with the Antosz-Rekucka family
Photo (left to right): Justyna Arabska, Jakub Antosz-Rekuck(Son), Urszula Antosz-Rekucka, , Marek Rekucki (husband), Grandma and Rachela Antosz-Rekucka (daughter)
“Oh, how good, how pleasant it is for brothers to live together in harmony” – Psalm 133
שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד:
הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים– שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד.

For hours Urszula, her husband Marek Rekucki, her son Jakub Antosz-Rekucki, daughter Rachela Antosz-Rekucka and Jakub’s girlfriend, Justyna Arabska  spoke about the family’s work over the years.  They were fully supportive of Urszula and were instrumental in setting up memorial markers throughout the town, very similar to the German model.   There is a big sign with photos denoting “Memory Way,” the path that goes to the main mass grave.  The town square has a large sign showing how it used to be a market with photos.   I pointed out the house where my uncle lived, and still standing, as we were walking around town.

Town Square, site of the old Jewish Market Square. The house facing us belonged to the Amsterdams, my mother’s uncle’s family.
Urszula (c) with daughter, Rachela Antosz-Rekucka (L) and son, Antosz-Rekucki (r) standing at the beginning of the path leading to the mass grave. They were instrumental in having the sign mark the place. If you look closely, there is a photo of them on the right hand corner of the sign observing a past memorial.

She showed me all of these markers.  In addition, we went to the mass graves where I chanted out loud “El Moleh Rachamim.”  I showed them (and they knew from our correspondences), the property where my mother lived, the site of the old synagogue. I filled them, with pointing out the sites, of my mother’s stories of Mszana Dolna.  We were further piecing together the fragments and remnants of life.

The school in the background was the site of the synagogue that was burned down by the Nazis.Urszula (l) and her family are lobbying to create a relevant memorial plaque for that site.

 

That is not to say that there was great push-back to the Rekucki family efforts.  For years, they have been trying to get a plaque showing where the old synagogue, that the Nazis burned down, stood.  A school now stands in that site.  Urszula reached out to us, the expatriate community of Mszanskas, for help.  The marker is still not up, but she and her family are soft-spoken, but determined.

Even her national awards have not fully been publicized in town.  Nevertheless, Urszula continues to do what must be done in order to preserve memory.  How could she not?  As she pulls into the road in front of her house every morning, she is fully aware

that specific road was constructed during the War by Jewish Slave Laborers.

Photo of Urszula (l) and I in front of her house. That road was new at the time and constructed by Jewish slave laborers under the Nazis.

Memory also driven her to create the special FaceBook page called “Sztetl Mszana Dolna.”

Urszula is humble in her ways.  She does not know I am writing this blog about her and her beautiful family.  She, and so many like her and her family give me hope, not only in mankind, but with the Polish people.  She, and so many like her, drive me to return to the “Old Country”, and even if I can, find a way to reside in that country.  Poland, as well the Jewish community in Poland, which I have blogged about, is making history.  This extraordinary family is a key part of that change.  I am proud she reached out to me.  Yes, I now remember, Urszula reached out to me.

A wreath from the 75th anniversary, offered by Sądecki Sztetl, with a moving inscription: “If we forget about them, may God forget about us”. Saul took a picture of it for his family. He gives his thanks to everybody who is determined to preserve memory.
With Urszula’s family in front of what was the stable on the main church grounds. Before Passover, Saul’s mother and other young girls would watch over the milking the cows in preparation for the holiday.
Urszula’s students memorializing the 22 Jews murdered at that site, including Saul’s uncle.
About the Author
For over twenty-five years, Saul passionately devoted and immersed himself studying Jewish life in interwar Europe. Overnight, not only did this 1000-year-old community vanish, but so did its complex communal infrastructure. What piqued Saul Chapnick’s interest and curiosity was finding out exactly what it is that disappeared. In talking to politicians, survivors, scholars, Jewish communal leaders from Eastern Europe, and making trips there, Saul Chapnick was able to uncover the richness and the tragedy of interwar Jewish life in Europe. At the same time, Mr. Chapnick has discovered a rebirth of Jewish life in his parents’ and ancestors’ native land, Poland. Saul Chapnick has talked in various venues such as Limmud whether Yiddish still has relevance today, and has also spoke about the contemporary themes of the 19th and 20th century Yiddish writers and musicians. He also prepares the adult participants of The March for the Living about modern day Jewish Poland
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