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Poles and Jews restore the Jewish memory of Brzostek

Those who remember the shootings of the town's 260 Jews are mostly dead, but that hasn't stopped the new generation from memorializing the victims

Jews have not lived in Brzostek in southern Poland for more than 70 years, but Mayor Leszek Bieniek clearly welcomes the Brzostek Jewish Heritage Project’s restoration of Jewish memory to the town.

Starting in 2009, Poles and Jews have collaborated closely on a number of initiatives. In that year, the Jewish cemetery was restored and rededicated, and a memorial was erected. A small book was published in Polish on the Jewish history of the town, including a list of all the Jews buried in the cemetery, fruit of research by a local historian. A plaque in memory of the Jews of the town – “its rabbis, shopkeepers, teachers, artisans, and others” — was installed in the town square. Even the town map was reprinted, to show the location of the newly restored cemetery. Perhaps most importantly for educating a new generation, an annual school-leaving prize was established in memory of the Jews of Brzostek, with an associated educational program.

(Photo by Wojciech Kobylanski)
(Photo by Wojciech Kobylanski)

Mayor Bieniek and Town Secretary Łucyna Pruchnik have facilitated all these initiatives personally. They host Jewish visitors in their offices and maintain contact with them when they leave. Mrs Pruchnik’s daughter helps with the English.

If memorializing Jewish life was the focus of the first stage of the project in 2009, the key element of the second stage, completed in June 2012, was memorializing where it came to a tragic end. For 70 years, the mass grave has remained hidden from view. The Germans chose a site deep in the Podzamce forest, just outside the nearby town of Kołaczyce. Those who remember the shootings of the 260 Jews from Brzostek, Kołaczyce, and surrounding villages are mostly dead; local memory of the atrocity, apparently perpetrated by only three Germans, has long since faded.

Now, thanks to the Brzostek Jewish Heritage Project, working together with Mayor Bienik of Brzostek and Mayor Małgorzata Salacha of Kołaczyce, that memory is being passed to a new generation. The full extent of the mass grave has been paved, a properly signposted track created, and a memorial erected. It was dedicated on June 17 with the participation of Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Deacon of the Parish of Brzostek Fr. Dr Jan Cebulak, and Parish Priest of Kołaczyce, Fr. Jan Sabat. The hour-long ceremony was attended by the mayors of Brzostek, Kołaczyce, and other towns; close to 50 descendants of Brzostek Jews from nine countries; and a large crowd of local adults and young people. They wept openly as the names of the families that were murdered there were intoned, one by one, in the traditional Jewish memorial prayer. They wept again as the sound of the shofar, hinting at the future resurrection of the dead, reverberated through the forest.

(Photo by Wojciech Kobylanski)
(Photo by Wojciech Kobylanski)

Three other ceremonies organized by the Brzostek Jewish Heritage Project also took place that day. Two new memorial plaques were dedicated in the Jewish cemetery, a site that, until it was fenced and rededicated in June 2009, had been just an empty field. The act of fencing it encouraged local people to return stolen headstones; by the time of the rededication some 50 stones were standing upright. This year’s ceremony continued the process, with descendants of Brzostek families coming from France and the United States to memorialize their dead. Those attending included two survivors who had been in Brzostek during the war: Ruth Wachner Pagirsky, now of New York; and Mark Schonwetter, now of New Jersey. Fencing the cemetery was a Jewish initiative, but it was the public encouragement by the mayor and the priest to return the headstones that made it once again a site of active memorialization rather than just a relic of the past. Local schoolchildren help maintain the site; it has become an integral part of the town, a site shown with pride to visitors from around the world.

In a second ceremony, this time in the Catholic cemetery, a new memorial was dedicated to the memory of a Polish woman, Maria Jałowiec, who had saved the lives of two Jewish women by hiding them for two years. The memorial was the initiative of Irving Wallach of Sydney, Australia, and Sabina Wallach of San Diego, California, born after the war to one of the women she had saved. Both travelled to Brzostek for the ceremony, which was conducted in the presence of the Australian Ambassador Joan Dunn, Wallach family members from six countries, and Maria Jałowiec’s grandson Tadeusz. Now a grandfather himself, as an eight-year-old boy he had kept his grandma’s secret about the Jews she was hiding in the barn. Irving Wallach told his mother’s story, praised Maria Jałowiec as deserving to be called a Righteous Gentile, and said he would initiate the process of recognition with Yad Vashem. Prayers were recited by the chief rabbi and the deacon of the Parish of Brzostek. Tadeusz Jałowiec’s face radiated pleasure at the belated recognition for his beloved grandma.

(Photo by Wojciech Kobylanski)
(Photo by Wojciech Kobylanski)

The third ceremony, in the Brzostek Middle School, followed a rousing cultural performance in memory of the Jews of Brzostek that culminated in the award of the fourth annual Jews of Brzostek Memorial Prize. The prize was initiated to help young people gain an awareness of the Jews who had lived in the town and how the Germans had murdered them and three million other Polish Jews. The school entered wholeheartedly into this project, as demonstrated by a carefully prepared exhibition created by pupils.

The rededication of the mass grave was the last ceremony of the day. The fact that it was broadcast by an internet TV station to local people living in England and the USA underscored the consistent interest shown in the project by local authorities — the mayors and their staff, the priests, and the teachers — and their encouragement to local people to identify with it.

The Brzostek Jewish Heritage Project is an initiative of the Webber and Tager families of England, both with roots in Brzostek. It is represented in Poland by Jonathan Webber of Oxford, now a professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, working together with Mr. Adam Bartosz of the Tarnow Committee for the Protection of Monuments of Jewish Culture.

About the Author
Connie Webber is the managing editor of the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in Oxford