The Visible

Everyone is gone, everything is destroyed, but still the traces are
ever visible.

It is quite possible to walk through Piotrków Trybunalski and see no
sign of a former thriving Jewish community that made up half of the 36,000 inhabitants that lived there in 1939.  There is not a single Jewish
soul living there today.  Gone are the Kosher butchers, the store
fronts with Yiddish signage, mezuzot on door posts, children running in
the streets with kippahs and pehas.  That is a generation lost.  But
once you enquire, even the empty spaces are part of a visible Jewish
past.  ‘Rabbi Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel used to live in a
tenement building just there!’ Jacek Bykowski says as he waves his arm
generally in the direction of what looks like an overgrown building lot.
Unlike Hungary, there is a visible absence.

Bykowski is grey-haired with steel cut Slavic
features, one of many Poles who today are the keepers of
memory.  Without moving more than two blocks he is able to point to
the former ghetto, the Umschlagplatz where Jews were deported to
Treblinka, and the road to the nearby forest where more than 800 Jews were shot into graves dug by fellow Jews.

Bykowski takes us into the former Great Synagogue, which today serves
as the town library.  It feels wrong to be sitting in rows of desks,
surrounded by book stacks in what would have been the
sanctuary.  Only the high ceiling and the windows give away its
former purpose.  It feels uncomfortable being there, like a low-
grade form of collaboration.  I try to justify the fact that it is a
community building and therefore has useful purpose. At least it has not
been turned into a nightclub I reassure myself.  I feel better momentarily, but notice my colleague is crying.  The weight of memory is overwhelming at times.

We move through to what was the Bet Midrash, the prayer house next
door.  It is a cheerful little children’s library, with bright colors
and tight stacks of books.  ‘The only remnant of its Jewish past’
explains Bykowski, ‘is the mural of the Ten Commandments which states
clearly in Hebrew “Thou shalt not kill”. Bullet holes riddle the mural.

Just a few weeks ago I interviewed Holocaust Survivor Ben Helfgott
for the USC Shoah Foundation archive.  Ben was from Piotrków and
survived the ghetto.  His mother Sara and sister Leila were taken to
that very room just before they were marched out of the town and shot on December 19, 1942.  “Thou shalt not kill” is still visible. So are
the bullet holes around it.  Bykowski informs us that the room is to
be re-dedicated in years to come as the Irena Sendler Dialogue
Center.  I wonder if it is not too late for dialogue. But Harry Krakowski,
who is not one for talking, makes the first contribution to dialogue –
literally – and gives a donation for the new center in memory of his
father and all the children condemned to death in what is now the children’s library. I am impressed with Harry, not for the donation, but for the trust he invests in Bykowski.  He does not ask questions or doubt his integrity, he simply starts working in partnership.

We move from Piotrków to Zgierz.  Marsha Dworkin, a
participant in our mission to Hungary and Poland, tells me that her cousin once went to visit the family home there, ‘but there is nothing there to see.’ Her family had all come from Zgierz.  Some had made it to the United States before the war.  Most were murdered during the
Holocaust.  We park up in the Stare Miasto. – the old town.  Rickety wooden houses and a fine painted town hall are all signs of the past.  There is nothing to see that connects directly to Marsha’s past and so she stands for a photo by the large town map on which I notice a small green patch with the tiny letters Cmentarz żydowski – Jewish Cemetery.  We set out to find it, down a twisting lane on the edge of the Stare Miasto scrubland with white fence pillars.  ‘I think I see Stars of David,’ gasps Marsha.  The fence around what was the cemetery no longer protects any headstones.  There are no names, no dates of birth or death – it is an empty space with a simple memorial.  Marsha begins to cry. ‘It is so important to have a connection. All those generations behind me came from here. I am rooted here too.’ Generations of Jews have left their indelible mark on time.

It was a hard day confronting ghosts of the past, so we decide to go
out to forget for just an hour or two.  We head to the Czerwony
Wieprz – the Red Pig, a restaurant named after the derogatory term for a
communist (another invisible strand woven into the memory of Polish
society).  We have fun.  Most of the group have relatives
murdered during the Holocaust, the rest of us work with the Holocaust
everyday professionally.  We had earned a laugh.  The next morning I
learned that Czerwony Weirpz is right by the place where the bridge used to cross the ghetto.  The restaurant building is post-war, as the Warsaw ghetto area was flattened by the Nazis, but on that very spot there was a restaurant where artists such as Władysław Szpilman depicted in The Pianist, used to play.  Again I felt like a low-grade collaborator, not for having fun, but for not knowing where I was.  If I who care abut this subject matter don’t see the visible absence, I wonder what the local poles know.

The same afternoon we were in class again, this time in Warsaw. Students at the high school Plac Stanisława Małachowskiego 1 are being taught by Jacek Konik.  They have spent more than 90 hours investigating the topography of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, working with documents, maps and testimony to find the places on the current landscape where the uprising took place.  To my surprise, they actually do know where the visible absence of the ghetto lies.  They know what ghetto streets map onto the current topography of Warsaw and in detail know where the main events of the Uprising took place.  I listen as they discuss which survivor in the USC Shoah Foundation archive is describing the attack in Jürgen Stroop’s infamous report on the ghetto uprising and which street and building it took place near.  Zach Rubin tells me ‘you realize these kids are writing history and that in 500 years we will come back to their work as a document in its own right.’

More keepers of memory.


About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.