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Never too late to say 'Thank you'
Poles saved remnants of Jewish culture
By RUTH E. GRUBER
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
September 12, 2000
KRAKOW, PolandKatarzyna Bielawska organized local schoolchildren to clear
up and fence the abandoned and overgrown Jewish cemetery in the small Polish
town of Narewka.
The cover of a book written by a non-Jewish Pole on Jews in the Bialystock
region before the Holocaust. Tomasz Wisniewski received an award from Jewish
groups for his work in preserving Jewish culture in Poland.
Ewa Lesniewska created a unique exhibition of Judaica and Jewish history in
the renovated former synagogue in the town of Leczna.
Krzysztof Guminski and his family found the lost manuscript of a diary written
in the Lodz Ghetto during World War II, traced the author's daughter, preserved
the manuscript and arranged for its publication.
Bielawska, Rutkowski and the Guminski family are Roman Catholic Poles who have
dedicated parts of their lives to preserving and honoring Jewish heritage.
They, and four other people like them, were honored this summer by the Israeli
Embassy and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation at a ceremony held at the conclusion
of Krakow's annual Festival of Jewish Culture.
It was the third year in a row that such awards were presented.
"It was great," Michael Traison, an American Jewish lawyer who spearheaded
the effort to honor Poles involved in preserving Jewish heritage, said after
the ceremony. "Next year we will present certificates of recognition to
eight more people," he said. "I am sure it makes a difference."
Traison, who lives in Detroit, has spent much time during the past decade in
Poland on business. He developed the idea of the awards to honor people he met
during his trips around the country.
On such trips, he made it a point to visit the synagogues, abandoned cemeteries
and old shtetls that remained as haunting stone witnesses to the rich Jewish
heritage that was wiped out in the Holocaust.
"I've met many Poles who, at their own expense, endeavor to save the remains
of the Jewish culture," Traison said at the time the first awards were
presented, in 1998.
"Their efforts are not even rewarded with the words 'thank you.' Frequently
these people don't know about each other. I wanted Jews to learn about them.
I wanted somebody to tell them thank you."
During the past three years, awards have been presented to more than three dozen
people throughout Poland. The majority became involved by cleaning up and restoring
some of the hundreds of Poland's abandoned, overgrown and sometimes vandalized
Others wrote books on local Jewish history or retrieved tombstones from refuse
dumps or sites where they had been used as building material.
Honoree Krzysztof Czyzewski established a foundation called Borderlands in the
town of Sejny that is dedicated to promoting the cultures of various Central
European minorities. The foundation is situated in a renovated synagogue and
Jewish school, and fosters exhibits, seminars and even a klezmer band.
Some of the laureates encountered hostility from local people, had their motives
questioned by foreigners or were harassed by police during the Communist era
for their activities.
Polish Jewish writer Konstanty Gebert described the honorees as "rescuers
of Atlantis," referring to the legendary island that sunk into the ocean.
"Listening to these rescuers of Atlantis," he wrote in the Polish
Jewish monthly Midrasz, "one will notice no cheap sentimentality, no superficial
fascination with Jewish exotica, no 'fiddler on the roof' syndrome. These people
simply do what they think is right."
Jews lived in Poland for 1,000 years, and there were 3.5 million Jews in the
country on the eve of World War II, making up about 10 percent of the population.
Some 3 million were killed in the Shoah.
Poland's postwar Communist regime made Jewish history and culture virtually
taboo. In 1968, the government launched an anti-Semitic campaign that forced
most remaining Jews in Poland to leave the country.
Many of the Poles honored over the past three years for their efforts in preserving
and honoring Jewish heritage began their work as a means of counteracting
Communist denial-"filling in the blank spaces" in Communist history
books. Their personal history is often wrapped up with the development of their
interest in Jewish history.
Tomasz Wisniewski, for example, a journalist in Bialystok, was honored for his
work in the first round of awards, in 1998.
Poland's martial law regime jailed Wisniewski in 1982 for his underground anti-Communist
activities. He discovered his region's rich Jewish history when he came across
a book on the Holocaust in the prison library.
Once out of prison, Wisniewski tried to learn more. He found no books about
the Jews of Bialystok in the public library and nowhere to study Jewish history
or Jewish subjects, so he began his own investigations.
Barred from many jobs because of his dissident politics, he managed to convince
a local newspaper to let him publish brief articles about Bialystok's Jewish
history. He called these articles "Postcards From Atlantis," and wrote
more than 100 of them.
"Without knowing much, I tried to tell the story of what before the war
was practically a Jewish city," he said. "Soon, elderly people and
even a few Jews began to seek me out at the news office. I talked with them
for hours, I taped these conversations, I roamed through the city. They showed
me the buildings of old prewar Jewish schools. At the same time, I read, read,
read, all that I could get my hands on."
Like many other award recipients, Wisniewski said he felt an emotional obligation
to carry out this work.
"The history of the Jews of Bialystok is not just history for me,"
he said. "It is also the present. The history of the Jews in Bialystok,
and of Polish Jews in general, is a major part of Polish history."
Rediscovering Jewish history and culture, and reintegrating it as part of general
Polish history, is a means, he said, toward creating a truly democratic post-Communist
"In Polish bookstores there are many, many books on Polish Jews now and
there is a big, authentic interest in the history of the Jews," he said.
"This makes me happy because it is as if the Polish Jews 'had returned'
in a metaphorical sense to Poland. Today, though, the main scope is to unmask
the many half-truths and prejudices that uselessly divide Jews and Poles."
© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced
without written permission.
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