March of Remembrance commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the liquidation of Brzesko ghetto took place on September 27, 2015. It was for the first time that Brzesko citizens gathered so that to honor their former Jewish neighbors. The March started by the building of the synagogue at Pushkina street.
Plaque at the building of the synagogue commemorating Brzesko Holocaust victims starts with the words; “We do not know your names, but you will forever stay in our hearts.” The same inscription in Polish, Hebrew and English.
At least from the beginning of the 17th century, Poles and Jews co-created Brzesko – they worked and celebrated together, made all the decisions in the city council together. Before World War II, Jews constituted about 60% of the city’s population, but the entire Jewish community was wiped out by the German occupiers. Ghetto was established in Brzesko in spring 1942, with about 6,000 Jews from Brzesko and vicinity closed there. During multiple so-called “actions” Jews were murdered and taken to concentration camps. They were killed in the streets, houses, in the hospital. It was not a question of religion – it was enough for someone to have one Jewish grandparent, and the person would be murdered, even if they were Christian or non-believers. In September 1942, Brzesko ghetto was liquidated. Several hundred Jews were shot on the spot, and over 4,000 people were taken to the camp in Bełżec. Only a few hundred people survived the war.
It is difficult for us today to imagine the fate of these people – thousands of individual lives – men, women, old people, children – murdered only because of being Jewish. But we have no right to forget about them.
The ceremony led by Mr Krzysztof Bigaj, head of the Promotion Department in Brzesko city administration, started at 11 am. City Mayor Grzegorz Wawryka greeted everyone and shared few words about the common Polish-Jewish history of the city. Mr Tadeusz Jakubowicz, the chairman of the Jewish religious community of Krakow was the next one to speak. He thanked the audience for coming to honor the Jewish residents of the city.
Then the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians was read. ” And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love…” But love is not only about loving our families or friends. Love also manifests itself through our concern for those whom we do not necessarily like, through respect and remembrance of those who came before us…
Mrs. Ewa Platner shared only a few sentences, but they will certainly be remembered for a long time. Prz Platner’s grandmother was also in Brzesko ghetto. And her father, who managed to survive the war, for many years looked after the Jewish cemetery in Brzesko.
Mr. Bigaj read a fragment from Brzesko Chronicle about the common Polish-Jewish history of the city. Priest Józef Drabik read a psalm in memory of the Jewish community of Brzesko. And again – as it used to be before the war – Jews and Christians were standing side by side, and this unity was far more important than any divisions.
The Mayor offered flowers, and everybody had a chance to light a candle by the plaque commemorting Brzesko Jews. Participants of the March of Remembrance started their walk towards the Jewish cemetery at Czarnowiejska street. The mayor, parish priest and the chairman of Krakow Jewish community walk side by side.
We reach the cemetery, approach a common grave of about 200 Jewish martyrs murdered in the summer of 1942.
Probably, it’s time to introduce yourself. My name is Anna Brzyska. I live in Krakow, but my husband’s family comes from Brzesko, and because of it we sometimes come to this city. On 1 November last year, my husband and myself came to visit the grave of his grandparents buried at the municipal cemetery. We lit the candles, prayed, and when we left the cemetery, my husband told me about the Jewish cemetery located closeby. We decided to go there out of respect for those who had no descendants left neither in Brzesko nor anywhere else in the world.
We walked through this cemetery for over an hour and it was a very difficult experience. Forgotten graves hidden behind high bushes. It was evident that someone had cared for the cemetery before, but in the last 10-15 years, young trees had grown so dense that almost no matzevot could be seen. We decided to do something about it. We contacted the city administration, the Jewish Community in Krakow, we told our friends about the cemetery. We also started looking for information about the history of Brzesko, about the Jewish inhabitants of the city.
When learning the history of Brzesko, I realized that today it depends only on us, whether this history just goes into oblivion or becomes part of our present. We can pass on to our children what was the most precious in the past of the city – mutual respect, ability to live in peace in spite of all the differences, courage and ability to keep decency even in inhumane circumstances.
Reflecting on all that, we decided to start with something specific small and concrete. In April we came to Brzesko with a group of our friends from Krakow to clean up the Jewish cemetery. In June we came for the second time, and this time we were accompanied by several Brzesko residents. We cut bushes, collected rubbish, but we also had a feeling that in a tangible way we are touching history, that these people buried at the cemetery were starting to talk to us, telling about their lives.
And now we were standing once again at the cemetery, the end point of the March of Remembrance. We lit the candles, said a silent prayer. All of us were united by memory and respect for people whom we may have never met, but who had co-created this city and had been murdered only because of being Jewish. May their memory be an eternal blessing.
© Anna Brzyska, September 2015