March of Remembrance commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of Brzesko ghetto, was organized on September 17, 2017. These Marches have already become the annual tradition in the city, and each year more and more Brzesko citizens come to honor the memory of their pre-war Jewish neighbours.
This year Holocaust survivor Dov Landau and representatives of 5 Jewish families of Brzesko origin have joined us for this event coming from Israel, Sweden and Germany.
The event started at one of the central Brzesko squares, plac Kazimierza Wielkiego. The city Mayor, Mr. Grzegorz Wawryka, greeted everyone, emphasizing the common Polish-Jewish history of Brzesko and the importance of honoring the memory of Jews who constituted over 60% of Brzesko population before the World War II and contributed greatly to the development of the city. Ambassador of Israel to Poland Anna Azari sent a letter to the participants of the March of Remembrance, which was read at the event. Mrs. Ambassador expressed her respect and gratitude “to all citizens of Brzesko who remember their Jewish neighbors and invest so many efforts in commemorating them.”
Following the city Mayor, the chairman of the Krakow Jewish community Mr. Tadeusz Jakubowicz, and then the representative of the Chief Rabbi of Poland in Krakow, rabbi Avi Baumol, gave their talks.
Referring to Brzesko history, rabbi Baumol shared: “Something terrible happened here 75 years ago; something beautiful is happening here today… One of the themes of the Torah is that it is never too late to do teshuva, to repent and fix a piece of history. That’s what we are witnessing here today…”
Holocaust survivor Dov Landau guided us through the streets where Jews used to live, study, work, pray. In spring 1942 all of them were forced to leave their homes and move to ghetto. Half a year later, on Rosh HaShana 1942 the ghetto was liquidated, and the surviving Jews were taken to Bełżec extermination camp. Hardly anybody survived.
We walked to the building of the former synagogue, where the plaque honoring Brzesko Jews murdered in the Holocaust is located.
Catholic priest father Franciszek Kostrzewa shared with everyone, how the image of Jews being persecuted, shot, put on trucks and sent to Bełżec has been haunting him ever since 1942. Then he prayed for Brzesko Jews with the words of psalm 94:
For the Lord will not forsake his people;
he will not abandon his heritage;
for justice will return to the righteous,
and all the upright in heart will follow it…
Rabbi Baumol together with other Jews also prayed for Brzesko Holocaust victims. The city Mayor, representatives of the city administration, Brzesko citizens and descendants of Brzesko Jews offered flowers and lit the candles by the plaque at the former synagogue.
Walking through the streets of the city, we headed towards the Jewish cemetery, where the new monument to Brzesko Jews murdered during the Holocaust was officially opened.
As many of you know, the story of this monument is quite remarkable. It all started in February 2017, when 103 year-old Mrs Janina Kaczmarowska told me about 17 Jews who had been hiding in the city, discovered the next day after the liquidation of ghetto, brought to the cemetery and shot there. Trying to locate their grave, I turned to the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich who sent to Brzesko Mr. Alexander Schwarz from the rabbinical committee on cemeteries. With the help of georadar, Mr. Schwarz confirmed the location of the mass grave and we could proceed with our plans to create a monument. Prominent artist coming from Brzesko, Mr. Damian Styrna, agreed to work on the project of the monument, and we started to raise funds for this project. During several months we managed to raise 16 970 PLN, which included the money donated by Brzesko citizens as well as by many of you, families, whose ancestors used to live in Brzesko. The final cost of the monument was 16 992 PLN, and we are so very grateful for every donation, as each offering represents something much more important than money – our joint efforts, of Jews and Poles alike, to remember and honor the past, to heal, to work together so that the horrors of the Holocaust would never be repeated…
When planning everything, we also turned to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and received several documents, which confirmed that there had been at least 3 different occasions when Jews had been murdered at the cemetery during the war. It meant that we could not (and most likely will never be able to) say for sure, who is buried in the grave discovered by Mr. Schwarz. As a result, following the advice of prof. Jonathan Webber (who’s been involved in Jewish-Polish dialogue for decades) we decided that this monument should have the general inscription honoring all Brzesko Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Hopefully next year we will put a plaque sharing more details about the history of the cemetery, including the mass murders of Jews during World War II.
And now, mere several months after I first heard the story told by Mrs. Kaczmarowska, we were standing at the cemetery, Poles and Jews, Catholic priests and Rabbis, in front of this deeply symbolical new monument, and could hardly hold back our tears.
I shared some words about the meaning of our work; there was beautiful Jewish music; Kaddish was recited and then another Krakow rabbi, Eliezer Gurary, told everyone about the traditions of Rosh HaShana and blew the shofar. Perhaps, it was for the first time in the last 75 years that the sound of the shofar could be heard in Brzesko.
Everyone had a chance to come to the monument, think with gratitude about all those murdered there during the war, put a stone or flowers, light a candle…
That was not the end of the March of Remembrance. From the cemetery we went to the regional museum, where a small exhibition dedicated to the pre-war Brzesko Jewish community was officially opened.
Although small, this exhibition provides some basic facts about the history of the Jewish community in Brzesko, tells the story of several families, shows such objects as menora, tallit, kiddush cups, mezuza, etc. (it’s mainly Dov Landau who offered these objects as a gift to the museum, including a book which belonged to his father murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz). Due to this exhibition visitors of the museum, and especially young people will be able to learn about the Jewish side of Brzesko history
Especially worth mentioning is the virtual Book of Remembrance, which at this point includes 2 400 names of Jews from Brzesko and vicinity murdered in the Holocaust, and we hope that with the time passing by we’ll be able to recover more names. We could also find 115 pictures of Brzesko Holocaust victims, and these pictures are also presented at the exhibition, on the huge poster on the wall.
Quoting rabbi Baumol, “every good deed adds light, hope, love”. Although it was raining, this day in Brzesko was surely filled with light, hope and love. And this is definitely not the end, but only the beginning of the story. I will keep you updated.
Anna Brzyska, Krakow, September 23, 2017