Events commemorating the 80th anniversary of the extermination of the Brzesko Jewish community started on Saturday, September 10 with the visit of the descendants of Brzesko Jews to the regional museum, where on behalf of the Association “Memory and Dialog. Common History” they were welcomed by Anna Kudła and Zuzanna Peters-Musiał. Part of the permanent exhibition of the museum is dedicated to the history of Brzesko Jews. The moment when Jakob Reifen found in the Book of Remembrance the names of his relatives murdered in the Holocaust was particularly touching.
At 3.00 pm there took place the presentation of diplomas and prizes for the participants of the photo competition “Traces of the Jewish Community in Brzesko” co-organized by the association “Memory and Dialogue. Common history” and the Brzesko public library based on the original idea of Mr Daniel Nalepka.
The director of the library, Mrs Karina Legutek, presented to the audience the objectives and rules of the competition; the chairperson of the Association, Anna Brzyska, introduced the participants to the history of Brzesko Jews, and the jury member, journalist Marek Kołdras, spoke in a very moving way about the submitted photos. Brzesko deputy mayor, dr Grzegorz Brach, presented the awards to the winners – Nina Dubiel for the photo “Peaceful” and Ireneusz Węglowski for the photo “Tree of Life”, and all participants of the competition received diplomas.
The awards ceremony was followed by the opening of the post-competition exhibition prepared by Mr. Daniel Nalepka, where one could see the photos of all competition participants. The descendants of Brzesko Jews present at the event were particularly moved by this exhibition. Mr. Jakob Reifen saw his grandfather’s tombstone in one of the photos; others looked at the pictures of matzevot and Brzesko tenement houses with traces of mezuzahs – the only material trace of their former Jewish inhabitants…
A conference dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the extermination of Brzesko Jews started at 4 pm. The first speaker was Dr. Roman Gieroń from the Institute of National Remembrance, who presented a historical outline on Aktion “Reinardt” in the Krakow district. Thanks to this historical introduction, the audience could understand the broader context of the Holocaust in Brzesko and vicinity.
Dr. Anna Brzyska focused on the history of the Brzesko Jewish community – the development of this community before World War II and the fate of Brzesko Jews during the Holocaust.
The historian Lucjan Kołodziejski shared about the Jews from his village of Borzęcin, and the next presentation by Weronika Salamon, a student of Brzesko high school, was dedicated to the story of one Jewish girl from Okocim, Rifka Passler.
Karolina Korwin, Hanna Pajor and Karolina Szewczyk from the primary school in Wojakowa, shared about the destiny of Wojakowa Jews during the Holocaust and Righteous Poles who risked their lived to save them. It should be mentioned that the last two presentations were prepared on the basis of the winning papers presented at the 5th edition of the “We know your names” competition. The full texts of these papers can be found on the Association’s website.
The last speaker was Mrs Mala Meyer from Israel, who very emotionally told the story of her late mother, Sara Felsenstein, who, while being a prisoner of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, was saved by Brzesko-born Mala Zimetbaum. It was impossible to remain indifferent to this testimony.
After the conference, the exhibition “Mala Zimetbaum – the Brzesko-born heroine of Auschwitz” was opened. Due to the exhibition, this extraordinary young woman, whose heroism has been described in numerous articles, books, dramas and even an opera, is returning to her hometown. The exhibition was prepared by Anna Brzyska, and the graphic design – by Katarzyna Kostecka; it can be viewed in the Brzesko culture center till October 10.
The second day of the events commemorating the 80th anniversary of the extermination of the Brzesko Jewish community started with the March of Remembrance. It was for the eighth time that we gathered at Kazimierz Wielki Square, from which, in September 1942, the Jews of Brzesko were sent to the Bełżec extermination camp. That’s how these days were recalled by one of the few survivors, Leib Epstein:
“On the second day of Rosh Hashana 1942 – on Sunday afternoon, the Gestapo from Tarnow arrived and the liquidation action began. During the action, I was hiding outside the town and I did not see it myself. All I could hear was the incessant shooting. The action lasted two days, on Monday and Tuesday.
The Poles told me that the course of the “action” was as follows: the Gestapo men chased Jews to the marketplace, made them kneel until they gathered the entire Jewish population. Then they lined them up in fives and chased them to the Słotwina station, which is located two kilometers outside the town. At the station, the train had been already prepared. Brzesko Jews were loaded on the train and taken somewhere. Nobody returned.”
This year – for the first time after the pandemic – 94-year-old Holocaust survivor Dov Landau and descendants of several families of Brzesko Jews – the Teemans, Hartmans, Reifen and Westreichs – came to Brzesko. Many people have joined commemorative events: the consul of the Federal Republic of Germany, Mrs. Dagmar Hillebrand; Deputy Director of the Department of the Institute of National Remembrance in Krakow Dr.Michał Wenklar, Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Jewish Religious Community in Krakow Mr. Tadeusz Jakubowicz, Rabbi Eliezer Gurary, Brzesko parish priest Józef Drabik, representatives of the city council and Brzesko poviat authorities, police, cultural institutions and several schools. Scouts handed out cards with the names and photos of Holocaust victims. But first of all many Brzesko residents have joined the March of Remembrance.
Deputy Mayor Dr. Grzegorz Brach greeted everyone on behalf of the city authorities and then Mrs Iwona Leś read the letter addressed to the participants of the March of Remembrance by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich: “…Today’s Brzesko is so dedicated and committed to remembering its Jewish neighbors, remembering how Catholics and Jews built this city together and remembering that it is up to today’s citizens of Brzesko to remember and never forget the Jews of the town. Once again Brzesko is a model for all of Poland on how to maintain and develop communal memory…”
Especially moving was the testimony of Brzesko-born Dov Landau, who as a young boy witnessed the murder of his entire family, was imprisoned in 5 concentration camps, but survived, emigrated to Israel and recreated a family there.
From Kazimierz Wielki Square, we went to the synagogue building at Pushkina st. The March was led by the flagship group from the Brzesko high school.
The sounds of prayers resounded by the plaque commemorating the victims of the Holocaust from Brzesko and vicinity. Father Drabik prayed with the words of one of the psalms; Rabbi Gurary and Dov Landau recited Jewish prayers. We were all together in this memory. Deputy Mayor Grzegorz Brach, Member of the Polish Parliament Józefa Szczurek-Żelazko, Deputy Staroste of the Brzesko Poviat Maciej Podobiński, Poviat Police Commander in Brzesko insp. Bogusław Chmielarz, consul Dagmar Hillebrand, representatives of the World Union of Home Army Soldiers headed by Krzysztof Bigaj, city councilors, Dr. Wenklar, Mr. Jakubowicz, director of the Brzesko Cultural Center Ewelina Stępień, director of the Public Library Karina Legutek, representatives of the Brzesko high school and association “Memory and dialogue. Common History” offered flowers and lit candles to honor the memory of the murdered Brzesko Jews.
The next point of the March of Remembrance was the Jewish cemetery at Czarnowiejska st., where the mass graves of the victims of the Holocaust are located. We walked in silence along the road that the Jews of Brzesko had to walk when taking to the cemetery the bodies of their relatives murdered in the ghetto.
“The remaining Jews were forced to carry the bodies to their cemetery and bury them in mass graves. They performed this task together with their women and children. They dug large pits at the cemetery, gathered the bodies all over the city and carried them to the cemetery in self-made hand-barrows till late at night.
For Brzesko Jews, this duty was yet another tragic experience beyond their strength. Exhausted by fear, pain, suffering, they struggled carrying their dead ones along the side streets towards the cemetery. Surviving elderly men, women and children tried to help each other in their devoted efforts to fulfil this painful duty…” (Władysław Myśliński, 1978)
After laying flowers and lighting candles by the plaque commemorating Brzesko Holocaust victims, the participants of the March of Remembrance walked to the Jewish cemetery at Czarnowiejska st.
Information boards prepared by the Association “Memory and Dialogue. Common history.” (author of the graphic design Damian Styrna, contractors Dariusz Jaworek and Ewa Dagnan-Jaworek; project co-financed by Forum for Dialogue) were unveiled at the cemetery. Brzesko scouts gave to all the participants cards with the map of the cemetery and a short description of individual boards. This project is of particular importance because it brings back the history of the Brzesko Jewish community, its development before the war and extermination in the Holocaust. The cemetery will no longer be a silent place with incomprehensible inscriptions on tombstones. 14 information boards provide an overview of the history of Brzesko Jews, share the stories of people who played important roles in the Jewish community – such as rabbis from the Lipschitz dynasty, teacher Arie Schachter, sofer Eliezer Herbstman, shojchet Juda Kaufman – and in the general community the town (longtime councilor Abe Lieber and mayor Henoch Klapholz); two information boards tell the story of the extermination of Brzesko Jews. The texts on the boards are in 2 languages, Polish and English, and have QR codes redirecting to the Association’s website (www.brzesko-briegel.pl/en), where one can find longer articles devoted to these topics.
Information boards were officially unveiled by the Deputy Mayor Dr. Grzegorz Brach and Brzesko-born Holocaust survivor Dov Landau.
After unveiling the information boards, we moved to the grave of Chaim Jakob (Mundek) and Cyla Strauber, which since 2017 has been marked by a simple wooden matzeva put up by the “Forgotten” foundation. Representative of the Central Rabbinical Commission on Jewish Cemeteries, Mr. Aleksander Schwarz located this grave thanks to the testimony of the late Janina Kaczmarowska, who had been friends with Mundek and Cila before the war and had witnessed their death and burial in the cemetery. Now, 80 years after the spouses had been shot by the Germans, the burial place of Mundek and Cyla has been properly commemorated. It became possible thanks to the cooperation between our Association, the “Forgotten” Foundation and “The Matzevah” Foundation. You can read more about the tragic love and death of Mundek and Cyla here: https://brzesko-briegel.pl/en/2022/04/05/2-mundek-and-cyla-strauber/
Perhaps the most touching part of the commemorative events was the ceremony by the mass graves. Descendants of several Jewish families from Brzesko read the names of their murdered relatives, and then the director of the Brzesko high school, Ryszard Ostrowski, read the names of 57 Jewish students of his school murdered during the war. Together, it was only 97 names out of several thousand Jews from Brzesko and Brzesko poviat murdered during the Holocaust years, but these people – and due to them also other Holocaust victims – ceased to be numbers, became real people. Mr. Landau talked about his beautiful aunt Mirla, who was shot in Brzesko, Jehuda Hartman’s voice trembled when he read the names of 7-year-old Maxi, 5-year-old Bubi and 3-year-old Herschl Zimetbaum murdered in Auschwitz…
Voices of praying Jews resounded over the cemetery, Karolina Kotra played the violin, and we had some quite time to think about all the murdered. May their souls be bound in the bundle of life.
When commemorating the murdered Jewish community of Brzesko, we want to remember not only the tragic death, but also lives of people who lived in Brzesko for several centuries – grew up, went to schools, got married, started families, worked, celebrated, dreamed of a better life for their children and grandchildren. That is why it was already for the fourth time that we organized an evening of Jewish culture this year.
Similar to previous years, Jewish dishes cooked by the members of the Association were waiting for everyone in the building of the Municipal Culture Center. Unfortunately, we do not have photos from this part of the event, but I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to the members of our Association. The board includes Anna Brzyska, vice-president Anna Kudła, who has been responsible for organizing many aspects of this year’s events, and treasurer Bogdan Brzyski, who oversees the financial side of our activities. In addition, the Association includes: Damian Styrna – the author of the graphic projects of all our commemorations, Agnieszka Herbert-Styrna, Zuzanna Peters-Musiał, Małgorzata Cuber, Bernadeta Styczeń, Magdalena Sowa, Dorota Pstrąg, Mieszko Musiał, Agnieszka Musiał, Grzegorz Bach and Bogusław Sambor. Most of these people do not need to be introduced to Brzesko residents.
Having tasted various Jewish cookies, everybody moved to the auditorium, where a concert of klezmer music was to begin. Before that happened, however, we had a surprise prepared especially for the descendants of Brzesko Jews. Dov Landau last saw his parents, siblings and grandparents 80 years ago; the descendants of the Teeman, Hartman-Zimetbaum and Reifen families never saw their murdered relatives. And now, thanks to Daniel nalepka’s many hours of work, instead of old faded photos, we saw these people’s live faces on the big screen – smiling, looking at us. These short animations, after many decades of non-existence, as if brought the murdered Brzesko Jews back to life.
And the culmination of this day full of emotions was the concert of the Klezmorim Trio band – singing and playing the viola by Karolina Stasiowska, the accordion by Marcin Wiercioch, the double bass by Piotr Poludniak. Maybe I’ll just say that even a former prisoner of 5 concentration camps, 94-year-old Mr. Landau could not help but dance. (Sorry for the quality of the video made with my mobile phone, but at least I could record not only a piece of the Klezmorim Trio performance, but also Dov Landau dancing.)
Finally, I would like to thank once again all those present at the 80th anniversary of the extermination of Brzesko Jews and to all the organizers of these commemorative events:
- Members of the Associaiton “Memory and dialogue. Common history” – our joint efforts, taking care of all the details, allowed us to create something very special and moving;
- Brzesko Town Hall, mayor Tomasz Latocha, deputy mayor Grzegorz Brach, employees of the strategy and development department of the Town Hall, and especially Iwona Leś for organizing the March of Remembrance and general support for our activities;
- The Poviat and City Public Library in Brzesko, the director of the library Karina Legutek and Monika Sacha for the co-organization of the photo competition, post-competition exhibition and conference dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the extermination of Brzesko Jews;
- Municipal Cultural Center in Brzesko, its director Ewelina Stępień and all employees for providing technical support of the events, and Katarzyna Kostecka for preparing the graphic design of the exhibition dedicated to Mala Zimetbaum;
- Brzesko high school, its director Ryszard Ostrowski and school youth for participation in the March of Remembrance; for remembering the Jewish students of the school murdered in the Holocaust; for the fact that the Brzesko high school is truly a School of Dialogue;
- scouts from the Brzesko primary school, who devotedly helped with the organization of the March of Remembrance;
- graphic artist Daniel Nalepka, who selflessly dedicated many hours of work and his heart to the post-competition exhibition “Traces of memoryt” and exceptionally moving short animations based on the photos of murdered relatives of the descendants of Brzesko Jews who came to our events;
This is a tragic anniversary, we remember – and we will remember – the thousands of victims of the Holocaust. However, life always triumphs death, and the best proof of this – Dov Landau and the descendants who every year come to the hometown of their ancestors.
Photos used in this article come from Bogusław Hajduk, Krzysztof Wasyłek and from the websites of the Brzesko Town Hall, the Poviat and City Public Library in Brzesko and the Brzesko the Municipal Culture Center.
© Anna Brzyska, 2022