In the beginning of September we hosted in Brzesko an exceptionally large group of descendants of Brzesko Jews who came to the hometown of their ancestors so that to take part in the Shabbaton – to celebrate Jewish life in Brzesko and join the March of Remembrance on the anniversary of the liquidation of the Brzesko ghetto.
Most of the descendants came to Brzesko in the evening of Thursday, September 7, and on Friday morning we set off on a tour in the footsteps of their ancestors.
When in the Brzesko museum, we talked about the history of Brzesko Jews, and probably Prof. Charles Weiss was particularly moved by the exhibition as it was him who several years ago had donated to the museum fantastic 1929 photos of Brzesko made by his father, prof. Charles (Schaje) Weiss.
And when we approached our Wall of Remembrance with the names of Brzesko Jews murdered in the Holocaust, each member of the group found their relatives on this long list. May the memory of all Holocaust victims be an eternal blessing.
Then there was a walk through the streets of Brzesko, stories about Jewish families who used to live in the town before the war. And our 95-year-old Holocaust Survivor, Dov Landau, shared his memories of the pre-war life in Brzesko.
After the general tour of Brzesko, we came to the new Jewish cemetery at Czarnowiejska street. It was so deeply moving – to witness such a tangible recovery of roots by our guests. We managed to locate 28 tombstones belonging to the ancestors of those who came to Brzesko this year.
That’s what it looks like to recreate the bond with your family history and pass this history on to the next generations. Dov Landau came to Brzesko together with his 22-year-old great-grandson; 13 members of the Sternreich family represented 3 generations, grandparents, parents and children. We are proud and grateful that it’s been already for over 8 years that our Association has been accompanying descendants of Brzesko Jews in rediscovering their families’ history, rebuilding lost ties.
On Friday afternoon, the group of descendants had a chance to meet students of the Brzesko high school involved in commemoration of the town’s pre-war Jewish community.
At the beginning, the school principal, Mr Ryszard Ostrowski shared few words about his school, and the Polish language teacher and the member of our Association Bernadeta Styczeń spoke about the participation of her students in various ‘School of Dialogue’ programs. Students Weronika Salamon and Kamila Nycz presented their paper dedicated to Ryfka Passler, and it was particularly moving for Lynn Rosen and her son Scott present in the audience. Last year the girls submitted their paper “History of Ryfka Passler and her family” for our “We know the names” project; this article was later published on our website in both Polish and English.
Back then we already knew that not only Ryfka and her parents were murdered in the Holocaust, but also her seven siblings. Leiser (Leon) Passler, Ryfka’s surviving brother, had emigrated to the USA after the war and the students had not been able to locate his family. However, in mid-June, we were contacted by the daughter of this surviving brother, Mrs Lynn Rosen, who knew very little about her family history and came across the article published on our website by typing her father’s name into google. Just one week later, Mrs Rosen decided to join our commemorative events in September, and on Friday she could meet Kamila and Veronika, as well as Mr and Mrs Pajor – it’s this family that had kept a memento of the murdered Ryfka Passler. I don’t think I need to explain how moving this meeting was.
Descendants and students from the Brzesko high school had the opportunity to get to know each other, and after a short break there was a meeting with members of our Association.
The work on commemoration of the pre-war Jewish community of Brzesko and vicinity would not be possible without the joint efforts of many people. Members of our Association Anna Kudła, Bogdan Brzyski, Damian Styrna, Bernadeta Styczeń, Magdalena Sowa, Dorota Pstrąg, Zuzanna Peters-Musiał, Agnieszka Herbert-Styrna were especially involved in the preparation of this year’s commemorative events. We had the opportunity to talk about our work and the reasons for us to be involved in it. Descendants shared about the history of their families, and what their coming to Brzesko means for them.
Perhaps I will quote here the words of Anshel Pfeffer. Anshel spoke about the fact that all descendants of Holocaust survivors carry trauma within them. Most of their ancestors were murdered in Poland – in ghettos, in German concentration camps. Very often, their parents or grandparents were the only survivors out of large pre-war families. The war experiences were so painful for them that they preferred never to talk to their children not only about the war, but also about pre-war life in Poland, even more so because of the fact that many of them had also very difficult experiences with their Catholic neighbours when they returned to their homes after the war. When emigrating, they wanted to leave everything behind; they perceived Poland as one huge Jewish cemetery. And this trauma is still being passed on to the next generations of descendants.
Anshel went on to say that our work helps to heal this trauma, that by rebuilding the ties, by reconnecting to the hometown of their ancestors and meeting people who care about this Jewish history, the descendants not only liberate themselves from the burden of pain, anger and bitterness, but also begin to see Poland in a completely different way. We are deeply grateful that we can be part of this healing.
On Friday evening we celebrated Shabbat together with the descendants of Brzesko Jews. Shabbat prayers and songs once again could be heard in the town.
When back in February Dina Feldman first suggested me to organize Shabbaton in Brzesko, I immediately thought of Dov Landau who had talked so many times about the way their family had celebrated Shabbat in Brzesko before the war. He used to go together with his father and brothers to Shabbat services at the Hasidic synagogue on Berka Joselewicza street. And on Saturdays, Rabbi Moshe Lipschitz invited them to his house. They would sit at the Shabbat table and sing zmirot.
Dov Landau has been coming to Poland regularly for many years. He’s been always showing Jewish youth not only the concentration camps where Jews had been murdered, but also his hometown, the place of his happy childhood. And yet Dov could never imagine that he would once again have a chance to celebrate Shabbat in Brzesko together with other Jews.
While listening to the prayers and songs, I couldn’t help but think that 85 years ago these prayers could have been heard in more than half of the houses in Brzesko. And it seemed that not only those present at the service were praying and singing – one could feel the presence of all the Jews who had lived in Brzesko for several centuries. You can see a short fragment of the Kabbalat Shabbat service here:
And after the service, there was a gala kosher dinner for 52 people, with a blessing over wine, reflections on the weekly Torah portion, good food, singing and sharing until late in the evening. We cannot change the past or bring the murdered back to life, but our joint efforts bear witness to life, which always triumphs over death.
On Saturday afternoon, we organized a unique meeting at the Brzesko Culture Center together with the Municipal Public Library.
At the beginning, Mr. Janusz Mytkowicz – the artist of not only great talent, but also very special sensitivity – presented his paintings dedicated to Brzesko Jews. Nobody could remain indifferent to these images, which in such a real way evoke the people who once lived in Brzesko. In his paintings, Mr. Mytkowicz often refers to the events that actually took place: the Jew Juma, who had been hiding in the Garbatka forest, but was discovered and shot; the experiences of Dov Landau, who managed to escape from the German who was shooting at him during the action in the Brzesko ghetto…
Later, historian Lucjan Kołodziejski talked about his research of the history of the Sternreich family, which had lived in Borzęcin for several generations. This presentation was especially important as 13 descendants of the Sternreichs came to Brzesko this year.
For the next hour, the descendants shared memories of their Brzesko-born ancestors and we felt as if we returned to Brzesko from the beginning of the 20th century, to the everyday life of large Jewish families, their worries and joys, their dreams and concerns.
On the evening of September 9, we opened the exhibition dedicated to Righteous Catholics from Brzesko and vicinity who had been saving Jews during World War II.
Saving one person usually required the joint effort of many people. Some of them paid the highest price for this help – they were betrayed and shot together with the Jews they were helping. By this exhibition we wanted to pay respect to these courageous people
Representatives of two families of the Righteous were present at the opening of the exhibition – Mr. Piotr Zawistowicz from the Łoza family and Mrs. Anna Hajduk, granddaughter of Stefania and Tadeusz Zapiór.
Two testimonies were particularly moving – a video recording sent by Joseph Komem, who was being hidden in Brzesko by Stefania Łoza and her children for over two years, and a speech by Mr. Piotr Mingelgrin, whose father was saved by the Borowiec family.
You can read more about these Righteous Poles here.
This year, we once again hosted in Brzesko the Jarmuła band, a unique klezmer music group. On Saturday night we not only listened to Jewish melodies full of joy and hope, but also sang and danced together with the musicians.
And before the concert, we participated in the Havdalah – the ceremony which marks the end of Shabbat, when the holy day is separated from the mundane period that follows. This was an exceptionally beautiful evening when we could celebrate the Jewish life that had flourished in Brzesko before the war.
Sunday morning started with the tour of several places, but I’d like to mention only Borzęcin, the birthplace of Dawid Lemel Sternreich. Thirteen descendants of this man came to Poland from Israel, including Dawid Lemel’s grandson named after him. And it was particularly moving for this family to see the name of their ancestor on the monument honouring all Catholic, Jewish and Roma victims of both world wars born in Borzęcin.
The March of Remembrance started on Sunday, September 10, with the welcoming remarks by the deputy mayor of Brzesko, Mr. Grzegorz Brach. As every year, we met at Kazimierza Wielkiego Square, from which 81 years ago Brzesko Jews had been deported to the Bełżec extermination camp.
“On the second day of Rosh Hashanah 1942, on Sunday afternoon, the Gestapo from Tarnów arrived and the liquidation operation began… The Gestapo officers herded the Jews to the marketplace, ordered them to kneel until they had gathered the entire Jewish population. Then they arranged them in fives and ordered them to walk to the Słotwina railway station, which is located two kilometers outside the town. At the station, a train was already prepared, on which they were loaded. Nobody came back…” (From Leon Epstein’s testimony).
The representative of the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Avi Baumol, especially addressed Holocaust survivor Dov Landau, recalling his memories of the war years.
We marched to the synagogue building at Pushkina street, where the parish priest father Wojciech Werner prayed for the murdered Brzesko Jews; Rabbi Eliezer Gurary, Dov Landau and all the Jews present at the ceremony prayed with the words of El Male Rachamim and Kaddish. Representatives of city authorities, police, schools and social organizations offered flowers and lit candles by the plaque commemorating Holocaust victims. We are especially grateful to the Vice-Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany in Krakow, Mrs. Sandra Heiskanen, for her participation in the ceremonies commemorating the murdered Jews of Brzesko.
An Appeal of Remembrance was held at the Jewish cemetery, during which the descendants read the names of their murdered relatives. We stood by mass graves listening to the names of people who were murdered only because of being Jewish. We cannot bring them back to life, but our memory returns dignity to the victims. May the memory of all murdered in the Holocaust be an eternal blessing.
We also unveiled the plaque commemorating Brzesko-born heroine of Auschwitz Mala Zimetbaum at the Brzesko Jewish cemetery.
Strength and dignity are her clothing
The teaching of kindness is on her tongue…
This quote from the book of Proverbs (31:25-26) contained in the inscription expresses the essence of Mala’s character, her inner strength and love for the people whom she was helping. The solemn ceremony of unveiling the plaque was attended by Mala’s closest living relative, Mr. Jehuda Hartman, and Mrs. Mala Meyer, whose mother was saved in Auschwitz by Mala Zimetbaum.
Mala Zimetbaum does not have a grave, her body was burned in the crematorium in Auschwitz. But we hope that her soul will find solace in the memory that lives not only in the descendants of the women saved by Mala, but also in the residents of her hometown. And this plaque in the cemetery, where the tombstones of her ancestors have survived, will become a tangible symbol of our memory and care.
This unique plaque was designed by Damian Styrna; the project was realised by our Association with the financial support of John Paul Leavey to whom we are deeply grateful. A detailed article on Mala Zimetbaum can be found at our website.
From the cemetery we walked to the building of the Brzesko high school where a new plaque with the names of teachers, graduates and students of the Brzesko high school murdered during World War II was unveiled.
The plaque with the names of 70 victims has been in the school since 1984, but it contained the names of only 3 Jewish students. A search conducted over the past year in various previously inaccessible archives allowed us to determine the names of 78 people who had not been included in the plaque. Among them there are both Jewish (59 names) and Catholic (19 names) teachers, graduates and students of the Brzesko high school. All these names have been added to the plaque.
The ceremony started with a short talk by the school principal Ryszard Ostrowski; two students read out the names of all 146 people – teachers, graduates and students who had been murdered during the war; father Wojciech Werner, parish priest of the Divine Mercy Parish in Brzesko, and Krakow rabbi Avi Baumol said prayers for the dead. The plaque was unveiled by representatives of the commemorated people: Zuzanna Peters-Musiał (granddaughter of the murdered Adam Peters), Hava Shamir from Israel (the names of 3 siblings of her mother, Wolf, Rozalia and Anda Theeman are on the plaque) and Toni Platus from Australia (the plaque includes the name of the sister of her grandfather, Selda Gartenberg). The first 2 articles about the Jewish students of the school can be found on the website of our Association.
The fate of many students remains unknown.
This plaque was also designed by Damian Styrna; the project was realised by the Brzesko High School and our Association with the financial support of the Forum for Dialogue.
The title of our commemorative events is “Brzesko: bond of memory”. And although majority of descendants met each other and us, the members of the Association “Memory and dialogue. Common history” for the first time, we very quickly felt that a very special bond connected all of us. It turns out that nationality, age, the language we speak, country of residence, religious or political beliefs are no obstacle to building warm, deep relationships. It’s Brzesko, this bond of memory and respect for the town’s bicultural history that brought us close to each other.
You can watch 2 short videos documenting our commemorative events here:
On September 13, I had a chance to share about our commemorative events at the meeting organized by the Forum for Dialogue. You can watch the videorecording of that meeting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gG7ygbmfMVM
© Anna Brzyska, 2023