March of Remembrance commemorating the 76 anniversary of the liquidation of Brzesko ghetto took place on Sunday, October 7, 2018. The ceremony started at Kazimierza Wielkiego square, and one couldn’t but think about autumn 1942, when all surviving Brzesko Jews were brought to this square. “They were ordered to kneel with their hands raised up and stay in that position from morning till afternoon. After all the valuables had been taken away, they were loaded onto the trains, and those too sick to survive the transportation were shot on the spot…”
About half of Brzesko population had been murdered during the war only because of being Jewish. And yet “the final solution of Jewish problem” had not been a success. The Holocaust survivor Dov Landau, descendants of Brzesko Jews who keep coming to the hometown of their ancestors; all of us who have come to the March of Remembrance to commemorate Brzesko Jews, are a living testimony to that.
Similar to previous years, the city Mayor Grzegorz Wawryka has opened the March. The Mayor spoke about the common Polish-Jewish history of Brzesko and emphasized the importance of preserving the memory.
He’s especially addressed Dov Landau expressing his gratitude for Dov’s dedication to his hometown. As you might know, Dov Landau has been coming to Poland from Israel for over 30 years with various groups of Jews, and each time he’s been taking them not only to the places of martyrdom, but also to Brzesko so that to share the stories of Jewish life in the town prior to the war. I know, that due to those visits many people have started to perceive Poland and history of Polish Jews in a very different way…
This year we had a very special guest at the March of Remembrance – Israeli ambassador Mrs Anna Azari. Addressing the participants of the March, the ambassador especially emphasized the importance of commemoration of the common pre-war history in such small towns as Brzesko and sharing this knowledge with the next generations of young people. Mrs Azari also expressed her deep gratitude to all the citizens of Brzesko.
Director of the IPN chapter on commemoration of fight and martyrdom in Krakow, Dr Maciej Korkuć, spoke about the importance of understanding that Poles and Jews had one common history in Poland – they were neighbours, citizens of one country and co-creators of its well-being. Dr Korkuć emphasized that instead of facilitating artificial divisions we are called to promote mutual understanding and healing of painful past.
I guess, majority of you are aware of the law on IPN (Institute of National Memory) introduced by Polish government in the beginning of 2018, which became the source of so many problems worldwide. It’s because of that situation that it became so important for me to develop some kind of cooperation with IPN and invite to the March one of IPN directors in Krakow. I believe that all of us can make a difference on a local level; do something fruitful instead of futile talks; be part of healing, solving the problems instead of facilitating them. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing in Brzesko
The chairman of the Krakow Jewish community Tadeusz Jakubowicz expressed his gratitude to the organizers of the annual Marches of Remembrance; Krakow rabbi Eliezer Gurary read the letter of the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, who emphasized that the activities happening in Brzesko are directed towards the future and will serve the next generations of Brzesko citizens.
The presence of Brzesko parish priest Jozef Drabik was of particular importance as, being the spiritual leader of many catholic citizens of the town, he showed his parishioners, that commemoration of the events that had happened in Brzesko 76 years ago, is important for everyone and not only for Jews. He shared, that although he had been born after the war, he was aware of the horrifying tragedy, that we have no right to forget.
Director of Brzesko high school Dorota Jedlińska spoke about the activities of her students which promote dialogue, mutual respect and understanding between various people, including Poles, Jews and Germans. This school has gained the title “School of Dialogue”; it’s been supporting our various activities on commemoration of the pre-war Jewish community of Brzesko and I hope for even stronger cooperation in the future
We walked from Kazimierza Wielkiego square to the building of the former synagogue where people could light the candles and offer flowers by the plaque commemorating Brzesko Holocaust victims. The parish priest read one of David’s psalms and Dov Landau led the prayer.
Later we walked along Głowackiego street through the area of former ghetto, and Dov Landau spoke about his war experiences and life in the ghetto.
The parking lot located across the building of the city administration at Głowackiego street is in fact the Old Jewish cemetery. It’s true that the last burials had taken place at that cemetery at mid-XIX century (it’s around that time that the New Jewish cemetery was established in Brzesko), and the place was significantly devastated during the war, but the people are still buried there, and we need to remember about them.
The new plaque commemorating this site and all the people buried there was unveiled during the March of Remembrance (and it is the city administration that covered all the costs connected to it). Rabbi Gurary led the prayer; the high school student Franciszek Podłęcki played a very moving piece on violin, which he created himself especially for this occasion; everyone could lit a candle and offer flowers.
Later we walked to the New Jewish cemetery so that to take part in the ceremony commemorating Jews who had been murdered in Brzesko during the war. The ceremony started with me reading the testimony of Władysław Myśliński on “Jewish actions” in Brzesko. “…Germans would burst into the houses with the Star of David and shoot whoever they would see. They pulled out those hiding in the attics, cellars, under the beds and shot them in their heads, chest, bellies. They didn’t wait to make sure that the victim was dead – it seemed that they had always been in a hurry chasing the next victims, leaving behind spattered walls and flats flooded with blood… After the first actions 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… Actions continued and soon there was no one left to take the corpses to the cemetery and bury them. Then the Germans ordered magistrate and peasant carts to be used for transportation of dead bodies to the cemetery and Fire Brigade – to bury the murdered. Sometimes there would be Jews who were still alive among the pile of corpses, but the Germans urged to put all of them, without any exception, on the carts, and take to the cemetery – all would be dead when put in deep pits with dozens of other bodies…”
I’ve managed to identify the names of 502 Jews murdered in Brzesko during various “actions”. Almost for sure all of them had been buried at the Jewish cemetery, but most likely we will never know, where exactly. Last year Mr Alexander Schwarz from the Rabbinical Comission on Jewish Cemeteries located a huge mass grave, which we’ve managed to properly commemorate – and here I want to express my deep gratitude to all the individuals and institutions (including the Krakow chapter of IPN) who’ve supported this project financially. Most likely, this grave is the burial place of about 200 Jews murdered on June 18, 1942, but I’ve got the feeling that the entire area close to the cemetery gates, could be one huge mass grave…
We’ve unveiled the new memorial, the parish priest read the psalm; prof. Jonathan Webber led the prayer. Representatives of 5 Jewish families whose family members had been murdered in Brzesko – Dov Landau, Michal Elran, Piotr Mingelgrin, Peter Burns and the Buchmans – according to the Jewish tradition – put the stones on the grave. After that prof. Webber started reading the names of remaining 493 people. The youngest victim, Mina Sterngast, was 9, and the oldest, Chaim Israel Flank, – 92 years old. All the participants of the March were coming to the grave and putting stones to honor the memory of all the victims. And I felt that finally, after the decades of complete oblivion, these people were finding some peace. May their memory be a blessing.
My gratitude goes to all the participants of the March of Remembrance, the city Mayor, Israeli ambassador, parish priest, Jewish families who came from Israel especially for this occasion; Mr Piotr Śledź for the plaque at the site of the old Jewish cemetery; Mr. Alexander Schwarz for localization of the mass grave; Mr Damian Styrna for the project and Mr. Jacek Świegoda for all the work on the memorial at the new Jewish cemetery.
Anna Brzyska, October 2018