In summer 2018, the Zaglembie World Organization organized a tour of the Zaglembie (Zagłębie Dąbrowskie) region of southwestern Poland for Holocaust survivors and their descendants – those whose families had lived in this area and so many of whom had been murdered in the Nazi machinery of ghettoization, starvation, slave labour, and the gas chambers of nearby Auschwitz.
The tour – ably organized by Rina Kahan, Director of Foreign Relations of the Zaglembie World Organization, and Menachem Z. Rosensaft, General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress – was timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the final liquidation of the linked Będzin-Sosnowiec ghetto in the adjoining suburbs of Srodula and Kamionka, through which tens of thousands of Jews from the towns of Będzin, Sosnowiec, Czeladz, Dąbrowa Górnicza and innumerable hamlets further afield passed before meeting their final fates.
I had the privilege of being invited on this tour and was able to register changes in the memorial landscape since I first started research for my book, A Small Town near Auschwitz, on the principal Nazi civilian administrator, Udo Klausa, the former Landrat or County Chief Executive of Będzin. (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHyRb3ctnx0&t=123s). On previous visits I had been on the tracks of the Nazi past, seeking to locate spots that I knew from archival material to be of historical significance. On this occasion, I was accompanying people for whom the area was of deep personal and emotional significance. They were here to search for traces of their lost relatives, to find former family homes, to revisit sites of suffering, to pay their respects to the dead, and to talk with others in a quest to understand this unbearable past. (See: https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/268033/my-journey-to-the-past).
The trip took in the Jewish quarter of Kraków, the concentration camp and extermination site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and several less well-known sites, cemeteries and museums in the Zaglembie area. For me, it highlighted conflicting as well as complementary approaches to the past – confirming yet again my irritation with the widespread use of the word ‘memory’ to refer to representations of and reflections on the past by those who did not themselves live through it. It also took place at a time when the Polish government had sought to impose constraints on historical representations of collaboration and complicity, causing widespread unease and controversy. Several ways of connecting with a still disturbing past struck me as worthy of further discussion.
The Zaglembie trip provided an opportunity for emotional confrontations and forming new relationships with an imagined past. Participants visited places from which their families came, as well as cemeteries – some tended better than others – where relatives were buried. For children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, this could provide an opportunity for spiritual reflections, to say Kaddish, to gain a sense of continuity across generations, and to help to bridge the gap between the worlds ‘after’ and ‘before’ the catastrophe that had so dramatically truncated and twisted so many lives. Many also took the opportunity for genealogical research, finding distant relatives; some were able to speak to people now living in their former family homes, or could recount stories about their relatives. Making personal connections to people and places was undoubtedly the most significant feature and indeed the primary purpose of the tour for many.
There were also organised moments of collective remembrance, seeking to bring together communities that had previously been quite distinct and indeed at times hostile. Jewish members of the tour and Polish dignitaries representing local municipalities gave speeches – variously translated into Polish, Hebrew and English, depending on the speaker – at ceremonies in Sosnowiec, at the sports ground where selections and deportations had taken place in August 1942, and in Będzin, at the site where the final deportations took place following the ghetto clearance in August 1943.
Neither of these occasions was entirely un-contentious. In one, a poem was read only in English, and not translated into Polish, referring as it did to memories of a hostile reception by locals on a previous visit, when Polish residents of a former Jewish family home had been far from welcoming to the survivor’s relatives. At the other, a discreetly handled scuffle followed a dispute about who was to be allowed to speak. Even so, and despite the overwhelming heat, the ceremonies were moving, particularly during the episodes of singing, where a sense of continuing collective identity was soulfully and melodiously expressed. And both ceremonies were followed by a ‘March of the Living’, tracing the routes taken to the respective railway stations from which waiting trains had deported Jews to Auschwitz.
But this is where another element kicked in: memory politics. In Sosnowiec, there were ceremonial unveilings of memorial plaques at both the sports ground and the railway station. The planned plaque at the Będzin railway station, however, was in the event not put up at all, let alone unveiled, because of controversies over wording and attribution. The current Polish government, with its attempts to stipulate what cannot be said about the collaboration of some Poles with the Nazi persecution of Jews, has also constrained the Institute for National Remembrance (INP) – and it had been officially decided that the INP, and not the municipality of Będzin in memory of former fellow citizens, should be the signatory on the plaque. The Zaglembie World Organization did not wish to be associated with or give credence to current political constraints on history and remembrance; hence no participation in unveiling a plaque signed by the INP. Instead tour participants placed flowers in the grille of the gates enclosing the railway yard. This too occasioned controversy within the group.
But the Będzin station was not the only place where there was no ceremony or plaque to mark the sites. For me, having researched the area’s history in some detail, there was a sharp disjuncture – an almost complete non-overlap – between what is explicitly marked or raised to attention and those historically significant sites that remain entirely unidentified.
The visible trail is in part authentic, in part constructed after the event. One feature of Będzin is the fact that its former Great Synagogue, burned down (with Jews herded inside) when the Germans invaded in September 1939, had been able to house only 800 or so worshippers at any one time. The more than 25,000 Jews resident in the city prior to German occupation therefore had, in addition, numerous prayer houses. One such is the small nineteenth-century Mizrachi Synagogue, now beautifully restored; another is the Brama Cukermana, a Jewish house of prayer that for years was used as a Polish family apartment, but where restoration work revealed the underlying wall paintings and where, through the dedicated work of Karolina and Piotr Jakoweńko, visitors can now gain an impression of the former prayer room. These restoration projects open up small windows into the past life of the once thriving Jewish community of Będzin.
Similarly, the Upper Silesian House of Remembrance in Gliwice (Gleiwitz), directed by Karolina Jakoweńko, is situated in the former Jewish funeral house with an extensive cemetery. It currently hosts a temporary exhibition curated by Dr Alexandra Namysło, recounting the moving stories of Polish rescuers of Jewish children. And the Sosnowiec convent housing the Museum of Mother Teresa Kierocińska displays the way in which this pious Catholic also believed that every life should be saved, even at the great personal risk involved for those harbouring Jews under Nazi occupation.
But other sites have been constructed rather differently. In the Jewish quarter of Kraków, Kazimierz, cafes and market stalls cash in on tourist interest in sometimes distasteful ways, extraordinarily selling both Nazi memorabilia and figurines conveying stereotypical images of Jewish moneylenders (large noses, huge coins). Będzin will never quite be on the tourist trail in this way. Yet there are signs that local memory activists and entrepreneurs are pointing in that direction, albeit with more sensitivity towards the Jewish community. One local memory entrepreneur is Adam Sydłowski, who formerly worked in the Będzin municipal registry office for births, marriages and deaths, where he developed an interest in matters Jewish. Now, he has become self-appointed guardian and one-man promoter of Będzin’s Jewish heritage.
Sydłowski was instrumental in the publication of the diary of a Jewish teenager, Rutka Laskier, written in the ghetto and preserved for decades by her Polish Catholic friend, Stanisława Sapińska – who remarkably, despite her advanced age, was able to be present at the gala dinner hosted by the tour. The diary was published in Polish, English and Hebrew in 2006-7, and the original is now held at Yad Vashem. Rutka Laskier’s name now adorns a street sign in the ghetto next to the memorial, and Sydłowski has founded a small museum devoted to her memory.
Sydłowski has also established a ‘Jewish café’ in Będzin, the Café Jerozolima, full of objects and photographs attempting to represent a sense of Jewish life before the Holocaust. These more commercial aspects of the misnamed ‘Jewish revival’ in Poland – largely carried by non-Jewish Poles – undoubtedly perform a service to visitors in search of images of a destroyed past, but, for me at least, occasion an ill-defined if unfounded sense of unease. (This is noted also in Lisa Appignanesi’s novel, The Memory Man, where the protagonist encounters a formerly antisemitic schoolmate cashing in on ‘dark tourism’ in Kraków’s Kazimierz quarter; and it is even more jarring in the advertisements for one-day coach tours taking in the Castle, or Wawel, the Salt Mines, and Auschwitz.) These re-creations are neither a reconstruction, nor a restoration.
Other sites remain entirely unmarked. What struck me most, having worked on a facilitator of Nazi genocide, is the disjuncture between awareness of the suffering of victims and haziness about the details of those on the perpetrator side. While we – rightly – commemorate victims and seek to preserve or resurrect traces of a once vibrant culture that was destroyed by the Nazis, the former perpetrators yet again manage to evade notice, to slip away silently, their places of action entirely unmarked. In Będzin, remembrance has all been concentrated in the site of the final clearance of the Kamionka ghetto on the outskirts of town. Yet the sites in the town centre, where the Germans ruled through a characteristic combination of official regimentation and physical terror, remain invisible to the historically uninformed. The site of the hangings on the old Jewish burial ground is unmarked. The former Hakoach sports ground, where the major selections and deportations took place in August 1942, is currently just a decrepit and unmarked waste area, no longer even in active use as the central bus station (as it had been on my previous visits).
Right opposite, the villa that was expropriated from a well-to-do and philanthropically active Jewish family and taken over by Udo Klausa as the Landrat’s residence at the time he implemented Nazi anti-Semitic policies is unmarked, as is the former Jewish orphanage on the other side of the railway tracks, which at the time of the deportations was used as a transit Lager and is now in private ownership. Locating ‘where it happened’ and ‘who was responsible’ is an entirely different quest from remembering victims or seeking to reconstruct worlds that have been eradicated.
It is important that there are concentrated sites of remembrance of the victims, and opportunities for personal and emotional ‘returns’ to a past that has gone forever, if only so that we can make meaningful connections with others in the present. But without adequately identifying the perpetrators, we cannot achieve a full understanding of how a tragedy on this scale was possible. And without exploring questions of complicity and collaboration, we will not be able to make good on the repeated promise, ‘Never Again!’ No amount of remembrance of victims and reconstruction of lost worlds will suffice if we do not also confront and convey the perpetrator side. How to do so adequately, and where, is quite another matter.