On the 2nd January 2017 I flew to Krakow to begin a research project exploring the Jewish narrative in Poland. This would be the first of multiple trips to Poland and Ukraine to explore different aspects of the project, ranging from capturing the bleak landscapes to memorial reunions to forensic archeological field trips. Below is the journal I kept as I travelled around the country.
Prologue ~ Narratives of Loss
Within Poland and Ukraine, there are many narratives that overlap. There is the rich narrative of the vibrant Jewish culture that developed within Galicia, an area of the Habsburg Empire of Austria established in 1772, that nestled between Poland and The Russian Empire. Within this narrative is the birth of Hassidism, a spiritual reform of the orthodox tradition, and the rise of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, an intellectual reform of Jewish tradition. There is the narrative of Polish Jews: Jews had been expelled from most of central and western Europe but Poland had for centuries been a haven for Judaism and the centre for European Jewish settlement. There is the narrative of Poland, partitioned in the 18th Century among the Kingdom of Prussia, Russia and Austria, then regaining its independence as the Second Polish Republic in 1918 only to lose its sovereignty again during the Second World War when it was carved up between the two dominant Totalitarian forces: Nazi Germany to the West and Soviet Russia to the East. There is the narrative of antisemitism that was endemic throughout Europe, stretching back many centuries. In the Twentieth Century there were preludes to the rise of The National Socialist German Workers Party in Germany: many countries referred to the ‘Jewish problem’ within their midst and pogroms were rife. The 1930′s were characterised by a war of ideologies, from the ultra-nationalist & fascist movements across Europe to the revolutionary zeal of Communist Russia. In the fourth decade of the Twentieth Century this narrative intertwined and became entangled in the narrative of collective trauma, displacement and atrocity across Europe, culminating in the Jewish Narrative of Loss. There is the subsequent narrative of the liberating Russians promoting the story of the Soviet Heroes and Polish martyrs. There is the largely forgotten narrative of Ukraine, which suffered its own genocide, The Holodomor, or Terror-Famine, between 1932 to 1933, when Stalin carried out his Five Year Plan to collectivise the Soviet Union, killing millions of Ukrainian, Polish and Russians in the process. There is the narrative of the complicity; Germany relied upon recruited locals to carry out its plans. There is the narrative of the dispossessed Jews returning to family homes which they no longer owned and were not allowed to return to. There is the intended narrative: the killing spree of Nazi Germany would have extended far into Russia and beyond; Hitler’s Generalplan Ost was intended to make the German Empire a superpower to rival America. And then there is the anti-narrative: the atrocities of the Holocaust demonstrate that history does not necessarily have a progressive trajectory, that civilisations can be torn to shreds and individual personalities erased.
Trip 1 ~ Travels through South-Eastern Poland – January 2017
Tuesday 3rd January 2017: Arrival ~ Oswiecim
A thick blanket of snow covers the ground outside. I am in Hotel Kamienic and the room stinks of stale cigarettes. There is one lukewarm radiator and two single beds. The electrics look distinctly dodgy. The shower takes a good two minutes to reach a bearable temperature and does not get hot. Downstairs, in reception, are three dogs, one of which has such laboured breathing that I imagine it going into cardiac arrest. A very decorated Xmas tree dominates the entrance hall but what hits me as I enter the hotel is the smell of dogs and cigarettes!
I arrived yesterday at 3pm. By 3.30 it was already getting dark and thick snow was falling. I was handed a room key at check in but the proprietor immediately followed me into the room and redirected me to a warmer room, one where the balcony doors close properly. I walked into town to ascertain distances, to get a lay of the land which is fast becoming buried by snow. It is dark and slippery under foot and my orientation and sense of the town layout is sketchy as the driving snow keeps my head down and lights from cars blind me. I retire to my room, thinking to have an early night, reckoning it to be about 9pm but it is only 6.30 – time seems to have stalled. I sleep fitfully, jerked awake by fleeting thoughts and images: what am I doing here, seeking memories, planning to visit sights of atrocity and trauma. I keep thinking about the walk into the town centre – I had layers of warm clothing and shoes but the Jews that were kept in the camps or marched between camps had just the barest of clothes; some had no shoes! How did the survivors survive? Why did they not just give up – succumb to the impossible conditions? Am I here to re-experience their trauma? This now seems like a ridiculous thought.
Day 1: Birkenau and Auschwitz
Auschwitz museum (former camp) lies a stone’s throw away from the hotel, directly across the River Sola, but there are no handy bridges unless I walk up to the busy A4, the Krakow Road. My first destination though is the station. I want to see where (I can imagine) the Jews would have been brought in before the final march to the Auschwitz camp, to get a sense of transit. The car registers minus 2 as I drive to the station. I climb the footbridge that spans the multiple lines of train tracks. On the far side are six rows of box-carts shunted together, like a fitting memorial. Snow is falling as fat flakes and there is a sense of eery quiet.
From the station to Birkenau is only a few minutes by car. Though the entranceway is overly familiar, as iconic as the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ entrance sign to the Auschwitz camp, Birkenau it is still a forboding place to approach: the gateway to Hell! Birkenau is also familiar because I came here six or seven years ago, in the summer with family. Now, as I enter, it is desolate and gripped in the depths of winter. I enter a barrack devoid of all items yet heavy with loss. Outside I photograph steps leading down into a snow covered pool – a pool of white, a pool of nothingness. I photograph the three brick stacks: iconic and highly symbolic. I cross over a ditch and walk through a field, through thick snow, to the outlines of barracks. I photograph a magnificently desolate tree, completely stripped bare – the perfect symbol of barrenness. I approach a copse of silver birch and startle three deer.
I am avoiding entering the camp, of coming at it too directly. I am more interested in the clues, or ways that the surrounding landscape can be framed to reveal the past. I photograph a thicket of tangled woods that are sketched with icy outlines. I circumnavigate the trauma, literally the other side of the fence, and photograph a pile of logs that are reminiscent of a pile of torsos!
At Auschwitz Museum I have an appointment with Woljciech Ploza, Head of Archives. He asks me how he can help and I tell him I want to photograph the archives and restoration department and preservation department and conservation labs and anything else that is behind the scenes. He politely tells me that security is very high and photography is not possible. However, he is happy to show me some of the archives and takes me to a small air-conditioned room, more a vault than a study space. This, he tells me, is one of the original rooms of the camp; they have to “make do” with what they have. The room is now kept at a precise temperature to help preserve the documents. He retrieves several box files and shows me the original documents inside. He gets out a fat accounting book with page after page of death certificates: each one is false! Wojchiech tells me that every prisoner at Auschwitz had an identity card and when they died every prisoner was issued a death certificate – however, the reason for death was fabricated, the cause of death falsified (for instance smallpox or myocardia) and the place of death never mentions concentration camp. I ask why the Nazis kept such fastidious records, what purpose did this bureaucracy serve? Wojchiech explains that Jews were assigned with this task, to fabricate lies, in order for the Nazi Germans to propagate the myth that, to an outside observer, the Auschwitz camp was a model of good prisoner care – a place of sanitary and hygienic medical practice. He adds: “it’s in the German nature; everything was recorded.” I query whether such records exist for Treblinka or Sobibor and he says they didn’t as these, along with Belzec, were the death camps and the Nazis were too busy putting the Jews to death to bother with paperwork! The mad mechanism of genocide was too far gone by this point. However, the transportation on the cattle carts would have been catalogued. (Again to what purposes?). Auschwitz, he tells me, only keeps records and preservation material related to this camp. I wonder about the archaeological dig going on at Treblinka and wonder what happens to all of the objects being dug up here.
Wojciech tells me that Auschwitz had many sub-camps – camps where prisoners were put to work in mines: working camps. The Jews that were kept alive were kept very busy. Of the total number of Jewish people that were brought to Auschwitz only ten per cent were sent to the concentration camp, the rest were marched off to their death at Birkenau. The first Jewish males sent to Auschwitz arrived on the 14th June 1940; the first Jewish woman arrived on the 26th March 1942. By October 1944 202499 men and 120000 women had been incarcerated here: these were the final numbers tattooed into the prisoners arms (another example of the insanely cruel Nazi bureaucracy!).
After my visit to the archive I wander around a derelict factory across the road. I find defunct brick kilns, which seems a strangely apt epitaph to the day. I photograph the bare and blackened interior – contrasted against the brilliant white snow outside.
Day 2 – Journey from Oswiecim to Przemysl via Lancut.
Today a Hasidic Jew from Stamford Hill tells me that a Jew never gets lost – he always finds his way home! But first there is the long drive from Oswiecim to Lancut. The snow is piled up at the sides of the road and where the road borders a field it is being blown across in a thick mist. The car informs me that there may be black ice. However, the roads are relatively free of ice and heavy with traffic. When I reach Rzeszow I expect to take a straight-forward ring-road around the city and then the A4 to Lancut, but after multiple turnings, none of which mention Lancut, I am disorientated and regretting not adding the sat nav onto the car expense. I take a slip road heading back towards Krakow and try the ring-road again, to find to my delight a turning to Lancut. The crude map I have suggests that the synagogue is north of town, however after driving right through Lancut I see no signs nor indications of a synagogue. I head back into centrum and park outside the post office; here a passer-by gives me clear directions: “turn right then left then it’s on the right, you can’t miss it, it’s the big yellow building.” And it is very easy to spot as a small group of Hasidic Jews are dancing outside it. It is a strange sight to behold: Hasidic Jews dancing as if it were the old days! I enquire about the synagogue and one of them informs me, in perfect English, that it is closed today and that I will need to contact a local key-holder. He notes that I have a London accent and asks me where I am from. He then tells me that they are a minion of visiting Jews from Hackney and tat they are visiting the place where their grandparents came from. We trade personal details: my family came from near to Bialystok and I tell him I am tracing the Jewish narrative in Poland. He tells me that all of the group would have had grandparents living in the Lancut area, some of whom had been murdered and others somehow escaped. He gives me the number to contact for the synagogue – and then, almost as an afterthought, asks me whether I’d like to join them: they are going to the nearby cemetery with the local rabbi – I can take photos! Suddenly I am in a minibus with a minion of Hasidic Jews from Hackney heading to the local Jewish cemetery. I have no idea where or how far the cemetery is and ask if they can give me a lift back into town afterwards but a rumbustious looking chap turns around and says: “A Jew can never get lost – he always returns home!”
At the cemetery there are no graves. It had been destroyed by the Nazi Germans. However, there are two small chapels, and we all bundle into one. I am told to photograph the local rabbi and he is pointed out to me: “but do it subtly,” says a sharp-looking chap, “and do not photograph me!” I weave my way around the group, who are busy writing on pieces of paper and placing them in a central trough, already full with paper. The sharp guy tells me that they are the names and addresses of lost family – to be prayed for and remembered. “Have you photographed the rabbi?” he asks again, “he is that person there, and that is his son, but don’t photograph me!” I change lenses and shoot close-ups. I forget who is who (Who I am supposed to photograph and who not). After the prayers I ask if I can photograph them outside but am told: “no, just photograph us praying.” And then they are off and I am left in the empty chapel, the graveyard that has no headstones outside. I continue to shoot, camera now mounted on tripod. The Jews had come and gone like a force of nature and vI had been caught up in their frenzy.
Afterwards I muse over the words of the rumbustious Jew: does coming here mean, for me, a return to a home-land? Is Poland my familial home, my mother-land (or father-land), the place of ancestral roots? The London Jews quizzed me: what was my family name, what was my Hebrew name, what synagogue had I belonged to as a child, was I observant? I felt deeply connected to them yet fraudulent in my assimilated role.
In Przemysl I check into the Albatross Hotel – an ugly municipal building sited on a busy road besides industrial estates. However, it is clean and comfortable. I ask for a map and am given a map and a guide book. There is plenty of history here: a large number of First World War battlements and fortified ruins, but no mention of the Jews. Twenty thousand Jews lived in Przemysl in 1939; Przemysl is located in the heartland of former Galicia – the land of shtetls. When the town fell to the Germans in June 1941 a vigorous Judenrein Pogrom was initiated and as far as I can source there is no Jewish community here now.
Day 3 - The Old and the New Jewish Cemeteries
Before embarking on this trip I hoped to capture the iconic snow landscape (perhaps mixing Southern Poland with Siberia). Be careful what you wish for: the snow continues to fall in abundance. As I set out on the road from Przemysl to Sanok, to see the replica wooden synagogue, the road is more ice than tarmac. Twenty two kilometres out I suddenly see sense as I skid along the road like I am on a luge attempting to navigate hairpin bends. Suddenly the wooden synagogue does not seem so important. I head back to Przemysl.
The town has two Jewish cemeteries, a new one and an old one. The new cemetery is easy to find and as I pull into the car park I pass a white hearse with the name Hades on the side. The hearse belongs to the funeral parlour across the road with the large Hades sign above it. Hades: God of the Underworld, ruler of the dead! I enter the Catholic Cemetery, which is well tended and bright with artificial lights and plastic flowers. The New Jewish Cemetery is adjacent. By comparison it is noticeably more drab, as if the lights have been turned off. And it is old, very old; gravestones still intact but covered in saplings and twisted roots. There is a small well tended area as I enter but as I make my way deeper into the cemetery it becomes almost primeval. Scenes of Mistah Kurtz deep in the jungle come to mind, except that this is extreme cold not sweltering heat. Gravestones stand at odd angles and are massed together to form ominous groupings. And snow blankets it all and keeps falling – bloated flakes shrouding the uneven ground. There seems to be no discernible order to the cemetery; tombstones seem to grow out of the ground like big bones.
The Stary Cmentarz Zydowski, the old Jewish Cemetery, is much less – literally just one arch and an empty wasteland of twisted undergrowth, bushes and saplings. I explore the space but find no gravestones, no indication that a cemetery once existed here. Are bodies still buried beneath the ground? A large rookery takes to the air, raucous and haphazard, adding a murderous black motion to the white sky.
Today has been a strange day. It registered minus 6 and is predicted to go as low as minus 17. But it wasn’t the cold it was the absence of Jewish life here that struck me. Today I saw plenty of nuns but no hasidic Jews.
Day 4 – Przemysl to Sobibor via Bilgoraj
Minus 15 tipping to minus 16. One step outside and my feet are blocks of ice. But the roads out of Przemysl are surprisingly clear of ice and no snow is falling; it is a clear blue sky. I stop at a small gas station for an expresso and the attendant tells me that the ‘bad weather’ is coming from Ukraine – as though they are sending bad vibes (or toxic waste!). The coffee tastes good.
I arrive at Bilgoraj an hour early; I have a meeting booked at 11 with Kinga. I am at the Bilgoraj Virtual Shtetl: a replica shtetl with a replica wooden synagogue, in what appears to be a scrap of wasteland between Centrum and the ring road. It is a small plot, a building site, but the synagogue looks magnificent. Kinga arrives and tells me that her father has cancer, which they only discovered on the 20th December, barely two weeks ago, and that the doctors have only given him three weeks to live. He is only fifty seven, five years older than me. It seems an apt, if very sad, way to start our meeting. She leads me to the synagogue and tells me that the surrounding wooden houses, all beautifully constructed out of pine, have upper floor apartments which are rented accommodation to help pay for the building work. Eventually the spaces below will become shops or museum display rooms which will form the sides of the market–place. It is, very much, a work in progress. Funding has dried up and they are waiting to hear from the European Fund. I ask whether Jewish organisations have helped to fund the project but she shakes her head: “they are not interested.” She adds that maybe it’s because it’s a replica synagogue, a museum, not a functioning synagogue. It will draw the tourists not the devout. “But it will be very beautiful,” she adds, “and it will be decorated in the Jewish Baroque style”. I notice that the designs for the interior look oriental and she informs me that the original decorations were influenced by Turkish design. “The synagogue,” she tells me, ”is a replica of the Great Wooden Synagogue in Wolpa. There once were 241 wooden synagogues; the Germans burnt down every single one.” We talk about the turgid history of Poland: “Stalin once said that Poland is like the tumour on the ass of Europe! In 1939,” she adds, “the Russians pushed the Germans out of the area but not for long. They warned the Jews that a holocaust was coming and offered for them to come with them to Russia. Five hundred families went to Russia and they survived; those that stayed were sent to Belzec and all died.”
Day 5 – Sobibor Death Camp
I have avoided Belzec and headed up to Sobibor – it is not my intention to dwell on the atrocity sites but they are hard to ignore and draw me in with macabre fascination. The car registers minus 20as I pull out of the hotel forecourt. I am staying a plush spa hotel just outside of Wlodawa, not so far from the Sobibor Death Camp. I can see it is going to be a very bright day, the sort of brightness you only see in winter when it’s snowed and the sun is low. Before making my way to the camp I stop to photograph an eery clump of stunted trees, strangely denuded of branches as if recently harvested (for Xmas?). It is an apocalyptic vision, reminiscent of Paul Nash’s war-torn landscapes. I wade through thick snow but the sun is rising too quickly and dappling the area with light that ruins the deadpan documentary style I am seeking.
The road to Sobibor is very icy. The death camp is another 10km away on side roads, sheer ice with pot holes. I recognise the Sobibor station before I see the entrance to the camp. What constitutes a museum is a monolithic block and strange alien dome and a number of information boards. It is difficult to make sense of, especially as the snow is piled so thick that walking around the memorials is impossible. But standing on the platform, besides the old Sobibor station sign, which would have been the one seen by incoming Jews, I piece together the ending game: from this very stop, this very point on the platform, the Jews would have disembarked and been marched the short distance to the camp, where they would have been disrobed, stripped, shorn and then disintegrated. It isn’t just the cold that is sending shivers through my body as I take in the magnitude of the atrocity. I am aware that the departing Germans, rousted by the Red Guard, destroyed as much ‘evidence’ of the camp as they could, erasing everything except for the archaeological, but still I feel disappointed by the absence, as though what has been preserved here is neglect rather than memory.
Day 6 – Wlodawa to Bialowieza Forest
’Forest fascination is associated with Germany’s treasury of sagas and fairy tales, where robbers hide out in the woods, bad wolves devour grandmothers and little girls, and children lose their way in the thickets and stumble into the hands of witches. Mythical glorification of trees first reached its zenith in the songs, prose and paintings of the Romantic Period. The Nazis were likewise obsessed with the concept of the forest. Hermann Goring: “We have become used to seeing the German nation as eternal. There is no better symbol for us than the forest, which has and always will be eternal.” ‘
Today I enter the forest. It is a winter wonderland, a scene out of Narnia: cakes of snow hang heavy off of the pine trees like sugar icing. It is easy to be seduced by the sheer beauty of it all but I know it is deadly dangerous. Forests were escape routes in the highly unlikely event of escaping from camps. Though there were no forests built near here this is the best example of an extensive and ancient forest, the largest and oldest in Europe, bordering Poland and Belarus. And of course the Nazis would have stayed her, perhaps dined on boar and bison. There are still European bison and wolves and lynx here, but no partisans! The forest straddles the border of Poland and Belarus; escapees that made it into the forest around Sobibor or Belzec, or were escaping from the Bialystok area, did not usually fare well. Brigands roamed the woods, like the robbers of old, taking advantage of lost Jews; partisans were not always inclined to take them in; local villagers would sooner turn them in than offer them haven; and German guards and recruited local militia would hunt them down. And survival without rations was impossible, even in the summer. The only sustainable source of food for escapees hiding out was what they could raid from local villages. So, hiding deep in the woods was a logistical nightmare for the Jews. And the Nazis were very good at hunting them down.
Tomorrow I will see how deep I can get into the forest.
Day 7 – The Forest
The Bialowieza Forest is an interlinking network of paths and raised wooden walkways. The designated National Park is closed today so I explore what I can of the rest of the forest, which is extensive. However, getting around the forest proves much more difficult as even the main roads are sheets of ice; the side roads are piled with snow, making navigating them precarious in my Renault Megane. Likewise, walking off piste seems like a reckless thing to do as there is no clear indication of whether there is terra firma or bog beneath the snow. But it is stunningly beautiful – beautiful yet implicitly dangerous. I see a deer and then a fox and think I identify lynx prints. There is a lot of dead wood in the forest: felled trees and collapsed branches. I read that half of the forest is dead and that this feeds the biodiversity, from fungi to arthropods – a cycle of life and death and then life again. It is too easy to think of it as a winter wonderland; in reality it is a pitiless place where predators hunt prey. It is certainly not a place to be out in the dead of winter, especially without proper boots and clothing. A fleeing prisoner would, I hazard, die of exposure long before any chasing guards got to them.
I photograph the dense foliage and intricate latticework, the frozen streams and iced swampland. I am seeking a disquieting sense of landscape: a place that evokes fear as well as awe. And as I shoot I realise that this is not a place to escape into but a place to flee from, back to the safety of home if there were a home to go to!
Day 8 – Bialowieza Hunting Lodge
I am staying in a former hunting lodge. There are stuffed trophy heads mounted on the walls – deer, badgers and, of course, bison. Also on the walls, in ornate frames, are sepia faded photos of hunters. It’s strange what we choose to remember and what to forget. The dinner menu is not for the fainthearted: bison tartare, venison in blood red wine, bison cheeks and duck breasts. It is the food of conquerors – the victor’s meal! Russian Tsars would come to this town to stay at the winter palaces. Only the Polish aristocracy and visiting Tsars were allowed to hunt big game. With it’s isolated position and mythic status it would also have been perfect for visiting Waffen SS like Heinrich Himmler, perhaps entertaining his pal Hermann Goring with plates of venison and veal as they talk about the ‘eternal nation.’
Day 9 – Bialowieza to Lochow via Orla and Tykocin
Orla is a tiny hamlet not far from Bialowieza, barely a dozen streets but nestled in its midst is a marvellous stone synagogue. It is, unfortunately, inaccessible but presents a grand facade. The sun is shining on its east flank but the face is in shade; it photographs very nicely. An old Polish man introduces himself to me, speaking mostly Polish but with enough English words peppered in for me to understand most of what he says: the ‘director’ can let me in but he is out right now clearing snow and won’t be until 1pm – too late unfortunately. He tells me that inside are many great frescos. He also tells me that his name is Eugene, Eugene Jolie, and that Angelina Jolie is reklated to him by his great great great grandfather. We shake hands and he wishes me “good day and good photos.”
Tykocin Synagogue, by contrast, is a public museum with easy access. The interior is completely intact. It’s central Bimah has four ornate columns forming a square with a raised floor. The Ark is set into the side wall with wooden steps leading up to it. When active the Torah would have been carried from the ark to the Bimah and the prayers read from this raised podium. The man on the ticket desk gives me an audio tape which is strangely patronising – describing the Jewish community as an ancient tribe that liked to build their synagogues near running water! There is no hint that this was a very recent population or description of the brutal tragedy that robbed them of their tradition and lives. An attendant tells me that the last Jew was shot in the nearby forest but that the last service was in 1974. An adjacent corridor houses a small museum gallery, with ‘trinkets’ placed in glass cabinets, like ancient relics: the Menorah candlestick, a Tallis shawl, some prayer books – history neatly consigned to museum status, stripping it of its currency. This synagogue, I realise, is not just a jewel but a painful reminder of what has been lost.
Day 10 – Treblinka
It continues to snow – thick powdery snow. But it’s really warmed up; only minus 1 now. Treblinka is about forty minutes drive from the hotel, via a number of drab towns. The town of Treblinka itself is just a loose hamlet, no centre, no shops – however a wonderful sideways leaning hay-barn catches my eye. Treblinka Museum is very well laid out and sign-posted, unlike Sobibor. It is not as massive a plot as Birkenau and seems to merge into the forest around it. There is no imprint of the camp left, the Germans very effectively erased what they had made the Jews build, but there is an eery memorial site composed of a monolith and 17000 jagged stones, symbolic gravestones, a vast memorial graveyard. The names engraved on 130 of the stones are names of places not individual people, cities and towns that Jews were deported from. And dominating this field of memory is a massive tree, leaning to one side as if weighed down by history. It is strange to realise that this tree, unlike much of the newly planted plantation around, has stood and withstood the time of the camp.
I wander off path, into the surrounding forest. It is a mixture of old birch and new pine plantations, and fields of Xmas trees ready for harvest. As I set up my tripod the legs become tangled in wiry roots and branches and as I disentangle them I am left holding the fine tangle which now looks very much like old hair! I pause, overwhelmed by an emotion that feels distinct and precise, then carefully place it beneath a dense spruce, a nest of intense memory. Jews, no doubt, would have been shot indiscriminately here, in these woods, yards away from the gas chambers and the temporary barracks set up to strip them of all of their possessions, including gold teeth and hair.
I am exhausted. Researching these places from afar is very different than physically visiting – as if the sites themselves retain the trauma. I learn things in different ways; it is a way of seeing through emotion. In the forest, as the snow falls, thick and slow, like flakes of incinerated skin, I am overwhelmed by sadness – not really trauma but definitely grief. It is not really memory either as I do not have a direct link to anyone who was in this camp, but it is the realisation that here all of the terrible accounts I have read about actually took place. This is Treblinka!
Day 12 – Schindler’s List film set
Today I follow Aleksandra’s directions to Heltmana 22, the former residence of Amon Goth, camp commandant of Plaszow Concentration Camp. The camp no longer exists but a replica camp, built by Steven Spielberg’s production team for his film Schindler’s List, is still in the Liban Quarry nearby. I wonder, though, whether this is an urban myth. Amon Goth’s house is now empty and in the process of being renovated; it is a patchwork of colours. A sign clearly states ‘No Trespassers’ ~ there is no Heritage Sight sign! Lower down the street, at 11 Heltmana Street, at the corner of what is now a park but once would have led into the camp, is a much more atmospheric house with backdrop of tangled trees – so I photograph this building too.
My entry into Plaszow Memorial Park leads me up a hill with a desolate tree and flat tombstones: what’s left of the Jewish cemetery. The view over Krakow is eerily bleak: chimney stacks in the distance feed dark grey smoke into the deadened sky. I wander through the park trying to track down the elusive film set. I am drawn to ruined buildings on a hill and see the characteristic stooped fence poles so favoured by the Germans. And then I see the quarry, like the pit of hell opening up before me. I am stood at the lip of one side peering over the edge; at the far side I can see a rusting structure, what looks like derelict industrial machinery.
A small road leads down the hill and I find worn paths through brambles and wire bushes that leads to the replica camp. The fake turrets do not look fake, they seem genuine: suitably corroded and complicated. For a moment I doubt that this is a replica. The quarry floor is full of saplings and old posts with coils of wire. It is an eery place; the vertiginous quarry walls framing trees and boulders. It is as if the fake has become the real – the re-imagined replacing the erased. Unlike the preserved synagogue in Tykocin this is off any tourist map; it is the hang-out of urbexers – beguilingly authentic as leftover debris yet a fake construct in a place of real trauma. Even though this was not the actual sight, nor remains, of the Plaszow concentration Camp it was a place of forced labour where the captive Jews were put to work quarrying out stone. It is a pitiless place: the perfect trap with only one access point.
Trip 2 ~ Lubliners Reunion, Lublin – July 2017
On the 30th June 2017 I flew to Krakow and then took the train to Lublin to join the Lubliner’s Reunion, an event organised by the Grodzka Gate Teatr NN as part of the 700th Anniversary of founding of the City. The Teatr NN wanted to remember the history of the local area, the eradication of the town’s Jewish population, and sent out an invite to Jewish people from around the world with family links to the city and the Lublin area. The Theatre Company moved into the Brama Grodzka (Jew Gate) in 1990 and became intrigued by the history of this gate and the surrounding area: Grodzka Gate is directly in the centre of where the Lublin Jewish quarter once had been, the vibrant Jewish Quarter before it was ghettoised and then liquidated by the Germans. In 1998 the theatre was renamed the ’Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre.’ It is now a theatre company, an educational group and a historical archive centre holding an extensive and growing archive on the Jewish history of the area. The focus is very much upon memory, place and presence: memory of the former Jewish area and the meaning of the Gate. The Lubliner Reunion in July 2017 gathered together about 250 Jewish people seeking their own personal & family genealogy and contact with others sharing similar familial history. The Teatr NN presented & provided a platform for theatre, film, klezmer music, educational talks, tours of atrocity sites and discussion groups. Below is the journal I kept during the week I was there.
Prelude ~ meeting Professor Jonathan Webber at the Jewish Galicia Museum, Krakow
Jonathan tells me that if escapees managed to cross the River San they could make their way to Lviv, Ukraine, and hope to hide. However, if caught by the Russians they’d be sent to the gulags, slightly preferable, perhaps, to the concentration camps! Those escapees that did make it to Lviv and evade detection by the Russian authority, thinking they’d now be relatively safe, were caught off-guard by the invading Germans who drove the Russians back. Rounded up Jews were then sent back, but not to their homes (homes that no longer existed) but to the death camps. Jonathan is a Professor of Social Anthropology and the co-founder of the Jewish Galicia Museum in Krakow. In 1993 he collaborated with Chris Schwarz, a photographer, to document existing traces of Jewish life in Poland before the devastation of the Second World War. The resulting work forms the permanent exhibition at the gallery: ‘Traces of Memory.’ Jonathan tells me that when Chris approached him to use his research as a reference point for his own photographic study Jonathan agreed only if it could be a collaborative project: he would guide Chris as to where to go. Jonathan had already commenced an anthropological study of the Galician area, stretching from western Ukraine to south-eastern Poland, seeking out cultural traces of communities that had erased. He did this by visiting them one by one ~ turning up and asking the local inhabitants: “did Jews once live here?” / “did this village have a synagogue?” / “does this village have an old Jewish cemetery?” It was laborious and time consuming work but bit by bit he put together an ethnographic map of the area, literally driving village to village. Chris Schwartz had a similar idea which included setting up a photography museum in Krakow focussed upon Jewish Galicia. Chris passed away in October 2007 but the museum and permanent exhibition live on. Jonathan now sits on the board of directors.
Lubliner’s Reunion 2017 ~ Old Town
I am staying at the Ilan Hotel, formerly the Lublin Yeshiva, a Jewish Rabbinical School. It was established by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1930 and closed down by the Germans in 1939 as part of the general oppression of the Jewish population. The hotel opened in 2003 when the building was handed back to the Jewish community. Built into the hotel, part of the former Yeshiva, is the Synagoga. The Hassidim population was strong in Lublin before the Second World War: the city was forty per cent Jewish, forty three thousand Jews ranging from orthodox to reform. Outside the hotel is a Policja car, with two policemen inside, patiently waiting; there is always a police car. I query why at reception: “This is for you, for your protection. Police protection for visiting Israelis.” She adds: “so you can feel safe.” Strangely these words have the opposite effect on me.
The Grodzka Gate in the old town marked the boundary between the Christian and the Jewish sides of the city. Grodzka Gate translates as Jewish Gate. The gate was not a barrier, though, but a modest stone arch ~ no turnstiles, no border guards. Movement was free, communities separate yet integrated. The Gate is now known as the Ark of Memory. And it must be remembered that Aktion Reinhardt started in the Lublin area, that Lublin Ghetto became the holding ground for Jews being transported in from across South-Eastern Europe. However, when the numbers grew too big to be housed in the ghetto or accommodated in the concentration camp the ‘final solution’ was the establishment of death camps. Majdenek, a work camp situated on the edge of Lublin City, was intended to be much larger, but it became redundant to the vastly more efficient killing centres of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
I meet Vladimir outside the Grodzka Gate, standing on the bridge that now connects the old town to the fort. This was once the epicentre of the Jewish district; below us is a car park where once stood Jewish homes. Vladimir tells me he is from Odessa. He is a tourist visiting the City and he is a fine painter with an eye for detail. It is clear that he is funding his way through Europe by selling his paintings, which are arranged along the wall. His art is ready to go ~ literally painted into their frames. He paints a pretty picture of the old town with no reference to past trauma, a sweet memento to take away from the City.
~ Various Trips to Zamosc, Majdenek & Belzec
Today we visit the synagogue at Zamosc, which is a shell of it’s former self, with display stands in the central prayer space. I learn that Zamosc once had a population of twenty five thousand before the war, half of whom were Jewish. I learn that on the first deportation from Zamosc and Izbica ghettos thirty thousand Jews were taken to Belzec. Numbers mount up in my head as I try to imagine the croweded scene. I learn that there were two train lines leading out from Zamosc: one to Belzec the other to Sobibor ~ one way or another to the death camp!
Majdenek is another sanitised camp: the remaining black barracks were, in fact, the Officers barracks. But there is also the Disinfection Barrack and the Krematorium, both of which are lit in such a way that moving through the space evokes dread. The American Rabbi leading his tour party around Majdenek, having visited the Krematorium, tells his group that there were more people shot here at one shooting than anywhere else at any time in history. Shooting Jews was not as economical as using gas ~ hence the switch to death camps and gas chambers. But, towards the end of the war and in preparation for camp closure and German evacuation, it was decided to use the conventional bullet to the head! When the Russians liberated the camp in the summer of 1944 they only found the ashes ~ enough to make a sizeable mound that now constitutes the innards of the domes memorial. The Rabbi says that the rumour is that the local people took some of the ashes to spread on their fields, which explains why the land in Poland is so fertile: fed by the Jewish fertiliser!
At Belzec we enter the monumental grounds under a penetrating sun. The whole space constitutes the monument ~ the camp itself was completely erased by the departing Germans. In place of the ubiquitous black barracks is a vast basalt field that rises and a central walkway that bisects it so that as you walk through you appear to be descending. At the end of the passage is the wall of rememberance. Here the kaddish (mourners prayer) is recited and the memorial candles lit. Here Robert, Grazyna and Jasia are greeting Jewish people. They do not work here nor live near here; they are not Jewish, have no connected family stories ~ they are visitors from Hrubieszow and they are hear because they want to greet Jewish visitors, in particular to meet the Jewish survivors. They go up to the two survivors, give them hugs and speak to them in Polish, then present them with freshly baked fruit cholla. Robert tells me that he holds kaddish in his house and loves the Jewish tradition; he suspects he may be Jewish but cannot say for sure. He says that he has come here today to ‘apologise’ to the Jewish people for what happened. He speaks with Christian evangelical zeal, clearly in love. On the coach back to Lublin we break bread, sharing the fruit cholla.
~ The walk to the Umschlagplatz
Today we walk the final steps to the Umschlagplatz. This was the route that the Jews marched out of the ghetto, the last stage before their deportation to the death camps. This walk roughly follows the ghetto boundary before arriving at site of the former local slaughterhouse. The Umschlagplatz was the holding station before deportation; from here the Jews were loaded onto trains. This walk is a funeral wake. It is punctuated by stops ~ stops and short speeches, explanations along the way: here is remembered where a Jewish woman was shot in the head and fell to the ground moaning, fatally wounded but not yet dead; here a woman shot dead and left for two days until the men in black vans came to take the dead away. We have a speech from Wielawa Majczac, eighty six years old, survivor of the ghetto and camp, who remembers everything: she remembers seeing the dead bodies and the dying people by the road side, those that couldn’t keep up so were shot and left. She says she wishes she could join us on the remembrance walk but she can’t walk that far any more; I notice how swollen her feet are ~ the feet of a living old lady.
~ Stories Shared
Zig Mandelbaum, from New York, tells me that both his parents survived the camps; he is second generation. He is travelling in a family group of thirty five, with second, third, fourth and even two first generation surviving aunts. The gathered family are coming from Toronto, Israel and France. Zig’s father passed away twenty years ago but he still has stories to tell: his father, he tells me, jumped trains many times to escape deportation. He’d first been held at Bergen-Belsen, before escaping, so he knew about camps from early on. He urged others to jump from transportation trains, warned them of what was to come, where they were headed to, but most would not believe. He threw a boy, separated from his family and travelling alone, from the train to save his life. Zig tells me that he was finally interred at Auschwitz. He came face to face with Josef Mengele ~ Mengele would gesture left or right to decide a Jews fate: links you died (sent to the gas chamber), rechts you lived (sent to the work camp). His father received a dismissive links and was told to undress, but he struggled to unitie his trousers: he’d tied multiple strings around his waist from multiple trousers he’d acquisitioned as he’d moved through Germany and Poland ~ he was literally knotted up. Mengele lost patience and waved him to the right: fate decided as casually as choosing meat at the butcher’s!
Ruth tells me that her mother hadn’t wanted to come back to Poland, was not going to talk Polish and definitely was not going to talk about her experiences whilst she lived here ~ now she is being interviewed & filmed at Belzec Museum about her childhood experiences of surviving the war and she is speaking in fluent Polish! She remembers that a non-Jewish Polish man had saved her life: he’d told the Germans that she was his daughter; brought out documents to prove it. Judy Josephs is here with her family, including her niece Rose Lipszyc; both she and her niece, who is only a year younger than her, survived the war. They were both here in Lublin and lived on Lubartowska Street. Laubartowska Street still exists but the rest of the Jewish Quarter is erased. They both remember dancing in the streets. I photograph them outside the Hotel Ilan, against a grey wall, after an exhausting day visiting mass shooting & burial sites and ending up a Belzec. They embrace each other like they are clinging to life ~ their expressions strong yet haunted.
~ Conversations Overheard
“My father survived the Germans, the Polish and the Russians. My father was twenty six when he came to Israel. He did not talk about the past. I only begun to research (my genealogy) last year. But there is very little on line. I hear they destroyed everything.”
“My great grandparents were in Poland before the First World War. My mother is ninety four and every week she tells me something new. My parents families were distantly related. I can trace my family back seven generations. I can go back by extrapolation to 1810. My family came to England at the turn of the century, as economic migrants, avoiding conscription, and settled in Manchester.”
“I came to Lublin in 2000 and there was just a big hole where the Jewish Quarter had been. Now it’s a car park. The Nazis destroyed the whole area, erasing the Jewish Quarter.”
Trip 3 ~ Forensic Archeaology: Oswiecim & Chrzanow Cemeteries – August 2017
Day 1 – Oswiecim Cemetery
The Jewish Cemtery in Oswiecim was established mid Eighteenth Century. Like most Jewish Cemeteries in Poland it was destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War. The cemetery is about 5 kms from Auschwitz Museum (former Concentration Camp). The Germans dug a pit dead centre of the cemetery, creating a small reservoir, and laid water pipes, displacing tombstones and bodies alike. They also built two bunker, one that burrows below the ground and can be accessed by concrete stairs or via an escape hole. Remains of a work camp have been found behind the cemtery where there is now a hospital and questions arise as to what was the nature and scale of this work camp. The Germans cleared the site of its Matzevahs (Jewish Memorial Stones) but in the eighties restoration work was begun by Asher Sharf and many of the Matzevah that had been taken away were recovered, still in relatively good condition. The Matzevah in the cemetery now have all been stood upright and placed in rows; the cemetery become a lapidarium of recovered stones. Placement numbers are scribed onto the back of some, corresponding to a placement map, however there are no corresponding bodies below.
Broken Matzevah fragments are arranged along the cemetery walls, waiting to be measured and photographed: catalogued and archived. As well as being broken they also contain bullet dents from target practice! Larger fragments are also being scanned at the Auschwitz Jewish Centre.
Steven tells me that the cemetery also contains two Ohels: memorial structures for eminent & learned Jews. The two Ohels were built after the war: Szymon Kluger was the last Jewish person buried here in the Year 2000. Steven D Reece is a baptist minister and founder of the Matzevah Foundation. The foundations mission statement is to remember, restore and reconcile the memory of the murdered Jews in Poland. Part of this is the back breaking work of clearing the weeds and cleaning up the Matzevah. This work is called ‘tikkun olam’: healing the earth. There were once 1200 Jewish Cemeteries in use in Poland, each one a link to an active community, most of which were desecrated and destroyed.
Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls is the Associate Professor in Forensic Archaeology and Genocide Investigation at Staffordshire University specialising in Holocaust studies. She leads a research team comprised of students on various forensic science courses. The archeological field-trip comprises one module of their course. However, for Caroline, it is a much larger research project looking into archaeological techniques to the investigation Holocaust and historic crimes. For this research trip the team are covering five cemeteries: three in the Lublin area and two in the Oswiecim area. They are also linking up with Matzevah Foundation and Studnia Pamieci, a conservation group based in Lublin. First the team need to clear the ground of nettles and weeds. They then plot the area out with tape measure and mark out a grid, making a topographic map for the area they intend to scan. They are using a Geophysical Survey machine, scanning the ground to the depths of 4 meters to reveal a cross section, much like scanning the ocean depths. They are looking for gaps and holes, evidence of burial and perhaps bones. This is non-invasive archeology ~ tradition has it that the soul remains where the body dies and is not to be disturbed, even in a mass grave! Jews that escaped deportation but were subsequently rounded up would have been brought to the cemeteries and shot. Jewish cemeteries, like forests on the edge of town, were often places of mass shootings. Memories are not being dug up here but they are being revealed with forensic detail.
Day 2 – Chrzanow Cemetery
Today we enter the Chrzanow Cemetery. Anna unlocks the cemetery gate and opens up two Ohels for us to enter. The first contains the tomb of Rabbi Saloman Bochner, who died in 1828. In the second Ohel are six large Mitzevahs ~ six representatives of the Helbersztam Rabbinical dynasty. Anna tells me that in the town of Chrzanow 8000 Jewish people lived here before the war, fifty per cent of the population. Most were sent to Auschwitz, the rest killed here in the cemetery. There is a monument and chain ;link sectioning off a small part of the cemetery, a collective tomb denoting a mass grave. Caroline and team are here to ascertain the extent of the mass grave. But first the area must be plotted and all sizeable branched removed from the area so that the ground can be scanned. The tram are looking for both depressions and mounds: a depression could signify where bodies have been unceremoniously buried ~ the decaying body shrinks and the earth collapses; a mound may denote where earth has been removed, to bury a body ~ the returned earth is never as compressed. Earth scanning is labour intensive 7 laborious work: dragging a scanner, a red box about a foot and half square, like an old cumbersome hoover, across uneven ground. To scan the area will take all afternoon.
Although this cemetery appears better preserved than Oswiecim Jewish Cemetery there is plenty of evidence of desecration: headstone are split and crudely joined back together, some are just headstone stubs, and there are plenty of bullet dents. Steven tells me that the cemeteries around Lublin were even more damaged: literally erased by the removal of Matzevahs. This was the area for Operation Reinhard, the Final Solution; in these areas there are not even the Matzevahs to be recovered and returned.
Trip 4 ~ Travels within the Inverted Triangle formed by the Three Death Camps – Dec 2017
In December 2017 I travelled within the inverted triangle formed by the three death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec ~ the epicentre of Operation Reinhardt: The Final Solution. I visited some of the towns that once held sizeable Jewish populations, visiting what remained of the Jewish Cemeteries, the Synagogues, a few still in use for religious prayer but most either derelict or transformed into exhibition spaces or libraries. I generally followed the train lines, the transportation routes that linked the towns and cities, not just within Poland but further afield, to the three death camps ~ the inverted ending to a long history.
Day 1: Meetings & Conversations
Krztstof tells me that his principal job is Curator of Exhibitions at Majdanek Memorial Museum; however he is also part time tourist guide and historian with special interest in the Jewish history of the Lublin region. He has been part of a team working on the Districts of Extermination exhibition, collecting together archival images of Lublin before and during the ghetto period. He shows me a black and white photograph of four men ~ poor Jewish men, he tells me, who would carry goods for low cost. “But what is interesting is this here,” ands he points to a smudge on the wall besides the men: “this is the public poster announcing the ghetto.” This photo was taken before the ghetto was set up and captures that moment when the Jewish people of Lublin would have realised that their world had just shrunk: henceforth the Jews would be confined to this demarked area of the city. Lublin actually had two ghettos; a second one was created further out of town, near to the Majdanek Concentration Camp, after the first one had been liquidated, the Jews marched to the Umschlagplatz, set up for the remaining few thousand Jews that were still useful, between the months of April to October 1943: six months extended life!
Krzystof shows me a book of drawings made during the German Occupation, Drawings on the Scraps of Life: graphic sketches of dead bodies lying by the train tracks, a decapitated forearm, prisoners behind barbed wire. The unknown artist has a name, Jozef Richter, but little else is known about him. However, Krzystof explains why he believes the unknown artist worked on the railway lines, following the transportation routes; these were where the transit ghettos were located and the artist would have had ample scenes to record: Jews shot and left by the side of the rails; a body caught under the wheels of a train, leaving scattered body parts. Krzystof tells me that the artist drew on scraps of paper, the corners of newspapers. He has managed to source a copy of an original newspaper used and placed a drawing perfectly over the original, accurately ascertaining the date of the drawing. This is the first time that the drawings of the artist have been gathered together; the pictures were bequeathed by Miriam Nowicz who had been searching for source material documenting the Holocaust.
Krzystof explains that for many reasons Lublin is the place that needs to be remembered most: it was here that Operation Reinhardt was orchestrated ~ the orders received from German High Command but the the logistics planned from German Headquarters in the city. Lublin, geographically, lies at the epicentre of the three death camps and Jews were transported in not just from the Warsaw and Bialystok regions but also from neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, Czechoslovak, Hungary and Romania. It was a massive operation.
I meet Agata in a cold office at the end of a labyrinthine building reminiscent of an Italian Palace. She apologises for the cold and shows me the two small electric heaters she relies upon to keep warm; it is snowing outside and this room has a very high ceiling. Agata runs Rootka Tours, along with three other people. They provide specialised tours of Jewish Poland and Ukraine, the area that was formerly known as Galicia, the so-called land of the Shtetls. Agata has a special interest in Ukraine; she spent a year there studying Jewish History. Now she incorporates this into the Rootka Tours. Agata is putting together a tour itinerary for next August. She tells me that travelling through Ukraine taking photographs, as I have been doing in Poland, would require a translator and a driver. Not many people speak English. Agata speaks both English and Ukrainian, as well as Polish, and would be a perfect guide, but she is very busy.
We pore over a map of Poland to figure out how I can best use my time in Poland ~ I have just under a week to visit as many former Jewish towns and villages as I can. She points at places and explains that this town has a synagogue, this one a Jewish cemetery; you must go here to see the wooden houses that Jews once lived in; do not bother going here. She hands me another map with all all the former shtetls, part of the Shtetl Routes Project. Agata works closely with Grodzka Gate, who have been involved in mapping out the former Jewish areas, creating both an on-line interactive map and a comprehensive guidebook ~ infact they seem to all know each other like a large extended family: Agata can provide the tour guides but Grodzka, along with the Polin Museum in Warsaw, provide the detailed knowledge. Agata herself though is a font of knowledge, passionate about the history, and I am drinking it all up like a hungry child.
Afterwards we go for soup and Agata tells me that next August is a massive Jewish gathering in Warsaw ~ another genealogy event. She plans to schedule her Ukraine Tour for after this, a group of up to twenty, for those who want to extend and enrich their visit with a tour further afield. This is the age of Jewish tourism and she is off to Israel shortly to drum up more business. There is busy trade in visiting Jews seeking their threads of memory. Genealogy has never been so important it seem, as second generation slips into third and fourth generation. There is a constant narrative that runs throughout this project and that lies behind all of the conversations I have: it is the narrative of how the past shapes the present and how this is both remembered and forgotten.
Szymon tells me that he likes the fact that there is no sentimentality in my photos. Szymon is an artist and he is working on a project titled ‘Forgetting the Holocaust in order to Remember.’ He recounts the story of a Rabbi who was asked to help a boy who spent all his time under the table making the noise of a turkey. Nobody knew what to do about it; the boy refused to come out and eat his meals at the table. It was embarrassing but the boy appeared oblivious. So the rabbi went under the table too and started to make turkey noise. Soon they were both talking turkey under the table. This went on for some time but eventually the boy came out with the Rabbi and begun to eat normally again at the table. Szymon tells me that his artwork will be under the table; people will have to enter into his space to hear his sounds and to hear his words: he will be talking about being Jewish. Szymon is not Jewish and isn’t interested in the cliches of Holocaust memory. But he is very interested in Hasidic history and in reimagining the past. His studio is located on Lubertowska Street, as close to being the former Lublin Jewish Ghetto as is possible (the rest of the ghetto, the rest of the former Jewish district of Lublin, was completely erased by the Germans). Here he collects objects which are memories which become concepts and coalesce into intellectual ideas. As an artist he works like a learned Chassid working within the tradition of the Tzadik.
Day 2 ~ Revisiting Sobibor via Chelm and Leczna
At Sobibor they are building a new visitors centre. The memorial site is closed however I circumnavigate the workers and approach through the surrounding forest. The first thing that catches my eye is a small wooden shack with door hanging off it’s hinges, reminiscent of a sentry hut but in fact the camp guards boom box. I’m entering the death camp stopping to photograph an outside toilet!
The memorial site is comprised of a huge mound of white stones; signs stipulate no entry. I walk into the surrounding forest, both mature woods and young coppice. New wood has been planted since the camp was dismantled and remains erased. There is the eery silence: no visitors, no tour guides. But then I am aware of the construction noises, of blocks being built to house memories, to frame the narrative. Despite a thick morning fog that curdled across the countryside the sun has now burnt the moisture away. Taking photographs in this intense low light renders the scene as optimistic.
I head to Chelm where I am aware that there is a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery. However, the synagogue is now McKenzee’s Saloon, which appears to be a bar. I look for a way in but the bar is shut. I head down hill to the cemetery. On entering the Chelm Jewish Cemetery I am struck by the falsity of the scene: there are fake Matzevahs, uniform and mass produced, and stuck to each one os a fragment of the original Matzevah with it’s characteristic cuneiform Hebrew script: totem headstones in place of removed ones. A bonfire casts a ghostly pale across the scene.
The days are short; it’s dark by 3.30pm. I make a dash for Leczna to see the synagogue, which I’ve heard is impressive. The light is fading as I skirt around the small town. There is no visible trace of the Jewish Cemetery; I end up at the back of an industrial estate opposite houses with dogs barking at my foreign status. The synagogue, however, is intact though clearly in disuse. It is, indeed, an impressive edifice, looming up out of the gloom. I photograph it from all angles as the light rapidly fades until I am virtually shooting it in the dark, clawing it back from night’s obscurity.
Day 3 ~ visiting Kock to see the wooden houses and Kazimierz Dolny to see the memorial wall
Kock, pronounced Koshk, is famous for it’s wooden houses. It’s most notable Jewish inhabitant was Menachem Mendel Morganstern, the famous Tzadik of Kock. I photograph his former residence, with its distinctive polygon turret and capture a scowling old man who clearly lives here now, old enough, perhaps, to remember when Jews lived here. But without a translator I can only surmise, none the wiser. I wander around the small town, stopping at the small wooden dwellings, formerly the homes of Jewish families. Some are inhabited but many are boarded up and in a state of dereliction. They are only basic hovels, almost fairytale in their construction, maybe two rooms, possibly a kitchen, outside toilet ~ poor Jewish homes. But, given that all the wooden synagogues in Poland were burnt down, they take on powerful significance.
Kock is a small town easily traversed. The cemetery, though, is is situated out of town, sandwiched between fields and woods. It begins to snow when I reach it, always a perfect scene setter, and it is eerily quiet. I have been told that the key-holder lives in a nearby house but the fence is low enough to hop over. On entry a blue roofed memorial chapel greets me, like something, again, out of a fairytale. It is a beguilingly beautiful scene, reminiscent of pageantry. To one side is a tree with Matzevah placed around it. The Matzevah, I am later told, were used during the Second World War to sharpen knives (butcher’s knives?). The headstones were returned after the war by the local people, however they did not know where to place them so stacked them around the tree, where they have remained. Further into the cemetery is a woodstack, thin branches stacked as if in preparation for a pyre.
‘… true kavanah required the abandonment of bodily sensations, for the body should be treated as a mere ‘bundle of straw’ dragged behind the praying soul.’ ~ Simon Schama, Belonging (pg 461)
Teresa, working with Studnia Parmieci, an NGO based in Lublin, Poland that deals with Holocaust education memory and Jewish heritage in the Lublin region, tells me that they are due to bring out a booklet with guidelines on how people can best preserve their local Jewish cemeteries.
In Kazimierz Dolny the cemetery is located outside of the small town on a steep wooded bank overlooking a busy road. Here the atrocity is marked by an impressive memorial wall with fragments of Matzevah cemented into it. The wall has a symbolic crack in it representing the rending in the fabric time, or as if a lightning bolt of grief has rent it apart. This, of course, is Jewish tradition: the expression of grief is shown by the rending of garments by the mourner prior to the funeral service. Behind the wall, though, the scene grows even darker ~ the few remaining headstones are scattered amidst tall trees and the steep slope as if randomly discarded. There’s not much to preserve here.
Day 4 ~ Jozefow & Szczebrzeszn
As I approach Jozefow I receive a message from Agata telling me to check out the monument commemorating a mass burial site just outside of town. It’s easy to miss: a squat stone perched on the embankment. Agata tells me that behind the monument is a picturesque pine forest, where the mass grave resides. Apart from the stone there is nothing else to indicate that this is indeed a place of murder; Agata is right, it is a very picturesque scene. Jozefow itself is a small town built around its rynok, central square. All the small towns I visit are built roughly to this plan. From the square I orientate myself: the Synagogue is situated south. I round a corner and there it is, distinct yet modest, like most synagogues, no ostentatious show like their neighbouring Catholic churches. The Synagogue is in good condition and I enter expecting to see a bimah and Torah Ark, however it has been transformed into a very neat library. Yet the distinctive shape of the synagogue is still there, masked by floors and mezzanines: there is the shape of the former Ark and the distinct shape of the windows and behind the librarians desk is a small menorah. Karawn, the librarian, shows me a large book of local history, more of an album, with black&white and sepia photos tacked in. She then gifts me a smaller book about the history of Jewish Jozefow: a collection of ubiquitous black&white photos of pre-war life. I have seen similar photos in synagogues turned into exhibition spaces: the type of remembering that is in fact a forgetting. At Kazimierz-Dolny Synagogue the interior was was just so: enlarged photographs hastily mounted onto card and hung on exhibition stands – the token gesture reiterated by typical Jewish music!
The Jewish cemetery is more difficult to locate; I know that is south of the town, located near the quarry, but when I reach the quarry I forget the cemetery, absorbed by the scene, responding to the myriad associations to hard labour and brute force. There is something dramatic about the earth work: the boulders, the sliced rock, the crumbling earth, the massive scars in the earth. Eventually I find the cemetery; it is a rambling site, partially restored with Matzevah forming a jagged line up a wooded slope, out of sight of the town though the town is clearly in view from the cemetery – as if memory is obscured once you leave the grounds but wells up once you enter.
At Szczebrzeszn I find the Synagogue just behind the main square, an impressive pink building, like a massive wedding cake! I walk around it, trying to find a way in; I can see people inside sitting in offices. The last door I try is unlocked and I enter a ticket office, which is empty. I wait but nobody comes, so I try more doors and stumble into the former synagogue hall, now a display space with with a stage occupying side, the end that would have had theArk and housed the Sefer Torah. But there are only impressions now, the wall neatly plastered and painted, the past whitewashed over. Standing on the raised stage it is easy now to see the former synagogue: the tall double doorway and high arched windows. I feel like a thief, trespassing, but remind myself that breaking and entering had been done by others multiple times, with cruel intent.
The Jewish cemetery is up the steep hill and on entry I am confronted by an ancient gnarled oak set within a metal fenced rectangle, with a few uprooted Matzevah leaned up the metal bars. It is a curious scene, a monument to memory and absurdity. Further in are rooted Matzevah at contrary angles, the cemetery overgrown and untended.
Day 5 ~ Krasnik and return to Lublin
Krasnik is not a monochrome town; the weather doesn’t help, overcast and snow turned to slush. The Synagogue is just off the Rynek. Yesterday I contacted Mariusz, the keyholder, a teacher at a local school. However, he was unable to meet me and the second keyholder is currently in Warsaw. So I stand outside the Synagogue feeling frustrated as I can see it is an impressive building, recently renovated. I walk further down the hill to where elderly people have gathered around a makeshift vegetable and meat market. I photograph an old man who has brought a dozen plus eggs, who looks old enough to remember when the Synagogue was bring used by Jews. There are clearly no Jews here now, though this town had a sizeable Jewish population. Further down the lane, heading out of town, are houses that would have comprised the Jewish district; I catch an old lady as she comes out to put rubbish into the bin. She scowls at me as way of acknowledgement.
The Jewish cemetery is nowhere to be seen: at the juncture on the map is a dilapidated wall but no sign of the graveyard.
I walk back to Wolpa Street, where Matzevah were once used to pave the road. Ironically the road is being repaired and concrete paving blocks are stacked, ready for use. Again, no Matzevah!
In the afternoon I visit Emil at Brama Grodzka. Emil has been part of the small team putting together the Shtetl Routes: an on-line interactive map with the locations of former shtetls, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries ~ a guide book to the past. We talk about his work and he tells me that they now have a Ukrainian as well as Polish version of the guide-book and promises me that the English version is on the way. In several weeks they go to Ukraine for the book launch. I realise that the border between South east Poland and north west Ukraine is very porous, that the land here holds the memory of a culture that once stretched across what is now geographically defined as Poland and Ukraine but formerly was Galicia and Volhynia, and beyond this the Pale of Settlement. The conversation between Lublin and L’viv seems to be as active as ever. I tell Emil of my own plans to visit Ukraine, a necessary extension of my project, and he agrees that it is essential: that there are even more places to visit there, the palimpsest of the recent past even richer. I photograph him in his office, amidst his clutter of reference books and publications, then he takes me for soup. He tells me that he comes from a small town near to Chelm and that his mother was a librarian; the library was, like in Jozefow, built into the former synagogue. His mother had an interest in the Jewish history and he also picked up this fascination. We talk about Polish and Jewish identity, and of Polish-Jewish identity; we agree that his interest in mapping out the former Shtetls is an integral part of his Polish identity.
Tonight I sit in Mandragora Jewish Restaurant. The Mandragora styles itself as an authentic Jewish restaurant serving Kosher menu: it states on its website: ‘an amazing trip inside the Jewish culture and tradition combined with pre-war Lublin.’ It even offers Shabbat nights with live Klezmer music. However, it is strikingly inauthentic, in the way that all themed restaurants are: a show-piece to the cliche of memory. Poland appears to have this dual response to its Jewish past ~ it has been said to me on several occasions by Polish people I have met: ‘maybe I am Jewish?’ There is an entwined historical fact to this uncanny feeling: Jewish children were ‘hidden’ with non-Jewish neighbours during the war to save their lives, and subsequently raised within Catholic families, losing their Jewish identities. Three generations later these secret identities are being unmasked. And this need to reveal the hidden identities also seems to be yet another response to the ongoing Jewish narrative, within Poland and Ukraine, to take stock of their entwined losses, trauma, culpability and national identities.
Pawel agrees to meet me at 8pm. Pawel is the custodian of the Old Synagogue at 10 Lubertowska Street. He arrives on time and ushers me into a dark courtyard, typical of this area of Lublin, where he grapples with two huge padlocks and a mortis lock before we enter into a cluttered hall, as if entering an antiquarian shop. Framed black & white photos of Lublin Jewish life line the walls as we ascend the creaky wooden stairs. Pawel unlocks another door, all the time talking to me in Polish and broken English. We enter a room with walls covered with more photographs, a shrine to the past, and Pawel proceeds to tell me about each and every one: photos of his mum as a young woman, the family having a picnic, gatherings of Jewish people in synagogues, images of the Jewish ghetto, a memorial being erected in Lublin. It is an archive and I ask him whether these are all his personal images; some are his he tells me, but other people give to him, as the custodian of memory. He tells me the story of the passenger ship that sailed to America with a thousand Jews and five German non-Jews, seeking to leave Germany before the outbreak of war, but, he tells me, America took one look at the boat full of poor people and kicked them back; they tried Cuba, but were again sent packing, so were forced to return to Germany. The five German non-Jews returned to their normal lives but the thousand Jews were sent to the concentration camp, where they all died. “So you see,” he tells me, “this was problem before the War, not just in Germany.” I ask him whether there are still Jewish people in Lublin, still a congregation; he shrugs his shoulders and says maybe twenty, twenty five, but they don’t meet regularly: “is awkward.” He adds that there are lots of young Polish people now who have rediscovered their Judaism, but he seems skeptical of this.
He opens another door that leads to a small anteroom with an Aga set into the wall, adobe style; it no longer works, he tells me: there is no flue. And then we enter the Synagogue, a simple room with bare beams set with rows of mismatched chairs but crammed with objects: a shofar made from a goat’s horn, a more ornate one made from antelope, a wooden Magen-Dawid hanging in the window by the Shabbat candles, a shabby wardrobe draped with an embroidered red velvet curtain serving as the ark for the Sefer Torah, a cabinet full of religious trinkets, and more photos lining the walls. He takes out the SeferTorah and unfurls the ancient parchment, paper sepia like very thin leather, which he estimates is between 100 and 300 years old. He shows mr a goose quill used to hand scribe the Hebrew script. He opens a wooden chest full of old prayer books. These, he explains, are Genizah: damaged or heretical texts. This, he tells me, is treasure, worth more to him than diamonds. It is a trove of items collected, gathered, found and saved over the years by Pawel: a battered iron plate with an intricate scene of two Jewish resistant fighters in the Ghetto looking down on the street from the vantage point of high window, armed with rifles and a hand grande, whilst below below bodies are in turmoil; this he picked up from the dirt in Warsaw when they were clearing the ghetto area. He picks up the Antelope shofar and gives me a demonstration blast.
He tells me he loves film and asks whether I have seen Defamation, an Israeli film about the Holocaust industry. The film director, he explains, has a lot of Chutspah; he films the tourists and the tour guides who make their money from the Holocaust, the phenomena of death turned into tourism. And I realise, as he talks to me, that I am in Pawel’s very special space: a place of authentic memory of the Jewish past, fractured and cobbled back together but with no fake narrative, no sentimentality. Pawel is no meshuggenah, he is intensely intelligent in the way that custodians of the past often are.
Trip 5 ~ Ukraine
In August 2018 I join Rootka Tour group, a travel agency based in Lublin, Poland, specializing in tailor-made tours related to Jewish heritage sites in Poland and Ukraine. This tour is focussed upon north-west Ukraine and led by Agata Radkowska-Parka.
Day 1 ~ Busk to Brody
In Busk the synagogue has been renovated and transformed into an Evangelical Prayer House. A small, modest cross sits incongruously in front of the characteristic arched windows of the former synagogue. Behind the main hall is a more run down section of the building, the former Beit Midrash, now residential. It holds the clues to its past: on the lower half of the entranceway is a mogen-david carved into the wooden door and higher up marks of nails where the mezzuzah would have been placed.
The Jewish cemetery occupies a hill just outside of town. When we arrive local people are moving their herd of cows through the cemetery; a teenage boy and young girl sit on stone blocks watching the herd. Headstones are scattered around them, but in good condition, still in original positions, the cemetery not desecrated. Professor Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, accompanying the tour, reads the inscription on a notably large and thickset Matzevah and informs me that it dates back to 1620. The cemetery and has no surrounding fence, no gate, it is open land to walk through, to graze on, and stretches across the hill. A picturesque backdrop of a golden domed church, so characteristic of this area of Ukraine, completes the idyllic pastoral scene.
In Brody we visit the Old synagogue, still extant but literally a former shell of itself. It stands next to a very active children’s playground. There is no entrance, the building is sealed off to the public, but you can see parts of the interior between crumbling walls, peaking out like bones from an eviscerated carcass and growing vegetation. the interior still retains characteristic architectural features: the tall domed windows and curlicues above the interior columns.
We move through town, along a main street, and Yohanan informs me that this town straddled the border between the Galicia, aspart of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, and the Russian Empire. He further elucidates that the Jewish community within Galicia region enjoyed far more autonomy and integration into society than Jewish people settled further west in Russia; the Jewish community here was far more assimilated.
The tour part stops in front of the Polizia Station; a curious policeman stares out at us. Our tour guide tells us that this used to be the bank. A Ukrainian man approaches, eager to tell us what he knows. His name is Vova and he is a renovator of the former bank and the building next door. He is wearing a cycle top that is too small and first appearances are that he is a little worse for wear. The main tour party move on but a few of us, curiosity caught, linger. Vova urgently informs us that he is renovating these buildings by himself, completely self-funded. He pulls down a shutter on a window and points to the lock, then explains that that this used to be a Jewish sweet shop and that the Jews introduced a locking system to protect their property. He further informs us that the main street we have just walked down, was once called Gold Street because of all the different Jewish trades on the street. He thinks he is of Jewish origin. He has been involved in maintaining the Jewish relics; as well as renovating he has cut back the weed and saplings growing on the synagogue, helped to take back the Jewish headstones, which had been piled up in the town square, to the Jewish cemetery. He is extremely keen to tell us his story, having quickly identified us as the visiting Jews and himself as the custodian of local Jewish memory.
We move through Brody to the gymnasium, the secondary school, formerly the Jewish school. Yohanan tells that this was a very important school, established in 1875.