Adam Szydlowski stood in front of a seventh grade class in Riverdale’s Kinneret Day School, preparing to begin the day’s discussion. This lesson was not to be about Hebrew verbs or isosceles triangles, but about an obscure Polish town, Bedzin, where a Jewish girl, Ruth Laskier, kept a diary during the Holocaust. Szydlowski, a Polish Catholic man, shared with the class a facsimile of the diary that had been revealed to Yad Vashem more than 60 years after it was written.
The diarist, Ruth Laskier, has sometimes been called the “Polish Anne Frank.” Her diary was written in milk, since ink was scarce. She juxtaposed horrible atrocities in the ghetto with daily concerns over school and boyfriends. She gave the diary to a Polish friend, Sapinska, who hid it under her staircase. Ruth foresaw that she would not survive, but wanted the diary to survive the war. The newly discovered diary has put Bedzin on the map. The diary has been a focal point in the revival of interest in the Jewish heritage of Bedzin and the surrounding area.
The seventh graders were animated. Questions flew through the air: “How did you get the diary?” “Why did Sapinska wait 60 years to reveal the diary?” Szydlowski was impressed by the knowledge of the class and the students’ ability to ask good questions.
Adam has often spoken to Catholic students at public schools in Bedzin and has been to Israel 15 times. He said that for Polish kids, the diary is just another chapter in the history of Polish suffering. For the Jewish kids, however, the diary touched a raw nerve. Poles were subjugated by the Nazis, but the Jews were annihilated.
Szydlowski, 50, is a native of Bedzin and a one-man crusader in keeping alive the memory and heritage of Jewish Bedzin, reclaiming former shtiblach and repairing desecrated Jewish cemeteries. At the yearly Jewish heritage festival every June, Adam walks with groups through sights mentioned in Ruth’s diary. Adam’s work was recognized by this year’s Polish “Preserving Memory” award, bestowed on individuals who promote Poland’s Jewish heritage. Adam’s crowning achievement has been “Cafe Yerushalayim,” which he opened two years ago. The cafe simulates the feel of Jewish Bedzin in the 1930s, complete with Jewish music and food. The walls are lined with pictures of former Jewish residents.
Visitors have been amazed at the large amount of Judaica in Adam’s possession: Torah scrolls, mezuzot, Talmuds. Adam says, unlike the interactive Polin Jewish Museum in Warsaw, Cafe Yerushalayim consists of actual artifacts.
Adam was captivated by the stories of his grandmother, born in 1912, who fondly remembered her Jewish friends and Jewish life in the town, back when Bedzin was half Jewish. Adam worked as the chief clerk of the vital records department of the town, where hand-written records of births, deaths and marriages were stored. Sometimes Jews come from abroad to find records of a grandfather or great-grandmother. When Adam shows them the record they often kiss the page, as it is the only thing they have left.
These days, the “Jewish revival” is all the rage in Poland, with Jewish fairs and klezmer concerts across the land, but when Adam started under Communist rule, anti-Semitism was so rampant that some of his own friends broke with him on account of his Jewish interest, calling him “Zhid.”
It was a long process, Adam recalled, until interest in things Jewish became not just acceptable, but popular. Now, he says, some people in Bedzin long for the Jewish presence.
What is the connection between Riverdale and the obscure town of Bedzin, 20 miles from Auschwitz? The “shadchan” between Bedzin and Riverdale is Rick Feldman, a regular at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rick’s mission is to preserve Bedzin’s Jewish past, his family’s roots, where Jewish life flourished for 600 years. Rick runs reading groups about the diary and other books written by Jews from Bedzin. He organizes films, concerts and photo exhibits to promote the memory of Jewish Bedzin.
While visiting Bedzin, Rick met Adam. They quickly became united by their joint passion to preserve Jewish Bedzin.
In Bedzin there is probably not even one practicing Jew, and only about 20 people who claim Jewish descent, some of whom are Catholic. In all of Poland there are 5,000-20,000 Jews, with many more of Jewish descent.
Is there any hope of reviving the Jewish community of Bedzin? Adam says that a revived community is a pipe dream. There simply won’t be the numbers to provide the minimal infrastructure of minyan, schools and kosher food. Jews will remain a novelty.
As a preserver of Jewish life, how does Adam deal with historical revisionism? The story of the Holocaust is now passing from live survivors to history books and museum exhibits. How does Adam handle distortion of the true story and the thorny question of the Polish role during the Holocaust?
While Poland can claim a better record than her German, Lithuanian or Ukrainian neighbors, it is undeniable that segments of Polish society were violently anti-Semitic, most notoriously the Polish underground, which murdered Jews. Over 1,000 Jews were murdered by Poles after the Holocaust, a phenomenon without parallel in Europe. Adam says that the Polin Jewish museum in Warsaw presents an accurate historical view of the Polish role during the Holocaust. He says the best way to guard against revisionism is through what he is doing at Cafe Yerushalayim, where he presents real Jews from the town and their true stories.
This was Adam’s first trip to America and his first glimpse at a thriving Diaspora Jewish community. He said he was impressed by the sheer size of the American Jewish community. There are probably more Jews in Riverdale than in all of Poland. Jews may live in separate communities, but they are integrated into the American mainstream. Adam was shocked to see policemen wearing yarmulkes.
Adam appeared with his translator, Miriam Gonczarska, in tow. Rick connected Adam with Miriam, a congregant at the Hebrew Institute. Miriam is much more than an interpreter; she is a counterweight to Adam, rounding out the picture of Jewish Poland. Miriam is a Jewish woman born in Warsaw under Communist rule, when many Jews hid their identities. The Nazis destroyed Poland’s Jews, but Miriam says the Communists destroyed their memory. At the death camps there was no mention of Jewish victims, just “Polish citizens,” though the vast majority of victims were Jewish. Communist schools ignored Poland’s Jewish past and the government suppressed the practice of Judaism.
How did Miriam, a completely assimilated Jew, become Torah-observant and a leader in Jewish life in Poland after the fall of Communism? Ironically, it was through the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
A cemetery, in Yiddish/Hebrew, is called a “beit hachayim” (house of the living). It was the generations of dead Jews of Warsaw that instilled Jewish life in young Miriam. The cemetery was a lens into the thriving Jewish life that existed when Warsaw was the largest Jewish center in Europe. Miriam studied the graves of the rabbis and tzadikim over generations. Her father was buried there when she was six. This led her to study Hebrew and Jewish texts. Her Jewish journey ultimately led her to Riverdale where she studied Torah at Yeshivat Maharat.
“The biggest challenge of my life is learning Torah and Talmud,” she said.
Can one be both Polish and Jewish? It is a delicate balance, but Miriam is proud to be both Jewish and Polish. As an educated Pole speaking perfect Polish, Miriam could have hidden her Jewish identity like many Jews did under the Communists. She wanted to remain Jewish because she saw the beauty of Judaism. She says Jews must keep the Torah and traditions and should take great pride in the accomplishments of Polish Jewry.
Poland was home to Torah giants such as the Rama, the Chofetz Chaim, the Dubno Maggid, Meir Shapiro and the Hasidic dynasties of Bubov and Ger. Polish Jewry produced world-class writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shalom Ach and Shai Agnon. The State of Israel was founded by a Polish Jew, David Ben Gurion, who once joked that a World Zionist Congress consists of “Polish Jews from a hundred countries.”
Perhaps the most interesting Polish contribution was the invention of the international language, Esperanto, created by a Jewish ophthalmologist from Warsaw, Layzer Zamenhof. Esperanto never became a major spoken language, though there are still Esperanto clubs today, but the idea at the time was revolutionary. The tower of Bavel divided humanity through language. Zamenhof sought to use language to reunite humanity.
Despite the much-heralded “Jewish revival” in Poland, widespread anti-Semitism persists. Does Miriam think that exposing Poles to their Jewish heritage will lessen prejudice? Not at all. She believes that Jews must keep their traditions regardless of outside attitudes. Miriam thinks the best spokesmen for the Jewish past are Catholic Poles like Adam.
Today’s Jewish youth are two generations removed from the Jewish world that was Poland. “Heritage” tours connect young Jews to the vanished shtetlach and death camps. Adam laments that the tours are often little more than stops at the death camps. There is much more to Poland than death camps: beautiful lakes, castles and forests. Adam would like visitors to experience all of Poland, “the regular Polish people.”
Miriam said, “It is important for every Jewish visitor to speak to at least one living [Polish] Jew.”