Stopnica (Stopnitz) Poland, town square, 1939.
(photo credit: VIRTUAL SHTETL/MUSEUM OF THE HISTORY OF POLISH JEWS)
Looking at the life depicted in the photograph of the town square from 1939, a typical shtetl scene, and comparing it to what exists in the square now evokes feelings of sadness. This was once a town that was three-quarters Jewish, with four times the current total population of 1,300. Some towns in the area have some existing landmark from or in recognition of their murdered citizens, but Stopnica has neither.
Last month I took my third trip to Stopnica, called Stopnitz in Yiddish. My maternal grandmother, Lola Ickovitz (nee Dula), who died two years ago, and my paternal grandmother, Manya Wise (nee Zelewicz), were both born and raised in Stopnica. When I was six years old, in the Eighties, my family went on a cross-Europe trip with stops in Brussels – where we visited with cousins; a family whose grandmother is also a Jew from Stopnitz – Paris, Amsterdam and a Holocaust landmark tour in Poland.
Around 30 years later I traveled through this part of southeast Poland with my father on a trip that included Stopnica, and visits to other towns that also had large Jewish populations. On this latest trip I brought a Polish friend to serve as a translator.
I came again to ask people in Stopnica a question that had disturbed me for a while – why was there not even a simple memorial sign in the town to the group of its citizens who were largely exterminated.
A group of its citizens who were at the heart of the town’s life for hundreds of years.
We got to town square and after a few minutes started talking with a local couple in their sixties or seventies. I told them about my bubbies. They asked what their last names were and if I knew what streets they lived on – which I don’t. The man, Janusz, said that he had bought some land in the town from a Pole that was once owned by Jews. He added that the town square used to be completely Jewish. I raised the issue of the non-existence of any kind of memorial sign to the town’s Jewish citizens and the man said that no one was concerned with this.
So what is in the town square now? Plain stores surround the square, that is planted with flowers and trees, with a fountain at its center. There is a memorial plaque to the pre-WWII Polish statesman Józef Klemens Piłsudski, and a few local men sitting on benches. A local shopkeeper suggested that we could find people to talk to in the town cultural center, which is housed in an impressive restored 18th-century palace and is a short walk from the square.
On the first floor of the cultural center is a large room displaying personal items people from the town would have used in the past. A bedroom in a peasant’s home is exhibited with Christian iconography prominently hanging on the wall above the bed. There are no artifacts or signs of the town’s Jewish history on display. On the second floor of the cultural center there are photos hung on the wall depicting the town’s history, including a small copy of the photo of the busy town square from 1939. This was the only photo on the wall that I could recognize that hinted, however tangentially, at the town’s Jewish history.
Next to the photo display is the town library, where we spoke to librarian Aleksandra Salomon who showed us a short book on the history of Stopnica that she wrote as a thesis for her academic studies.
We asked her why the town had no memorial plaque to the Jews and she said that there really was no initiative for this. When I asked if she thought the locals were afraid that the Jews would come back and claim their property she said there was no such worry, that there was a new generation that did not ruminate about the past.
We left the cultural center and crossed town back to the office of Mayor Ryszard Zych. He was there with his secretary and we were received in his office.
They asked about the history of my grandmothers’ families, asking if they had left Stopnica before the war. I told them that my grandmothers’ families were murdered in Treblinka and that my grandmothers were among the young Jewish Stopnitzers – 1,500 in all – who were sent to the German slave labor camp in the town of Skarzysko-Kamienna.
They were aware of the history.
My translator volunteered the information that I was not there looking to claim property. Zych recounted a story that a few years back a bus full of Israeli tourists came to town and quickly became the target of the suspicious stares of the local Poles – an experience common when Jews visit such places. I broached the subject of the absence of even a small memorial plaque in the town square to the history and the fate of the town’s Jews.
The mayor said that in the 1990s an Israeli wanted to erect a plaque in the town but the idea came to nothing because the contact on the Israeli side ceased. I pressed him on the matter of creating a commemorative sign and he said that Stopnica itself was subject to a law that made it impossible for the town itself to put any such sign up. He said that in order for the plaque to be erected an outside foundation would need to be established and raise the required funds and that it could not be paid for with public money.
I told him that I thought the initiative should come from the town, and he repeated that the town authority could not do it. However, the mayor gave me reason to hope that in the future a memorial plaque to the Jews would one day be erected in the town’s square.
“Whenever there is some kind of initiative something is happening,” he told me at the end of our conversation.
For now, the town square of Stopnica and its cultural center are silent about the fate of its Jews. How many other towns and villages across Poland have a similar response to this chapter of their histories? On September 5, 1942, the ghetto that the Nazis created in Stopnica was surrounded by SS soldiers, Polish police officers and an auxiliary Ukrainian unit. The following day, 400 Jews were murdered for not presenting themselves as ordered – mostly elderly and disabled people. 3,000 Jews were sent to Treblinka where they were murdered in the gas chambers.
Jews had lived in Stopnica since the 1500s. The Yiddish Stopnitz was dead.
On the day of the evacuation of the Jews from the town a local 14-year-old Polish non-Jewish adolescent, Bogumil Hetnarski, witnessed scenes that he recounted in a book he wrote years later.
Hetnarski describes the Germans killing the old and sick in the square and the corpses and pools of blood that were left behind, as well as horse-drawn carts filled with corpses riding by. He described an image of a woman’s slipper-shod foot protruding from under a tarpaulin “almost perpendicularly toward the cloudy sky, as if it was a symbol of silent protest against the bloody events.”
“The next day I went out for a walk without paying attention to the color of the cobblestone pavement. After returning from the horror I found that my shoes were covered in a layer of red mud. Only then I noticed that the market was covered with a layer of blood,” Hetnarski remembered.
The author is originally from Toronto. He is a translator living in Israel.