(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For hundreds of years, Skulsk, Poland, had a thriving Jewish community. Before the Holocaust, it was headed by Yitzhak Kotowski and his family, but during the war, he and most of the family were murdered. For 70 years, there was no sign left of the Jews who once lived in Skulsk.
That changed this week, however, when the town received with great fanfare Kotowski’s great-grandson, MK Hilik Bar (Zionist Union).
Ironically Bar, who is deputy Knesset speaker and the head of the Israel-Poland Friendship parliamentary caucus, was received at a municipality building on land his family had owned; it was built over their home, which had been destroyed.
“For me, it was closing a circle, because my great-grandfather was the head of the Jewish community and got killed and I came back as head of the Polish-Israel parliament group in a Jewish state,” he said upon his return to Jerusalem Tuesday. “It’s a huge victory over the Nazis that I came back 70 years later with these titles and the power to push for commemorating the large Jewish community that lived in Skulsk.”
Bar joined forces with From the Depths, an organization that works to discover old Jewish cemeteries and bones and ensure that they are treated with respect. With the help of a sophisticated DNA scanning machine from Poland’s Pomeranian Medical University of Szczecin, Bar and From the Depths director Jonny Daniels were able to find the cemetery where the MK’s relatives were buried before the war.
They dedicated a plaque at the cemetery, as well as a larger monument that is currently at the cemetery but will be moved to the center of town in a September ceremony attended by dozens of Polish politicians and all of Bar’s family.
“In memory of the Jewish community of Skulsk, who lived here and contributed to the culture, arts, commerce and trade until it was almost completely annihilated in the Holocaust by the Nazis,” the monument reads. “This memorial stone was dedicated in the presence of Deputy Knesset Speaker Hilik Bar, great grandson of the late Gitel and Yitzhak Kotowski, the leader of Skulsk’s Jewish community.”
Bar said he had met people in the city who remembered his great-grandfather fondly. He said they had shown him dozens of documents signed by his great-grandfather, who was deputy mayor of the city, and a piece of wood from the family house.
“It’s an amazing thing to find a Jewish community that was ignored, with no sign of their former existence after they were nearly half the population of the city,” Bar said. “I wanted to go there all my life after hearing as a kid that my mother’s family came from there. I told them I don’t want our land back, just to remember the family and that a Jewish community lived there for hundreds of years.”
Daniels said the first time he’d visited the town, he had been told there were no Jewish gravestones left there. He found one that had been used as a grinding stone in a local workshop.
“In a city with hundreds of years of Jewish history, we can’t let them forget it,” Daniels said. “Having the deputy speaker on our team helped us push this further. But we want any Jew around the world looking for his roots to be able to do the same. This is what we’re here for.”
Daniels intends to use the same georadar DNA scanner he used in Skulsk, which can identify Jewish genes, to scan the surface of mass graves and ensure that Jewish bones will be moved to Jewish graves and buried in accordance with Halacha. It is already in use at sites where Polish soldiers are in the process of being reburied.
“Seeing this happen is remarkable, and we’re thankful for the opportunity to do what we do,” he said. “Understanding where we come from highlights the importance of having Israel, a home of our own, where if we are buried, we know it’s forever.”