Poland’s Bilgoraj remembers its Jews

Life was not always good for the Jews of Bilgoraj, a town in south-eastern Poland south of Lublin.

THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, near Oswiecim, Poland, January 2018 (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, near Oswiecim, Poland, January 2018
There are no Jews in Bilgoraj today. The last one died around 15 years ago. Yet for nearly four centuries, Bilgoraj’s population included a vibrant Jewish community.
Life was not always good for the Jews of Bilgoraj, a town in southeastern Poland south of Lublin. But despite pogroms, massacres and prohibition of Jewish settlement in certain areas, the Jewish community thrived and survived until the Nazi onslaught.
On September 11, 1939, the Nazis burned most of the Jewish quarter to the ground.
Bilgoraj was known for its forest related industries and nearly all the buildings were wood constructions.
Some of the Jews fled to the Soviet Union but most were deported to Auschwitz, Belzec and Treblinka death camps. Some managed to hide in the forest, and a few of them joined partisan groups.
By the end of the war the community had been greatly depleted.
Most of the few survivors migrated to America or Israel.
Among the latter was actor Shmuel Atzmon-Wircer, the founder of the Yiddishpiel Theater. He is arguably the best known of the Bilgoraj expatriates in this country, and a leading figure in the Association of Bilgoraj Jews in Israel.
But there was a much more famous expatriate of Bilgoraj, who had written extensively in Yiddish about his youth there, and of the Jewish characters in the town; in 1978 he was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature.
In a sense, Isaac Bashevis Singer put Bilgoraj on the international map, and aroused curiosity among the town’s contemporary residents about the Jews who had once lived in their midst. At various periods before the war, according to Atzmon-Wircer, Jews outnumbered non-Jews, and many of the non-Jews learned to speak Yiddish in order to do business with their Jewish neighbors.
ARTUR BARA was among the contemporary residents who began to take an interest in things Jewish. Born in Communist Poland, he was so inspired by Singer’s writings that he began to explore the Jewish world with which he had no genetic connection. He became so enamored that he founded the Bigoraj Cultural Association of Isaac Bashevis Singer. All this was before the Internet came to Poland, so his research was much more laborious than it would be today.
The association holds an annual festival of Singer Days, which is essentially a Jewish culture happening, working in close cooperation with the Shalom Aleichem Foundation in Warsaw.
It also promotes dialogue between the people of Bilgoraj, descendants of the town’s Jews and its Jewish Holocaust survivors. The association also encourages educational exchanges.
In addition, with the support of the Bilgoraj Municipality, the association is commemorating the Jewish community that once was, by building a Wall of Remembrance, restoring the synagogue and the Jewish market – which is being carried out by the Bilgoraj XXI Foundation – and gradually rebuilding the whole Jewish quarter so that future generations can have a tangible piece of history, and know that Jews once lived, loved and worked there – and even died a natural death. Jews with a Bilgoraj background are contributing photographs, artifacts and anything else they have that is related to the town’s Jewish past.
Bara is in Israel this week to participate in the Bilgoraj Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Holon Cemetery on Wednesday afternoon.
He has brought with him a letter from Bilgoraj Mayor Janusz Roslan in which he writes that the Holocaust – the greatest evil perpetrated against humanity – is beyond his comprehension.
He relates to some of the atrocities and also speculates on what its victims might have contributed to his city if they, their children and any future unborn progeny had been allowed to live.
Roslan regrets the present dispute between Poland and world Jewry with regard to complicity in the killing of Jews, stating that it serves no useful purpose and violates the sanctity of Holocaust remembrance.
Neither Bara nor Roslan try to whitewash some of the shameful wartime exploits of Poles, noting that there were Poles who sold out their Jewish neighbors for a kilo of sugar; but at the same time they underscore that there were Poles who risked their own lives and those of their families to save Jews. Neither must be forgotten, and every generation must learn and teach the lessons of tolerance and be prepared to recognize the humanity in the other.
ATZMON-WIRCER has been back to his native town several times, and has taken Yiddishpiel on a tour of Poland, including of course Bilgoraj.
During the 2006 tour, he also celebrated his 77th birthday, with many local dignitaries coming to wish him well. His daughter, actress Anat Atzmon, is part of the Yiddishpiel ensemble, and the tour gave her an opportunity to touch base with her roots and her heritage.
He subsequently went on tour with Poland’s National Theater, playing in all 28 towns and cities mentioned in Singer’s writings.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Atzmon-Wircer recalls that prior to 1967, there were Holocaust remembrance events – both in Israel and wherever there were survivors – that were conducted in Yiddish, the survivors’ most common language, and the main language in which Holocaust literature and poetry were written. After 1967 all that changed, and nearly all memorial events were in Hebrew.
Even before launching Yiddishpiel, Atzmon-Wircer reverted to the language of the majority of Jewish victims and held the events in Yiddish. He established a Yiddishpiel tradition where one dramatic event is held in Tel Aviv on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and another at the Jerusalem Theater in the morning, concluding with the Partisans’ Song “Zog nit ken mohl az du geist dem letzten veg” (“Never say that you are going on your final journey.”) The song was written in Yiddish in 1943 by Hirsh Glick in the Vilna Ghetto. It has become the anthem of survivors and is sung in Hebrew at the main ceremony at Yad Vashem, and in Yiddish by the Yiddishpiel troupe as well as at Leyvik, House Yiddish Cultural Center Yung Yiddish and other organizations and institutions dedicated to the preservation of Yiddish language and culture, and the memory of the Jewish world that once was and is no longer.