Fundamentally Freund: There are good Poles, too

The opportunity to forge a rapport with Poles of good will must not be overlooked.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Sometimes, a trip to the past gives one a better glimpse of the future. Driving through the endless stretches of lush green fields and forested hills that cover southeastern Poland last week, it was easy to get swept away by the scenery. The verdant soil and grassy meadows cry out with life, and a light breeze suggests that spring is still very much in the air amid this fertile and leafy landscape. But then, like a jolt, comes the inevitable, as the memory of what once was, quickly crowds out the magnificent vistas. I am on the way to Kanczuga, a small town of just over 3,000 people located about halfway between the cities of Rzeszow and Przemysl. It is a small point on the map, but it looms large in my family's history. Prior to the Holocaust, Kanczuga was at least 40 percent Jewish, with some accounts suggesting the figure was even higher. Until today, the official town seal continues to include a Star of David at its heart, as though in solemn recognition of the central role that Jews played for centuries in the life and vitality of this community. But on the surface, there is nothing left of that vibrant past. Only memory remains. In 1942, Kanczuga's 1,000 Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and the Polish police. After being herded into the main synagogue, they were marched up the hill to the town's Jewish cemetery and methodically gunned down. Locals celebrated by holding a picnic and cheering on the policemen as they opened fire. All the life and the greenery around me suddenly fade away, receding far into the background as I ponder what became of our people. USING A map and information gleaned from the Internet, I locate a small building that once served as a synagogue. Inside, seven or eight Polish construction workers are busily tearing apart the insides of the structure, renovating it for the use of a local business. Piles of rubble and dust lie about, and large holes gape through the ceiling, through which the original brick walls of this house of prayer are clearly visible. As I walk through the mess, I can not help but notice the glares coming my way, as these tough and hardened workers look at me, then at the yarmulke on my head, and then back at me. Undeterred, I walk through the small structure, snapping pictures, whispering a prayer and chapters of the Psalms, and wondering if this is where my ancestors poured out their hearts to their Creator. Overwhelmed by the emotion of it all, I feel an inexplicable need to tell the workers what this building once was. For some strange reason, I want them to know this was a holy place. One of the men seems to speak a few words of English, and I manage to convey to him that this structure served as a synagogue prior to the war, and that my family had lived in the area. He smiles, somewhat awkwardly, before walking away, leaving me to wonder why I bothered to tell him at all. But a few minutes later, as I am about to leave, the same workman approaches me and taps me on the shoulder. I turn around, unsure what to expect, when he hands me some yellowed, torn and dusty pages. Immediately, I recognize the Hebrew text, and can not believe what I hold in my hands. Pages from a siddur, from a prayer book, that had been lying here forsaken for more than 60 years. I shudder as I think of what must have happened to the last Jew who held this sacred object in his hands during the dark days of the Nazi onslaught. Grown men are not supposed to cry, and certainly not in front of others. But I couldn't help myself, and the tears began to flow. The workmen gathered around, pointing to the walls and to the ceiling, indicating to me that they had found these precious treasures as they ripped apart the inside of the building. As one of them patted me on the back to console me, the rest went into the other room. Then, one by one, they came forward, handing me stacks of Hebrew pages. Sections of Talmud, pages from Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, portions of the Pentateuch and the High Holiday prayer service. Relics of Kanczuga's once-rich Jewish heritage, now reduced to lonely fragments hidden in the debris. One of the workmen then went to sift through a large pile of rubble, searching for more pages to give me, which I intended to bring back to Israel for burial in a geniza, as tradition requires. The men asked for nothing in return, and when it came time to leave, we shook hands. The foreman promised to collect any additional pages they might find and forward them to me through a local contact. LATER THAT afternoon, after attending a rededication ceremony of the local Jewish cemetery, I sat with the mayor of Kanczuga, Jacek Solek, in his office. Last year, at his own initiative and at the city's expense, Solek built a memorial to the Jews of Kanczuga on the site of the mass grave where they were murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen. When I told the mayor about my visit to the synagogue, it occurred to me that there was no plaque, no sign, nothing at all to indicate that it had once been a shul. So without batting an eyelash, I asked him to do something about it, politely but firmly telling him that I thought it was important that the residents know about the Jewish presence that was once there. The mayor promised to correct the situation, assuring me that it would be taken care of forthwith, and with that the conversation ended. Less than 24 hours later, once I was back in Israel, I received word from Poland that at a meeting of the Kanczuga town council that very morning, the mayor had sought and won approval for a sign to be affixed to the synagogue building. If only our own mayors in Israel were as quick and as efficient in dealing with Jewish concerns, I thought to myself. Sure, anti-Semitism continues to be rife in Poland. I noticed how various people, young and old, in cities and towns, would point at the yarmulke on my head, and laugh as they said "zydowska" (Polish for "Jewish") to one another. And it is not all that uncommon to see anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on walls in public places. But as I saw firsthand on my recent visit, there are good Poles, too. People who sincerely regret what was done to the Jewish people on their soil, and who are willing to try and make amends as best they can. It won't for a moment make us forget the tortured past, nor should it. The memory of the Holocaust and its victims will live within us until the end of time, and we can never forgive those who took part, whether as perpetrators or accomplices. But as Kanczuga's mayor and workmen so compellingly demonstrated, we must not overlook the opportunity to forge a rapport with Poles of good will. In doing so, we can right at least some of the historical wrongs that were done to our ancestors, whether through retrieving Jewish objects or preserving sites of Jewish interest and significance. And, no less important, we can restore an element of dignity and mutual respect to the centuries-old relationship between Pole and Jew. The will exists and the desire is there. Not only in Kanczuga, but in other places as well, such as Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and Lodz. What a shame it would be if we allow it to slip away.