Thursday, November 3, 2011

Back to the Old Conntry Part III: Skeletons from the past

On my first day in Poland, as I sat jet-lagged in the only Kosher restaurant in Krakow, the "Olive Tree", my group leader told us each that we would be taking a day trip in a few days to small formally Jewish towns around Krakow. Only half aware of what was happening, me and my friend Alexandria were given a huge booklet of information, of which we were told we were going to be presenting on a town called Dzialoszyce. My first reaction: how do you even pronounce that?
As me and Alexandria got together to prepare our presentation, we began to leaf through the pages and piece together the past of Dzialoszyce. In 1939, on the even of the second world war Dzialoszyce’s population totaled about 8,000, 80% of that number was Jewish. Today, there are about 1, 100 people who lived there. As we delved into the past, we both noticed that Dzialoszyce was not an unusual town, it was quite what you might imagine a old Jewish town to be. There was the great synagogue, Beit Midrash, Jewish homes, smaller shuls. There were many religious Hasidim, but there was also a few Zionist groups as well. During the Holocaust, the Nazis set up a ghetto. Some Jews escaped, and fought with the partisans in the forest. The Jews were deported to Belzac and Plaszow and then the city was announced Judenrein. After the war some Jews returned, however, there was a flareup of anti-Jewish violence after the war, and these Jews eventually left as well. Today there are no Jews in Dzialoszyce, and the population is one eighth of what it used to be.
The day we set out for Dzialoszyce, it was raining, as usual. We set out and I was excited to see a place that I had researched, to understand it by being there. What did I expect though? I’m not sure. As my bus drove closer, and I started to see the signs for Dzialoszyce, I was getting closer, paying attention to the surrounding. And then, my bus drove into Dziaoszyce, and the first thing that we all see, because there is no way to miss it, is an enormous skeleton: the skeleton of the great synagogue. There it was. Empty, naked and incredibly large, just sitting in the middle of the small city. Our bus stopped in the parking lot adjacent to it. As we all got out, we took in it: the city was small- really just a street, and here it was, it was as though it was the elephant in the room. This big Jewish structure in a tiny Polish city.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I was taken aback at first. Jews lived here, thousands of Jews. How can I even imagine that? I thought, as I looked on at the tiny population of the current city. And as people went about their business that day, I thought about them. Did they know any Jews? Did they help their Jewish neighbors by giving them food in the ghetto, or providing them with information? Who here hid a Jew? Who cried, as their friends were discriminated against, as their friends were taken away? Who here closed their drapes as the Nazi vans dragged away the Jewish elders to the cemetery, where they shot them, one by one into a mass grave. Who here betrayed a Jew? Who here collaborated? I couldn’t help it. I was standing in front of a skeleton, but every time I closed my eyes, the past illuminated before me and I judged everyone: for what they did, and what they didn’t.
After our presentation, we walked up and down the small road of Dzialoszyce to check it out. I’m pretty sure that this small little city doesn’t get many visitors, so the 11 of us kind of stuck out. People stopped to look at us, especially the elder residents. We smiled back politely. But I couldn’t stop thinking to myself: can they recognize me? Do they know me? This was my first time in Poland, I’d never been to Dzialoszyce. My family is not from Dzialosyce either. It’s not that I thought they’d recognize me as Hailey, but rather as a Jew. Although I do hate stereotypes, I really can’t deny the fact that I look really Jewish: and they knew it, they had to know it.
For me, Dzialoszyce was one of the most interesting places I visited. It is one of the clearest example of Jewish space within Polish land- in an intersection, a meeting point. Many of the small villages we visited that day were the same. An empty synagogue, and no Jews. It’s the clearest example of the Jewish footprint, of what we left behind, when we so hastily left.

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