My "new" Uncle
Basia is a gentle, caring woman who looks after the Jewish cemetery . She lives across the road from the large fenced plot of land, a place of memory of Jews from this town and others nearby. When Jews from all over the world come to visit the resting place of the famous Tzadik who rests here, Basia (prounounced Baa-shah ) opens her home to them, invites them in to wash and clean themselves before they cross the road to the cemetery to pay their respects and pray. No one paid her, no one asked her to do this, she just does.
Basia was born in this town and barely knew her mother who died when she very young. She was raised a Catholic by her father. She is too young to have witnessed the horror of the ghetto and the liquidation of 20,000 Jews, one third of the town’s population. Similar to many other villages in Poland, the Jews were incarcerated here behind a brick wall, and forced to live and die in unthinkable conditions, while the rest of the town, although occupied by Germans, lived separately.
In March, Basia was notified that a large group of 3000 Jews from around the world were coming to visit. She told the town newspaper of this unusual and special event but they were apparently not interested.
Every year, a former town resident and holocaust survivor, and one of my Uncles dearest friends, would visit this town from Sweden to take care of the cemetery. If Jakub was in town when someone phoned Basia asking to be let into the cemetery (Basia has the key), he would lead the visitors to their destination, telling them the history of those memorialized here, dressed always in his suit and hat. For years, Jakub searched for matzevah (tombstones) of local and nearby Jews and brought them to the cemetery.
In the town today, there is barely a trace of former Jewish residents. A synagogue still stands, and there is one memorial plaque that was attached to a building only in 2008, thanks to Jakub, honoring the 81 people who were murdered there, including Jakub’s family. Jakub passed away in 2010, the last of 2 Jews left . (3 if you included my Uncle, formerly of Sanok). Who will carry on the memory of the 20,000? Basia will....
Basia looks after the Jewish cemetery. I ask her why. She tells me she was brought up a Catholic, but after she met Jakub in the 90’s he told her she might be Jewish. She didn’t believe him, but started searching and discovered that her grandparents were indeed Jewish and had survived the war after being hidden by Poles. As we walk, Basia tells us about the 300 Jews who were brought here by the Nazi’s and massacred at the cemetery. She knows the details about most of the “residents” but she talks a lot about Jakub and the work he did. I think she misses him.
|My dear Uncle|
We reach the ohel (a structure built over the grave of a prominent Jew) of the famous teacher whom many visit, and stay there for a while. My uncle is not religious, however, the day before he told me earnestly, “If you want to understand Poland, you have to understand the history of the Jews”. It was his idea to show me the cemetery. Even though he did not believe in much of the religious practice, today he was teaching me more about my Jewish roots than I knew. Basia wanted to take a photograph of us in the ohel. My uncle initially waved his hand and said no. As we were leaving he changed his mind and wanted us to be photographed together.
As I sit on the train back to Warsaw writing this blog post, I wonder .. imagine if one third of the residents of the city I lived in disappeared? One third of Whangarei New Zealand, Melbourne Australia, or Boston? If you lived there, you’d notice. What would I do? What would you do? If someone threatened to kill you for helping a Jew as the Nazi’s did, would you help smuggle in food and supplies? Or, would we turn our heads away?
I know what Basia would do……
P.S. For some context, a relative recently contacted me about an Uncle whom I did not know. I was still in Europe so flew back to Poland to visit him.