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Cmentarz Żydowski 22/08/2010

Posted by brendan in Avions, Trains et Voitures, Leçons Culturelles.
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Cmentarz Żydowski

Near Park Strzelecki is another tree-shaded sanctuary, an oasis of calm beside the noise of traffic. Established in the second half of the 16th century Cmentarz Żydowski is one of the oldest graveyards in this part of Poland, a testament to Tarnów’s once thriving Jewish community. Undergrowth is swallowing the headstones and no carefully manicured paths run through the grounds to accommodate celebrity conscious tourists like in Paris.

At the front gate there is a clearing, a line of progress clearly marked against the march of nature. In the center sits a broken stone pillar flanked by a couple pots of flowers. This was salvaged from the charred remains of the Jubilee Synagogue, a temple which took sixty years to build. The clearing marks the place where two-thousand Jews lie after being machine gunned.

Historians have argued that WWII began here, days before the September invasion of Poland. A bomb planted by saboteurs exploded in the train station killing twenty people and wounding another thirty-five. Cause for a plaque, joined by a second commemorating the first transport of prisoners to Auschwitz.

The traces of a Jewish community remains. Ulica Żydowska, Jewish Street, runs two blocks from Rynek to the ancient city walls. In a plaza just off the narrow cobbled street lined by 17th and 18th century buildings rests a Bimah. This dais, where the Torah is read during services, is from a brick synagogue built in 1661. By the end of the 17th century buildings facing the market square were Jewish owned, shops open. Census records say that by 1785 the original city walls housed a population that was three-quarters Jewish. People moved eastward into larger tracts and the community grew. When Germany invaded Poland Tarnów was almost half Jewish.

Memorial

What had originally been the birthplace of Tarnów’s Jewish community eventually became its ghetto. I walked through the streets completely oblivious, slowly floating through a daze of displacement while regarding the bars and shops and passing people with curiosity but no reflection. It took several passes before I saw the underwhelming wall display, reprints of the original proclamations. This square, once Oak and now Bohaterów Getta, was the main gate patrolled by German soldiers.

Sudden realization continued. Janice pointed out a gaudy nightclub, Artie, which sits in the former Mikvah, or Jewish bathhouse. In 1940 the first transport, primarily Poles, spent the night inside before being taken to the train for Auschwitz. Rynek itself was the assembly grounds where Jews were paraded before the SS, selections made, parents were stripped of their children who were sequestered in a building and shot, or had their heads dashed open on the street.

During the first years of Tarnów’s occupation Jews were restricted to their neighborhoods, the synagogues burned, valuables stolen, people were randomly executed in the street. The first major organized operation began on June 11th, 1942, when a campaign of house searches claimed people unsuitable for work. Some seven thousand were killed either in the city or after being marched into the Buczyna forest. Over eleven thousand more were locked into cattle cars and sent to the showers of Belzec.

The survivors were moved into the ghetto, a few square blocks of cramped houses and not enough food to go around. Selections continued and the ghetto was divided in half with an on-site work camp. During this period Jews from surrounding villages were continually pouring into the ghetto. A few escaped and joined the Polish resistance, but not many. At its peak the ghetto was filled with close to forty thousand and by the beginning of the final liquidation only ten thousand remained. In September of 1943 the three thousand deemed fit for labor were sent to a camp in Krakow, the other seven thousand to Auschwitz. After the war seven hundred Jews, from an original population of twenty-five thousand, returned to the city but either would not or could not stay.

Mikvah

None of this is evident as you walk through the streets of old town. In a place covered with monuments to soldiers, statesmen, poets and massacres it’s difficult to stop people in their tracks. The cobblestones no longer run with blood, the ghetto walls have been torn down, there are no bullet holes in the sides of buildings or nooses hanging in the square. People sit outside bars, children eat ice-cream cones, historical reenactments favor cannons to tanks.

You can’t just walk inside Cmentarz Żydowski. Arrangements for the key have to be made, hours planned for and set aside. We talked about tackling the process but never did manage to make what call needed to be made. We stood outside the gate, a faithful replica of the original that had been donated to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and read the poorly translated sign.

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