April 15, 2004
Polish City Unveils Its Jewish History
Czestochowa is known around the world as the site of the Jasna Góra Monastery, a pilgrimage place for Poles and other Catholics who flock there to see the famous painting of the Black Madonna.
Soon, residents also will be able to learn about local Jewish history. An exhibition on the subject, based on materials from the town archives, will open for a three-month run later this month in Czestochowa, before traveling to several larger Polish cities.
Behind the newfound interest in Czestochowa's Jews is a long story of cooperation. Two years ago, Jerzy Mizgalski, historian and dean of the local Pedagogical Institute, was doing research in the city archives, when he found thousands of documents and photographs dating as far back as 1618 connected to Czestochowa's Jewish history.
He elicited the help of Elizabeth Mundlak, a professor of thermodynamics living in Venezuela, who was born to Jewish parents in Czestochowa and rescued by Christians during the Holocaust. Together, they conceived of an exhibition to display the archives and tell the story of the Jewish history of Czestochowa.
Before World War II, Czestochowa was home to 30,000 Jews, about one-third of the city's population. Today there are 37 Jews living in the city.
After his find in the municipal archives, Mizgalski decided to teach a course on Jewish history, expecting about 35 students -- but 400 signed up.
Mizgalski and Mundlak moved forward with their plans for the exhibition, and Mundlak approached two American businessmen and cousins, Sigmund Rolat and Alan Silberstein, to underwrite the project. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the city of Czestochowa and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Three days after the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, launching World War II, they were in Czestochowa, Silberstein said. During the war, the city was a centralized concentration point where Jews living in smaller towns were sent.
A large ghetto was established, and then a smaller one which eventually was liquidated. Jews were deported mostly to the Treblinka concentration camp, but some were put in the HASAG forced labor camp in Czestochowa.
With no precedent for an event that encompasses such a long history in Czestochowa, the group was free to be creative. They wanted to be sure that the archives showed the broad range of Jewish people and practices, from the more "quaint, religious" Jews to the fully assimilated ones, like Rolat.
"I was called a goy," Rolat remembers.
The team obtained the help of Czestochowa's mayor, Tadeusz Wrona, who said, "It's important for the younger generation to look at the past and future, a future that should be created together. We should look not to a future concentrating on prejudice and stereotypes but creating a future free of this."
The mayor agreed to use city funds to help restore the local Jewish cemetery.
The cemetery is accessed through the gates of the large steel mill that grew up around it, and which has afforded it a measure of protection. A month ago, the cemetery was "a jungle," said Rolat. Now, workers are clearing trees and cleaning the landscape in a way not to disturb the graves.
The restoration comes just in time for the exhibition, which will open April 21 for three months and then travel to Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw. The exhibition and accompanying academic symposium are titled, "Coexistence, Holocaust, Memory."
In addition to the rededicating of the cemetery, events will include a film premiere, Klezmer music, a military commemoration ceremony and a performance by the Czestochowa Symphony Orchestra, which will take place in what is now Philharmonic Hall. Before it was burned in World War II, the philharmonic building was the New Synagogue.
Above all, the backers hope to convey a program that is about Jewish life, not Jewish death.
Standing in the cemetery, Mizgalski said, "You can't talk about the history of a Polish city without mentioning the one-third that were Jewish. The Germans wanted the memory of Jews to be erased. But we're not allowed to forget."
For more information, contact Stan Steinreich at (212) 786-6077 or (201) 982-2373.