Jewish Soul Food Heals Old Wounds in Polish Town

The first Jewish café opens in Bedzin in 72 years, signaling a return of Yiddishkeit in a region racked by loss.

Roman Kowenia

Emily Alana Schneider, a 23-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, was on her way to show her mother their ancestral home in Bedzin, Poland, when she noticed something on Modrzejowska Street that stopped her in her tracks.

“There was Hebrew writing and a menorah in a window,” Schneider says. “We were so surprised because when I first visited the town last year, there had been nothing there but boarded-up windows and ruins of Jewish life.”

Though the door was locked, Schneider made a mental note to circle back. When she did, she was even more stunned.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes when we walked in,” she says of the newly opened Café Jerozolima, whose walls are lined in Hebrew and Yiddish. There’s everything from prewar Jewish artifacts to framed bits of Torah parchment salvaged by its owner.

“The café reminded us of Ariel in Krakow, but more authentic and natural," Schneider says. "You can feel the love in this place, even though the town is full of sadness.”

The brainchild of Adam Szydlowski, a Jewish genealogist and former deputy city council of Bedzin, Café Jerozolima is the first Jewish business to grace these cobblestone streets in 70 years. The café’s name is a nod to the town’s moniker as “the Jerusalem of Zaglebie,” a cluster of towns in southwestern Poland that was once home to 60,000 Jews, half of them from Bedzin.

And while cities like Krakow and Warsaw have boasted Jewish-themed restaurants since the fall of Communism, the trend hasn’t caught on in small towns until recently. Last year, Café Bergson opened at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in the city of Ocwiecim, enticing both locals and Jewish groups visiting the former Nazi death camp to stop in, have a drink and learn about prewar Jewish culture and connect with life.

That’s an important consideration for Szydlowski.

“Jewish groups who come to Poland focus on the Holocaust,” he says. “There are many places here that satisfy that need. I wanted to offer something else — a chance to see what preceded the Shoah and feel the Jewish population of this town.”

And that’s certainly what Schneider sensed. The first thing that caught her eyes were the many family photos displayed on walls and counters.

“I asked Adam how he got them, and he told me they were given to him by families he knows and has worked with as a genealogist,” she says. “I reached in to my bag and gave him a copy of a photo of my grandfather and great-aunt standing on the balcony around the corner of the café. I had it on me to show my mother the exact spot where they stood. After I did, I gave him the photo.”

Call it a living Jewish heritage museum, a place where second and third generations can connect to their roots while taking in klezmer music and noshing on rugelach. Or simply call it a café. Szydlowski refers to it as something else.

Courtesy

“It’s a time machine,” he says.

Step inside and you just may feel like you’re in a Jewish home in Bedzin circa 1935. There’s a Singer sewing machine, Shabbat candlesticks, a vintage radio, lace curtains, kiddush cups, framed Jewish etchings, mahogany paneling and even a prayer shawl draped casually in the background.

“It reminded me of my parents’ home,” says Fred Zaidman, 61, from Los Angeles, whose survivor parents were from Zaglebie, his father from Bedzin, his mother from sister-town Dabrowa Gornicza. “There’s a spiritual feel, a Yiddishkeit that felt like home to me. The Yiddish music offered a perfect touch.”

The homey vibe is also courtesy of Bernard Dov Lemel, a survivor currently living in Israel whose family owned the building before the war and who rented it to Szydlowski, adorning it with family portraits. Fittingly, there are gold Hebrew letters announcing “Beit Mishpacha Lemel,” or home of the Lemel family.

A Polish Indiana Jones

“This is the culmination of a childhood dream,” says Szydlowski, who isn’t joking about the childhood part. “Growing up here, I always felt a black cloud, like the skies were crying, the presence of ghosts.”

He says he found his first “treasure,” an old Yiddish newspaper, as a kid. Curious about the strange letters on the crumpled paper, he asked his grandmother what language it was, but she told him she didn’t know. That’s what other adults said.

Haunted by their silence, he felt compelled to dig up other remnants of this strange culture that he learned was indigenous to his country. By his teenage years, Szydlowski had alighted on a mezuzah, kosher-wine bottles complete with labels and even remnants of Torah scrolls he has since donated to local museums. He also started scouring flea markets, finding siddurim, kabbala books and other bits of Judaica.

But Szydlowski’s hobby turned into a full-time mission in 2003 when he became Bedzin’s deputy county clerk, a role that put him in direct contact with Jewish tourists, namely survivors and their descendants from Israel’s World Zaglebie Organization.

As he found their missing vital records, helping second-generation members discover siblings they never knew they had, survivors began taking Szydlowski under their wing, showing him where they grew up, educating him on Jewish traditions and customs, and inviting him to Israel.

Roman Kowenia

Around the same time, Szydlowski discovered he had been adopted. His search for his own origins made him appreciate the great need for connection to one’s family tree, further cementing his newfound bonds with his Israeli friends.

“I understood their feelings of displacement,” he says. “I can relate to how Jews feel when they come to Poland searching for roots.”

Within six months in Bedzin’s registrar’s office, Szydlowski founded a Day of Jewish Heritage in the town to educate locals about Bedzin’s hidden heritage.

“People thought I was crazy,” he says, though by then Krakow’s Yiddish Culture Festival had been around for more than a decade. “But they came. And each year, they look forward to this chance to hear klezmer music, attend lectures and see films.”

One of the movies shown is Szydlowski’s own “The Last Days of the Bedzin Ghetto — 1943,” a dramatic reenactment of the liquidation of the Bedzin ghetto, featuring mostly locals, including students. It’s part of an educational effort he launched to teach about the Holocaust, which under Communism didn’t include a Jewish narrative.

He also began summoning local schools to help clean and maintain Jewish cemeteries, which had fallen under disrepair. “It’s an important project,” he says. “Not just for Jewish families, but for us. We must be the keepers of this heritage.”

But not all his efforts met with success.

Ten years ago Szydlowski, somewhat of a Polish Indiana Jones, discovered Hebrew writing on the local train platform. “It was a shock,” he says. “The Communists had used matzevot [gravestones] to build the station in Bedzin. I took photos and extracted a few stones to show the municipality.”

But local politicians were unmoved.

Their complacency turned him into an activist. Together with survivors, he uncovered two hidden shuls — the subterranean Mizrachi Synagogue in a courtyard of a building, and the Cukerman shteibel on the second floor of an apartment. After a little pressing, he got the city to fund renovations. The Mizrachi Synagogue, with its gloriously frescoed walls of Jewish zodiacs and holy sites, took five years to restore.

Holocaust diary

But perhaps his biggest turning point was the discovery of the diary of Rutka Laskier, a Bedzin teenager dubbed the Polish Anne Frank. At 14, Laskier was deported to Auschwitz in 1943 and murdered, but not before entrusting her journal with her non-Jewish neighbor Stanislawa Sapinska, who kept it concealed for 63 years.

In 2005 Sapinska’s family approached Szydlowski with the discovery, and he published it in Polish and helped find Laskier’s half-sister in Israel, Zahava Scherz, who grew up with a photo of a girl she knew nothing about.

(Rutka’s father survived the Holocaust, settled in Israel and had a new family. Only when Scherz discovered a photo album containing pictures of a young girl and her brother did her father come clean, but he never spoke further about them.)

Perhaps it was preordained that Szydlowski opened his café on September 5, the very day Rutka’s house was torn down by the city. “Everyone was shocked,” says Szydlowski. “It was a strange coincidence.”

For now her memory will have to live on through the words in her notebook, which is prominently on display in Café Jerozolima, along with the memory of the hundreds of thousands of others whose absence is palpable amidst the rubble of the former Jewish quarter. But with a new year comes the promise of renewal, even in a Jewish ghost town like Bedzin.

For Donna Kanter, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who was on hand for the grand opening, the café fulfills an important mission.

“A city like Bedzin is defined by Jewish loss,” she says. “But Café Jerozolima represents a desire to reconcile with the past and heal old wounds.”

To Zaidman, the café’s opening, which included a concert by the Magda Brudzinska Klezmer Trio from Krakow and 150 guests who had to line up down the block to get in, made his ancestral homecoming more sweet than bitter.

“In my mother’s hometown a few miles away, there’s a tiny Jewish cemetery that’s in shambles, vandalized and neglected,” he says. “And after trying to find my mother’s family’s home and realizing it was demolished for a [Communist-style] high-rise, I was so angry I grabbed a rock and engraved my mother and grandmother’s surnames on the front door.”

But his spirits were lifted at Café Jerozolima, where he toasted the New Year with a glass of pomegranate wine and honey cake. “Those Magen David cookies got me,” says Kanter. “Every last detail of the place was carefully thought out.”

And what about the locals?

“Every day there’s a crowd,” Szydlowski says, happily surprised. “People come from neighboring Katowice, Czeladz and even from Krakow. Non-Jews have a hunger for this hidden culture. People ask me when I’m going to serve gefilte fish.”

That may be a ways off. For the time being, the menu will include hummus and cheese bourekas.

All this begs the question: Is Szydlowski a lost member of the tribe?

“A few years ago I learned that my great-grandfather had been Jewish,” he says. “My grandmother who died a few years ago told us. It was a family secret.”

Was Szydlowski surprised? “Yes and no,” he says. “I always felt like the grandson of survivors like Dov Lemel. I always felt I had a Jewish soul.”