Polish Star Brings Nazis’ Victims ‘Back to Their Homeland’

Olympic athlete found neglected Jewish cemetery, now preserves memory of Jewish neighbors murdered in Holocaust

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A memorial ceremony in the southeastern Polish town of Grybow, November 2019.
A memorial ceremony in the southeastern Polish town of Grybow, November 2019. Credit: Katzina Bandarczak

Several hundred people gathered earlier this month at the entrance to the forgotten Jewish cemetery in the southeastern Polish town of Grybow, not far from the border with Slovakia. An event of this magnitude, in a town with a population of only 6,000, is considered atypical. The large number of participants, who chose to leave their homes on a chilly day to dedicate a monument to Jewish neighbors who were murdered in the Holocaust, may be attributed to one man: Dariusz Popiela, 34. “Although I am not a football star, the medals, championships and the Olympics help to open doors and to reach people,” he said this week in conversation with Haaretz.

Popiela is a famous athlete in Poland with gold, silver and bronze medals from European and world championships, and a veteran of the Beijing Olympics – as a kayaker. What does a Polish Olympic athlete have to do with commemoration of Polish Jews murdered in the Holocaust?

It all began two years ago. Popiela, a resident of the city of Nowy Sacz, which is near Grybów, would train in the Dunajec River, in a section that passes alongside an old Jewish cemetery in the town of Krocienko nad Dunajcem. He never thought to stop and pay a visit to the historic site that he had been kayaking past year after year. But then his physiotherapist, who was aware of Popiela’s interest in history, told him that it might be worth his while to stop off for a visit.

When he did so, Popiela was astonished at what he saw. “It turned out that hidden under the thick vegetation was a cemetery. Only one gravestone was visible. All the rest – concealed in the undergrowth. The fence around the site was old and dilapidated,” he said. He returned the following day, this time equipped with a lawnmower.

Dariusz Popiela speaks during a gathering at the entrance to a forgotten Jewish cemetery in the southeastern Polish town of Grybow, November 2019. Credit: Katzina Bandarczak

But after he removed the undergrowth, he was filled with sadness. “I had hoped to find a lot of gravestones under the vegetation. But that wasn’t the case. I felt an emptiness inside in light of the fate of this community, which had lived there for hundreds of years,” he said.

That was the moment he decided to act. Popiela did not make do with cleaning up the cemetery. He exploited his name and reputation to enlist the local Polish community in a project of commemoration and research of the heritage of the Jews of the region. An archival research project that he orchestrated concluded with the finding of a genuine treasure: a roster of the names of the town’s Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, which had been prepared by the local Judenrat.

Popiela decided to perpetuate their names on a monument, which he dedicated this past summer at the cemetery. Alongside it, informative panels with photos and additional historic details were installed. The cost was 70,000 zlotys (the Polish currency is identical in value to the shekel) – all from contributions made by “people with a big open heart,” as he put it.

The monument to the memory of the Jews of Kroscienko nad Dunajcem and the rehabilitation of their cemetery conceived in turn an even more expansive project, entitled “People, Not Numbers,” which is directed by Popiela.

A memorial ceremony in the southeastern Polish town of Grybow, November 2019. Credit: Katzina Bandarczak

The next objective, which was completed earlier this month, was the dedication of a similar monument in the town of Grybów. Prior to the Holocaust, Jewish residents of the town constituted one-third of the total population. As in many other towns, it was considered a shtetl with a “Jewish” character. Here the number of commemorated victims was higher, and with it also the scope of the work involved and the cost, which came to 110,000 zlotys. Inscribed on the monument are the names of 1,776 Jews who were imprisoned in the Grybów ghetto. Some of them arrived there from the nearby towns of Mecina and Krynica-Zdrój.

The ceremony was attended by their descendants from around the world, including Esther Gilboa, who came in from Israel. Her mother had immigrated to Palestine before the Holocaust, but her maternal grandparents, who remained behind, were murdered there. The Grybów ghetto was established in 1941 and liquidated in September 1942. Some 350 Jews were murdered and buried in a common grave at the time of the ghetto’s destruction, and the others were expelled to the Nowy Scz ghetto, which was itself annihilated only a few days later. Those who succeeded in surviving these two actions were in turn transported to the Belzec death camp, where they were murdered. Among the 1,776 names on the new monument are approximately 500 children.

“As an Olympic athlete who has represented Poland in competitions for many years, and as a member of the national squad, I always thought that someone who represents the country should be aware of its history,” says Popiela. He says that he first heard about the Jews of Poland only at age 20. “Until then, I had never heard of their tragic fate,” he said. Later on, out of a personal interest, he began to read “anything and everything about the Holocaust,” he says, and also kept up to date on the latest research about Jews, Poles and the Holocaust.

Now that his interest in Polish history has been juxtaposed with his interest in the history of the Jewish community, which before the Holocaust numbered 3 million people, his own city, Nowy Sacz, has assumed “a new face” for him. “I walked the streets of the city, in which 11,000 of its Jewish residents were murdered. Nothing any longer seemed the same to me. I could not understand how it happened that half of the city’s population vanished, but I didn’t even have a place where I could lay a wreath of flowers,” he said.

A memorial ceremony in the southeastern Polish town of Grybow, November 2019. Credit: Yatak Taran

Along with other friends from the city, he in recent years began to organize memorial ceremonies on the anniversary of the ghetto’s liquidation. At first, they were attended by only a few people. Now each such ceremony has hundreds of attendees.

Then he began making efforts toward building the monuments to Jews in other towns in the area. “In my mind’s eye, the idea is to cause society to be more sensitive to the fate of its fellow citizens, and to seek the faces behind the big numbers,” he says. On the website created to accompany his commemoration enterprises, he takes pains to also provide biographical information and pictures of the murdered. “The victims cease to be only a number. They become people with plans, dreams, loves, etc.,” he explains.

All of the work is carried out by volunteers, like him, drawn from the local communities. “There are no longer any Jews in these towns, and there is no one to look after these places,” he says. “We are acting on behalf of the victims. They cannot thank us. This is not something you do to receive thanks,” he says.

At the memorial ceremonies that he arranges, the names of residents of villages who were murdered hundreds of kilometers away from their homes in the death camps are read aloud, at times for the first time ever. “In this way we hold a symbolic memorial for them, in the place in which they were born and in the place in which their ancestors were buried,” he says. Rabbis, priests, mayors and schoolchildren take part in the ceremonies. “We are bringing the victims back to their homeland, we are restoring their memory,” he says proudly.

Dariusz Popiela, 34, is a professional kayaker.

As a father, he feels great sadness when he reads and hears the evidence of the Jews who went to their deaths together with their dear ones. “In Poland, bravery is associated mainly with a romantic notion of sacrificing one’s life for the homeland. But for me, the true heroes are those who tried to remain with their loved ones until the end during the Holocaust,” he says. “I consider myself a patriot, because I care about citizens who are oftentimes not remembered by anyone, and I consider it a challenge to uphold the memory of the forgotten,” he adds. “The word ‘patriot’ is frequently associated with nationalists from the far right, but I think that our actions are patriotic, because they come from the heart.”

Popiela is not alone. Throughout Poland, numerous organizations and private individuals are working, like him – raising funds, conducting archival research studies, cleaning and maintaining cemeteries, and building monuments in the memory of their Jewish neighbors. Some of them, like Forum for Dialogue, are taking on the toughest mission of all – ongoing maintenance of these sites following their restoration – with the help of schoolchildren and local “preservation trustees.”

Nevertheless, in spite of all the good will, due to the magnitude of the destruction, this activity constitutes merely a drop in the ocean, and there are hundreds of graveyards and other Jewish sites scattered across the large country that are not maintained, that are disintegrating, broken down and have been waiting for years for someone to rescue them from a state of oblivion.

Popiela is well aware of the tension in Israeli-Polish relations against the background of the debate over the role played by Poles in the Holocaust, the controversial “Holocaust Law,” and the debate between historians at Yad Vashem and their Polish counterparts over the degree of involvement of members of the Polish people in Nazi crimes vis-a-vis the victims that the Poles themselves sacrificed in World War II, and in view of the actions of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations.

“I come up against a tremendous lack of understanding and apathy, but I also encounter a lot of positive responses,” he says. “There are a lot of stereotypes and statements related to Polish or Israeli politics. Whenever I hear it, I immediately cut off the debate, and I remind the participants that this has nothing to do with the victims whose names we are commemorating. That usually works.”