The Lost Shul of Bedzin: Uncovering Poland's Once-vibrant Jewish Community

The Great Synagogue of Bedzin, Poland was destroyed by the Nazis 75 years ago this week, ending four centuries of Jewish presence in the town.

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In the shadow of the medieval castle of King Casimir the Great, the small cube monument with a menorah on its side hardly commands attention. But this spot, where the Great Synagogue of Bedzin once stood, was considered the heart and soul of a town known as the Jerusalem of Zaglebie, the southwest region of Poland. On the 75th anniversary of the synagogue’s destruction it’s about to become a focal point again, thanks to a group dedicated to preserving the region’s Jewish heritage.

“Jews had lived in Bedzin since the 16th century and made up the oldest and most significant Jewish community in the region,” says Piotr Jakoweńko, who co-founded the Brama Cukierman [Zukerman’s gate] Foundation along with his wife Karolina, who holds a graduate degree in Jewish studies from Jagiellonian University in Krakow and is a certified educator at the Yad Vashem Institute for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem.

“Before World War II there were 30,000 Jews in Bedzin who made up half of the city’s population, and more than 60,000 Jews lived in Zaglebie, making it a larger Jewish population than Krakow’s,” says Piotr Jakoweńko.

When the Nazis marched into the area on September 4, 1939 they destroyed Jewish businesses, seized personal property and five days later, torched the main synagogue on Wzgorze Zamkowe [Castle Hill] in Bedzin as congregants gathered for Shabbat. It was the first synagogue in Zaglebie to be destroyed. The flames not only burned the grand, Romanesque structure erected in 1881 to the ground, they engulfed five neighboring buildings. Those who managed to escape the deadly embers were shot and mostly killed by the Germans. After the fire, Bedziners tried to salve bricks from the synagogue.

These days, the dilapidated blocks and crumbling buildings that lead from the monument to the nearby Gothic church, where a few congregations were able to seek refuge, still seem charred. The air in this squalid neighborhood is still thick with the acrid fumes of loss.

“During that tragic night, 60 people were burned to death and a vibrant community was extinguished,” says Jakowenko. “Our aim with the commemoration is to recall the grandeur of the synagogue, which was a city landmark, and to reflect on the tragedy that befell the Jewish population of Bedzin.”

A walk down the hill, past the synagogue’s marker, bears evidence of a community once intricately woven into the fabric of life here.

“This is the old square where the fish market was,” says Cukierman Foundation board member Prof. Aleksandra Namyslo, a Yad Vashem scholar, lead researcher at the Institute of National Remembrance in nearby Katowice, and author and curator of “Before the Holocaust Came: The Situation of Jews in Zaglebie during the German Occupation” and other historical accounts of Jewish life in the region.

Now the intersection of cobblestone alleys near Podzamcze Street is overrun with scraggly weeds and as vacant as the thatch roof huts facing it. But 100 years ago, the place was bustling with merchants selling carp and trout in big buckets from nearby rivers.

Namyslo points out a small plywood structure protruding from the back of a prewar residential building. “That was used for a sukkah,” she says. A few houses down, the railings of a balcony reveal a menorah pattern, barely visible under piles of jeans and T-shirts now flung over it. Across the next street, a gold-brick building with a red roof and large arched main entrance lies boarded up. “That was another synagogue,” says Namyslo.

Uninterested locals

Clearly the act of preservation is a difficult one in a city racked with high unemployment and whose main priority isn’t exactly salvaging buildings belonging to an extinct population. Add to that decades of Communist rule, in which whatever relics of Jewish life remained were further decimated. Tombstones were used for construction, whether to erect buildings or pave roads. Synagogues were left to rot or converted into stores, warehouses or schools.

Although there is a renewed effort to revive Jewish culture in Poland – this year alone boasted some 40 festivals – the burden of revitalizing Jewish monuments usually falls on individual municipalities. And with limited funds and no real interest from the general population, local governments like Bedzin’s are hardly committed to the enterprise.

But that hasn’t stopped Brama Cukiermana from making major cultural contributions to the region’s Jewish legacy. They began by restoring the walls of a former shtiebel (communal prayer hall) found on the second floor of a now run-down tenement building once owned by the Cukierman family, and established their foundation.

“When I finished graduate school, I wanted to do something to preserve my hometown’s rich Jewish history,” says Karolina Jakowenko. “The government said they had no work for us, but then told us we could rent the apartment where a synagogue had been and that it contained frescoes buried under layers of paint. We paid for it out of our own pockets – and still do – but also started raising funds to renovate the murals, conduct educational tours and produce audio guides. We now host schoolchildren and tourists eager to discover their Jewish roots.”

One of those groups is the Zaglebie Organization from Israel, which is sending a delegation for the 75th commemoration on Sept. 8, which will include an educational session at the former Szymon Furstenberg School at 5 Teatralna Street, and memorial service at the synagogue monument on Castle Hill. Second- and third-generation Bedziners from the United States and throughout Europe are also expected to attend the ceremony and lecture.

Steeped in Judaic lore

Though Brama Cukierman met with delegates from the U.S. Holocasut Memorial Museum in August, it says most heritage tours of Poland don’t stop in this post-industrial sprawl that lurks half-an-hour from Auschwitz, played a pivotal role during the Holocaust and is immortalized in books like Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” largely set in nearby Sosnowiec. The SS set up their slave labor network, Organization Schmelt, from a Jewish vocational school in Sosnowiec they turned into a transit camp, known as the “Dulag.”

Because of its proximity to the German border, Zaglebie was annexed as part of the Third Reich, and SS military commander Heinrich Himmler chose the town of Zawierce to build the Luftwaffe factory, which is why its ghetto was one of the last to be liquidated, along with Sosnowiec’s Srodula and Bedzin’s Kamionka, where a cattle car now stands as an eerie memorial to the thousands of lives lost.

Bedzin’s Jews may all be gone, but their roots are deep. In 2004, a survivor from the area remembered the location of a subterranean synagogue, leading a local official to the courtyard of a building on Potoki Street. There, behind the rubble, a house of worship was found. Because of its underground location, its lushly painted walls depicting holy sites like Rachel’s tomb, the 12 tribes, the Hebrew months and even the Jewish Zodiac had been improbably preserved, but needed repair. It had belonged to the Mizrahi congregation, established by local merchant Jakub Chil Winer in the basement of his building.

The Mizrahi synagogue took five years to renovate, reopening in 2012, a project undertaken with government funding. But these days it’s largely grass-roots, non-profit initiatives like Brama Cukierman that are dedicated to such tasks. The six-year-old foundation launched a historic trail project in 2009, putting up plaques of prewar Jewish businesses in Bedzin and the neighboring cities of Dabrowa-Gornicza and Sosnowiec, duplicating the stores’ original signs and reminding locals of a thriving community that had been buried.

In a region where Torah scrolls, tombstones and religious artifacts are still being discovered, there seems to be an endless list of projects for Brama Cukierman to undertake. They recently filed a 50-page report on the cemeteries of Silesia, for which they received an EU grant. But they still rely on private funding to accomplish their goals.

“Although it’s been 25 years since the fall of the Communist system in Poland, the attitude from local governments has not really changed for the better,” says Piotr. “That is why we need to educate the local community so they can learn that the Jewish legacy is really our common heritage.”

To foster cultural exchange, the Zaglebie Organization in Israel hosts a group of schoolchildren each year from the region and meets with local youth to repair relationships between Jews and Poles. Healing past wounds isn’t going to restore the Great Synagogue or Bedzin’s five-century-old Jewish community, but it is a victory against Hitler and signals hope for the future.

Perhaps the greatest reward for Brama Cukierman was when they were contacted by a Liolla Fattal from Stockholm, a great grand-daughter of Nuchim Cukerman, the man who built the complex that houses the shteibel they restored.

“She came and toured the building and couldn’t believe how beautiful the walls were,” says Karolina, surrounded by gorgeous frescoes depicting Jerusalem and other holy sites in vivid shades of gold, red, orange, green and blue. “After her visit, she told me how moved she was that someone here cared for her ancestral home. We now are close like family.”

And how has the work changed Karolina?

“I grew up in Bedzin, but didn’t know its Jewish history,” says the 34-year-old new mother, cradling her six-month-old daughter Helena. “Now that I know what happened, I couldn’t raise a family here. We are committed to commemorating Jewish life here, but we moved outside the city.”

For more information on the commemoration or Brama Cukierman, visit www.bramacukermana.com