RABKA, Poland – While flipping through the pages of a book a friend had recommended on Jews in this town who survived the Holocaust, Narcyz Listkowski was startled to find a picture of his own house.
That is how he discovered he was living in the home of the last rabbi to have served the local Jewish community here, before it was decimated in the Holocaust.
Listkowski had always wondered about the strange room with the steps leading to a small empty pool in the basement. As he was to discover, that underground space had served as the town mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) – conveniently located in the rabbi’s house.
Intrigued by this new knowledge, Listkowski was anxious to learn more. Just a few yards away from his house, on a small hill, he noticed some unusual formations in the ground. After clearing the area, he understood these were the remnants of steps. But what was their purpose?
Old town records and maps revealed that they once led to the main synagogue in Rabka, destroyed by the Nazis in the spring of 1942.
Listkowski understood he had a calling. Today, the 40-year-old electrician devotes most of his spare time to commemorating the Jews who once lived in his hometown but had left few traces behind.
Judging by the passion in his voice, it is clearly a labor of love.
“It was not a coincidence that my family and I ended up living in the home of the rabbi,” says the father of three.
On weekends, when he’s not performing odd jobs, Listkowski tends the area around the site of the old synagogue, clearing the weeds and trimming the grass. If the opportunity arises, he loves to show visitors around. To catch the attention of accidental passersby, he has installed a large sign with photos near the old synagogue steps to explain the significance of the site.
By now, he is a local expert on the Jewish history of this small town in southern Poland, long known for its spas.
“That home over there,” he points from the hill overlooking his neighborhood, “that’s where the Trieger family lived. Over there, that was the house of the Appelbaums. A little to your left, the Wolfgassners lived in there.”
He also knows where every single Jewish-owned business in this town used to be located.
To make sure others are equally aware, Listkowski has posted a detailed map he created that contains all the pre-war Jewish sites on a local history blog.
He also guides Jewish-themed tours through the main town square and leads a commemoration walk every August, tracing the final route of the Jews of Rabka before they were deported to the Belzec extermination camp. Of the roughly 450 Jews who lived in the town before the war, only a handful survived.
There are no Jews in Rabka today.
Listkowski is part of a network of some 90 non-Jews from small towns around the country – volunteers in a special project aimed at raising awareness of the Jewish history of Poland. They often refer to themselves as “the guardians of Jewish memory.”
The project is sponsored by the Forum for Dialogue, an NGO founded 20 years ago with the aim of building bridges between non-Jewish Poles and Jews of Polish origin.
These “dialogue leaders,” as they are known, help preserve and maintain old Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. They compile Jewish histories of their towns; organize Holocaust commemoration events; and host Jewish visitors – oftentimes descendants of former residents.
“What prompted us was the realization that young Poles know so little today about the Jewish history of their country, especially the local Jewish history,” says Andrzej Folwarczny, 48, the founder and president of the Warsaw-based organization.
“Very often, in some of the former shtetls,” he says, using the Yiddish term for small and predominantly Jewish towns, “where Jews accounted for the majority, there are no signs left of Jewish life. Our mission was to change that.”
Like most Poles of his generation who grew up under communism, Folwarczny learned little, if anything, in school about the Holocaust. The idea of setting up an organization that would bring Jews and Poles together, he says, was planted on his first trip to Israel in 1995. At the time, he served as a member of the Polish parliament.
“I took the opportunity to meet with Holocaust survivors living in Israel, and we would talk about the history of the Jews in Poland,” he says. “Because they saw me as an official representative of the government, they would have nothing positive to say. But whenever I would get up to leave, they’d stop and ask how was life in Warsaw these days, or in Krakow, or in Lodz. I’d understand from this that, on the one hand, they hated Poland, but on the other they missed it.
“It was a very powerful experience for me,” adds Folwarczny, “and a great lesson about how Jews view Poland.”
Tadeusz Krolczyk hails from Ochotnica Górna, a picturesque village in the southern highlands region that was the site of famous battles between Polish partisans and the German army during World War II.
Of the 220 Jews who lived in the village before the war, fewer than 10 survived.
Over the past five years, Krolczyk – who owns and runs a translation business – has been collecting information on the Jews who once lived in this village, mainly through interviews with old-timers. Thus far, he has conducted close to 70 interviews.
As he escorts a visitor through the streets of the village, with its signature wooden houses, he points out which of them had belonged to Jews.
“My goal,” he says, “is to create a big matzeva [Hebrew for monument] with the names of all the Jews who once lived here who were wiped out.”
Two years ago, Krolczyk began organizing an annual festival in the village to celebrate its ethnic diversity. Several events in the program each year highlight the Jewish culture that once thrived here.
Jewish history as local heritage
Michal Bilewicz, director of the Center for Research on Prejudice, University of Warsaw, serves as vice president of the Forum for Dialogue. He estimates that somewhere between 20 to 25 percent of Poles share this interest in the Jewish history of their country.
“It’s important to understand that in Poland, people don’t move around as much as they do in other places, like the United States, so they feel very rooted to their towns,” he explains. “They consider the Jewish history of their towns an intrinsic part of their local heritage.”
If he had to characterize these people, he says, most of them vote for liberal parties and are well educated. “But not only,” he adds.
The flagship project of the Forum for Dialogue is a program that encourages schoolchildren around the country to study the Jewish history of their towns. Students participating in the program create walking tours that highlight points of Jewish interest in their respective towns. Often, local residents and visitors from abroad participate in the inaugural tours.
Since the program was initiated, Folwarczny says more than 300 schools and a total of 8,000 students have participated.
However, the controversial new law that seeks to censor discourse about the Holocaust in Poland has cast a shadow over the project’s future. The law, which was passed in parliament in January but is still pending review by the Constitutional Court, would make it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi war crimes against the Jews.
If it takes effect, leaders of the Forum for Dialogue fear that educators may conclude it is best to avoid the fraught subject of the Holocaust if they want to steer clear of trouble.
“Because of the controversy over this law, we feel that all we have been building is falling apart,” laments Folwarczny. “You hear anti-Semitic statements in the public sphere today that would have been completely unacceptable just three months ago,” he adds.
Initially, he worried that schools might not register for the program next year to avoid problems. “But we just recently had a staff meeting and I was told by our program coordinator that it looks like even more schools are interested now,” he relates. “Perhaps some feel that at times like this, there’s greater urgency to teaching this subject.”
He is hearing other voices as well, though. “I don’t want to generalize, but in the past I’d hear teachers involved in our program say they didn’t think other teachers in the school understood why they were doing what they were doing. It was not something that was explicitly said, though,” he says. “Now, for the first time, teachers in our program are reporting that they are getting negative comments. In other words, the other teachers aren’t staying quiet about what they think anymore.”
When asked how his neighbors view the commemoration work he does, Listkowski smiles to himself. “I would like to think they think it is something positive,” he says.
Initially, he recounts, some of his neighbors would call him “stupid” when they spotted him cutting the grass around the site of the old synagogue.
“Some of them thought I was getting paid to do it,” he adds. “I reassured them that I was not. Now I’m waiting for them to join me.”