Szymon MODRZEJEWSKI from Magurycz Association
one of Winners
EUROPA NOSTRA PRIZE
The six Grand Prix winners are:
• Station Antwerpen Centraal (Antwerp Central Station), Antwerp, Belgium
• Preindustrial buildings in Ademuz / Sesga, Ademuz, Valencia, Spain
• The Hackfall woodland garden, Grewelthorpe, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom
• Architectural heritage of the buffer zone in the walled city of Nicosia, Cyprus
• Szymon Modrzejewski, Uście Gorlickie, Poland
• Weald & Downland open air museum, Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom
More information available on EUROPA NOSTRA website
article in Polish newspaper: HERE
The story of one extraordinary Pole's work to salvage Jewish headstones
The story of one extraordinary Pole's work to salvage Jewish headstones
by John Crust
– "This is a zaddick, a real zaddick", filmmaker Menachem Daumsaid gently, escorting an elderly woman from the Poland , Chedva Bornstein, as he motioned toward a display about Ireneusz Ślipek. "This man was in United States Warta…" A black and white picture showed the Polish man standing proud in the Jewish cemetery he cherished and loved.
For more than 20 years, Ślipek (pronounced shlee-pek) took care of the old Jewish cemetery in the town of
. Upon his own initiative, Jewish headstones scattered about town, used for anything and everything, including the foundation to an outhouse, were retrieved and returned to the cemetery. It is said that this man, by himself, collected more than 1,000 headstones. Warta
Ślipek is a kind of folk hero among the Polish volunteers that take care of the old cemeteries and other Jewish heritage sites in
. The elderly pensioner died suddenly in May 2006, after a day doing what he loved most, toiling about and taking care of his Jewish cemetery. Yet he is very much alive today, and he has his followers. In his memory, a conference, called the first of its kind in Poland , was organized two years ago in Zduńska Wola for volunteers that donate their time and energy to preserve Jewish historical sites. The second such conference was recently held in the town of Poland . Szczekociny
“I loved this Mr. Ślipek", said Kamila Klauzińska, who helps organize a team of young volunteers that takes care of the old Jewish cemetery in Zduńska Wola. "He gave me a little of his light". Curiously, one of her volunteers, Jakub "Kuba" Pawelec, was in
studying Yiddish. Klauzińska, who is about to complete a doctoral degree in Jewish studies in Kraków, initiated the idea to start the biennial conference for these volunteers. "I had this conference in my heart", she said. It simply made sense to start to network and exchange ideas. “They will organize a third conference. It’s really great". Israel
It was a pleasant day in early July, with intervals of sun and rain. An Israeli flag and a Polish flag marked the front of the Szczekociny Secondary School Complex. The conference speakers ranged from a mild-mannered, middle-aged priest to a young man in red jeans, a black T-shirt, and sporting something of a Mohawk hairstyle.
In videos and slide presentations, people from hidden-away places such as
and Rymanów illustrated clean-up projects in cemeteries, restoration efforts in historical buildings, and educational programs that embrace the Jewish heritage of their hometowns. The images were captivating: young people with rakes; children cleaning headstones; data being gleaned from the stones; tractors carting off debris; an old tire and bottles being hauled away; Polish and Israeli youth meeting and working together; beautiful stone art and Hebrew engravings shining upon the landscape. In one report, there were pictures of tents pitched near an isolated cemetery where volunteers camped out and worked away at a secluded location deep in the Polish countryside where horse-drawn wagons are still a common sight. Będzin
Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, opened the conference in Polish with some introductory words, calling these people "heroes", and saluting them with a heart-felt “dziękuje” – dzien-koo-yeh – thank you.
Zygmunt Rolat, a Holocaust survivor originally from
and the chairman of the North American Council of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews scheduled to open in Częstochowa in 2012, described his joy at seeing Polish youth actively involved in the third annual Szczekociny Festival of Jewish Culture held the previous day. "I’m very, very impressed", Rolat said of the conference, which he co-sponsored. "I didn’t expect the conference to be as good as it was". Jewish people abroad need to see what is being done at this local level, he said. Warsaw
If Ireneusz Ślipek is a symbol of what one person can accomplish, Szczekociny no doubt is a great example of what a community can do. Yossi Bornstein, the chairman of the Szczekociny Jewish Organization of Survivors in
, was all smiles. And to think so much of this began with the push, again and again, to get their father, Izyk Mendel Bornstein, a survivor of six Nazi camps, to take them back to this mystery hometown, the shtetl, in Israel . The senior Bornstein was the only member of his family to survive the war. He had little desire to ever go back. At age 80, he finally agreed to a family trip to Poland in August 2004. Poland
"Always my father described the synagogue – a huge and very nice synagogue, decorated and colorful", said Bornstein, his yarmulke suggesting a certain Jewish defiance, determination. "He saw a warehouse. Only walls, no roof". The abandoned building was in the process of being developed as a piece of commercial real estate. "My father said, ‘That can’t be the synagogue' He was shocked. Our guide said, ‘No, this is the synagogue". The greater shock hit when they discovered where the Jewish cemetery once stood. "Then we saw the public toilet at the site of the cemetery…"
Bornstein was suddenly pulled away by his Polish friends. The conference was winding down and everyone wanted a group picture. "Could everybody just wave good-bye", Menachem Daumcalled out, as he and two other people snapped pictures.
Bornstein, smiling graciously, returned, apologetic.
He continued to tell the story. "I swore to myself I’m going back to
and I’m pulling down that toilet. How come on the most holy place you put the most evil…?" His words broke off. This was the resting place of great-grandparents, among other relatives. "I went to the mayor. I said, ‘How could you build a public toilet on those graves?’ He said, ‘We need a public toilet'". The public washrooms were used by people at the central bus station. "I said, ‘If your parents were buried there would you put a public toilet there?’ He was shocked. He was going, ‘What can I do?'"The land was now private property, the mayor explained, adding that people had complained before and the washrooms remained. Bornstein’s answer: "You don’t know me". Israel
Bornstein launched "a huge campaign". Letters were written. The media was contacted. There were return trips. Bornstein himself stood in the town center handing out leaflets clarifying what it was the Jewish descendants of this town of 5,000 wanted. “At the beginning the people were frightened,” he said. "They thought the Jewish people were going to take their property. We said we only want the Jewish holy places. We said we only want the holy places because it’s holy for us".
Gradually, more and more of the locals sided with Bornstein. "It took us two years of demonstrations", he said. Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the President of Poland at the time, issued a demand: the washrooms must be removed. The demolition began in July 2006.
“After the war, all the gravestones were destroyed,” said Agnieszka Piśkiewicz, a conference co-organizer. "The Germans bombed it. People took the stones for building purposes". There were two Jewish cemeteries, the older one and the newer one. A luxurious private home and the public washrooms were built on one of the cemetery lots; a factory was put up on the other parcel of land. "People didn’t think someone like Yossi would come here after 60 years. People say they saw the bones and they were thrown in the garbage. Someone said her child was playing with some skulls".
Piśkiewicz, a young English teacher in nearby
who grew up in Szczekociny, shook her head with disbelief. "I myself do not understand it". She can’t explain what happened immediately after the war or during the latter decades of the old Communist regime. She referred to a Polish poem by Nobel Prize-winning poet Wysława Szymborska. "After every war you need someone to clean up” – but now it’s the emotional clean-up. "I feel this generation is able to do it. I do it because I feel it. I feel it’s something I should do". Częstochowa
There is an on-going effort to collect the bits and pieces of Jewish headstones that can be found. "Even now, I can show you gravestones in the pavement", Bornstein said. A local resident has agreed to allow the Szczekociny Jewish Organization to store the stone fragments in her yard. The stones are expected to be used to build a monument to commemorate Jewish Szczekociny.
As well, questions linger about the use of the old synagogue building. The first floor currently houses a cosmetic shop; the second floor has a restaurant. "I’d like to see it as a life museum, not only as a monument, but a cultural site as well", Bornstein said.
So far, the accomplishments in this small Polish town are impressive: a book on Jewish Szczekociny has been written in Polish, the Szczekociny Jewish memorial book has been translated into Polish, a conference on Jewish Szczekociny was held, an Israeli-Polish school exchange program has been implemented, with the Szczekociny Secondary School Complex under the leadership of assistant principal Mirosław Skrzypczyk playing a major role in a number of projects.
"Every year we’re progressing", Bornstein said. "This year, for the first time, they put a fence around the cemetery with a sign" – the cemetery site where the public washrooms once stood. "It was a parking space for a supermarket".
The conference was capped with a beautiful video, which included scenes from the first annual Szczekociny Festival of Jewish Culture in 2008. Polish youth sing Hebrew folk songs. Elderly Jewish visitors clap and dance. Izyk Mendel Bornstein is up there dancing. It’s a jubilant moment. He died
Dec. 11, 2008 in , grateful that he had made that initial trip back. Agnieszka Piśkiewicz helped him write his life story, "B-94: The Spirit of the Survivor", just recently published. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
As Menachem Daumbegan to pack his film equipment, he expressed a bit of a dilemma. He had filmed the entire conference. The documentary filmmaker, who made the well-received film “Hiding and Seeking,” wants to make a film about the Polish volunteers preserving Jewish heritage sites. This latest project was proving to be a little more difficult than he thought. A good film needs conflict, a bad guy. "Everyone is a saint", he said. He grinned. Of course, this kind of frustration he welcomed.