Can You Really Go Home? Reclaiming A Jewish Cemetery in Poland
Time is a strange thing. An important idea that has gestated for years can suddenly come to fruition in a matter of days. About 10 years ago, I found out that Joe Gellman, the younger brother of a childhood friend, was trying to reclaim the Jewish cemetery in the town of Kaluszyn, Poland, home of my father. The town was one of hundreds in Poland where over 3 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Kaluszyn lost over 6,000 Jews. A handful survived and no Jews now live there. Joe Gellman and his family grew up in Charleston, S.C., where I was also born. His maternal grandparents were born in Kaluszyn, just like my father.
Before World War II, Kaluszyn was a small town of under 10,000 people. About 60 percent were Jewish. Today, the town has only 3,000 residents, none of whom are Jews; all signs have disappeared that Jews and Jewish culture once thrived there. The Nazis flattened the town, a resistance city during the early days of the war, and used Jews as slave labor to tear down their synagogue and remove all headstones from the two cemeteries. All of the rubble, and all of the Jewish memories that rubble represented, was used to pave a runway nearby for the Nazi ”killing machine” in Poland. Perhaps this is why when Joe visited there 10 years ago he had such an empty feeling. But he decided he should do something about it.
Within months, Joe enlisted the assistance of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland to acquire the abandoned cemetery with its ownership moved to the Foundation. His goal was to build a monument to honor the memories of those who were robbed of them in death. For eight years, I asked Joe if I could help him, and two years ago he finally agreed. Our journey to re-consecrate the cemetery property culminated on Sept. 14, 2017, with the dedication of a beautiful and haunting monument. The dedication ceremony was 78 years after Kaluszyn fell to Nazi forces, which happened to be on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, 5700.
In the two years leading up to the consecration, I found about 180 of the descendants of Kaluszyn and asked for their support. Joe, who now lives in Jerusalem, worked with a fellow American, also now living in Israel, to design our monument, which was built and paid for thanks to the generosity of people in Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta, Detroit, England, Israel and other places around the world.
My first effort was to find donors and by luck I found Mark Upfal, Harvy Berman and their extended families of the Detroit- Ann Arbor areas. Mark and Harvy’s parents were among the survivors of the destruction of Kaluszyn. Each of them had stories that could have been cast as movies.
My travels have taken me to many countries but, until now, I’d chosen to never visit Poland. So my anxiety began to grow as I anticipated a Sept. 11 departure for the dedication ceremony on Sept. 14. I would be visiting a forbidden place. And then Hurricane Irma bore down on Atlanta, and I wondered if this was an omen from my ancestors, warning me that I had made a mistake in supporting this project.
After some sleepless nights, I decided I had to go! I decided to leave early for Amsterdam, but refused to change my arrival in Poland because I still didn’t feel “welcomed” yet. There would be so much dark history there.
There were 15 of us in our group: some people I had talked into contributing to the project, and Joe’s group consisting of the designer, Ken Goldman, and his wife Sandy, Joe’s sister and a personal friend of Joe. We met in Warsaw and became fast friends. It was so strange to think that if not for all the turmoil in the world eight decades ago we might have grown up as friends in Kaluszyn.
Before we traveled to Kaluszyn, we spent a day in Warsaw, where we were able to take a private tour of many Jewish sites. Photo records show that virtually everything in Warsaw was destroyed in World War II. Monuments now mark the significant spots such as the bridge between the small and large ghetto and Mila 18. Only a fragment of the ghetto wall remains. A beautiful museum traces Polish Jewish history and contains a wonderful replica of a small synagogue.
On the morning of the dedication the 15 of us and about 30 other people boarded a bus for the 45 minute ride to Kaluszyn. When we arrived at the cemetery, I was pleased to see the majestic monument standing tall and proud in the open field, the only marker in the town to show that Jews once lived here. There were signs that today’s Jews are now finding this site. Stones and Yartzeit candles already lined the base of the monument like tiny mourners standing vigil. We had done a good thing for our fellow Jews!
The ceremony was understandably emotional. More than 100 people were there, including four representatives of the U.S. government, the Israeli ambassador to Poland, the Catholic priest of the parish, the chief rabbi of Poland, a group of local people and the schoolchildren of the town.
Joe made a very moving speech about the history of this community and the significance of the date of the event. It will be one of my greatest accomplishments to have done some small part to help those departed souls rest and help those who desire to pay their respects. No visitor will have to feel the emptiness that Joe felt 10 years ago. Of course, there are so many more communities to remember. And even within Kaluszyn, our goal is to place more markers commemorating other significant Jewish sites.
But while the dedication was the crowning highlight, one of the most moving experiences of our trip was immediately after our dedication ceremony. Our group was already emotional when we engaged two strangers at the site of the Berman family home and factory. One woman was a retired schoolteacher who shared how they continue to teach about the “lost” Jewish culture that existed in Kaluszyn before the war. The second lady, born in 1931, shared how she witnessed the Nazis shoot and kill a boy about her own age at the time. She shared that dreams of that event still haunt her to this day because she was powerless to prevent such a heinous crime against humanity, the killing of an innocent child for no reason other than his religion.
Over those two days in Poland, I felt time collapse as I was drawn back to the place where my ancestors had once lived. It was joyful. It was sorrowful. One job ended and another job began.
Ed Goldberg is a retired Banker and Real Estate Developer. He and his wife live in Atlanta, Georgia. Having visited over 50 countries, he considers the goals and purpose of visiting his father’s home town and erecting the memorial monument to be among the most rewarding spiritual accomplishments in which he has been privileged to participate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was originally published in the Atlanta Jewish Times.