A new exhibit at Hebrew Union College’s Skirball Museum uses photographs, documents and other objects to solemnly, reverently revisit a once-vibrant Polish Jewish community almost completely wiped out by the invading Nazi Germans.
As such, it packs an emotional wallop: a close-up consideration of all that was lost by Jews — and civilization in general — in the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II. But The Jews of Czestochowa: Coexistence-Holocaust-Memory, on display through July 1, also is a testament to the insistence of Holocaust survivors that the world respect and remember their lives. (The exhibit is co-sponsored by the Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education, which is bringing Elie Wiesel to the Cintas Center at Xavier University on Sunday evening. See interview on page 24.)
On Sept. 3, 1939 — two days after World War II formally started with Germany’s attack on Poland — the residents of the Czestochowa watched as Nazi tanks came rolling through their city’s main street. It was the first Polish city invaded. The Jews had special reason to be wary — genocidal anti-Semitism was a lynchpin of Nazi philosophy and about one-third of the city’s 120,000 residents were Jewish.
The city’s Jewish presence was vibrant and could be traced back several centuries. Besides synagogues, they had their own schools and guilds, had factories and operated children’s summer camps and even a home for the aged. The Germans moved to suppress the Jews, including confinement to a city ghetto. By the time of war’s end in 1945, most had been shipped off to concentration camps and exterminated. According to the records of the World Society of Czestochowa Jews and Their Descendants, just 5,200 were left in the city on the day of liberation. Only 1,518 of them had lived there before the war. (The Germans had gathered others from surrounding areas.) Throughout Europe, the Nazis eagerly led their meticulously organized genocide.
The president of the World Society, Sigmund A. Rolat, came to the Skirball for the show’s recent April opening, just after Holocaust Remembrance Day. Now 82, he had been born in Czestochowa and survived being a slave laborer for the Nazis at one of the city’s munitions plants. After the Holocaust ended with the Nazis’ defeat, he emigrated to the U.S., attended University of Cincinnati (and roomed at Hebrew Union College), and moved to New York for a career in business.
He was in a wheelchair at Skirball, but able to get up to approach a specific object to point out its importance. (Some are reproductions, including dramatic blow-ups, of documents and photographs since the originals are in museum collections.) For instance, he pointed to an innocuous-looking train schedule and said it was “the most shocking document you will see here.”
It recorded in meticulous detail the time that a train packed with Jews left Czestochowa for the Treblinka death camp in Poland, and then the return of the empty train to the city. Six such trains departed Czestochowa in 1942 — the first on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, in 1942. “The Germans are very good planners,” Rolat says. “Very exact. We were lucky enough to find in the German rail records the six trains that took the Czestochowa Jews to Treblinka.”
Rolat also commented on a tile from the city’s impressive 1893 New Synagogue, built in the heart of the city and the one he attended. On Christmas Day in 1939, the Germans burned it down. A large photo in the exhibit shows the structure in ruins after the arson — others show it during its proud heydays. “The next morning, hundreds of us gathered around the synagogue and cried,” Rolat said.
The World Society has held three reunions in Czestochowa since 2004, when this exhibit was presented there. A fourth, scheduled for Oct. 2-5 of this year, promises to have special significance. According to Rolat, the city at that time will formally name its Philharmonic Hall — built on the site of the New Synagogue — for world-famous violinist Bronislaw Huberman, a Czestochowa Jew born in 1882 who, among other accomplishments, founded in 1936 what eventually became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1948. Although he had left Poland well before the war and had found refuge from Nazis elsewhere, he died in Switzerland in 1947.
The Skirball Museum, at 3101 Clifton Ave., has visiting hours of 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.- noon Friday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Groups of five or more can make reservations for other times by calling 513-487-3053. Visit www.HUCinci.org for more details.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]