A significant number of the Jews who settled in and around Paterson in the first half of the 20th century came from Bialystok, Poland. It was a logical move — Paterson, like Bialystok, was a major textile manufacturing center.
“Something unique happened when Jews immigrated to Paterson in the early 20th century,” David Wilson wrote in his 2012 book, “Images of America: Jews of Paterson.” “Instead of sewing shirtwaists and schmattahs in sweatshops, they came as skilled weavers from the Russian Polish textile centers of Lodz and Bialystok. They brought strong notions of social justice and living righteously; ideas that came alive during the 1913 Industrial Workers of the World silk strike. They raised families, became Americans, and reluctantly moved when the economic base collapsed.
“Despite this, Paterson Jews defend the aging, gritty city as a wonderful place, and they never left it spiritually or emotionally. Former and current residents of Paterson remember and honor the past as a bridge between the present and the future,” Mr. Wilson wrote.
But it’s not just the Jews of Paterson who hold fond memories of Bialystok. A group of non-Jewish Bialystok activists are interested in bringing alive memories of the once-vibrant villages of Poland, reconnecting the diaspora, and helping people trace their roots.
One such honorable man is Miroslaw Reczko.
Miroslaw “Mirek” Reczko was born in 1963 and grew up in the town of Ciechanowiec, one of the most ancient Jewish settlements in Poland.
Mr. Reczko, a devout Catholic, said his only childhood memories of Jews came from stories that his father, Jan, told him. “When my father was a boy, he apprenticed with a Jewish tailor, alongside a Jewish friend,” Mr. Reczko said. “When the war began, he was sent to East Prussia to serve as a tailor to German officers.
“When he returned to Ciechanowiec after the war, there was no trace of his friend or the Jewish tailor.” It wasn’t until February 1945 that his father learned that both his own home and his friend’s had been burned to the ground.
Throughout the last 30 years, Mirek Reczko’s formal education and professional experience as a historian, curator, translator, seminarian, politician, university leader, and hospital administrator have led not only to an impressive and diverse career, but to the realization of a dream.
Decades after the end of World War II, Mr. Reczko has made it his life’s work to discover and preserve the stories of the Jews who lived in hundreds of Polish villages and towns before and during the war. “My desire is to show both groups, Jews and Poles, what really happened to people in this country during the German occupation,” he said. “No generalizations, just the facts.”
Mr. Reczko uses what he’s learned from coursework on Jewish studies in the seminary where he studied for the priesthood before he decided that he was not right for that life — information gleaned from Jewish memorial books, working on the restoration of religious and Jewish cultural structures, extensive study of the atrocities of the Holocaust, discussions with his peers about Jewish-Polish relations during and after the war, and a continued focus on regional issues to ensure that people are educated about what happened to innocent Jews.
“I need to preserve the stories so they won’t be lost,” he said.
Beginning when he was 19, Mr. Reczko studied for the priesthood in Poland. “After three years in Drohiczyn and two years in Lodz, I decided to transfer to an American seminary,” he said. He’d heard of St. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The seminary, founded in 1885, prepared candidates for the Roman Catholic priesthood primarily to serve Polish American immigrant communities. “It was there that I learned and became fluent in English,” he said. After seven years of study to become a priest, Mr. Reczko decided to change his direction. He applied and was accepted to the University of Detroit Mercy, a Catholic university, where he studied history and economics. It was there that he earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in history.
“I met Rabbi Richard Hertz, a professor of Jewish studies, there,” he said. Rabbi Hertz, who served under President Dwight Eisenhower as a special envoy to the Soviet Union, was a writer, speaker, and advocate for the Jewish community. “It was Hertz who piqued my interest in the Jewish experience both before and after World War II,” Mr. Reczko said. “Rabbi Hertz has expressed his gratitude to the university for providing an opportunity to reach many people who knew little or nothing about Judaism.”
Rabbi Hertz was one of the first to teach in the new field of Jewish studies, including classes in the Holocaust, introduction to Judaism, biblical studies, and modern European Jewish history.
Eager to learn more, Mr. Reczko went to the public library in West Bloomfield, Michigan, which held an extensive collection of more than 80 Yizkor memorial books. “I was delighted to locate the Memorial Book of Ciechanowiec,” he said. “I’d seen Xeroxed copies of the introduction translated to English while in Poland, but this volume, written in Yiddish, is the third largest of all the Yizkor books in the world.”
After 10 years in North America, Mr. Reczko decided to return to Poland. “My father was ill, and I wanted to be closer, to support my mother and to take care of him,” he said. Mr. Reczko’s father died in 1998, and his mother, Jadwga, died eight years later. She “was so proud of my interest in Polish-Jewish relations,” he said.
Mr.Reczko became a teacher — but first he had to go through a process to prepare for that career.
“The languages typically taught in Polish schools, from elementary through high school, were Russian and German, not English,” he said. “If you wanted to be a teacher, you’d have to undergo pedagogical preparation — my academic preparation was in history. While I spoke Russian, and some German, I took a teaching course and secured a job teaching English from 1993 to 1999.”
Next, he became headmaster of the junior high school. Eventually, Mr. Reczko ran for mayor of Ciechanowiec; he won the election and held the office for 12 years.
Because the former mayor essentially had cut off the city’s relationship with Jewish clergy, Mr. Reczko’s first goal as mayor was to reestablish a connection. “Rabbi Michael Schudrich of Warsaw and Lodz, who now serves as the chief rabbi of Poland, contacted me concerning a number of properties that needed to be rebuilt,” Mr. Reczko said. “He’d learned that I was interested in Jewish causes, so we formed an agreement to rebuild property that had been abandoned, destroyed, or in a state of disrepair.
“Schools, mikvahs, cemeteries, synagogues, and trade schools relevant to Jewish history needed to be restored,” he continued. “We could apply for funding to the Ministry of Culture, request funds for their restoration through the European Union, or use our own local funds.”
Ciechanowiec’s residents worked together to renovate the city’s synagogues from 2009 to 2020. “We have refurbished the New Synagogue and the Old Synagogue, each serving as a place of worship, a cultural center, and a concert hall/cinema,” he said.
But Mr. Reczko’s true passion was centered on the history of the Jewish people. “Beginning in 2013, I was determined in my efforts to make contact with people all over the world who had been born in Ciechanowiec or had parents or grandparents they wanted to learn more about,” he said.
“It all began with a young boy named Lejb ‘Leon’ Orlinski,” Mr. Rezko said.
“In 1942, during the liquidation of the Ciechanowiec ghetto, a 1- year-old boy, Lejb Orlinski, was dropped by his parents on a remote farm, where he was raised by a Christian family,” he continued. “When he was 5, soon after the war ended, a Jewish soldier, Simcha Strosman, from Ciechanowiec, found him, and connected him with a Jewish organization for displaced Jewish children in Lodz that arranged adoption to Jewish families in Israel, formerly Palestine. There, he was adopted by the Apel family and his name was changed to Aryeh Apel. After his adoptive mother died, he learned his own history and got in touch with the Polish family who had kept him safe during the war.
“It wasn’t until 2006 that Aryeh located documents about his upbringing,” Mr. Reczko said. Then, while browsing through a used bookstore in Israel, Mr. Apel found the Yizkor book from Ciechanowiec. “I never knew of another institution other than the public library in West Bloomfield that had this book — a book that would only be of interest to survivors and the extended families of those who contributed to it,” he said. So when Mr. Apel visited Mr. Reczko, now mayor of Ciechanowiec, in 2013, “knowing my interest in Polish-Jewish history, he brought me the book and added a personal inscription,” Mr. Reczko said.
In 2017, Polish politicians decided that the country’s mayors would be limited to two terms. So in 2019, Mr. Reczko, who found himself term-limited and was fascinated with a wide range of Jewish concerns, decided to work toward a doctorate in liberal arts and history at the University of Bialystok. “My thesis was largely influenced by the stories I’d read in so many of the Yizkor books and research I’d done specific to Polish relations with Jews and a wide range of Jewish issues,” he said.
A year later, he published his findings in a book titled “How the Devil Enlarged His Kingdom.” Working with volunteer translators from the United States and Eastern Europe throughout the last decade, he is committed to translating more Yizkor books to Polish and publishing them. “The first of our efforts, the Memorial Book of the Jewish Community of Lomza, translated to Polish and published in 2019, was the result of funding from the Polish Ministry of Culture,” Mr. Reczko said. “The distinction is important because translation is easy, but we are also publishing the books from each local village, one book at a time.
“That costs money.”
Mr. Reczko hopes the descendants of the Jewish families who had lived in Poland will look at these books. “I also hope that Poles, who may have been shielded from the experiences of Jews during that time, will learn, understand, respect, and empathize with what their friends and neighbors went through,” he said.
More than 100 Yizkor books already have been translated to English from their original Yiddish and Hebrew, and JewishGen has published 66 of them. Mr. Reczko and his colleagues have successfully translated six of them to Polish and published those versions. Now, “people throughout the world can read them and learn about what were once vibrant Jewish communities before their dissolution,” Mr. Reczko said.
“The idea of creating some kind of Jewish museum in Bialystok haunted my friend and collaborator, Tomasz Wisniewski, for decades,” he continued. “In 1982, when I was just finishing high school, Tomasz, who was born and raised in Bialystok, was arrested as a member of the Independent Students’ Association for writing newspaper articles that weren’t complimentary to the Polish government of the time.” While imprisoned in Bialystok, Mr. Wisniewski, who was Catholic and had little knowledge of the Jewish experience, came across a book in the prison library titled “Jewish Uprising in the Bialystok Ghetto.” “He didn’t know any Jews,” Mr. Reczko said. “Those Jews who’d survived had left Poland and moved to the United States in the ’60s.”
Once he was released from prison, Mr. Wisniewski, whom Mr. Reczko described as “a journalist by passion,” began collecting information about Jews and the thousands of synagogues that had been destroyed. In 1992, with support from a group of businessmen who offered to print it, Mr. Wisniewski prepared “Bożnice Białostocczyzny” — in English that’s “Synagogues of the Bialystok Region.”
“When the people who’d agreed to fund the project reneged on their offer, Tomasz was left with the bill, uncertain how to pay for the 10,000 copies he’d had printed!” Mr. Reczko said. “After his car, furniture, and TV were confiscated by the police because he couldn’t pay, he began giving copies away to non-Jews in an effort to spread the message of the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust.”
Mr. Wisniewski began filming people who were willing to speak about the experience of Jews in the years before and during World War II. “Decades later, his YouTube channel reveals hundreds of documentaries, movies, pictures, and artifacts about and from the Bialystok region and the shtetlekh,” Mr. Reczko said.
Although Mr. Reczko and Mr. Wisniewski live about an hour’s drive apart, their shared interests brought them close. They’d schedule meetings every few months to discuss issues related to the Jews, both current and past. “While we were both busy doing many things professionally, we shared our research and contacts,” Mr. Reczko said. “In April of 2019, when I changed positions and became chancellor of the Bialystok University of Technology, Tomasz and I began to meet weekly.”
Mr. Reczko said that Mr. Wisniewski was obsessed with creating a Jewish space in Bialystok, a place of learning and discussion that would be “culturally and historically alive.”
Mr. Reczko and Mr. Wisniewski had originally planned to run the Museum of the Jewish People of Bialystok in a specific place. “We envisioned, with support from local authorities, a small and thoughtful place devoted to our mutual passion for remembrance,” Mr. Reczko said. “A few hundred people signed a petition to collect outside funds, but due to the lack of support from the city authorities (with the exception of a meaningless declaration of support), we decided to launch a virtual museum.”
In May 2023, after years spent trying to create a space, or “Place,” as Mr. Reczko and Mr. Wisniewski prefer to call it, the Museum of the Jews of Bialystok, an organization of non-Jewish local historians, activists, and history enthusiasts, opened its first permanent space, where it can host exhibitions, films, talks, presentations, weekly meetings, and discussions about Bialystok Jewish history and culture.
When Mr. Wisniewski retired from his work with cultural centers, exhibitions, and galleries around Bialystok, he was able to devote all his time to the museum. “Tomasz has connected with hundreds of people via Facebook, phone, and email and has engaged innumerable donors and financial supporters — from local Poles to Jews all over the world,” Mr. Reczko said. Both men are proud of the Jewish Place’s website, which is rich with Jewish documents and films.
“We have contact with real people,” Mr. Reczko said. “Our last meeting at the Place included three Jews on Zoom who’d lived in Bialystok in the 1940s and emigrated to California, Australia, and Jerusalem in 1968. Two of them were children of parents who had perished in the Holocaust or survived Soviet Russia.” A collection of 40 panels about the history of the region are available for viewing. Visitors come to the Place daily and generally make a contribution during the visit; members support it with monthly payments.
Mr. Reczko’s team of Yizkor book translators includes one who lives in Connecticut and another in California. Mr. Reczko spends his afternoons and evenings doing a minimum of three hours of translation from English to Polish. “It takes two years to produce a memorial book,” he said. “We are painstaking about making contact with the offspring of the Jews of that time to get the correct spelling of the names of those in the shtetl and the names of the villages and towns. Our team is working on several books simultaneously.” Mr. Reczko is responsible for editing the books.
“Our website, offered in Polish and in English, is visited daily, by those looking for the places their ancestors lived and seeking documents that are relevant to their families,” he said. “Viewers visit our website and Facebook page in large numbers, from countries all over the globe. I am very happy I can do what I’m doing because it’s important for both Poles and Jews.
“Life in each little town was different, but without hearing the stories from the people who lived it, we tend to generalize. There are peculiarities that we find out from each shtetl, remarkable details and ideas I never knew existed before.
“It’s been fascinating for me. I am learning directly from the sources about real people with real stories, personalities, and behaviors.”
Mr. Reczko says he often has to step back from the horror, grief, and tragedy inherent in his work.
He said that after a book is translated and published, a group of editors go to its town to promote it. “We gather people from the area for book signings and purchases,” he said. “I try to move people in my discussions with them, evoking information that was either unknown or unspoken. Overall, the meetings are emotional.”
Mr. Reczko was pleased that seven of Jewish Place board members have received the prestigious Polin Award, which the Polin Museum of the History of the Polish Jews gives to people, organizations, or institutions actively engaged in the preservation of the memory of the history of Polish Jews.
During the last five years, Mr. Reczko and his colleagues have translated 25 books memorializing communities across the country to Polish, and the society has printed six of them, — from Łomża, Stawiski, Zambrów, Ciechanowiec, Białystok, and Jedwabne. “In a short time, the memorial book of Wysokie Mazowieckie will be printed,” he said. “Three more are already translated and being edited.”
To learn more about the work of Mirek Reczko and Tomasz Wisniewski and those who support their exhibits, presentations, and projects, go to the Jewish Place at www.jewishbialystok.pl; click on the small box at the top right marked EN to see the website in English.