Beautiful. That was the word Rabbi Mark Kiel used, over and over, to describe the reunion, earlier this month, of Jews from the Polish city of Czestochowa and their descendants.
What was beautiful about returning to the place where his mother had been interned in a slave-labor camp and where her first husband and sister were killed? What was beautiful about the place his father fled to the Soviet Union, and where his first wife who was Kiel’s aunt, his mother’s sister was killed as well?
Dr. Jerzy Mizgalski, left, who initiated the project to keep Jewish memory alive in Czestochowa, and Rabbi Mark Kiel stand inside the town’s sukkah. SSDS students made and sent decorations for the sukkah.
Kiel, who lives in Woodcliff Lake and is religious leader of Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson, reached into his memory for an answer.
"The first time I was there, some years ago, I was very angry," he said. The second time, he came away with mixed feelings. "I participated in an academic conference there, when the local professors gave papers on Jewish history in Czestochov," as the Jews who lived there called it. "The previous generation of Catholics," who were in the majority, "would never have interested themselves in Jewish history."
Kiel’s own talk "was mainly as a child of survivors and what we feel. It was very critical of the [Catholic] Church and of the town itself." He wondered if he would be censored. But his talk translated into Polish was included, uncensored, in the book resulting from that conference, published in time for this month’s gathering, "and I think that shows a real sense of cultural pluralism."
Another "very beautiful and positive sign" was the sukkah built for the reunion by the local fine arts high school. It accommodated a few hundred people, Kiel noted, and the decorations were made by Jewish children all over the world, including many from the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.
"The mood there was so festive," Kiel said. "I keep thinking about the connection we have with this new generation of Poles, and it would have been unimaginable, for both Jews and Catholics, before the war."
As for the Jews who’d traveled from all over the world for the reunion, from Oct. 9 to 1′, "people got to know each other, discovered relatives, found their histories in the archives, walked where our parents and grandparents had walked.
"The welcoming reception of the Poles was all-important," he stressed. "We weren’t interlopers. We weren’t just tourists. It was a pilgrimage."
"The most moving thing," said Kiel, "was going to Hasag," the labor camp where his mother had been imprisoned, and being guided there by Sigmund Rolat, the founder and president of the World Society of Czestochowa Jews and their Descendants.
Hasag is being renovated for an Italian textile firm, Kiel said, and there’s no sign or other marker there "to tell people what it was the labor camp where the Jewish population, about 40,000 in all, came to an end."
Also, he said, the group "went to see something I was not aware existed Umshlagplatz, the gathering place where Jews were assembled and put on trains to Treblinka. It’s in a horrible state of disrepair," Kiel noted, and the city is considering what to do about it.
But aside from glimpsing the past, "for me the most thrilling [encounter]," said Kiel, was a conversation with a young Catholic woman who said, "’A mechaya tzu herrin a vort Yiddish.’" She must be, Kiel mused, "the only Yiddish-speaker left in Czestochov."