Polish synagogue renovation brings sensitivity — and Holocaust tourism

In 1992 during her first trip back, the Chmielnik people shunned survivor Helen Garfinkel Greenspun and berated her driver for bringing a Jew. Fast forward to June 2013 and the town’s synagogue has been restored as a Jewish museum

Helen Garfinkel Greenspun on the new glass bima of the renovated Polish synagogue. (photo credit: courtesy)
Helen Garfinkel Greenspun on the new glass bima of the renovated Polish synagogue. (photo credit: courtesy)

CHMIELNIK, Poland — Each time she returns to Poland, Jewish Holocaust survivor Helen Garfinkel Greenspun confronts the death that surrounded her in the ghetto and slave labor camps, the death that swallowed almost everyone she knew, the death that nearly claimed her so many times during World War II.

Yet each time she returns to Poland Greenspun, now 86, is reminded of life itself.

“Look how beautiful. The land is beautiful,” she exclaims, pointing to an undulating countryside dotted with farms, quaint villages and green fields. “And Poland has the best food,” she declares, referring to her favorite dishes, such as pierogies, mushroom soup, potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, blueberry pastry, farmer’s cheese with bread. She reminisces about her family life and childhood that the war destroyed. “Really, it’s the memories of my parents that bring me back.”

Each time she returns to Poland from her current home in Orlando, Florida, Greenspun looks for signs of new life along the way. Against a dark past, these signs emerge as faint pinpoints of light giving her hope for the future.

Most recently, in June, Greenspun was welcomed as an honored guest at the newly restored synagogue in her hometown of Chmielnik. No Jews currently live there.

Almost all of Chmielnik’s 10,000 Jewish residents — including Greenspun’s parents and younger siblings — were shipped to Treblinka’s gas chambers in 1942. Consequently, the synagogue has been renovated — not as a conventional place of worship — but rather as a museum of Jewish history and culture.

In 1992 townspeople berated Greenspun’s driver for bringing Jews back to Chmielnik

In 1992, the first time Greenspun returned to Chmielnik, swastikas and graffiti marred the crumbling walls of a once magnificent structure originally built in 1638. She was not allowed to enter, and townspeople berated her driver for bringing Jews back to Chmielnik.

The reception was markedly different when Greenspun returned in 2008 and 2009. The mayor kissed her hand, people invited her to their homes and the synagogue — although still a shell — had been cleaned.

Witnessing the transformation of the synagogue, now resplendent with a glass bima designed to emit light symbolizing life, Greenspun was overcome with emotion. She remembered how, as a little girl, she dusted off her shoes before entering. Then she looked up to the balcony where her mother used to sit.

“I am crying, but I am happy. I am happy, but I am crying,” Greenspun said many times throughout this recent visit – her fourth — to Poland.

'I am crying, but I'm happy,' said Helen Greenspun in the renovated synagogue. To her right is  Mijer Maly, a Holocaust survivor also from Chielmnik. (photo credit: courtesy)
‘I am crying, but I’m happy,’ said Helen Greenspun in the renovated synagogue. To her right is Meir Maly, a Holocaust survivor also from Chmielnik. (photo credit: courtesy)

The attitude of people, Greenspun said, more than the preservation of Jewish landmarks, is what gives her hope.

“Even in five years, I feel a change,” Greenspun said. “I don’t know what it is… Maybe it’s the younger generations who have an interest.”

As she traveled from Krakow – the nearest international airport to Chmielnik – to her hometown and to Czestochowa, where she was exploited as slave labor in Hasag ammunition factories, Greenspun reached her own conclusion. “The difference is education. Education is the difference,” she said throughout the journey.

In Czestochowa, officials of Polontex S.A., a textile manufacturer operating in former Hasag factories, greeted Greenspun with rapt attentiveness and gentle questions.

“It’s a living story,” Tomasz Pozniak, an export-import specialist, observed while journalists from Czestochowa’s newspaper and television station interviewed Greenspun. Polontex officials said that, as far as they knew, Greenspun was the first Jewish Holocaust survivor to visit their property. “Her (Greenspun’s) Polish is very good. Listening to her story is more interesting than reading books.”

While Greenspun took center stage in the media spotlight, Pozniak and Polontex President Artur Gacek quietly revealed their own family stories of World War II. Accused of aiding anti-fascists, Gacek’s maternal grandfather was imprisoned and killed in Auschwitz in 1940. Pozniak’s paternal grandparents were shipped to Germany where they were exploited as slave labor.

Tomasz Pozniak with Greenspun at the Polontex Factory, which now runs one of the Hasag factories where Greenspun was used as slave labor. (photo credit: courtesy)
Tomasz Pozniak with Greenspun at the Polontex Factory, which now runs one of the Hasag factories where Greenspun was used as slave labor. (photo credit: courtesy)

Although many of Polontex’s buildings precede World War II, they have been retrofitted for other purpose, and Greenspun did not recognize any particular structure. However, when she looked through the company gate, she felt she recognized some pre-World War II buildings located across the street and railroad tracks.

“Words cannot describe,” Greenspun said of the reception at Polontex. “For the first time in Poland, I feel people care about me and my story. I feel with my whole heart that they listened with their whole heart.”

Krzysztof Straus, a lawyer in Czestochowa, stood out to Greenspun as especially sympathetic. He escorted her to another Hasag factory, an abandoned building on the other side of town. Inspired by Jewish neighbors and returning Holocaust survivors, Straus erected a stone plaque dedicated to the thousands of Jewish prisoners who died there. He showed Greenspun underground bunkers used for punishment and the field where roll call occurred.

Each time she returns to Poland Greenspun’s friends say Chmielnik is exploiting its Jewish past to attract tourists and stimulate the economy. Ironically, donations from the Kalish family in Israel, whose members include Chmielnik Holocaust survivors Jozef and Shmuel Kalish, paid for a memorial plaque in 2005 and helped finance a partial restoration of Chmielnik’s Jewish cemetery in 2008. Used to pave sidewalks and streets after the war, the Jewish tombstones were so badly damaged that only fragments were salvageable. Greenspun walked on badly cracked and broken tombstones in 1992. Now the remnants form a patchwork monument within a largely barren cemetery.

‘It doesn’t bother me if the town makes money… People should know there were 10,000 Jews here and not one Jew lives here now’

“It doesn’t bother me if the town makes money,” Greenspun said. “It’s good they restored the cemetery and the synagogue. People should know there were 10,000 Jews here and not one Jew lives here now.”

Questions about economic motives are familiar to Piotr Krawczyk, Chmielnik’s historian and organizer of the town’s annual Jewish festival, which began in 2003. He counters skepticism with his own enthusiasm for history and education.

“Chmielnik was a Jewish town, no question. The synagogue is part of the city’s history. For the younger generations this is very important to know. If you do nothing, there will be nothing,” Krawczyk said, noting that numerous synagogues in Poland remain in a state of deterioration.

The conversion of a nearby town’s synagogue to a shopping center prompted Chmielnik’s mayor to visit The Organization of the Survivors of Chmielnik in Israel to get permission to restore the synagogue. In 2004 he got the go-ahead. Krawczyk acknowledges that town officials had hoped to get private donations for the project, but they did not materialize. The $3 million renovation was financed mostly by the European Union with the remainder coming from the Polish Ministry of Culture, the city of Chmielnik and regional governments.

What may have started as a promotion to put Chmielnik — ‘in nowhere middle Poland’ — on the map has attained a higher purpose with the tasteful and respectful use of the synagogue

Nadav Eshcar, Israel’s deputy ambassador to Poland, said what may have started as a promotion to put Chmielnik — “in nowhere middle Poland” — on the map has attained a higher purpose with the tasteful and respectful use of the synagogue. One can find stereotypical depictions of Jews at Chmielnik’s annual festival, he said pointing to puppets and images of Jews with big noses and of Jews counting coins. However, the careful attention to preserving the synagogue is impressive, he said noting that workers painstakingly uncovered the foundation of the original wooden bima and peeled layer after layer of paint from the walls to reveal the original paintings.

“It’s a museum of high level. It will put Chmielnik on a higher awareness of existence.”

As fewer Holocaust survivors are able to travel to Poland, Chmielnik is cultivating links to their children and grandchildren, who can keep the old stories alive and tell new stories. Eshcar, 38, is a perfect example. His maternal grandmother was born in Chmielnik but moved to Palestine in 1936.

“She visited here in 1939, and she left 20 days before the war broke. Many Jews in her situation, visiting relatives here in Poland, got stuck. She was lucky. That’s why I’m here,” said Eshcar.

Chmielnik has an educational mission, Krawczyk said, to teach not just about the Holocaust in schools but also about how Jews lived before the war. “This life was wonderful, and it took centuries to develop.”

Each year the town sends a delegation to Israel that includes 20 students who meet with Meir Maly, a Holocaust survivor from Chmielnik. Since 2003, Maly, 93, has visited Chmielnik during its annual “Jewish” festival and he speaks in the schools.

Like Greenspun, Maly encountered so much hostility when he first returned to Chmielnik right after the war and again in 1990, that he was dumbfounded to receive invitations to the town’s Jewish festival. Like Greenspun, Maly said he feels a different attitude in Poland and he has hope for the younger generations.

'Hell is better than what I went through,' says Helen Greenspun. (photo credit: courtesy)
‘Hell is better than what I went through,’ says Helen Greenspun. (photo credit: courtesy)

Each time she returns to Poland, Greenspun’s friends ask how she can bear the pain of visiting the place where millions of Jews were killed. “Hell is better than what I went through,” she responds. “Now I have a better life, so I can do this.”

Something inside her pulls her back, said Greenspun, who refers to Chmielnik as “my little town” and expresses some civic pride on each visit. “Take a look. I never dreamed they would have a hotel,” she said referring to the town’s first hotel, which opened earlier this year.

Shlomo Zohari-Zonshein, 63, of Givataym, Israel, said he grew up hearing World War II stories of his late parents, both Holocaust survivors from Chmielnik, and their friends. Every year he observed the annual memorial service these adults held on October 6, the day thousands of Chmielnik Jews were deported to Treblinka.


‘A lot of people from Chmielnik they don’t want to come to Chmielnik… They started to open a new page’

“A lot of people from Chmielnik they don’t want to come to Chmielnik. They lost everything. They lost everyone. They don’t want to hear about it. They started to open a new page,” Zohari-Zonshein said. Having visited Chmielnik three years in a row, he counts himself among those Jews who face the past rather than break with the past. “I am addicted to it.”

Greenspun was delighted to meet Zohari-Zonshein for the first time and tell him what she remembered about his father, who was short, and his paternal grandfather, who was tall. Before the war the Zonshein family operated a book store and stationery shop in Chmielnik. Greenspun often stopped there on her way home from school. “They were a nice family.”

Like Eshcar, Zohari-Zonshein exemplifies a source of new stories about life in Poland before and during the war. Greenspun asked Zohari-Zonshein many questions about people they both know, and she listened for new information.

Benjamin Turocy, Greenspun’s eldest grandson, has accompanied her once before to Chmielnik. This time Turocy not only wanted to see the restored synagogue, what he calls “a huge step in the right direction,” but he also wanted to see his grandmother in Chmielnik.

“I wanted to experience with my grandmother these moments of getting back together with family and friends in the town where she’s from,” Turocy said. “It gives her energy. It makes her happy. It gives her life.”

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