Interrogating Place: Bochnia, Poland, 2010

an email letter, summer 2010


about thirty miles to the east of krakow is bochnia, in the heart of poland's salt mining country.  prior to the war, the town's population was slightly more than 15,000, of which some 20% were jewish.  the larger number of the town's jews were assimilated and well off, and a smaller number were poor, highly religious and separatist chasids.  the germans occupied the town in september 1939, and established a closed ghetto in the center of the town in april 1941.  over the next year, large numbers of jews from other towns were deported to the ghetto--krakow, mielec, krzeszowice, wisnicz and several others--and as in all other ghettos, sanitary conditions quickly became deplorable.  

the first nazi aktion took place in late august 1942, when several thousand people were deported to the extermination camp at belzec, and around 1500--mostly children, the elderly and the infirm--were taken by truck in a forest near the village of baczków and murdered by firing squad.  in september 1942, a roundup occurred in which several hundred men were conscripted to work on an airfield near kraków, after which they were sent to auschwitz.  the second nazi aktion took place in early november 1942, in which the nazis divided the ghetto into parts A (for the able bodied) and B (for children, the elderly, the sick and those who could not work), in the process shooting many indiscriminately in the streets.  people desperately used whatever money they had to pay the nazis for the right to work; meanwhile the nazis demanded large sums of money for the ammunition used to conduct the partition.  in early september 1943, the final liquidation of the ghetto occurred.  most of the captives in ghetto B were sent to auschwitz, though groups were also massacred in the jewish cemetery.  those selected to work were sent to the labor camp at szebnie.  altogether, some 20,000 jews are estimated to have been murdered from bochnia and the surrounding villages.  fewer than 100 survived.  none today live in bochnia.

i spent much of yesterday with 89 year old leon pawąd, a retired engineer who was born and raised in a house very close to bochnia's jewish cemetery.  

since 1944 he has voluntarily worked as the cemetery's caretaker.

the word "caretaker" is far too casual to describe what i learned about him, and english really has no single word to indicate the nature of his work for the cemetery.  the best i can say is that it is a spiritual practice, or a practice toward a vision of love, a dialogue with trauma, a tending to (and of) loss in ways that are physical, emotional and intellectual all at once, a lifelong transformation of the elements of death beyond mere death, into personal refuge.  

though he survived the war in hiding, two of his brothers died as resistance fighters, and another was murdered at auschwitz as a polish political prisoner.  as a boy and in his youth, he had close relations with the town's jewish community.  one of his brothers had a jewish companion (not married but together for many years) who was deported to auschwitz, and he himself was engaged to a jewish woman who managed to pass as non-jewish, only to be betrayed and forced to flee the town, never heard from again.  pawąd personally knew many of the people buried in the cemetery, and as we walked, he told story after story of friends and of the shared life that poles and jews had before the war.  he spoke of the jewish doctor who saved his life as a boy, his wife's closest friend in her youth, and many others.  i recorded many of the stories in video, with kuba translating into english as we went.  the truth is that pawąd has continued, with an obstinacy that is utterly lucid and not at all fantastical, to live out that shared life in the only form now possible.

he maintains the cemetery "as it should be:"  he cuts the grass himself, tends the gravemarkers, keeps watch.  along the perimeter of the cemetery are lines of tall, shady trees that he himself planted soon after the war ended.  over the years he has reconstructed many of the tombstones (smashed or looted by the nazis), sometimes repainting their inscriptions.  from those fragments of tombstones he was unable to place, he himself designed and constructed a memorial at the cemetery's mass grave.

he has paid for the upkeep himself (with no help from the city of bochnia, which wants no part of it), together with a survivor now above 90 years by the name of abush hirsch, who emigrated to brooklyn after the war and lived as a baker in a chasidic community.  pawąd and hirsch have become close friends, and partners in a common task.  below is the grave of hirsch's mother, róza.  as pawąd tells the story, róza was among those rounded up and put into a truck to be shot at the forest beside baczków village.  knowing what was to ensue and thinking on his feet, hirsch bribed a nazi with "a huge sum of money" to remove his mother from the truck, bring her to the cemetery and murder her there, where he might--if he survived--be able to bury her in her own grave.  the nazi complied.

later, pawad showed me photographs of hirsch praying at his mother's grave--"exceptionally beautiful prayers," as he described them.

he asked kuba to make a picture of us together for his album (which he is holding in his hands).  he has over the years kept a detailed log of visitors--which are not all that many--in case connections and information about survivors might emerge.

pawąd directed us toward the place in the baczków forest where the massacre is believed to have occurred, and where a small memorial was placed two years ago.  we left to find it.  it turned out that there are no signs or markers to the memorial.  we asked several residents, none of whom exactly knew how to reach it, most of whom knew nothing about it at all.  

the person with the most detailed knowledge was a man who identified himself only as władisław, who at the age of five happened to be playing in the forest on the day of the massacre, and witnessed it by accident.  a nazi officer saw the children, caught them and instead of killing them, only beat them severely.  władisław told us he owes his life to this nazi's "kindness."  shortly afterward, władisław's parents were murdered at bochnia, accused of aiding the resistance.  at age six he was sent to łódź as an orphan, where he worked in a nearby mine on a chain gang, was frequently beaten, resulting in phyiscal disabilities that have plagued him for his life.  after the war, he returned to baczków and lived with an uncle who had saved the town's single jewish family, hiding them in an attic while (for a time) nazi officers lived in the same house.  in contrast to leon pawąd, władisław has lived his wartime childhood as an intractable suffering.  in his words, he is now simply "waiting to die."

following his directions to the massacre site, we walked a couple of miles into the forest.  we searched, and did not find what we were looking for.