This story begins a year ago in Sanok, Poland, a small town in the far southeast of the country. I found myself there with my colleague Tomek, looking into traces of Jewish life in the town, whose Jewish community once formed about half the population on the eve of the Holocaust. A few relics of Jewish life do survive, but we were surprised to discover a trace of Jewish life under construction: a rebuilding of a wooden synagogue in the town's highly regarded skansen, an open-air museum of a typical Galician town square as it would have existed a hundred years ago and more.
A synagogue was, of course, a common feature of every town in historical Poland. Wooden synagogues constituted a particularly remarkable form of sacred architecture, which came to maturity during the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795). Generally these synagogues featured a large open space of worship that contained a riotous combination of paintings, carvings, domes, balconies and vaults, and were ingeniously engineered using complex roof trusses, tiering and corbeling.
None of the great wooden synagogues in Poland survived the Holocaust; a handful of originals can be found in Lithuania and Romania. Doubtless the best example in Poland today is the extraordinary replica of the synagogue of the Galician town of Gwoździec (located now in western Ukraine and known as Hvizdets), at the Polin museum in Warsaw. Reproduced at 85% scale, the replica is the centerpiece of that museum, and by itself worth the price of admission.
The rebuilt wooden synagogue in the skansen in Sanok, when completed, will be the only one of its kind in Galicia, and the third reconstruction in Poland, following the recent completion of the Wołpa synagogue in Biłgoraj.
Here is a historic photograph of the synagogue now being rebuilt in Sanok:
And here is the information board in the skansen describing the reconstruction project:
It turns out that the rebuilt synagogue is not from Sanok originally, rather from the small town of Połaniec, about 150 kilometers away, whose prewar population included about 800 Jews. Exactly why the skansen chose the Połaniec synagogue is unclear to me, but probably because the building was studied and extensively documented before the war.
According to the text, the Połaniec synagogue dates to the early 18th century, and was built with a log-and-pillar structure, containing a square-shaped main sanctuary, an entrance hall, an arcade and a women's gallery. Its footprint measured 22x11 meters. The interior contained a four-sided mirror vault with a high octagonal bimah, and the whole interior was covered with paintings depicting zodiac signs, animals, winged dragons, flowers and vines, unfolded Torah scrolls and multiple inscriptions. Here is the building under construction, as I saw it last summer:
Half a year later, in January 2016, I returned to Sanok with my colleague Larysa to visit the skansen a second time, and take a look at the progress.
The building was even more fascinating the second time, as I could clearly see the process of the reconstruction, specifically the ethnologic fidelity of the construction, being undertaken by hand using only traditional tools and techniques. Even the wooden nails and the scaffolding (with its oblique Star of David references) were impressive to me. A large-format photograph of the building under reconstruction was included in the updated permanent exhibition of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, an exhibition that I co-authored, and now open for viewing.
A few days ago, it happened that I was out making pictures with Tomek in the countryside northeast of Kraków, and we came upon Połaniec. I impulsively suggested to him that we see whether we could find the site of the wooden synagogue. I had in mind the afternoon I spent in Hvizdets in the spring of 2014, when I found the site of its famous wooden synagogue––an image the Polin museum does not present to its public. This is an image of Jewish absence in contemporary Hvizdets, as it complements Jewish re-presence in contemporary Warsaw:
In Połaniec, Tomek and I had a good lead for the site of the wooden synagogue, in that we knew a brick synagogue had been built next to it, and this building had survived the war. It wasn't all that difficult to find the brick synagogue––with a sign on it reading "JW.org", meaning that the building now belongs to the Jehovah's Witnesses.
It was not at all clear, though, where the wooden synagogue stood relative to this building––to the left, to the right, or behind it. As is my method, we began asking people we saw. This method sometimes irritates Tomek (and other Poles I travel with) in that he assumes that random people will know nothing. Sometimes he is right. Workers in a candle factory located directly behind the building knew nothing––not even that the brick building was originally a synagogue. Another pedestrian knew nothing. But sometimes, enough of the time, he is not right, which is to say there are local acquifers of knowledge (and anecdote, and innuendo) to be found. A man came out of his house, and told us that although he knew nothing, he knew someone who might know something. He offered to introduce us if we would give him a few złotys for a beer. We gave him money for two beers and set off down the street with him, but didn't get further than a few steps. We fell into conversation not with whomever he had in mind, but with his next door neighbor, at work in his garden, a man by the name of Edward Pawlak.
When we asked Pawlak about the disappeared wooden synagogue, I could see immediately that the question frightened him. He too said he knew nothing about it, only that there had in fact been a wooden synagogue located somewhere near the Jehovah's Witnesses building. We asked him his age––73 years––and asked whether he had heard any stories about the building, to which he also replied no. But we could see that this was not a case of a simple no, because he kept talking about knowing nothing, and with each sentence he revealed a little something––until it became clear he probably knew quite a lot.
His reticence was not just a wariness of strangers, rather I could see in him something else I've learned to recognize––a wariness of the Jewish, of people who might be Jews or close to Jews, of coming close to the Holocaust. I would not call this wariness antisemitism, rather fear infused with the quality of taboo. In my experience, this kind of fear is largely how the Jewish sits in Polish consciousness today, especially outside of urban areas: the Jewish signifies a deep wound in Poland, even a hallowed wound, certainly an old wound that is paradoxically liable to bleed again at any moment.
And if I am right, if the Holocaust remains a Polish wound––different than a Jewish wound––this is only fair, given the great variety of Polish responses to the genocide as it was happening. Contrary to Jewish and Polish stereotype, there was no "Polish response," rather a spectrum of responses, from those who actively sought personal advantage by betraying Jews or taking money from them or both, to those who heroically resisted the genocide even to the point of their own death, and probably a majority who simply tried to keep their heads down and protect themselves and their families, maybe doing small acts of generosity and resistance where possible. (The question bears asking again: how to judge any Pole's action or inaction given that in Poland under Nazi occupation, aiding Jews in any way was a crime punishable by death to oneself and one's family? If the situation were reversed, how many Jews would have been willing to sacrifice themselves and their families to help Polish friends, much less strangers?) And contrary to stereotype, it is not so clear how this spectrum of responses was conditioned by the ferocious interwar politics of the country, dominated in the 30s by the antisemitic Polish right. I myself am no defender of the Polish right historically or now, but Polish antisemitism was not, in contrast to Nazi policy, genocidal, and the Polish right did not collaborate with the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust, as did the Ukrainian and Lithuanian right. (Of course it is also true that antisemitism was virulent enough to generate a wave of pogroms in postwar Poland, and conpiracy theories of Jewish plots were a political canard throughout the Communist period, and remain so for some sections of the Polish right today).
But I digress... Standing in Połaniec at the gate of Edward Pawlak, finally he said to us that he knew exactly where the Połaniec wooden synagogue stood. He pointed directly across the street. It stood partly on the driveway next to the Jehovah's Witness building, and partly where the house next to that driveway now stands.
We looked together at that site, and then, curiously, he asked us to wait a few minutes, saying that he had something to show us. He turned and walked up the hill, through his extraordinary garden, around his barn and toward his house. He was gone perhaps twenty minutes. We thought that maybe he had disappeared for good. When he returned, he was carrying something, and handed it to me over his gate.
"When the Germans were destroying the wooden synagogue," he said, "my grandfather took these from the fire. After he did it, a German soldier seized him and threated to kill him, but somehow he got away." And he went on to explain that the event had been traumatic for his grandfather, and that the family had kept them ever since.
I cannot explain the astonishment I felt to hold these fragments of the Torah scrolls of the Połaniec synagogue––clearly legible and also with holes burned into them. My astonishment did not owe just to the fact that these burned sheaths are the only physical remnant of this community, but also to the story of a Polish neighbor risking his life to get them. I asked Edward if he knew what they were. He didn't, and so I explained, but he didn't understand the explanation until I said it in the simplest way I could: "This is the Bible, the Old Testament, written in Jewish letters. What your grandfather took from the fire was the Bible." Edward repeated incredulously, "The Bible? It was the word of God he saved?"
And a wave passed through him, as if a solution to a puzzle he had lived with his whole life––indeed precisely his whole life, as he was born in 1943, the very year the synagogue was wrecked. His eyes welled up with tears. I told him that his grandfather had done a great deed, and that it wasn't only his grandfather, but his parents and him too––in that they could have thrown them away any time over the last 73 years, and never did. At first he didn't want to accept any credit, and then conceded that he did deserve credit, and it was clear that saw these objects completely differently––with a kind of pride, strangely both deep and sudden. I photographed him holding the Połaniec Torah, looking suddenly like a beautiful moth spreading his wings, partly backlit by the sun that had also appeared, the letters and burnholes forming the distinguishing spots.
I could end the story here, and perhaps I should. Part of me would like to see Edward Pawlak just this way: as a man with a secret heart of compassion for Jews––half-known or unknown to himself––as if waiting his whole life for the crazy and improbable circumstance of strangers appearing at his fence to catalyze his own awareness of it.
But Edward Pawlak continued talking. Seeing our reaction, he asked whether these pieces of writing were valuable, speaking indirectly, but clearly: are they worth money? He asked in an ambiguous way, not betraying a scheming intention and also not innocently, partly for the sake of information and partly with an imagination of an unexpected windfall, even if the thought was slightly shameful. I answered frankly: yes, these are important historical objects and might well be worth money to individuals or institutions. He continued talking. He asked about other kinds of Jewish objects, what he called horns––perhaps shofars––and silver. And again without him proclaiming anything, it became clear enough that his basement may well have had, or still has other things, too. He continued talking. In fact, he told us, the wooden synagogue was not burned, only the religious objects in it. And with an inadvertent glance in the direction of his barn, he told us that the Germans had sold off the wood to locals for building and firewood.
At this point a very different story came into view: that his grandfather had taken the Torah scrolls but had not saved them, inasmuch as he––and who knows how many others––simply grabbed from the fire whatever they thought might have been valuable. And if so, it was for this reason that the German had apprehended his grandfather––for theft, not for some defiant anti-fascist gesture. It was wartime, after all, and a piece of silver might feed a family for months, and might even be worth risking one's life for. In this reading, the Torah scrolls in the basement represented whatever had been least valuable––until, maybe, now.
The alternate story took shape, but I have no proof of it. Who am I to say that it did not take shape by way of a reflexive cynicism in me, a still-living tendency in myself despite years of inner work to dismantle the apparatus of collective blame and binary thinking about Jews and Poles, still in myself an impulse to recreate the familiar anti-Polish image that so many Jews carry––of Poles as duplicitious and greedy, cowardly and opportunistic. Later I discovered that about 60 Jews from Połaniec survived the war and returned to the town, to be met with a pogrom that killed several of them. The cynical picture came into my mind, and I have no proof of it, just as I have no proof of the inverse picture, the ennobled one that gives the lie to anti-Polish stereotypes. Interestingly, the cynical story was the one that Tomek found most persuasive (Tomek, who is inclined to stereotype his own people), and I remarked to myself at the double curiosity of Polish anti-Polish stereotypes, and the way that Jewish stereotypes of Poles mirror Polish stereotypes of Jews.
I am left with a story that confounds the categories, in which the town of Sanok and the Polish Ministry of Culture are rebuilding a destroyed wooden synagogue, whose last relic is owned by an inscrutable man about whose family it is impossible to distinguish ignorance from heroism, ulterior motives from honorable ones, altruism from neglect. And this is Poland, a place where historical understanding is less about evidence than it is about attitude––learning how to dwell in ambiguity and in contradiction, to think with the heart, to feel with the brain. In Poland, history occupies the space in-between, the conceptual space between a wooden synagogue displaced in its own re-creation, and the relic of its destruction whose strange and triumphant appearance resolves nothing about how to live with genocide.
Kraków, August 2016