The first time I visited Dzialoszyce, a dusty village about 50 kilometers northeast of Krakow, an elderly woman approached as I stood with several companions, gazing at the gaping roofless ruin that had once been the town's grand synagogue.
She mumbled a few words of Yiddish in our direction, then apologized that it had been such a long time since she had spoken that language.
"I used to work for the rabbi here before the war," she confided. "I will never forget what he told me. He said that when the birds go away from here, the Jews will go away too. One year, there were no birds. And after that . . ."
The encounter with that woman -- more than 15 years ago now -- has haunted me ever since, as I have traveled thousands of kilometers over eastern and central Europe, visiting sites of Jewish heritage and paying my respects to the annihilated Jewish communities that once formed such a vital part of this region.
Pre-war Poland (which stretched into what today is Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania) was the Jewish heartland, home both to big city Jewish life, such as in Warsaw and Krakow, and to the shtetls -- as many as 3,000 little towns scattered over the region where Jews often made up more than half of the local population.
Life in the shtetl was immortalized in works by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch and other Yiddish writers. It was romanticized in family memories, sentimental Yiddish songs and stage shows like Fiddler on the Roof.
The Jews in these towns were murdered in the Holocaust, and few if any Jews live in them today. As Piotr Krawczyk, a young local historian in the town of Chmielnik, put it, "No Jews here, no people." And indeed, Chmielnik today, with about 4,000 people, is only one-third the size it was before World War II, when about 12,000 people -- as many as 10,000 of them Jews -- lived there.
Chmielnik, however, like many other former shtetls, retains important physical reminders of its Jewish past. And it is one of several little towns with a rich -- and still visible -- Jewish heritage that make easy day trips from Krakow.
Following are brief descriptions of several of these on e-time shtetls. All are clustered within an hour or two's drive north of Krakow, and all can be toured together, by car, on one (long) day.
The roofless, ruined synagogue still dominates the center of Dzialoszyce, looking much as it did when I first saw it in 1990.
In 1939, 7,000 of the town's 10,000 inhabitants were Jews. The synagogue, built in 1852 according to a neo-classical design by Felicjan Frankowski, would have been a magnificent structure, with tall arched windows and sculpted outer decorations. All that remains are the outer walls and, inside, a few patches of flaking paint. Adult birch tress somehow grow right out of the top of the ruined walls, and there is still a Hebrew inscription, high up on an outside wall, under a gaping round window.
On ul. Skalbmierska, a few hundred meters away, a monument to local Holocaust victims stands at the site of the Jewish cemetery, which was destroyed by the Nazis. The monument was erected by survivors on Sept. 1, 1989, the 50th anni versary of the outbreak of World War II.
A massive masonry building with barrel vaulting, Chmielnik's once-splendid synagogue was originally built in the 1630s, then partially rebuilt in later centuries. The Nazis turned it into a warehouse, but its ravaged interior still retains stucco work dating from the 18th century, and there are still traces of polychrome decoration, including frescoes of lions and neoclassical geometric forms, as well as fragments of zodiac signs that once surrounded the vanished Ark, or Aron ha Kodesh.
For the past few years, Piotr Krawczyk -- the young local historian -- has worked with Chmielnik's mayor and other local activists to recapture local Jewish history, restore the memory of the Jews who lived in the town and commemorate those who were murdered in the Shoah. The town now sponsors a Jewish culture festival each summer, and Krawczyk has published a book on local Jewish history. Local authorities are trying to find funding to restore the synagogue. They have also begun work on fencing the area of one of the town's two destroyed Jewish cemeteries and building a monument there to local Jews.
Jews lived in Pinczow as early as the 16th century and eventually made up such a large percentage of the town's population that their presence gave rise to a popular saying: to be "as crowded as the Jews in Pinczow." Today, no Jews live here, but the massive, cube-shaped Old Synagogue (located on Klasztorna street, just off the main square) stands beautifully restored as one of the best preserved Renaissance synagogues in Poland.
The synagogue dates back to the early 17th century and is the town's only remaining relic of the Jewish past -- a newer synagogue and the three Jewish cemeteries were destroyed during and after World War II. The Old Synagogue itself was ravaged by the Nazis and used after the war to store fertilizer. It stood empty and in poor condition for decades. Today it features beautifully restored fragments of colorful, 18th century frescoes incorporating floral and vegetal designs (attributed to the noted Jewish painter Jehudah Leib), as well as painted wall inscriptions of texts. The carved Aron ha Kodesh -- a fine example of local stone-working -- has also been preserved and restored. The synagogue is administered as a branch of the Regional Museum in Pinczow and today houses an exhibit of photographs and other material on local Jewish history. The wall surrounding the building has been turned into a memorial mosaic built from thousands of fragments of tombstones from the town's destroyed Jewish cemeteries.
In June of this year (2006) a remarkable ceremony took place in Pinczow -- the first Shabbat services to be celebrated in the historic synagogue since the Holocaust. One participant called it a "moving and emotionally jarring experience" that included performances by local students and the dedication of a curtain, or parokhet, for the Ark. On it were embroidered the words "to the memory of the Jews of the holy community of Pinczow." The festivities also included a strictly kosher Shabbat meal for the 200 participants, who included local townspeople and officials as well as Jews from the United States, Canada, various European countries and elsewhere in Poland.
The three main buildings in this tiny walled village are the castle, the synagogue and a Gothic church. Jews lived here as early as the 14th century, and before World War II made up about one-third of the local population. The synagogue dates back to the 16th century and is a large, block-like structure with heavy buttresses and a crenellated roof, resembling a fortress. Today, it is used as a community center and can be visited. There is also an overgrown Jewish cemetery on the road to Chmielnik.
Quaint little houses and shops still cluster around the market square and former synagogue of this little town south of Kielce. Jews settled here in the 16th century and at one time comprised more than two-thirds of the town. On the eve of World War two, nearly 3,000 Jews lived here, making up more than half of the local population. They were all deported to Treblinka on September 1, 1942.
The stone synagogue, built in 1638, is located at Dluga 19, just off the market square, It has a two-tiered mansard roof and retains other original architectural features. It has been converted into a cultural center, but some of the original decorations remain, including vaulted ceilings, a stone portal with a Hebrew inscription, and the frame of the Ark, or Aron ha Kodesh.
There is a picturesque, but overgrown, Jewish cemetery on a forested hilltop near the castle that dominates the town. It was established in the late 16th century and has about 200 carved gravestones, the oldest of which date from the early 17th century.