This blog has been written by Joan Salter, a survivor of the Holocaust who has kindly agreed to be our first guest blogger.

For over 10 years I have visited Tarnow, a large town near Krakow, every June to take part in the town’s commemoration of its murdered Jews. Many Jews have only negative thoughts about Poland: that anti-Semitism is part of its history and that all Poles happily stood by, if not actually collaborated, as the Nazis exterminated their neighbours.  I would not wish to airbrush the past with a rosy glow, however the history of the Jews in Poland is much more nuanced than many appreciate.

Yes, the Blood Libels originated in Poland and throughout its history there have been periods of violence against the Jews.  But there have also been long periods when the Jews were welcomed and thrived.  For many Jews, particularly Hasidim, Polish Jewish culture is their heritage.

I write this blog so that those who read it will gain some insight into the past and the work being done in Poland to keep the memory of its Jews alive.  


Throughout mainland Europe, the summer of 1942 was scorching hot. The German army was fully stretched fighting a war on two fronts.  In spite of this, in what has been termed “the fateful months of the summer of 1942”, the Nazis put into effect the plan for “The Final Solution”: the systematic extermination of every man, woman and child living under occupation who had one or more Jewish grandparent.

Having perfected a “practical, quickest and cheapest” method of mass murder, gas chambers, the Nazis created, specifically as extermination factories, four new camps: Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. In addition to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau, Europe already contained a web of concentration camps, very often run by local Nazi collaborators; Croatia alone housed six of these. As ghettos and villages were cleared, these camps were effectively holding places as inmates waited their turn for the train ride to eternity. In the heat with little water, or food and poor hygiene facilities, the suffering was extreme. Death through starvation and disease was rampant, the treatment meted out to the victims by their jailors, merciless.

In Paris, a timely warning by a sympathetic policeman saved my mother, my sister and me from the infamous rounding up known as La Rafle du Vel d’Hiv. Here 13,000 Jews, many of them, women and children of Polish origin, spent several days in the velodrome in stifling heat without facilities before being sent to the camp at Gurs and then onwards to the death camps. As a two year old, it is unlikely I would have survived even the long weekend without water. We were smuggled into Vichy, then still ostensibly not under Nazi command. For the majority of Jews trapped in Europe, there was nowhere to run.

In the Treblinka death camp, over eight hundred thousand Jews, mainly from Warsaw and the Bialystok region were murdered in less than a year. Conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were so desperate that medics euthanized infants to spare them a long drawn out death from starvation.

For my paternal family in Tarnow, these months of 1942 witnessed the mass murder of almost all its Jews. In 1939, Tarnow had a population of 56,000 of which about 25,000 were Jews. A book written by the Historian and Director of the Regional Museum, Adam Bartosz states: “A significant part of them constituted the intellectual and cultural elite of Tarnow; they were lawyers, physicians, musicians, teachers, and industrialists. ...The majority, however, were among the poor.”  Soon after the start of the German occupation, they, together with approximately another 16,000 Jews herded together from surrounding villages, were forced into ghettos. Notices posted warned Poles of certain death for themselves and their families if they hid or in any way helped a Jew. On the 11th of June 1942, the mass murders started. Jews were murdered in the Town Square, 3000 shot in the cemetery. In the nearby woods of Zbylitowska Gora, 7000, mainly elderly and the young were shot and buried in mass graves. A further 10,000 were sent by train to the death camp of Belzec; the first to use stationary gas chambers. It is currently estimated that about 450,000 Jews from that region of Poland died in Belzec. By December 1942, Belzec had served its purpose. There were no Jews in that part of German-occupied Poland left to gas. The camp was dismantled, every trace of its purpose eliminated, even grinding bones into dust creating “synthetic fertiliser”. Only one person survived this camp to give witness to the terrible events which happened there.

For two decades and more Adam Bartosz has worked tirelessly not only to commemorate the terrible fate of this region’s Jews but to bring alive the lives they lived, their involvement with and their contribution to their local communities. In June 2012 my husband and I joined the commemorations organised each year by Bartosz. As every year, they commenced in the woods. Here, surrounded by local cadets, school children and adults, as well as journalists and reporters, Bartosz spoke of the terrible events which took place here, exactly seventy years ago. Professor Jonathan Webber, an orthodox Jew living in Poland though originally from London sang the traditional prayer for the soul of the departed, El Moleh Rachamim, and the priest from Tarnow cathedral (director of Diocesan Museum) recited prayers in Polish. Together with another survivor, I took part in laying flowers in honour of our families murdered there. A local elderly Pole gave witness to how as a young boy playing with his friends in the woods, he had witnessed the event when 800 children had been marched from the local Jewish orphanage and shot in the woods. This area is now enclosed and a memorial stone dedicated to these unnamed children.

On the Sunday, we travelled with a group organised by Professor Webber to the village of Brzostek. Professor Webber, a social anthropologist, first travelled to Poland many years ago to this town from where his grandfather had emigrated at the turn of the last century. The only apparent evidence that Jews had once lived there was a strip of uncultivated land at the edge of a field which locals identified as the ancient Jewish Cemetery. Except for the fact that the topography differed to the rest of the cultivated field, there was no evidence of it being a cemetery. It was not walled off, no tombstones remained. Determined to reclaim and rededicate this as Jewish sacred ground, Webber located an old map. He contacted another descendent of Brzostek and together they financed the work. Determined that the local community felt connected with this project, he hired local contractors. The area was not to be walled in but enclosed with railings. When the contractor finished the work, he reported to Jonathan that several grave stones had re-appeared over night. In all 55 grave stones of the estimated 450 Jews buried in this cemetery were returned by the local villagers.

On this summer’s day in 2012, we said prayers for the Jews buried in the cemetery as well for the 500 Jews of Brzostek who are not buried there but who were murdered by the Nazis. On this occasion, we were accompanied by two elderly survivors of the massacre in Brzostek. Now in their 80’s they recounted their experiences on the terrible day in August 1942 when the Nazis rounded up the Jews in the square, humiliated them before shooting them. The few who survived were hidden by neighbours.

We then travelled to the Catholic cemetery where the son and daughter of Rivka Reiss dedicated a memorial stone to Maria Jalowiec, their mother’s neighbour who hid Rivka and another Jewish girl for two years, right under the noses of the Germans camped on their farm. Maria’s grandson, Tadeusz, now an elderly man, bore witness to how as an eight year old boy he smuggled food into the barn for the two girls. His grandmother told him the food was for the cows, but he understood the reason for the secrecy and kept it. When the Germans confiscated their house, Maria smuggled the girls out to a local priest who she knew was hiding Jews. He took them in, saying that he might as well be shot for 16 Jews as the 14 already hidden. These Poles deserve to be commemorated as Righteous among the Nations. 

After this we travelled to a local school where a magnificent lunch was put on for us and we were welcomed by local dignitaries. Students from the creative arts department put on an entertainment based on their own work created in memory of the Jewish people who had lived and died in the area. We were greeted with Hebrew words and poems and songs about vanished neighbours and a need for tolerance. Professor Webber has initiated an annual prize for the work of the most creative student and last year’s winner put on a power-point presentation of his travels to Greece paid for by the prize. This year five students were awarded scholarships, financed by an elderly survivor who had been hidden by a local farmer.

Then, the most gruelling event of the day: in temperatures nearing 40 degrees, we climbed up into the Podzamcze forest outside the town of Kolaczyce. Here on another sweltering day on 12th August 1942, 260 Jewish men, women and children were brought to this lonely place from Brzostek, Kolaczyce and the nearby villages to be brutally murdered and then buried here in a mass grave. Then, as in forests all over Poland, the evidence was covered over. An unknown person, at an unknown time had placed a stone there marking the site of this mass grave. Now in cooperation with the Gmina of Kolaczyce, a new memorial has been created by the Brzostek Jewish Heritage Project funded by Professor Webber and other descendents of the Jews of this area. It retains the old memorial stone but now covers the full extent of the mass grave. Although a rough path into the forest had been prepared, in the heat of the afternoon, the climb into the forest almost defeated many of us. It was the need to pay homage to those so cruelly murdered there that drove us on. 

It would be naive in the least to ignore Poland’s record of anti-Semitism. It is often said that Polish babies absorb it in their mothers’ milk. Stories of Pogroms and the Blood Libel propagated by Catholic priests to ensure separation and hatred between the two communities cannot just be swept away. But the history of the Jews and their Catholic neighbours is a complex and not always a negative one. In Tarnow, documentation exits dating back to 1667, issued by the owner of Tarnow at that time, reiterates guarantees of freedom given to the Jews by previous owners dating back to 1582 and 1637. From 1906 -1911, Dr Elijah Goldhammer, a Jewish attorney was the vice-mayor and a street named after him remains. It is important to note that of all the names of the ‘Righteous of Nations’ on the wall of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem,  the names of Poles who sheltered Jews are more numerous than those of any other country. In recent times, Pope John Paul II, who, as a young priest, is on record as having helped the Jews, did much to change the Church’s teachings which historically had poisoned relations between the two religions’ communities. The work of inter-faith educators like Bartosz and Webber has done much to erode stereotype notions which perpetuate fear which in turn creates hatred.

Throughout these commemorations, we walked openly as a group of Jews. Nowhere did we encounter any evidence of hostility. In every place we were welcomed by the local mayor and local people walked with us. In Tarnow, with only a handful of Jewish visitors, it was local people who filled the seats at a play based on the testimony of the last commander of the Jewish uprising in Warsaw. At a concert in front of the Bimah, the only relic remaining in the town of its many synagogues, again there was a full house of locals who clapped hands enthusiastically in time with the Yiddish music. I sat next to a tiny lady beautifully dressed in Roma costume; another of Tarnow’s population decimated by the Nazis.

In the woods of Zbylitowska Gora, a Bishop stood alongside an orthodox Jew. In the Jewish and Catholic cemeteries of Brzostek and the forest of Podzamcze the Dean of the Parish, Fr. Dr Jan Cebulak and the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, stood side by side. Jews recited their prayers, Catholics theirs. In our tradition we placed stones in remembrance of the dead, Catholics placed flowers. Two communities united in remembrance of the horrific fate of the Jews of that area.

Every nations has its thugs and hooligans who express their self-hatred in acts of hatred against an, often unknown and sometimes fictitious, enemy. Sadly anti-Semitic graffiti and desecration of graves happen even here in England. But I can only hope thanks to the work of Bartosz and Webber and people like them, the Jews of Tarnow, Brzostek and Kolaczyce will lie undisturbed in their graves.

Joan Salter