On my first day in Poland, as I sat jet-lagged in the only Kosher restaurant in Krakow, the Olive Tree, my group leader told us each that we would be taking a day trip in a few days to small, formerly Jewish towns around Krakow. Only half-aware of what was happening, my friend Alexandria and I were given a huge booklet of information, of which we were told we were going to be presenting on a town called Dzialoszyce. My first reaction: how do you even pronounce that?
As Alexandria and I got together to prepare our presentation, we began to leaf through the pages and piece together the past of Dzialoszyce. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, Dzialoszyce’s population totaled about 8,000, 80% of that number Jewish. Today, there are about 1, 100 people who live there. As we delved into the past, we both noticed that Dzialoszyce was not an unusual town. In fact, it was quite what you might imagine an old Jewish town to be. There was the great synagogue, the house of study, Jewish homes and smaller shuls. There were many religious Hasidim, but there were also a few Zionist groups as well.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis set up a ghetto. Some Jews escaped, fighting with the partisans in the forest. The Jews were deported to Belzac and Plaszow and the city was proclaimed to be “Judenrein,” “Free of Jews.” After the war some Jews returned, however, there was a flareup of anti-Jewish violence after the war, and these Jews eventually left as well. Today there are no Jews in Dzialoszyce, the population one eighth of what it used to be.
The day we set out for Dzialoszyce it was raining–as usual. We set out and I was excited to see a place that I had researched, to understand it by being there. What did I expect? I’m not sure. As our bus drove closer, and I started to see the signs for Dzialoszyce, I was getting closer, paying attention to the surrounding. And then, the bus drove into Dziaoszyce, and the first thing that we all see, because there is no way to miss it, is an enormous skeleton: the skeleton of the great synagogue. There it was. Empty, naked and incredibly large, just sitting in the middle of the small city. Our bus stopped in the parking lot adjacent to it. As we all got out, we took it in the scene. The city was small–really just a street–and here was the elephant in the room, this big Jewish structure in a tiny Polish city.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I was taken aback at first. Jews lived here, thousands of Jews. How can I even imagine that? I thought, as I looked on at the tiny population of the current city. And as people went about their business that day, I thought about them. Did they know any Jews? Did they help their Jewish neighbors by giving them food in the ghetto, or providing them with information? Who here hid a Jew? Who cried, as their friends were discriminated against, as their friends were taken away? Who here closed their drapes as the Nazi vans dragged away the Jewish elders to the cemetery, where they shot them, one by one into a mass grave. Who here betrayed a Jew? Who here collaborated? I couldn’t help it. I was standing in front of a skeleton, but every time I closed my eyes, the past was illuminated before me and I judged everyone for what they did–and for what they didn’t.
After our presentation, we walked up and down the small road of Dzialoszyce to check it out. I’m pretty sure that this small little city doesn’t get many visitors, so the 11 of us kind of stuck out. People stopped to look at us, especially the older residents. We smiled back politely. But I couldn’t stop thinking to myself: Can they recognize me? Do they know me? This was my first time in Poland. I’d never been to Dzialoszyce. My family is not from Dzialosyce either. It’s not that I thought they’d recognize me as Hailey, but rather as a Jew. Although I do hate stereotypes, I really can’t deny the fact that I look really Jewish: and they knew it, they had to know it.
For me, Dzialoszyce was one of the most interesting places I visited. It is one of the clearest example of Jewish space within Polish land, an intersection and a meeting point. Many of the small villages we visited that day were the same. An empty synagogue, and no Jews. It’s one of the clearest examples of the Jewish footprint, of what we left behind when we went away.
Hailey Dilman lives in Jerusalem, where she is earning her master’s at the Hebrew University in Jewish history. Originally hailing from Toronto she made Aliyah a year ago and loves living in Israel, apart from missing snow to snowboard on. Her column, Back to the Old Country, appears here on alternating Wednesdays.