My grandmother was fortunate to leave Kanczuga, the Polish town in which she was born and raised, several years before most of the rest of her family was murdered by the Nazis—in front of their neighbors. She lost her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, cousins. I don’t know if she ever knew this, but survivors reported that when the Jews were rounded up to be murdered, their neighbors cheered.
Three years after my grandmother died, in 1990, I visited Poland. The tourist industry around Jews coming to see how and where their ancestors lived, and how and where they perished, had not yet developed to what it is today. I didn’t visit Kanczuga, but knew the history of our family there: the imprisoning of my grandmother’s brother Meir in a Nazi labor camp, where he was beaten regularly before being murdered; the roundup of Jews in August 1942 before they were shot in a communal grave; the escape of one man inspired by my great-grandmother, who lived to tell about it; the pogrom that took place in April 1945, after the war was over, where seven Jews who had survived and returned were murdered by their former neighbors.
In Kanczuga, I knew, there are individual graves of my relatives who were lucky enough to die before the Nazis arrived, and there’s a mass grave from the slaughter of 1942. There are buildings that once had been houses of Jewish prayer that now are mundane businesses. But there was nothing driving me to actually make the trip while I was in Poland.
My grandmother would say that the “ground is soaked in our blood” in Kanczuga, and I felt that there was nothing there for me now. I would be seen not just as a stranger, but a possible hostile invader. Poles are anxious that descendants of the people in whose homes they live, which they did not purchase from the original Jewish owners, will show up and try to reclaim their property. Indeed, Poland is among the few countries that have not dealt with the issue of reparations and the restoration of Jewish properties as other countries have.
Recently, however, my perspective changed: I met a young Polish man, Patryk Czerwony, who was born and raised in Kanczuga. His family has lived in Kanczuga for generations. As did mine. Until 1942.
I emigrated from Kanczuga to Brooklyn with my parents when I was 8 years old, leaving behind family, friends, and fond memories of childhood. Some of these memories were stories my grandmother passed on, recollections of her childhood in a small Galician town in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Poles of her generation were, and remain, very proud of being from Kanczuga, a town of roughly 3,000 people today.
Everyone in Kanczuga knows that a Jewish community once flourished and existed there. Their grandparents, just like mine, always mentioned stories of Jewish families dressed up for Shabbat, owning businesses, but then being horribly treated and exterminated after the outbreak of WWII and the Nazi occupation. The history of the Jews of Kanczuga is, however, largely taboo, mostly unexplored, undocumented, and certainly not fully remembered by the people who still live there today.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I remember strolling through the streets of Williamsburg, intrigued by the Hasidic traditional attire, Yiddish signs, and bakeries full of chocolate babka and potato pancakes. At least the food was something I could relate to; the rest was and still is a mystery. I wondered if anyone I see on the streets of Brooklyn could have been from Kanczuga , part of my grandmother’s stories, and if we might have more in common than the Eastern European cuisine.
Some symbols of Jewish life and heritage continue to exist in and around Kanczuga today. The Jewish cemetery, which sits a short distance away in Siedleczka, is a place few in Kanczuga even know about or know where to find. Another symbol of Jewish life is what today is known as the Health Clinic, a building that has a very generic plaque with a Star of David stating that Jews lived in the town and that the building served as one of their houses of prayer. Returning to Kanczuga during the summers, especially having lived in the melting pot of Brooklyn, I was able to imagine what Kanczuga could have looked like before the war. Would it look like Williamsburg? I’ve always wondered how many Jews lived here, what they looked like, and how would life be if they had survived.
In March 2019, before graduating from American University, I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I was going through the exhibition, just like every other tourist, reading the exhibit descriptions and watching the films documenting Jewish life in Europe, then the rise of Nazi Germany, and the early extermination of members of the Polish intelligentsia. By the end of the tour, I saw a glass wall engraved with the names of villages, towns, and cities of Holocaust victims throughout Europe, and I found Kanczuga. I took a photo of the engraved glass and sent it to family members. Everyone was a bit surprised and intrigued.
I felt compelled to learn more, to find out about the victims the wall commemorated. Going through internet searches I found photos of Kanczuga Jews, of friends and families who probably no longer exist. It was incredible to see faces that I have always imagined through the short stories told to me by my late grandmother. I started downloading the photos and creating an album of Kanczuga—the Jewish community in particular.
Online I also found an article written in the late ’90s about a visit to Kanczuga by a Jewish descendant, professor Robert Bernheim. His article talked about his trip, reflected on what he has seen, and whom he had met. I found his email address. I wrote an email introducing myself, my heritage, and my interest in learning about his family in disbelief that I could actually meet anyone whose family survived the Holocaust in Kanczuga.
Bernheim responded in a very warm email, also pleasantly surprised that someone from that small town would actually write to him in English and ask about his family history. We scheduled a Skype call to meet each other virtually. We had a great conversation; I met his wife, and I told him about my Kanczuga roots, museum visit, and research.
Bernheim introduced me to his family history and the figure of Abraham Arden Brill, his great-grandfather. He told me about Brill’s immigration to the United States, career in psychoanalysis, and relationship with Sigmund Freud as his friend and first translator into English. I visited the Psychoanalysis Library named after Brill in New York, and I learned that his papers are stored at the U.S. Library of Congress. As I still lived in D.C., I decided to go in and view the documentation. There were many folders related to Brill donated by his son. In one relating to his early life, I saw photographs that I recognized since they were of Kanczuga.
I scanned the photos and other documents and uploaded them to a USB drive. I believed that they were important to those of us from Kanczuga, but most importantly, to people who are interested in the history and legacy of the Holocaust. This is when I realized that the story of Kanczuga is the story of the Holocaust, and it is a symbol of its tragedy.
For many Jews today who know their families once lived in Kanczuga, the town represents a place of anti-Semitism and murder, a distant place in the past to forget. Most have never met a Pole, much less one from Kanczuga, and certainly not one interested in memorializing the Jewish community and reconciliation.
Patryk has been researching and collecting fascinating relics pointing to the existence of a once vibrant community. He wants to set up a physical center of reconciliation in Kanczuga so Poles will understand what happened. It’s an awkward historical reality that Kanczuga is one of the communities in which Jews were murdered after the war by their own Polish neighbors, and where the Nazis who had already been defeated could no longer be blamed.
I shared with Patryk photos of my relatives from Kanczuga. About one, he said the house behind them still exists. It’s unavoidable to wonder who lives there now? How did these people come to take my relative’s home after they were murdered, and not another family? Where are the personal belongings including Judaica and religious articles that were left behind that August day in 1942? Part of me wants to know, but never suspects that I’d get a clear or honest answer. Part of me wants nothing to do with it.
Last summer, after meeting Bernheim and visiting the Library of Congress, I knew I wanted to spend time in Kanczuga, to uncover the history of the Holocaust there. It was important to me to honor the memory of the Kanczuga victims of the Holocaust. I knew that they were not properly remembered in my hometown; in fact, it seemed that they were only remembered by their families, if any of them survived.
My mission developed quickly and in various ways. During the call with Bernheim, we scheduled a meeting in Kanczuga. He and his family arrived in June, and he gave an interesting lecture on his great-grandfather at the public library that used to serve as the City Hall before the outbreak of WWII. In Kanczuga, we finally met in person.
Before my trip, I had viewed photos of the Jewish cemetery online, and it seemed a disgrace to those buried there to see the deteriorating state of the art on the gravestones, which are the only remaining religious symbols of the Kanczuga Jewish community. Even though the cemetery was rededicated in 2008—mostly due to the efforts of Howard Nightingale from Canada, whose mother, Frances Nightingale, escaped Kanczuga in 1945—nobody had been taking care of the cemetery since. During my visit, the cleanup of the Jewish cemetery began.
The cleanup was possible due to an online fundraiser that I started. Contributions came from various people, including descendants, locals, and strangers. It was a symbol of Polish-Jewish dialogue, cultural understanding, and mutual values; it is our duty to save the remaining cemetery from destruction because such work serves to prevent Hitler’s will to completely annihilate and erase the Jewish communities of Poland and Europe. With the help of Marta Kuzniar and her father, Eugeniusz Zieba—a retired gardener and resident of Lopuszka Wielka, a village bordering Kanczuga—it was possible to commence the cleanup. Agreeing to work for one-quarter of the going rate, Eugeniusz organized a team that cleared the shrubs and bushes that overgrew the historic site. The cemetery was cleaned, its gate was painted, and some of the stones were straightened under the supervision of Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland.
The summer marked a revival of the Jewish heritage of Kanczuga. In addition to the lecture about Brill and the cemetery cleanup, we documented the Jewish community’s history by collecting photos, correspondence, personal testimonies, and family stories. We created a network of about 40 descendants of Jews from Kanczuga. And we made video recordings of 16 Poles who lived through the Nazi occupation of the town.
These projects helped to develop ties and bridges between Poles and Jews, once fellow countrymen, who shared the same town. The project endures with new findings, coincidences, and meetings: Kanczuga natives continue to uncover valuable remains of the Jewish life in their attics, such as the glass negatives found by the Mroziak family in September, or a coincidental meeting in New York with Tirza Laufer, to whose grandfather, a known Kanczuga Jewish photographer, these negatives belonged. No matter where or when or under what circumstance, this project will always chronicle stories of remembrance of the Holocaust—and not only here: Kanczuga is a symbol of the many towns of Eastern Europe where Jewish life once existed and then ended, to be forgotten.
Patryk and I met over kosher shawarma in New York recently. This was probably the first time a Jew and a Pole from Kanczuga had broken kosher bread together since 1942. There was an odd feeling of nostalgia and familiarity. He’s impressive, personable, and admirable for what he wants to do and represents. Jews’ and Poles’ narratives and understanding of one another are limited and require goodwill and mutual empathy for reconciliation. Yet Jews really are not so interested in how Poles were also victims of the Nazis. And Poles are not so keen on being blamed for the atrocities that took place “under occupation.”
To the extent that Jews and Poles coexisted for centuries and understood one another, albeit with distrust and anti-Semitism always lurking, since 1942 in Kanczuga and countless other places where Jews lived that are now judenrein, there’s been no substantial relationship between Poles and Jews in over seven decades. Kanczuga embodies that.
Perhaps nothing will come of this, as heartening and hopeful as it is or might be. Perhaps, through this, Poles and Jews will put the past in the past and try to understand one another, making strides toward reconciliation. Many of the Jewish descendants with whom I am in touch are pleased and grateful that if all that comes out of this is that Kanczuga’s Jewish cemetery and mass grave of the victims from 1942 are cared for and maintained respectfully, that’s good enough.
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Jonathan Feldstein is President of the Genesis 123 Foundation. Patryk Czerwony is an Advisory Associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers in NYC, and a graduate of The Kogod School of Business at American University.