From the moment I arrived in Kraków, I enjoyed exploring Polish cities, food, nature, history, and culture. Yet the country’s vast greenness was the most striking thing to me. Before that, Poland for me was gray pavement, stones, railways, snow, and dangerous woods. This green Poland was charming and generous. It was difficult to imagine shadows while I felt the sun in my eyes.
Polin, known in Jewish legend as a country in which to rest and flourish, was easy to embrace.This warm feeling, a mixture of curiosity and fraternity, was challenged by historical memories in almost every corner. Nowhere else as in Poland can one be constantly confronted by a constant presence of the absent. Jewish people lived in these places and built a robust culture, then were destroyed so swiftly during Nazi rule. We visited so many visible traces of the past during the fellowship. From time to time I paused, seeing behind the contemporary scenes to historical images passing through my mind. As I walked through town after town, I saw scenes from the history of those streets. I imagined towns that were once places for living, not meant to be sites of mourning or tourism in for these purposes.
We visited many small synagogues in towns and villages, some still supported by families and institutions as spaces for encounter and prayer. It became much easier to comprehend the deeply rooted Jewish history in Poland seeing its traces up close. Walking around the formerly Jewish spaces in today’s Polish cities, I recognized their features and felt surrounded by history, fragments of a lost culture and rich history. I struggled to reconcile the simultaneous connection and emptiness I felt.
The windowless, roofless synagogue in Działoszyce was once home to a thriving community. The lonely bimah in Tarnów, surrounded by chains in a commemorative square, was once was a beautiful synagogue. I couldn’t forget the words of survivor David Feuerstein, who said that when he visited his hometown Chęciny in 2001, everything looked familiar, the same as it was in the 1930s. He felt transported back to his childhood and could almost picture his father walking to the synagogue on those streets.
Authors who have explored memory issues have emphasized the role of framing memories, anchoring them to territorial and social contexts. I witnessed the importance of this during my time as an AJC Fellow, as we encountered institutions and individuals who use these spaces to connect to that shared memory today. My hope is that through these institutions of memory, we can work to ensure that younger generations will utilize these lessons for good.
Ximena Goecke is a historian and professor at UDLA in Santiago, Chile. She has just finished her Magister in Gender and Culture Studies at Universidad de Chile, and is currently developing an educational project related to the Holocaust. She is currently a fellow of Women Mobilizing Memory (2013-2015), and works with the Citizenship, Justice and Rights research group at Universidad de Valparaíso and in the Body and Emotions research nucleus at Universidad de Chile.