Jolanta Świerczek-Stelmach

Dąbrowa Tarnowska


I live in Dąbrowska Tarnowska in southern Poland, a town with many sites remaining after its Jewish residents, the most spectacular being the monumental synagogue, which was restored to its former greatness in 2012. As a child I was fascinated by these sites, but also surprised that no one ever comes to pray inside the impressive prayer house and that the cemetery with strange tombstones receives no visitors and is overgrown with weeds and bushes. It was hard to satiate my childhood curiosity and answer questions that kept coming. Even school education was not in-depth enough as regards this subject matter. It was only in the course of my postgraduate studies about the Shoah as well as my study visits to Yad Vashem that I felt prepared in my work as a teacher to reference Jewish culture, commemorate Holocaust victims and attempt to combat existing stereotypes and prejudice.

I teach Polish in Dąbrowa Tarnowska’s Secondary School Complex no.2. Most pupils I work with live in the countryside, where anti-Semitic views are deeply rooted. This is why introducing elementary Holocaust education became so important in my teaching. I have found allies in this mission at the school, especially in English language teacher Jerzy Stelmach (privately my husband), with whom I implement projects related to interacting with Israeli and American youth. I am also a mother of two adult daughters and a grandmother of a 2-year-old boy. I spend my free time reading books, gardening and traveling in Poland and abroad. I had even conducted some overseas trips to exotic countries.

My first initiative from 2003 was Holocaust Remembrance Days to honor the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This year the event will see its 15th edition. My fellow teachers as well as head of Dąbrowa’s Cultural Center are co-organizing the event, which includes contests, exhibitions, meetings with the town’s former Jewish residents (the first edition was attended by the late Marceli Wajsbard, a lawyer) and “Children of the Holocaust”, as well as documentary and feature film screenings. Holocaust Remembrance Days have proven to be immensely popular, attended by over 100 secondary school students from the region and held under the auspices of the town’s mayor and the district head. In 2008, our event received an honorable mention in the nationwide “Memory for the Future” project.

Another initiative, was my input in the filming of a 2006 documentary film by Maria Zawada-Bilik called “Tracing the History of Dąbrowa Tarnowska – Dąbrowa’s Jews”. The film is 48 minutes long and presents the history, traditions and extermination of Jews in Dąbrowa as well as the Judaica still surviving in the townscape. It is available in all school libraries in the region and was screened a number of times by TVP Kraków TV station, meeting with significant interest from our local residents. This year,along with my students I participated in yet another and much shorter documentary, this time on the functioning of the renovated synagogue building, which now houses a Cultural Meeting Center. I was also invited by Paweł Sroka, the editor of a local internet newspaper Nowy Kurier Dąbrowski (“Dąbrowa’s New Sentinel”) to write a series of articles about Jews from Dąbrowa. To this day they are available online in the site’s Judaica section.

Since 2007, my school has been involved in the international initiative “Closer to Each Other” (Bliżej siebie) and has earned the honorary title of School of Meetings and Dialogue. Each year we are visited by over 100 young people from Netanya who – together with their Polish peers – participate in workshops, competitions, sports games, learn Polish songs and dances and visit sites connected to Jewish history.

In 2010, we became part of a nationwide project “Gone are in Poland the Jewish villages”, supported by Polish-German Center Association, which had students prepare an urban game connected to local Jewish heritage. A selected group of students participated in workshops, gave tours for other pupils of the school-held exhibition entitled “Jews in Poland. Same as us or different?” as well as prepared a guidebook “Dąbrowa Tarnowska’s Jewish Trail” which won them second prize in the project.

I share the knowledge I gained by giving guided tours for school youth as well as all interested adults around sites connected to Jewish history and culture, holding lectures for various organized groups as well as for visitors to our town from abroad – the latter including descendants of former Jewish residents. Besides encounters with Israeli youth, for the past three years we have been involved in an interesting project implemented in Europe by high school students from New Jersey, California and Texas. Our town is one of the sites on the itinerary of study trips focusing on the history of the Holocaust for U.S. American students of prof.Shalmi Balmore. Students from our school and the U.S. participate in joint workshops prepared by our school’s English teacher, Jerzy Stelmach, visit Dąbrowa’s Jewish sites, attend meetings with witnesses to history as well as the Holocaust Remembrance Days.

For many years now I have worked with a number of institutions including ORE (Polish Center for Educational Development), Children of the Holocaust Association, Polish Institute of National Remembrance, Galicia Jewish Museum, Centropa, POLIN Museum of History of Polish Jews and Jewish Historical Institute that organize trainings, conferences and inspire me to pursue new challenges. In 2017, our school joined a Centropa project and prepared a short film about Dąbrowa’s last Orthodox Jewish resident, Samuel Roth. Students were rewarded for their work with a two-day trip to Budapest for the project’s final gala. We also participated in a nationwide competition as part of “Memory for the Future” project, for which we made a film about the Warsaw Ghetto Archive to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Jewish Historical Institute. I was proud to see my students receive second prize for their work at the project’s final gala in POLIN Museum.

To sum up my almost 15-year-long wrangle with the subject of the Holocaust in my school, town and region, I must say that all these initiatives have given me a lot of professional and personal satisfaction, even if they are not getting any easier despite the passage of time. It gives me joy to see our local students and teachers get involved in projects that are far more than just artistic endeavors. Support of the local authorities is an unquestionable aid here, and so are the cooperation with Dąbrowa’s Cultural Center, assistance from individuals involved in Polish/Jewish dialogue and presence of curious visitors from abroad. Unfortunately, remembering about the important Jewish chapter in the history of our “little homeland” is not obvious and deemed necessary by all. From time to time I hear voices claiming that such initiatives are controversial, to say the least. Nevertheless, I believe that my efforts are worth the price in the name of historical truth and educational benefits for local students, who should know what intolerance, religious and racial prejudice, ignorance and envy lead to. In my opinion, a responsible teacher should not avoid presenting the most comprehensive image of the past in order to claim responsibility for the future.


Jolanta Świerczek-Stelmach

Dąbrowa Tarnowska