My family has lived in Orla for generations. All my ancestors are from here and so is my wife. I am a part of Orla’s community. Ever since I can remember, the synagogue building dominated the townscape and the surrounding area, with thousands of pigeons roosting on its top. I would be confronted with the building time and again, willy-nilly, just like I would be confronted by fragments of reminiscences on Orla’s Jewish residents. However, neither the edifice itself nor other people’s memories stirred my curiosity at the time.
A change in my perception of both Orla’s Jewish history as well as of Jews in general happened some thirty years ago. I owe it to a certain meeting and friendship. It was the late 1980s, a time of transformation. At the time, I was a clueless 25-year-old with no interest in Jewish studies and not unfamiliar with negative stereotypes about Jews. At the time my wife and I befriended a young married couple from Mińsk. One day in the course of our visit Zhana, the wife, went out to meet us and said: “Listen Marek, I have a request – don’t say anything about Jews, my dad has come over to visit.” It turned out that our friend’s father was a Jewish officer, which I had not been aware of. I still remember my shame; I think that one sentence cured me from my “juvenile anti-Semitism”.
A few years later, I became interested in Orla’s Jewish history. One day, a friend of mine who worked as a principal in one of Orla’s schools approached me with a request to help organize an exhibition of old family photos the school’s students had donated for one of the classes. I agreed and got so engulfed in it that I started searching for information by knocking on people’s houses, sifting through archives in an attempt to learn the names of the people depicted in the recovered photographs as well as the stories behind them. After two years of research, we were able to organize an exhibition inside the synagogue building and to publish an album, even though neither of us had done anything like it before. One thing led to another – through newly-established contacts I was able to reach Ms.Sara Wanjsztejn, Orla’s former resident now living in Haifa. I traveled to meet Ms.Wanjsztejn and… could go on about this forever.
For a few years, I organized “Orla’s Melting Pot” festival with a Jewish-themed day. I no longer organize this event, but through it I met a number of fascinating people with similar interests.