Marek Chmielewski



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.

Recently a group of us translated from the Yiddish the diary of Orla’s last rabbi, which was accidentally found in the area that had once been Białystok’s ghetto. I am still collecting archival photographs, documents and any material objects connected to the town’s Jewish community. I am also recovering the matzevot that had been taken away from the Jewish cemetery during and after World War II. I no longer have to worry about mowing grass at the site – local authorities have taken it upon themselves and do so regularly. With the assistance of the Municipal Cultural Center, they are also responsible for organizing events commemorating the anniversary of Orla ghetto’s liquidation. I establish and foster ties with Jews from abroad whose ancestors come from Orla. Recently, thanks to an initiative put forward by my colleagues from the newly-established EDM Foundation, we were able to release “tourist stamps” with the image of our synagogue and to create a model of prewar Orla. Through the foundation, together with two local teachers I archive and digitalize the resources we find, but also organize workshops on Orla’s history for local youth.

I am a village head and a trained farmer. I am also the head of Orla’s Farm Society which participates in all initiatives commemorating the local Jewish community. Additionally, I head Orla’s fishing association and act as deputy head of a Local Action Group “Puszcza Białowieska”. Furthermore, I am a husband and father of three adult or almost-adult children. I enjoy reading, especially history books, and good food. In my spare time, I go fishing.

In all my activism I never forget how much I have changed over the past twenty five years; how my opinions evolved after the aforementioned “encounter”. Nowadays, the activities I had once initiated involve the whole community of Orla; local residents and activists get involved without any action on my part. I feel that I have sparked a curiosity which made it a common interest to keep the Jewish cemetery and the synagogue building in an orderly state. The change that once occurred within me has also happened among the Orla’s residents and local youth, whom I trust and can vouch for. I guess this is my most significant success.


Marek Chmielewski