| 2015 |
Polish Independence Junior High School No 1
Plates of tzimmes, cholent, kugel and hammantashen were placed on a table covered with white clothes. Until recently, the words such as Talmud, Yiddish, matzeva or yarmulke seemed exotic to junior high students in Bielsk. Today, they all know their meaning and wrote them down on a board. A menora, a talit and several publications about Judaism were placed on a table next to the wall. An image of the Jewish calendar was hanged on the wall. First, three students showed the traditional Jewish dance and then all the students and guests started the walking tour in the footsteps of the Jews from Bielsk Podlaski. This tour took them around a town that no longer exists…
They walked around this town where Jews had lived since the 15th century – at the market square, t Mickiewicza, Szkolna, Bożnicza, Wąska, Widowska and Ogrodowa streets. They had their houses, stores and workshops there. The Jewish community existed already in the 16th century, the synagogue was build around that time. Jews started to settle in the town as soon as they had received the official consent.
Therefore, the Jewish community increased steadily in the beginning of the 19th century.
The synagogue named Jafa Einana (“Pretty Eyes”) stood in the town center. The old synagogue, where poor craftsmen prayed, was at Orla Street. Whereas the synagogue Sza’rej Zion Bet Midrasz (Zion Gates) was located at Bożnicza Street. The forth synagogue was placed at the corner of Rynkowa and Puszkina Streets. These were the times when Yiddish was heard in the streets in Bielsk and every Friday the Sabbath was observed. Before the war, Jews made up 38% of town’s residents. During the war, Jews who had escaped the territories occupied by the Germans found here their shelter. Later the Germans also arrived to Bielsk and they set up a ghetto for the Jews of Bielsk and those living in the surroundings. After the ghetto liquidation in 1942, several hundreds of Jews were exterminated in Treblinka, others were deported to Majdanek or Auschwitz.
The area surrounding Bielsk Podlaski has remained one of the most ethnically diverse regions in Poland. Poles, Belarusians and Ukrainians live here side by side. The School of Dialogue workshops, led by Forum educators, created an opportunity for junior high-school students to talk about multiculturalism, as well as the local and Jewish history.
The students also met with Andrzej Weres, local historian, and Doroteusz Fionik, an ethnographer, a historian and a reporter at “Bielski Gościniec”. Thanks to Mr. Fionik, the students learned the exact boundaries of the ghetto as there is nothing left from it today. In the ‘70, a housing estate was built on that area. A restaurant is now where the synagogue used to stand. And where the mikvah was – now is a swimming pool. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Fionik, a plaque in memory of local Jews was placed just next to the building. During preparations for the walking tour, the students encountered difficulties to locate the execution site of the last Jews from Bielsk. Mr. Fionik helped them yet again – during the trial tour, he showed them a greenbelt where in the ’40, an exhumation was performed. The students also consulted different historical sources and numerous publications, and searched for the tangible traces of the Jewish life in their town.
“I had no idea that there were so many places connected to this religion. We enter a building without even knowing that it was a synagogue or a Jewish school. There is nothing left of it, no trace…”, said astonished students. The last tangible trace of the town’s Jewish residents is the Jewish cemetery with about a hundred of matzevas left.
During the walking tour, the students took up the roles of guides. They talked about two houses of prayers, the mikvah, the Jewish schools, the Jewish theater group and the last rabbi of Bielsk. The junior high students shared their knowledge with fellow students, but also with the representatives of local authorities who came for the walking tour. Thanks to the stories told by the junior high students, the pre-war Bielsk came back to life, at least for a moment, and the students looked at their town in a different light.
I found the history of my town interesting. I learned about the past, where the stores were located, and where the Jewish districts were. I was able to imagine how it had looked like at one time. It was not possible before because no one had shared so much knowledge with me as did the educators that I met during the workshops.
Polish Independence Junior High School No 1
1st – 3rd year students
Agnieszka Jankowska, Świetłana Sacharczuk
Beata Godlewska, Maria Pawlak
In appreciation to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) for supporting this educational program. Through recovering the assets of the victims of the Holocaust, the Claims Conference enables organizations around the world to provide education about the Shoah and to preserve the memory of those who perished.
Program co-financed from the funds granted by Citizens for Democracy program, financed through the EEA grants.
In appreciation to Friends of the Forum for supporting the School of Dialogue educational program.