Kutno

Primary School No 2 and No 7
in Kutno

Kutno is one of the Polish towns which has a very rich history and culture of the Jewish community. The first records of the settlement of Jews in Kutno date back to 1513. It marks more than four hundred years of history of this community in the town. This history includes not only many Jewish historical monuments, most of which unfortunately have not survived to this day, but also outstanding figures connected with the town.

Young people from the third grade of junior high school who got involved in the project of the School of Dialogue had to undertake an interesting task to prepare a walking tour in a place with such a rich history, but also had to face the challenge of selecting the available sources and choose those places that are the most interesting to them. 

Today Kutno is located in the Łódź Province and it is the head of the Kutno County. Kutno is 72 km north of Lodz, 156 km west of Warsaw and it is located on the Ochnia River. This all created good basis for economic and industrial development of the town. It is worth noting that Kutno was a private town, what had in impact on the situation of the Jewish population. What it meant is that Jews living in private towns and villages were excluded from the King’s legal protection. From that time on, Jews living in private estates were subordinated to local magnates. Initially, the Jewish inhabitants of the town were a significant minority. On the basis of the information provided in head tax payments in 1579, it is possible to estimate that there were 63 Jews living in Kutno at that time. This situation changed, however, and over the following centuries this number grew to reach its peak in 1909, when it reached 9083 people and constituted 63% of the town’s population. In the following years this number decreased slightly, and reached nearly zero as a result of the Holocaust. 

Almost all prewar Jewish buildings were destroyed and have not been preserved. The synagogue, mikvah and Jewish school were demolished. The beautiful synagogue, which took about 30 years to build, was erected in the 18th century. The synagogue was built on a rectangular plan in Baroque style and had a four-column vault with a monumental centrally located bimah. On the northern and southern sides of the synagogue there were wooden annexes – much lower than the building, where the women’s section was located. Until the outbreak of World War II, the synagogue survived almost intact. It was destroyed by the Germans in 1942, during the liquidation of the local Jewish community. Today, there is a different building standing in the same spot. At the corner of the street there is a stone with a plaque commemorating the fate of the Jewish population in Kutno and , the existence of the synagogue. 

At the turn of the 18th and 19th century Kutno was an important centre of Torah studies. At the same time, the Haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment movement reached Kutno, questioning the Rabbinic interpretation of the Five Books and encouraging integration with the non-Jewish part of the society. The famous Nachum Sokolov (1859-1936) and Shalom Ash (1880-1957) studied in the Kutno yeshivas. The latter was also a native Kutno citizen, recalling his hometown in numerous literary texts. High school on 34, 3 Maja Street was one of the educational institutions attended by Jewish children. 

The high school library had 550 volumes of books. Today this building was transformed into residential building. There were also several cheders in Kutno. One of them was a Jewish school on T. Kościuszki Street. It was founded in 1916, during the Great War. The official name of this educational institution is the Public School No. 3 for Jewish students. It is possible that before there was a finishing school for girls, run by Helena Iberalowa. The school was commonly called “Shabbat”.

The individual town houses that can be found in the city have been significantly rebuilt. The Jewish cemetery was also destroyed. The only place, although not completely preserved, is the building and sugar factory Konstancja, founded in 1865.

The lack of tangible traces of the Jewish community in Kutno did not discourage the student in rediscovering their town’s past. They put a great deal of work not only in investigating the fate of the Jewish inhabitants, preparing a walking tour, but also in additional initiatives accompanying the project. It is worth emphasizing that as many as 34 students participated in the project with equal involvement. The School of Dialogue educators emphasize that all the students worked very well in a group, taking into account that they were from two different schools and had limited opportunities to meet during the day. Some students already had project experience and knowledge of Jewish culture gained through a project dedicated to Shalom Ash, a writer from Kutno. It is worth to note that the students established good contacts with the local authorities, cultural institutions and other educational institutions, as well as private entrepreneurs. The students were very independent in their work on the project; they performed all the tasks themselves, from researching the information, through creation and implementation of the program of the walking tour, and finding sponsors. The students got a lot of support from their teachers and school. In addition to the walking tour enriched with quiz and riddles, the students prepared a happening in the form of Jewish dance on the town square. The tour participants could learn how to dance and sing songs in Yiddish. The trip was very well documented. The walking tour scenario was adapted to be used in classes by teachers and there was also a video made from the walking tour. In addition, the lasting effects of the project included: a computer game, a blog or information boards at the Jewish cemetery. The students were able to demonstrate their organizational skills during two exhibitions: fine arts and photography. The first one presented works of art by one of the students, Aleksandra Netkowska from the 3rd grade of the junior high school, devoted to places connected with Jewish culture in Kutno, and the second one presented photographs showing the life of Kutno Jews. Students organized and took part in meetings with experts in Jewish culture from their town. Moreover, the students took part in a series of trips introducing them to the world of Jewish culture, during which they visited such institutions as the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, the Museum of Mazovian Jews in Płock and visited places connected with the culture and history of Jews in Kazimierz Dolny, Janowiec or Łódź. During their research, the students consulted documents in a branch of State Archive in Kutno. In order to check the knowledge of the inhabitants of their town, the students conducted a street survey, asking passers-by what they knew about Kutno Jews.

photo: S.Gotowski, St.Niemojewski

The inhabitants were able to verify their knowledge on the walking tour organized on December 8, 2017. All the participants, 80 people in total, braved the cold to take part in the tour.   

The walking tour started at the market square, where the students performed a Jewish dance and talked about the history of the town and its Jewish inhabitants. The Jews in Kutno were mainly engaged in trade and crafts. Because of the railway connection in Kutno with Bydgoszcz and Warsaw, and with time also Płock and Łódź, the town had a possibility to grow. In the interwar period Jews had a significant share in trade: 66% of all factories and banks belonged to Jews. They also owned 20% of the real estate existing in the town. Some of the Jewish houses were located in the market square in Kutno itself. Most often the lower part of the building had large shop windows or shop windows, while the upper part had private apartments.

The next stop was the place where the synagogue and the mikvah once stood, here students introduced Jewish religious practices and beliefs. The next step was cheder (presentation of education, languages and cultural life), and after, while walking along the prewar town houses, the students talked about the community life and relations between the inhabitants before the war. They also presented the works and biography of Shalom Ash from their town. The next stop of the walking tour was a visit to the Jewish cemetery, where the students emphasized that it required respect, even though there are no matzevot left on the cemetery. The Jewish cemetery in Kutno is located on a large hill between Jana Sobieskiego, Zdrojowa and Jana Tarnowskiego Streets. It is possible to access the cemetery from Spokojna Street. The necropolis was established in 1793 and it is difficult to reconstruct the number of tombstones and what the cemetery looked like before. During the interwar period, the ohel of Rabbi Trunk stood out among the tombstones. Religious Jews made pilgrimages to his grave. During World War II Germans destroyed the cemetery. The tombstones were used to harden pavements, squares and courtyards of houses occupied by the Germans. The occupants planned to build a monument to the Victory of the Third Reich on the necropolis. The cemetery is a place of rest of the Jews who died or were murdered in the Kutno ghetto and a place of execution of the local Jewish population. After the war, the Jewish Survivors from Kutno buried the ashes of their loved ones at the cemetery brought from the German Nazi death camp in Chełmno nad Nerem. A monument to the victims of the Holocaust was unveiled at that moment. It was a matzeva-like plaque with the Star of David on the top and inscription in Hebrew and Polish. Unfortunately, the monument was destroyed. In the 80’s of the 20th century, Kutno activists regained some of the matzevot that are now located in the Regional Museum in Kutno. The area of the cemetery is still neglected.

The next and last stop was the place of the former ghetto on the premises of the sugar factory “Konstancja”, which turned out to be completely new experience for the students – as none of them had ever been there before. Its founder was a well-known industrialist and financier Leon Epstein. It was a large and technically well equipped sugar factory. After some time it became the property of Joint Stock Company of Sugar Factory and Refinery, yet the Epstein family had a large package of shares, giving them an important role in the management board of this company. It was one of the largest sugar factories in the Kutno district. It was probably the economic crisis of the end of the 1920s that led to its closure. During the Second World War, a Kutno ghetto was set up in the area of the former sugar factory. Later, the premises served as a grain warehouse. Currently, there are only 4 brick residential buildings and 4 production buildings made of brick, covered with tar paper left. This property is now owned by Kutno Poultry Factory “Exdrob” S.A., and a commemorative plaque is placed at the entrance to the premises.

On the way to the sugar factory, the students stopped at the larch manor house – the seat of the Society of Friends of Kutno Area and Holzman’s Villa, presenting the famous personalities of their pre-war residents. The students adapted each stop of the tour to the audience, and presented short information about each of them, showed photographs and teaching aids (tefilin, Torah, yad, etc.). Each presentation was complemented with a quiz, a word game, or a task, or an exercise in writing Hebrew letters. The students also prepared tea and doughnuts to distribute during breaks in between stops.

The participation in the walking tour, and in the whole project, was a very intensive experience for the students, who often changed their attitudes towards minorities and developed new attitudes, more open to intercultural dialogue. One of the participants of the project said:

“I want that as many people as it is possible change their view not only of the Jews, but also of every person – me, you, or anyone else. We should learn to be ourselves, to treat others as we want to be treated, because despite many differences, we have many things in common. Let’s put stereotypes aside, things one has no control of. WE should see what other person has achieved, who he is, what his achievements are. We should get to know people and not judge them. Let’s try to see the world in this way.” Other participants paid attention to the knowledge and skills they gained while working on the project: “I got to know the history of Jewish families and Israel. I was fascinated by the diversity of the country’s inhabitants. All activities: dancing, music, creating maps of thoughts, games and plays, finding information, teamwork, allowed me to devote my free time with pleasure and develop. In addition, I have more respect to others and got to know myself better.”  

“The other does not mean worse – this is my message resulting from these initiatives. I will take actions related to this topic. I think this is very import.

Workshops participant

I really developed my knowledge with this project. What I knew before was that these people lived in Poland, in Kutno, and that’s all. However, during the workshops I learned much more. I got to know Jewish holidays, culture, Jewish history, and I also learned a lot about religion and language. (…) My role was to talk about the ghetto. I was very moved by the history of Jews during World War II.

Workshops participant

Kutno

School:
Primary School No 2 and No 7 in Kutno
Students:
Junior High School class III
Educators:
Szymon Gotowski, Stanisław Niemojewski

Contributors

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.

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In appreciation to Friends of the Forum for supporting the School of Dialogue educational program.