South of Warsaw, Góra Kalwaria was once an important Hasidic court. Thanks to a friend, I was able to find what is left and preserved until the present day. There are the remains of a synagogue – waiting for renovation – and a destroyed but well maintained cemetery. And there is a strange local habit…
When I told my friend Magda some weeks ago I would come to Warsaw and are planning excursions, she asked me about my places of interest. ‘Góra Kalwaria’, I said. ‘Great, I have an aunt in Góra Kalwaria’, Magda replied. Just recently I had read Alfred Döblin’s memories about his journey to Poland in the inter-war period. Döblin was a renowned German-Jewish writer and journalist. When the Nazi movement was on the swing in Germany, he became interested in his own Jewish roots – something he paid little attention to before. Poland looked to him like the place to learn more about it. One of his most colorful descriptions is about the Hasidic court in Góra Kalwaria, when thousands of Warsaw Jews went by suburban trains to the neighboring town to see the rabbi and get his blessing during a high holiday. I was curious what there is still to see.
Magda’s aunt Krystyna picked us up at the end of a metro line and brought us to Góra Kalwaria. She already had asked the key keeper of the Jewish cemetery to come and let us in, but our first stop is at the former Hasidic court. The synagogue and the adjacent residence of the rabbi are in poor condition. The synagogue is fenced in and a sign states the building will undergo renovation. Later we would learn this will be a long process. But also now, group of Hasidic pilgrims show of – a big event is expected next month.
At the Jewish cemetery we met a man who introduced himself as Matthew. He is not only the key keeper but also maintains the cemetery. The cemetery was established in 1802. At the eve of World War II there were 4,000 tombstones – now there are only 200. The cemetery was almost completely destroyed during the German occupation, its tombstones used to pave roads or given away as construction material. Miraculously tombs of some of the rabbis survived; now they are protected by an ohel. Not every stone is erected on a grave; some are memorials for families who were deported to Treblinka and murdered there. Treblinka has no graves. Also for Matthew’s family there is such a memorial stone.
Close to the entrance is a second gate. If one looks closer, you can see bullet holes in the metal – traces of a mass shooting. It is the original gate of the synagogue; it was brought some years ago to the cemetery. Nearby is a memorial for 120 Jews from Łódź who were shot on the spot. The rabbi of Góra Kalwaria and his closest followers managed to escape, but nearly all other remaining 4,000 Jews were murdered by the Germans.
Despite total destruction, Góra Kalwaria’s Jewish history has an echo. When we passed a small farmers market, only one stand was open. ‘This is very unusual for a Polish town on a Saturday’, said Krystyna. ‘All over Poland markets are on Saturdays, but here we have them on Friday morning and they close already at noon.’ Some habits don’t change.
Thank you, Magda, Krystyna and Matthew for this day!
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