Today, as part of the Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship from Wellesley College I went to my ancestral town of Parczew. My friend Witek has a friend, Jarek, who is the principal of a school there and he had arranged for a get together. We arrived and he showed me student books from the 1930s with names and grades of students. Witek had told Jarek in advance that my great, great-great and great-great grandfathers had been born in Parczew and had been named Bawnik (my great-great-great grandfather was born there too but he was born in 1800 when they still used patronymics—no last names). So in advance someone had looked through all these books and marked the pages that had the name Bawnik on them. Funnily enough Bawnik was often next to Banach. I have written elsewhere about my friend, the historian Krzystof Banach, formerly of Majdanek with whom I have a shared history: both his great grandfather and my great uncle were murdered in Majdanek. And now in these school ledgers that are nearly ninety years old I find the names Banach and Bawnik side by side. Jews and Catholics studied together in this school; over and over again I see the words Roman Catholic and Mosaic listed as the children’s religion. The pre-War Jewish population of Parczew was 60%. My direct relatives left there in the 19th century but the two Bawniks whose grades I saw today—Mindla and Józek— are likely relatives of mine.
After looking at the books we head into a large classroom for a gathering. Students recite poems about Parcew Jews and we see some photos and a film about Parczew before and during the War. Witek gives an introduction and then I give a spiel in Polish. Of course I make a lot of mistakes but I am getting more and more comfortable speaking, and moreover, understanding in Polish. One woman asks me what American Jews think of Poles and I tell her that there are many different opinions among American Jews— many don’t think about Poland, some are interested and supportive, but unfortunately there are some who are quite anti-Polish. I tell her that I believe this anti-Polish sentiment stems mostly from pain and that pain turns to anger and they need somewhere to put the anger. I say that one of my missions in life is to combat anti-Polish sentiment. I wasn’t planning to say that but I am glad I got the opportunity. Later, my friend and mentor, Tomek Pietrasiewicz points out that for the people in the room who heard me say that, it is likely a breaking of stereotypes that a Jewish woman would say such a thing.
After eating a delicious gluten free lunch (except for a suspicious grain that I left on my plate) —kids in Poland eat really well—Witek, Jarek, a knowledgable guy named Stanisław and I go to see some parts of Parczew related to the Jews:
1). Kirkut, or Jewish Cemetery. Basically it’s a park. There are no tombstones. No one knows where any of them are. There’s no plaque saying what the place was. There was one but it was stolen. Stanisław tells us that everyone know this space was the Kirkut. I asked, “everyone?” He said that the old people definitely do, maybe the young don’t. So I wonder: what will happen to the memory in the future?
There are a few monuments in the park and one of them’s a grave. Though I read Hebrew I could not make it out. Another is a plaque dedicated to the Polish Jewish soldiers who were murdered there. And Stanisław says there were several mass graves on the area of the Kirkut.
2). Former great synagogue. Nothing remains except the outside of the building.
3). Former smaller synagogue. An empty grassy lot. They don’t stop long enough for me to snap a photo. I asked why it is empty, assuming it is for some reverential reason, but Stanisław said the owner just does not want to build on it.
4). Former mikveh. Just the building remains.
5). Stanisław and Jarek know where the ghetto boundary was. In Lublin, thanks to Tomek Pietrasiewicz, the ghetto boundary is marked with yellow squares in the pavement. You cannot help but remember. I wonder how many remember those boundaries in Parczew.
6). The last standing “Jewish house” in Parczew.