Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Tarnow, Poland, once a hub of Eastern European Jewish life, lost nearly all of its 45,000 Jewish inhabitants in the genocide of World War II. Most of its inhabitants were deeply religious, and Tarnow was a hub of chasidic observance in Galicia. The end of Jewish life came dramatically. In the last years of the 400-year-old Jewish center, there were round-ups in the central square, ghettoization, mass killings in the nearby forest and, in 1943, the remaining 10,000 Jews were sent away—7,000 to Auschwitz and 3,000 to Plaszow. Among them was my mother-in-law, Frances Kornmehl.

My mother-in-law, barely an adolescent, was transported to Plaszow and then Auschwitz, where she described a harrowing, last-minute selection inside the gas chambers to join a girls’ work force being sent to a Sudetenland labor camp. At liberation, she returned to her hometown of Tarnow, where no relatives remained, and recovered little information about their ultimate disappearance during her lifetime. More than 75 years later, families like ours have experienced new opportunities to discover their histories, commemorate those lost and join together in collaborative preservation projects.


Tarnow, Poland, had little meaning to our family in the years since my mother-in-law’s death in 1991. We understood that her family had lived there continuously since 1780, and she had married my father-in-law, who also had long-standing roots in Tarnow. Accumulating information on her personal and family history was challenging because of the lack of computerization of vital and Holocaust records. With the digitalization of Holocaust records by the International Red Cross and increasing availability of genealogy databases from JewishGen, her personal information began to emerge. Slowly. Until 2014. At that point, computerized records became more readily available and we were able to reconstruct her family history, including birth, marriage and death records dating back to 1820 as well as the details of her Holocaust journey. One pathway to accumulating actual copies of vital documents necessitated reaching out to Adam Bartosz, a non-Jewish historian in Tarnow.

Bartosz, the former director of the Tarnow Regional Museum, was a fundamental force encouraging the protection of Tarnow Jewish architectural and cultural remnants. These efforts included restoring the original bimah (the only element remaining of the destroyed Old Synagogue), founding the annual Galicianer Sztetl Remembrance Festival, organizing the annual memorial in the nearby forest at the site of the largest Holocaust mass grave in Galicia and overseeing the massive Tarnow Jewish Cemetery.

The previously neglected Tarnow Jewish Cemetery is one of the largest and oldest in Southern Poland with about 6000 gravestones dating back to the early 1700s. Inside, one of the few remaining beit taharas in Poland had decaying walls and was at risk for collapse. The section where esteemed rabbis were buried was in poor condition with disintegrating headstones and missing fencing. The rest of the cemetery was filled with garden debris, fallen tree branches and leaning tombstones. The central memorial monument, over a large mass grave, sat on a cracked base. Occasional visitors came to pay tribute to the rabbis or to try, mostly unsuccessfully, to find family gravestones. In our family it was clear from genealogy records that family members were likely buried there, but little more was known as the Holocaust had erased our family history. Not a single family member had visited the cemetery in over 75 years.

That was soon to change. Bartosz was named the recipient of a $750,000 EU grant to restore the Tarnow Jewish Cemetery. In 2017, he was awarded this 3:1 matching grant contingent upon donations from supporters, which have included families, benefactors, foundations and a significant donation from the Tarnow mayor and regional municipality. A full-scale renovation began that included the restoration and indexing of gravestones, repair and rebuilding of the cemetery walls, installation of permanent pathways to access graves and the conserving of the beit tahara and installation of a permanent educational exhibit of Jewish burial practices. The city of Tarnow dedicated additional financial and municipal resources to ensure that the project reached completion and that it would serve as a place of remembrance for both Jewish descendants and non-Jewish town residents. The grant ensured that a part-time guide would be hired to give tours of the cemetery to local residents and tour groups of all religions and nationalities.

As the restoration neared completion, a three-day event was organized by the Tarnow Jewish Committee to bring families of former Tarnow residents, many of whom had lost families in the Holocaust, together to resolve and remember the history of their relatives and to pay tribute to those who were buried in the cemetery. Together with other Tarnow Jewish families, we wanted to witness the power of a collaborative partnership that spanned continents, religions and nationalities.

In June 2019 we traveled to Tarnow along with a cousin from Amsterdam. In hand were the GPS locations of the family graves found on the new index of 4000 gravestones. We joined a group of visitors that included 25 other participants from around the world. The first two days included talks by a rabbi who described the challenges in restoring the Tarnow Jewish Cemetery, a genealogist who spoke about resources available in Poland to do genealogy research and a local educator who described the collaboration of students in Tarnow and Israel on projects of Jewish interest and remembrance. Other events included davening Shacharit at the historic bimah, a walking tour of Jewish Tarnow and a dinner event. On the last day, we made our way to the cemetery. The cemetery re-dedication was a deeply meaningful event, with participation by the mayor of tarnow, regional officials, Bartosz and Rabbi Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland. It was well attended by local residents, the few Jews that remain in Tarnow and many visitors. Hatikvah resonated in the cemetery and Kaddish was recited. Later, walking along the newly installed pathways, we were able to find the graves of our Leder, Turteltaub and Kornmehl family members and say Kaddish with a minyan. It was the first time in over 75 years that the graves of our relatives had been visited.

We found ourselves in a newly restored cemetery in a town in Poland in June 2019 remembering our ancestors and representing the descendants that the Holocaust did not eradicate. On that day, in that cemetery, we were able to serve as beacons of remembrance in a place of much historical darkness. It was only possible due to the efforts of a righteous gentile and a town that had not forgotten.