The surprising Jewish resurgence in Chmielnik, Poland – a town with no Jews

The surprising Jewish resurgence in Chmielnik, Poland – a town with no Jews

In a small Polish town of just 11,000 people with not a single Jew, a state-of-the-art Jewish museum has been built. Millions of dollars have been invested in restoring the town’s breathtaking synagogue. And now, a 150-year-old mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) that time had nearly forgotten has been re-discovered.

Welcome to Chmielnik, one of the most surprising towns in south central Poland.

Shavei Israel’s emissary to Krakow, Rabbi Avi Baumol, recently visited Chmielnik to try to understand what exactly is going on in this sleepy little town. He was invited there to speak as part of a panel for “A Day of Judaism” – another surprise given Chmielnik’s lack of any Jewish community. Rabbi Baumol and the other participants –a priest and a minister – spoke passionately on “how Jews and non-Jewish Poles can work together and thrive in Poland,” Rabbi Baumol reports.

Chmielnik wasn’t always this way. Prior to World War II, more than 80 percent of the town’s population was Jewish. Based on dates from the town’s ancient cemetery, the first Jews came to Chmielnik in 1565. A community began to flourish a century later, starting in 1658, and the synagogue was built then. By 1764, when a census was taken, there were 1,445 Jews in Chmielnik. The census of 1897 showed the community had grown to 5,660 Jews. At its height, in 1939, the Jewish population of Chmielnik was 10,275.

With no Jews left in Chmielnik after the Holocaust, who is behind the remarkable resurgence of Jewish institutional memory in town? Piotr Krawczyk, a young non-Jewish Pole, was in his mid-20s when, 17 years ago, he found a book on Chmielnik. Krawczyk was fascinated as he pored through the town’s history but perplexed by omission of any mention that there was once a thriving Jewish community. “I remembered that my grandparents told me that before the war there were a lot of Jews here,” he told The Jewish Daily Forward.

Feeling a sense of injustice for the town’s murdered majority, Krawczyk dove deep into the town’s archives. “The history of the Jews here is the history of the town,” he concluded. He was determined to put Jewish history back on Chmielnik’s map – and in the town’s self-awareness.

In addition to the $3 million museum and the restoration of the town’s synagogue, Krawczyk established “Encounters with Jewish Culture,” an annual festival to commemorate the town’s Jewish past. He organizes programs for local school children and works to preserve the remnants of Chmielnik’s Jewish cemeteries. His 2006 book is the only one of its kind on the town’s Jewish history.

The museum’s design is stunning, occupying much of the former synagogue’s sanctuary, which has as its centerpiece a backlit, transparent, full-scale reproduction of the destroyed bimah from where the Torah was once read. The women’s gallery, with a ceiling constructed of glass, has been transformed into a small auditorium and exhibit center. Nearby, a Jewish-style restaurant called Tsimmes serves up such traditional Jewish dishes as cholent, kugel, chopped liver and roast goose. (In a nod to modern times, there’s also hummus on the menu.)

Rabbi Baumol’s talk was in the synagogue-turned-museum, but the highlight for him was the unveiling of the newly discovered mikveh. “They will be renovating it as part of their desire to showcase Chmielnik as an important stop in Jewish Polish consciousness,” he explains.

Indeed, the town has already become a popular stop on what’s known as the “Shtetl Route” for visitors starting in Krakow who seek to better understand pre-War Polish Jewish life.

“The whole event was beautifully done, celebrating dialogue and tolerance,” Rabbi Baumol adds. “In my presentation, I spoke about Abraham as the father of many religions and the importance of us all following in his stead.”

Clearly, the spirit of Abraham is alive and well in Chmielnik.

Here are some pictures from the Chmielnik “Day of Judaism.”

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Brian Blum
Brian Blum
brianblum@gmail.com