Monday, August 13, 2012

Poland's Southeast Corner

Travel piece for, Summer 2011

By Ruth Ellen Gruber (all pics by Ruth Ellen Gruber)
When I look at a map, I always feel that the most remote part of Poland is that little triangle of territory in the far southeast of the country that forms a wedge between Ukraine and Slovakia.
It's not really that far away -- just a three or four hour drive from Krakow. But it's a fascinating part of the world at the gateway to the Carpathian mountains, a region of lush hills, rushing streams and all the bucolic beauty that goes with it, combined with a complex and often cruel history of war, strife and ethnic cleansing.
Historically, the region was home to a mix of Jews, Poles, and other ethnic groups including the Lemkos and Boykos. The vital Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust. After the war, Poland's borders were shifted westward. Following a bloody Polish-Ukrainian conflict in 1944-47, Poland's Communist authorities deported the region's Ukraininan minority, including the Lemkos and Boykos, and resettled them in the west and north of the country. Villages were depopulated and many local traditions vanished.
Today, this borderland area is one of the least developed parts of Poland. But in recent years there has been a spurt of growth aimed at bolstering tourist infrastructure and attracting visitors: prices remain moderate, but there are some fairly upscale hotels, good local restaurants and even big, modern supermarkets.
I recently spent nearly a week there, driving through the lovely landscape to visit some of the many traces of the historic Jewish presence that still survive.
Several of these site form part of the "Chassidic Route" itinerary devised by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage, or FODZ, and before I set off I downloaded the brochures for several of the sites, which are found here
south east poland - Sanok
SANOK -- An exhibit in the Judaica exhibition in the Sanok Skansen
I based myself in Sanok, a charming, slow-paced town centered around a hilltop castle and pleasant little main market square. Thanks to its history (and perhaps because of its good tourist infrastructure) Sanok is a stop on the Chassidic route, even though there are few traces left of its Jewish past. The town was a center of Chassidism in the 19th century, and before the Holocaust, Jews made up between 40 ad 50 percent of the local population.
Two former synagogues stand in the town center, but both have been rebuilt for other purposes and are scarcely recognizable as former synagogues. The one surviving Jewish cemetery dates from the 19th century and is located next to the Catholic cemetery. Only a few gravestones remain, but there is a Holocaust memorial.
The most interesting Jewish attraction is the small but valuable collection of Judaica, photographs, paintings and other material on display at Sanok's wonderful open-air folk architecture museum, or skansen. The skansen was established in the 1950s and is the biggest in Poland, a sprawling collection of wonderful wooden village architecture -- houses, churches, shops, workshops -- brought in from villages in the region whose ethnic populations had been deported. Buildings are arranged by both geography and ethnic group, showcasing different vernacular architectural styles and forms.
A new section of the skansen replicates a village market square -- and there are plans to include a replica of one of the region's many ornate wooden synagogues. Virtually these synagogues, which dated back centuries, were destroyed in World War II. My visit to Sanok, in fact, coincided with a project to build an 85 percent scale replica of the roof and ceiling of one of them, from the town of Gwozdiec, that will form a key installation in the Museum of Polish Jewish History now under construction in Warsaw.
Sanok has several moderately prices hotels, but I was very frugal and stayed at the Dom Turysty hotel/hostel. A single room with bath cost the equivalent of about 20 euro a night -- and there was free WiFi internet! (See
Here are other places I visited, all within an hour's drive or less of Sanok.
south east poland - Rymanow
RYMANOW -- Inside the partially restored synagogue, showing frescoes.
The hulking ruins of the synagogue in Rymanow long symbolized to me the power embodied in devastation. The Baroque-style building, believed to date from the beginning of the 17th century, was a mournful shell, its roof gone and its windows gaping, trees growing out of the walls. Inside, fading frescoes on the walls depicted biblical animals -- the tiger, lion, eagle and stag -- and a view of Jerusalem. The pillars of the central bimah stood stark.
I wished then that it could be preserved in that state to serve as a monument to the Holocaust and its destruction.
In the mid-2000s, the synagogue was restituted to Jewish ownership and then passed to Congregation Menachem Zion, a Chassidic group in New York whose members are followers of Menachem Mendel of Rymanow (1745-1815), the Tzaddik who founded a Chassidic dynasty in the little town.
They carried out partial, and controversial, restoration work -- a new roof protects the interior and its fresco decoration, but there is an ugly modern tile floor and a toilet stall in the sanctuary, and it's clear that the restoration did not follow standard practices when dealing with a historic building.
The Jewish cemetery is on Slowackiego street, on a slope above town. Peaceful and meditative now, it was almost totally destroyed during World War II and many of the surviving stones are damaged. Ohels, however, now protect the tombs of Menachem Mendel and other rabbis.
south east poland - duska
DUKLA -- the ruined synagogue.
Dukla stands just north of the Dukla Pass, the lowest and easiest north-south route through the western Carpathians and already by the 16th century a major artery of trade, including the wine trade north from Hungary. During World War II the area was the scene of bitter battles, and disabled tanks and artillery have been left to stand as memorials to the 100,000 soldiers killed in the fighting.
The somber ruins of a once-imposing synagogue stand in a grassy hollow behind a chain link fence just off the rather rundown main market square: four thick, roofless walls, an arched portal and tall, empty windows. The synagogue was built around the middle of the 18th century and torched by the Germans and severely damaged in World War II.
There are two Jewish cemeteries, right next to each other, at the edge of town, marked from the road with a sign that indicates a war memorial site. Both cemeteries were devastated in World War II and both were cleaned up by students in 2005. The Old Cemetery, dating from the 18th century, is said to receive regularly care, but when I visited in early summer, I found the stones almost buried by vegetation.
Just across the dirt road, though, I was pleased to see that the new Jewish cemetery, dating from around 1870, had just had its grass and weeds cut short. Entry is through a rusting open gate, and the surviving stones stand in neat if straggling rows.
south east poland - Lesko
LESKO, POLAND -- Close up of the facade of the former synagogue.
This sleepy little town has one of the most important complexes of Jewish heritage sites in southern Poland: a synagogue dating from the mid-17th century just up the road from a large and relatively well preserved (if overgrown) Jewish cemetery whose oldest stones date from the 16th century.
The synagogue is a very graceful and impressive building just off the sleepy main market square near a towering church. It is now used as a gallery displaying and selling local arts and crafts.
There has long been an information panel outside identifying it as a former synagogue and describing its history: before World War II, nearly two-thirds of the local population was Jewish. The synagogue is the only one of five prayer houses to survive World War II. It was wrecked during the war and rebuilt in the 1960s -- the reconstruction added baroque gables (which a booklet on sale there said had been removed in the 19th century). The reconstruction also extended the height of the tower so that it now extends above the roof level.
The cemetery sprawls up a steep hill: you enter at the bottom, where the oldest stones are located. These are massive slabs whose only decoration are the vividly carved Hebrew inscriptions. One of the oldest and most historically important Jewish cemeteries in Poland, it is also on many tourist itineraries -- when I visited this time, a Polish tour group was also there. Few people venture up the hill beyond the oldest stones. The higher you go, though, the more, and more recent, and more vividly carved stones there are. But also, the more overgrown and untended do you find them..... in early summer, I found it a jungle; I have to say, I felt both glad to see people (like the tour group) visiting, but rather lonely and depressed that so much of the cemetery was forgotten.
south east poland - Baligrod
BALIGROD -- An elaborate tombstone.
About 20 km due south of Lesko, Baligrod is on the Chassidic Route. It has a nice hilltop Jewish cemetery with a great view and is well signposted. It is regularly maintained and the gravestones were restored a few years ago -- there is even a red plastic trash bin on-site. But when I visited, the grass and weeds had not been cut for awhile (I know how quickly the can grow in late spring/early summer). The chest-high vegetation hid many of the 200 or so stones -- I followed the narrow beaten trail made by a previous visitor but didn't feel like wading through untrammeled areas myself. Still, I found many beautifully carved stones, with a variety of styles ranging from crude but delicate incised images to more elaborate carvings.

south east poland - Lutowiska
LUTOWISKA, POLAND -- A tourist visits the Jewish cemetery.
The hamlet of Lutowiska is about as far as you can get in this part of Poland -- way down toward the very end of the triangular tip, very close to the Ukrainian border. It was once a major trading center, with a large Jewish population that made up the majority of residents from the late 19th century.
I had a wonderful and surprising experience here, finding that the surviving local Jewish heritage has been included in a well organized touristic/educational route in and around the town that focuses on the three cultures that coexisted here before World War II -- Jews, Poles and Ukrainians. The itinerary is aimed at bringing back awareness of destroyed local history (Holocaust as well as post-war expulsions and population and border shifts) and also highlighting the landscape and environment. Other sites on the Three Cultures itinerary include the Greek-Catholic cemetery, with a replica of the wooden church that no longer stands here.
The well maintained Jewish cemetery is enclosed by a rustic fence on a hill behind the town's big school, immersed in lovely rolling landscape. There are dozens of gravestones, some with fairly elaborate carving; many tilted, some eroded.
In the center of the hamlet are the ruins of the synagogue. And scattered information panels, as well as material available at the tourist office, provide details about local history.

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