Walking in the footsteps of Jewish Będzin means constantly taking steps between what may or must be imagined and what has been saved, or restored, or recreated.
Imagination allows us to see the synagogue burnt down by Germans in September 1939, quarters of houses in its neighbourhood, demolished in 1970s to widen the street, or Jewish shops and factories; what has been saved sometimes happens to be locked, or remains unmarked, or has been changed completely. Since the help of a guide is necessary in both of the above cases, on Saturday, June 11th I Like Zagłębie took part in a guided tour “In the Footsteps of Rutka Laskier”, organized by Cafe Jerozolima (ul. Modrzejowska 44) and led by Adam Szydłowski.
Setting off from the café that has quickly become the Będzin centre of memory about Jewish inhabitants of the city, we walk into ul. Potockiego, where all at once the saved collides with the imagined: here we have the building of an old hospital of infectious diseases (ul. Potockiego 2), modernised, and at first sight just a building like many others. It would be hard to figure out that it was exactly here that physician Tadeusz Kosibowicz secretly treated his Jewish patients for which he was consequently sent to several concentration camps and posthumously awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal.
Mizrachi Prayer House
Expecting a more immediate contact with the pre-war Będzin, we walk through an atmospheric gate onto the yard of a huge tenement house built by a rich merchant Jakub Chil Winer on the other side of the street (ul. Potockiego 3). Our main target is the Mizrachi Synagogue, although before we get there, the guide tells us about the colourful past of the place, which, apart from the house of prayer, also held a school, a cinema and a brothel, among other facilities. The synagogue itself, found in 2004, had been used for decades as a flat, basement, storage room, and even a mini ice skating rink. Twelve Tribes of Israel and a complete zodiac sign cycle are looking at us from the restored polychrome paintings. The atmosphere is quiet and mystical.
On the next opportunity, we are strongly determined to visit the other house of prayer in Będzin, located in the so-called Brama Cukermana/Cukerman’s Gate (al. Kołłątaja 24). At this point we only passed through the characteristic yard-street, which connects Plac 3-go Maja with Aleja Kołłątaja.
What is the link between the legendary mime Marcel Marceau and the Archbishop of Paris, French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger? They both came from Jewish families which had left Będzin and emigrated to France at the beginning of the 20th century. The guide told us about this near the tenement house with the plaque commemorating the Cardinal’s family which had lived there maany years ago (al. Kołłątaja 34). Neither Marcel Marceau nor Jean-Marie Lustiger will ever visit Będzin anymore; they both died within a few weeks of each other back in 2007.
Where did Rutka Laskier study?
Moving further down Aleja Kołłątaja, we notice the building of II Liceum im. Stanisława Wyspiańskiego (Stanisław Wyspiański Secondary Comprehensive School No.2) (ul. Teatralna 5), known before the war as Gimnazjum Fürstenberga (Fürstenberg School) for the Jewish youth. It was here that Rutka Laskier, the main heroine of our tour, studied.
Towards the Former Ghetto Area
Having crossed the railroad bridge, we stop for a while at ul. Sienkiewicza to watch from behind the railway line one of the last wooden sukkahs (that is, huts or booths built by Jews to celebrate the feast of Sukkot) preserved in Będzin. It is also there that we begin to explore the most tragic part of the tale of Będzin Jews: the areas above the Sienkiewicza were the site of the “large ghetto” and “small ghetto”, and right near the street was the train platform from which thousands of Jewish people were sent straight to Auschwitz.
Orphanage and Gathering Point
On the other side of the Sienkiewicza, our attention is caught by a massive four-storey building (ul. Sienkiewicza 17), which held an orphanage for Jewish children before the war. During WWII, it was used as the gathering point for Jews displaced from other areas; it was also an eating-house, thanks to which apparently there was nobody starving in Będzin Ghetto. The building, which was later adopted for a children’s hospital, has now been out of use for many years and, considering its large size, it might never be used again.
Where Rutka Laskier Hid Her Diary
We turn left and walk up a steep street in the former ghetto area. The family of Stanisława Sapińska lived in the house at ul. 1 Maja 13 before the war. When the Jewish District was established, Rutka Laskier settled moved there her parents and brother. This is where she wrote her diary. This story is probably familiar to most people in Będzin: thanks to the fact that non-Jewish citizens of Będzin were allowed to walk in the ghetto area back then, Ms Sapińska would go to check the house condition at her father’s request.
This is how she met and made friends with Rutka Laskier. Later, being familiar with the layout of the building, she advised Rutka on the most suitable place for hiding the diary. Nowadays, the house belongs to a private owner, although there are ongoing efforts to take over and potentially establish a memorial room of Rutka Laskier in this place.
Heroic Fight Despite a Lack of Hope
We go to ul. Św. Brata Alberta, parallel to the 1-go Maja, and from there we turn left into ul. Rutki Laskier. In the yard of the tenement house at ul. Rutki Laskier 24, a group of young people associated in Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Combat Organization) did not surrender to the German orders concerning the liquidation of the ghetto and fought against the Nazi occupants. They all died, and even though the importance of their resistance was rather symbolic than military, it was one of few actions of this kind taken by Jewish people outside Warsaw. The event is commemorated by a plaque on the wall of the tenement house (which is currently being restored).
Thirty Thousand Będzin Jews
Moving along ul. Rutki Laskier we reach Plac Bohaterów Getta Będzińskiego, in the central part of which a monument was erected in 2005 to commemorate the sad ending of the history of Będzin Jews: a simple, yet striking message. The monument consists of a carriage and a piece of railway track symbolically leading to Auschwitz, as well as a wall with inscriptions in three languages: Polish, English and Hebrew. We stand there, listening to Mr Szydłowski’s tale of the history of monument erection, and about Alfred Rossner, known as “Oskar Schindler from Będzin”, who managed to protect Jews employed in his shop (workshop) from displacement and death for a couple of years during German occupation.
Passing through Będzin Miasto Railway Station, we get back to the starting point, that is Cafe Jerozolima, where we are already expected by Ms Stanisława Sapińska (born 1918), thanks to whom the world heard about Rutka. Ms Stanisława brings back the memory of her friend who died over seventy years ago; she also tells us about old Będzin – for instance, she remembers the wartime location of a filing workshop at ul. Modrzejowska.
Let Us Remember
By no means was it a lighweight, easy and nice walk, although we do want to invite you to such trips as well. One of the reasons why we like Zagłębie is that it has its stories to tell, even if they are painful and dark.