About 15 years ago, when he was in his mid-20s, Piotr Krawczyk had a revelation that changed his life; in many respects it also ended up changing the life of Chmielnik, the sleepy little town in South Central Poland where he lives.
“I found a book on the history of Chmielnik, and I read it,” Krawczyk, a round-faced man who exudes enthusiasm, told me when I visited Chmielnik, which is about 100 miles southeast of Warsaw. “But I found scarcely any information about Jews, and I remembered that my grandparents told me that before the war, there were a lot of Jews here.”
So, he added, “I started going to the archives, finding documents, and I found a lot. No Jews live in Chmielnik now, but before World War II they were about 80% of the population. The history of the Jews here is the history of the town.”
This recognition sent Krawczyk on a journey to put Jewish history, Jewish memory and Jewish heritage back both on Chmielnik’s map and in the town’s self-awareness.
Working closely with Mayor Jarosław Zatorski and other town officials, Krawczyk has been a driving force behind a remarkable series of initiatives encompassing education, commemoration, outreach and tourism.
He was instrumental in founding Encounters With Jewish Culture, a Jewish culture festival held annually since 2003. He wrote the first book devoted to Chmielnik’s Jewish history, published in 2006, and organizes programs for school children; he spearheaded contacts with Holocaust survivors from Chmielnik and with descendants of local Jews, and he worked to preserve the remnants of Chmielnik’s devastated Jewish cemeteries and to erect a Holocaust memorial.
All this has changed the way many people think about their town and local identity. Even a decade ago, Krawczyk says, some people were wary about reopening a chapter many had believed was closed. “The first time we had the festival, some people were saying, ‘What will happen if Jews return and take their houses back?’” he told me on one of my earlier visits to Chmielnik. “Now, people ask when the next festival is going to take place. They can’t wait.”
This summer, the most ambitious project to date is coming to fruition: the completion of the restoration of Chmielnik’s long-derelict synagogue and the opening there of the Świętokrzyski Shtetl Education and Museum Center dedicated to Jews and Jewish history in Chmielnik and elsewhere in surrounding Świętokrzyski Voivodeship, or Province. Funding for the $3 million complex, which will include a theater and a research center, as well as a separate Holocaust memorial, came from the European Union and from city, state and regional authorities.
Similar to the much bigger and much more publicized Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw, “it will be a modern, interactive museum. We want to show what Jewish life was in this region before the war,” Krawczyk told me.