Absurdity Returns to Chelm

Postcard

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Because Jewish folk humor depicts Chelm as a town inhabited by naive fools, few people realize that Chelm is actually a real town in Eastern Poland that was once home to 18,000 Jews and was highly regarded as a center of Torah study.

Now, a half-century after nearly this whole population perished in the death camps of Sobibor and Majdanek, Chelm is once again the site of an absurdist situation, although one tinged with sadness: This year, the town’s former synagogue was turned into an American-style saloon.

“When I bought my apartment, I had no idea there was a synagogue two blocks away,” Jan Cudak said. The Chicago-born son of Polish parents, Cudak moved three years ago to Chelm, where he now works as a teacher and translator of English. “I’d long been fascinated with Chelm from reading the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and I still feel the town has a mythical quality about it. But for the past year, as I walked my dog past the building, I saw the grotesque situation unfold — from the first beer sign on the facade, to each wedding party inside the main prayer room.”

Cudak’s girlfriend managed to videotape one of the weddings in the saloon, which Cudak then uploaded to YouTube. In the clip, which is about one-minute long, the camera scans the authentic architecture and majestic high windows of the synagogue, as the bride and her guests dance to the tune of the Chicken Dance — a German melody that, due to the incongruence of the situation, conjures up the disturbing gaiety of the Berlin cabarets of the 1930s.

“Today some of us who live in Chelm, and who don’t want to forget about what happened, end up between a rock and a hard place,” Cudak remarked, noting that Chelm doesn’t even have a monument to its former Jewish inhabitants — who once made up half its population. “The local Polish community sees us as outsiders, and the Jewish organizations treat us like vultures feeding off the memory of the Holocaust. But all we want is for the synagogue to be turned into a Jewish museum and culture center where people can search their Jewish roots.”

Making matters worse, a local newspaper later ran an article that used antisemitic caricatures (a miser named Moshe and a man named Yosele bargaining with a prostitute) to depict how the Jewish community and the Anti-Defamation League profit lucratively from their worldwide campaign against antisemitism. Referring to the saloon, the writer, Konrad Rekas, wrote: “Until the building was renovated and generating income, the Jews didn’t care if it was going to collapse. But the thought of someone else making money on it became unbearable.”

“I know the newspaper is the lowest of the low, but it doesn’t matter,” Cudak said. In a year from now, this guy could be in the parliament.”

The leaders of Chelm’s Jewish community say that while they are aware of the situation with the synagogue, there is not much they can do, since the saloon is in the hands of a private owner.

“We’re in a hopeless situation,” declared Monika Krawczyk, a Jewish lawyer who heads the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. “The fact of the matter is, there are two groups of synagogues [in Eastern Europe]. The first group is where the Jews own the synagogue and can control its future; the second group consists of those synagogues, including this one in Chelm, which were confiscated by the Germans and then transferred to the Polish government after the war. In the 1990s, the government sold a number of these properties to private owners. Today the government is obligated to return Jewish properties to its original owners and their heirs, but that law didn’t take effect until 1997, and by then the shul had already been sold.”

The government, however, is required to compensate the Jewish community for lost property, Krawczyk added. To compensate for the Chelm synagogue, her foundation recently chose to accept two plots of land, which she says will eventually be worth much more money. In part to address situations like this one — in which local inhabitants remain indifferent, if not hostile, toward the tragic fate of their once thriving Jewish communities — several gatherings have been taking place in former Jewish towns throughout Poland. Sponsored by the Remembrance and Reconciliation Foundation, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1998 by an American psychologist, John Hartman, the goal of the gatherings is to promote dialogue between Jews and Poles. Most recently, the town of Przemysl hosted a three-day interfaith conference, “Lost Nation: The Jews of Przemysl and the Polish Landscape.” For the first time since 1939, the town’s synagogue, which now serves as a library, was once again transformed into a house of prayer when, much to the amazement of the Polish townspeople, the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, led a full Sabbath service there for about 150 people.

Participants came from all over Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, England, Israel and the United States. There were speeches by the mayor of Przemysl, the Catholic and Greek Orthodox priests, and the ambassador of Israel, David Peleg; historians lectured about the history of the Jews of Przemysl and about the Jewish religion and culture; Friday night and Saturday morning there were traditional Sabbath services and communal meals, and on Saturday afternoon there was a walking tour of the historic Jewish sites of Przemysl.

“We had been warned that the people of Przemysl weren’t as sophisticated as the more urban Poles, and that they would harbor more negative stereotypes of the Jews. But it was just the opposite,” said Michael Traison, a Jewish lawyer and one of the organizers of the conference. “The mayor was warm and inviting, and let himself be photographed wearing a yarmulke — pretty remarkable, considering he’s running for re-election this year. And because the city was worried about possible run-ins with teenagers, we were provided with four plainclothes policemen, who ended up joining us for the Shabbat meal and singing along with us.” Traison expressed optimism that these ongoing conferences would help sensitize the Poles to the Jewish heritage of their hometowns, and hopefully ease some of the lingering tension between the two groups.

Rukhl Schaechter is a writer and editor with the Forverts, from which this article was adapted.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.