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.
This story "Absurdity Returns to Chelm" was written by Rukhl Schaechter.