Susan Vaillant

"Going back out, past the cemetery sign, and just before going through the last curtain of weeds and bushes, I turned around and spoke out loud, 'Goodbye, great-grandparents'. When I got back to the car, I burst into tears. It was an extraordinarily overwhelming experience."

Susan Vaillant.

"Dear family members of the extended Shaffer family…." With these words, Susan Vaillant opened her letters to relatives in 2005 and 2009, sharing her experiences from her visits to Bodzentyn. The following text is a shortened version of those two letters.

Going to Bodzentyn

In November 2005, I, Susan Vaillant, related to the Shaffer [Safir, Szafir] family of Bodzentyn, decided to visit the town. At that time, there wasn't all that much information to find about Bodzentyn. More or less, all I knew was the name of the village, or town, where my father's father Morris Shaffer, and his brothers and sisters and possibly their parents and grandparents too, were born.

Previously I had never really planned to go to Poland, although the Polish border is not that far from the French city of Strasbourg, where I've been living now for many decades along the Rhine. You would have to drive or fly across Germany and there you are – a few hundred kilometres further East – in Poland, and you're in the beautiful city (and former Royal capital) of Krakow, for centuries also home to a thriving Jewish community. My French "niece" Nathalie had spent part of her childhood at her grandmother's in Krakow, in the home where her mother grew up, only moving to Paris three decades ago.

Before I set off on this journey, I read books like Shtetl by Eva Hoffman and Poland and the Jews, reflections of a Polish Polish Jew by Stanislaw Krajewski, which by the way, I highly recommend to anyone preparing a visit to Poland.

When I got to Krakow, I looked in the Kazimierz bookshops and museums for information about Bodzentyn, but there was virtually nothing. Fortunately, Nathalie had found an article written in Polish though on the Internet, which she translated for me. This gave me some information about the history of the Polish Jewry of the city. Bodzentyn Jews, according to Nathalie's article, were very, very poor. That corresponded to my grandfather's description of his childhood of grinding poverty and hunger. Nathalie's Uncle Kasimierz kindly offered to take us to the city, and we set out on Wednesday morning, July 20.

We drove through a national forest, and on the other side, about 40 minutes outside of Kielce, we found Bodzentyn. I had expected a tiny village, nothing more than a crossroads with a couple of potato-munching peasants in headscarves sitting on the front stoop of a dilapidated barn. Instead, I found a pretty town of good size with a large children's playground in a green park and a large, modern town hall.

Kasimierz stopped to talk to the first person he saw walking down the street. When he got back into the car, he told us that she was the grammar school teacher. A few weeks ago, she had taken the school children on a walk to the old Jewish cemetery right on the outskirts of town. The cemetery was so overgrown that they could barely see the tombstones. She and the school children spent the day cutting away some of the high weeds and other plants. Otherwise, she told him, no one looks after the cemetery. She then told us how to find it, explaining: "Since there is no sign, you have to know just which footpath to follow."

We decided to leave the cemetery for later on, after the visit to the Town Hall to check if there were any related archives or similar other information. There, we learnt that indeed, no one looked after the Jewish cemetery. To their knowledge, there had been only a few visitors. In fact, the only exception was one inquiry from the Brazilian embassy in Warsaw on behalf of a Brazilian citizen. I got the feeling that I was the very first descendant to come to see them. I also learnt that all pre-1906 archives had been transferred to the State Archives in Warsaw. However, my grandfather's youngest brother David was indeed born in 1906, in January, according to the family tree information. So the town hall clerk went into the next office and brought back an ancient, huge leather-covered volume of civil certificates. These contained the birth records of the Jews only.

She peered over the records and finally found one for 'Szafir'. This was the record, made by one Leibush Szafir, of a birth. According to the family tree, my great-grandfather was called Leib. We couldn't fully understand the record, but I decided that this had to be great-uncle David's birth certificate.

"To their knowledge, there had been only a few visitors. In fact, the only exception was one inquiry from the Brazilian embassy in Warsaw on behalf of a Brazilian citizen."

The old castle ruins in Bodzentyn.

We then set off for the town centre. Bodzentyn is a small town or large village. The smaller of the two central squares was the heart of the old Jewish community. One-story-high shops lined each side of the main street. These were probably shops in the old days too.

We then walked down the main road about a half a mile to the edge of town and into a large field with the still-standing ruined walls of what must have been a massive medieval castle, looking out over very picturesque, pastoral countryside of farmland framed by woody hillsides. Did the Jewish youngsters use to play hide and seek among the ruins? Maybe. I was starting to feel good about this visit. My grandfather came from such a pretty place!

An overwhelming experience

Although the morning had been foggy and chilly, the sun had come out just as we started our picnic, and we could appreciate the loveliness of the surroundings. It was 3 o'clock when we left the castle ruins and drove to the outskirts (that is, another half-mile at most) of town. Following the schoolteacher's instructions, we parked the car next to a farmhouse and started to look for the path.

There were no signposts or other indications that there was a Jewish cemetery (or anything else, for that matter) nearby. Kasimierz shouted, and an older woman stepped out into the yard and told us which way to go. We finally saw what was, in fact, a path overgrown with long summer grass and weeds. We followed this up a short slope and into a thickly wooded copse. There we saw a sign in Polish that said, "Jewish cemetery. Protected by law." (or words to that effect). Beyond the sign, as though growing directly out of the grass and weeds, were a jumble of tombstones.

In 1983, as part of the nationwide action of tidying up Jewish cemeteries connected with the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Bodzentyn Municipal Office ordered the clearing of bushes and setting up an information board. Marek Kos, one of the people that volunteered to clean the grounds of the Jewish cemetery over the years, shows an old sign that states the cemetery was founded in 1867 and that the site is protected.

As we went further inwards, we found more and more of these- dozens, perhaps more than a hundred. To my utter astonishment, they were of remarkable beauty. I have been in many Jewish cemeteries in Europe (including Krakow and world-famous Prague, not to mention those right here in Alsace), and I have never seen more beautiful tombstones. Pink sandstone, each was standing about 3 or 4 feet high, elaborately carved and decorated. Numerous were carved with animals (usually lions) supporting (as bookends) the five books of the Torah. We found one with Hebrew letters that looked like "Szafir". I decided on the spot that this one undoubtedly belonged to a member of our family, perhaps our great-grandparents.

The sun was still high in the sky; a yellow light filtered through the tree leaves, creating a timeless warm glow on the stones. The only sounds were birds singing. The place was so beautiful, and the light was heavenly. Was it the sunlight that made the rocks emerge from the brush as we entered this fairyland? I felt in touch with my roots for the first time in my life, and in a way, I would not have thought possible. I felt as though I was spending the afternoon with my family – as though there was a cord that we thought had been broken but that had now been re-established across time – the way most children must feel when they go to visit their grandparents. Nor did I feel alienated from the present. Curiously (only this no longer felt curious), I felt as much Polish as Jewish; the two terms no longer seemed antithetical.

"I felt in touch with my roots for the first time in my life, and in a way, I would not have thought possible."

Thanks to a Polish friend we had discovered this magical place. Despite historical antagonisms, we also share a common history, and the only way to go forward in peace is to remember that. It was indeed a pilgrimage, and the experience has changed me. I come from somewhere -something I never felt that before. It gave me a feeling of connectedness, a "grounded" feeling that I didn't expect and had never expected. Usually, I feel detached (sometimes frustratingly)  from the past and (naturally) from other people's "history" that I'm often invited to witness.

The fact that the town was not some lonely crossroads in the middle of barren countryside; and that the cemetery was so pretty; and that we had found it because the one woman that Kasimierz had decided to talk to was the very person who had visited it recently with the schoolchildren to"transmit" to them some history; that the weather turned spectacularly sunny just as we entered the woods – all of this contributed to this special feeling that we – our family – did not come out of some hovel, but from somewhere that was there.

It was thrilling to realize that our ancestors were lying in probably one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, one created by their community. Imagine all this greenery, with delicately carved pink blocks of stone rising from the ground, pushing through the grass and into the sunlight. It was very hard to turn away and leave the cemetery. I came out wanting to do something to help preserve it – not sure what.

Going back out, past the cemetery sign, and just before going through the last curtain of weeds and bushes, I turned around and spoke out loud, "Goodbye, great-grandparents". When I got back to the car, I burst into tears. It was an extraordinarily overwhelming experience.

Coming back to participate in a joint project

My husband and I returned to Bodzentyn in late August 2009. A Swedish freelance journalist, who was interviewing Max Safir and researching Bodzentyn, where he was born, contacted me.

A group of us, about 15 persons, some possibly distant cousins, including Swedes, Americans, Israelis, Canadians and French, arrived in Bodzentyn, staying in bed and breakfasts. We were an eclectic bunch – this was not an organized tour by any means, but we'd somehow all come together with a joint project.

We also shared that common apprehension; there were many moments of silence when there were things to say that we did not want to say, scary moments when we all knew what we were all thinking and feeling. Such as when driving past a forest, we stared in silence until one of us spoke for us all:

"How did they hide? You always read about people hiding in forests, but those woods don't look thick enough." Those feelings mixed in with an opposite feeling of gratitude for a new generation of Bodzentyn Poles and their efforts to connect their community with the reality of its past in all aspects, good and bad.

All were present for the "unveiling" of a magnificent gateway, made of white stone (like Jerusalem) surmounted by broken steel bars. The cemetery was now a very orderly, neat place, in full view from the road. All the weeds and trees blocking the views were cut back.

Learn more about the rededication of the Jewish cemetery in Bodzentyn

Learn more about the symbolism of the gate at the Jewish cemetery in Bodzentyn

After the cemetery ceremony, a lecture was given in Polish to the townspeople by Mr Krasjewski (the Pastor gave me a running translation). He quoted a poet who said the Jews had died three times – real death, broken graves and being forgotten. We can overcome being forgotten even if awareness is not enough; it is critical to recognize their existence, and that is the meaning of the restoration of the cemetery.

The people of Bodzentyn have to acknowledge what happened. Otherwise, it means that the Jews did not exist if no one cares or even knows about them. Without funerals or graves, we can only overcome this symbolically by this commemoration. "People have to meet, to talk, to reach out to each other: Let's try."

Realizing that Bodzentyn is just an ordinary town, it is not Warsaw or Krakow, no one was waiting for Bodzentyn to do anything about the Jewish/shared past, no pressure from the EU or from Jewish diaspora groups; it's just an ordinary place with ordinary people, and a unique historic document left by a teenager.

Yet this town has brought to fruition a project of commemoration and of education, including an annual week of theatre, music, prayers, lectures, visits and conversations to integrate that past into its present and above all to foster a future of tolerance. They are doing this for themselves, to inculcate a culture of tolerance in the new generation.

Bodzentyn is not a tourist destination on the Krakow-Warsaw-Prague highway and this autonomous project is not aimed at attracting visitors. I have to say that it was truly gratifying to know that I had roots in such a place, in this way, unlike so many other small towns.

Bodzentyn had had a history of relatively good relations between Jews and non-Jews. From Max Safir and from the historian we heard about teenage boys who were good friends regardless of affiliation. Not all Jews were poor, Mr Szachter had a flour mill and was one of the wealthiest in the town and on good terms with many non-Jews of the town. He had electricity and radio before 1938! And this family was very good about helping the poor.

During the war, many Poles in Bodzentyn helped Jews to survive. Today Bodzentyn is a 21st-century town, changed even since 2005, with its pizza parlours, the "cheap and trendy" boutique, and English-speaking university students home for vacation.

The Dawid Rubinowicz Society was formed in January 2009. In the statute of the Society the chairman, Jan Pałysiewicz, wrote:

"The local historian Artemiusz Wołczyk poetically wrote that 'The only thing that the Jews of Bodzentyn left behind was the cemetery...' In fact, there was nothing left but emptiness. Not until recently. I believe it is our moral duty to remember the Jewish community and let them know about our common history. The gate at the cemetery will help us never to forget."