I could call Węgrów an „extreme entertainment”. Or maybe a journey to hell and back. It took me two weeks to recover from the experience and only today I am able to describe it. I undertook this „adventure” with David, my Jewish friend. We went to face the Holocaust city.
It is Sunday, eleven o’clock in the morning, when we leave Warsaw for Węgrów, some 80 km to the East. From the get go we have a secret police tail, which I will learn about on the next day. These are agents of the ABW, Polish equivalent of the FBI. They follow us as if we carried bombs, but all we have is paints and brushes. But in some sense they are right, our aim is to put a symbolic bomb under the edifice of a Holocaust lie. There were three of us in the car, I, a Polish Catholic, Dawid, a Polish Jew from the Lodz community and our cameraman Paweł, thanks to whom we now have the photos. The day is beautiful, hot, in front of us 80 kilometers of highway and seventy-five years of history.
I must admit that we were rather quiet in the car. It was hard to predict what would happen when we get there. It didn’t look nice. On social media, we were already reading a lot of filth about us. On Facebook, local Węgrów heroes are assuring us that they are ready with a „warm welcome”. It will not be flowers but stones. We had to face it: nobody wanted us in Węgrów, and we could expect the worst. I got some private letters from the „defenders of the good name of Poland and of Węgrów” where they tell me they can’t wait to go solo with me. Some say they will call the police and the prosecutor’s office. Right.
And what is the crime that we set off to commit? We want to paint the „I Miss You, Jew” mural on the wall of the city that once was 70% Jewish… We want to send a positive message to the long gone people who were brutalized during the Holocaust. And that’s it. This is the crime that the locals want to prevent. This is the reason why we have the police tail.
I have my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road but I feel like I am going into the abyss. Old demons of hate are back and are awaiting our arrival. The mayor of Węgrów did not give his consent for the project, the owners of the wall did not agree to its „vandalisation”, no municipal institution was willing to cooperate. No volunteers. Nothing. The city bristled like a dog guarding a farm against intruders. In the trunk we have everything we need: brushes, paint rollers, white and red paint. But will we be able to use it? I am checking the watch and it is the twenty-first century, it is the center of Europe, but somehow we all are quietly praying to the Lord for our survival. Each one of us to a different one, I guess. Does this sound grotesque? Yes, it does.
Węgrów is a Holocaust city. Just like dozens of other towns east of Warsaw. Just like Warsaw itself. Just like the whole of Poland. Before the war, Węgrów was mostly Jewish. According to Szraga Fajwel Bielawski, a Holocaust survivor who published his memoirs in the book titled The Last Jew from Węgrów, 75% of businesses in Węgrów belonged to Jews, all houses around the market were Jewish, a large and gold-decorated synagogue stood in the city, the community was headed by a saint Rabbi, Jakub Mendel Morgenstern. But today it is all gone along with the rabbi. A German soldier stabbed him with a bayonet in the first days of the occupation, back in 1939. But first, they told him to collect horse dung in a silk prayer hat. The Synagogue is also gone. Bricks from the rubble were used to build the fence for the Catholic cemetery. David reads it out loud in the car from a book on an iPad, and when he reaches the passages about the liquidation of the Węgrów ghetto, he suddenly goes quiet and looks through the window.
– I can’t read this… brother – he says in a broken voice – I can’t … – I hear him breath heavily. – I cannot read about ears cut off and teeth torn out… – he says. – I am sorry…
– No need to be sorry, Dawid, take it easy – I say – I understand. I cannot listen to it anymore either – I say. And that’s true. I cannot endure the next description of Polish cruelty, callousness and complicity. I cannot listen about Polish youngsters who hunted Jews on the streets and traced them in their shelters, chasing them into the hands of death. I can no longer imagine Polish szmalcowniki, who robbed defenseless people on the way to the cemetery, where they were slaughtered and thrown into mass graves. I cannot, but I bite my teeth and read about it in hundreds of memories, I talk about it with dozens of survivors, I learn about it from historians’ books. I need to know, I have an obligation to know.
I touch David’s shoulder.
– I’m sorry, David.
And he livens up and says: cool, man. We are going to do something positive, right? We are going to manifest our respect and memory. And we do it for all those people who had their ears cut off…
– Yes, David. We do it also to show that a Catholic and a Jew can live together in Poland and be friends. We do it so that nothing like this ever happens again.
The car rolls on and we watch at Mazovian landscapes full of delight. It is truly wonderful. There is the Bug river, and here is Liwiec flowing through the fields. June is the most beautiful month of the year, and Poland is the most beautiful country. I look at haystacks and swaying wheat fields, but today, apart from the admiration, I see sadness among haystacks, I see shadows moving. They are ghosts of Jews desperately seeking shelter with Polish peasants. I know their fate, I know what awaits them. Today, this landscape is lined with macabre.
The city emerges from fields and forests. The first place we go to is the Węgrów lapidarium – the remains of the Jewish cemetery. Here we meet with a team of Dutch documantalists who make a film about our project. They think it’s important. Just as we do. We agree that the truth must be remembered, victims must be remembered, and perpetrators must be named.
– I am interested in this odd process of rewriting the history – says Britta, the Dutch director. – Storytelling in isolation from reality. Neglecting the truth.
– Yes, I know what you mean – I say. – But you must understand, however, that in Poland, those who want to tell the truth about the reality of Holocaust are rewriting the history. The truth has never been told. Poles are growing up in a fairy tale about themselves. They do not learn the truth neither in school, nor in the church nor television. That is why they fiercely defend themselves against it.
Today, the lie about the Holocaust took on a new dimension. It has become state-owned. The government is even trying to ground this lie by introducing statutory provisions, like the last amendment to the IPN law, the one that has stirred the whole world. We must oppose it. Even if with paint and brush. But today in Węgrów we will not point fingers at anyone, today we will just honor the people who perished and we will look for the good people in Węgrów who 75 years after the Holocaust have the courage to show sympathy for their Jewish neighbors and sign the statement: I miss you, Jew. Will anyone turn up? Will people come? Will they chase us away throwing rotten vegetables? As soon as we step out of the cars in front of the lapidarium, a marked police patrol passes: Węgrów already knows we are here.
This is the opening paragraph to a longer account of hate, abuse and dinial. The rest will follow shortly.
10 years ago I started the „I Miss You Jew” campaign in Poland with a hope for a change. I sincerely hoped that this positive statement would soon be shared by the majority of Poles and the truth about Holocaust would soon reach everyone. I thought we are leaving the rasist past and walking onto a path towards healing. I was wrong. Today it’s much worse. Today we have YouTube.
Browsing the Polish Internet and watching the most prominent YouTube personalities dealing with politics and social matters, who enjoy hundreds of thousands of views with every film, one must conclude that Poland is on another planet. Its a planet of aggressive denial, rasist hate and Holocaust lie on an unprecedented scale.