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Monday, September 13, 2010

Journey Back-Poland 4 (Smigrod and Dukla)

Zmigrod Seal
Now the time came for us to delve into the very personal portion of our journey.  Up to this point, we had gotten a taste for Jewish life in Poland but now we would visit the very cities and towns where our fore-bearers had been born, lived and worked.  To do this, we had hired a local guide who knew the area, had some experience with genealogical searches, and perhaps most importantly-spoke Polish.  We left Krakow and headed East into the foothills of the Carpathian mountains.  Our first challenge was traffic-usually bad in this rapidly developing part of the country but made impossible by recent floods that had rendered nearly all the local bridges impassable.  After driving for what seemed like hours, a kind trucker finally escorted us through a most convoluted route and delivered us very close to Nowy Zmigrod.  In preparation for this trip, I had found incredible information about Zmigrod and the surrounding region on shtetlinks.  The town had a long Jewish history dating back to the 15th century.  From then until WWII, the population of the town was about half Jewish.  Along with several surrounding towns, Zmigrod was an important component of the Ukrainian-Hungarian trade routes-critical in the wine/salmon/horse and timber trade.It was an important center of Jewish learning and boasted two elaborate synagogues!
Old Synagogue-Zmigrod
Unfortunately, there are few remnants of Jewish life in Zmigrod today.   After a stroll around the town square, we made a futile attempt to establish which buildings might have been the synagogues.  From our research, we had a map of the town at the turn of the 20th century but nothing connected-our forays into several local shops were rebuffed, the purveyors seemed concerned by our enquiries.  Next we tried the municipal center and after several false starts, we were directed to the cultural center, home of the local historian-an individual working hard to establish a Galician museum.  What luck! He was a treasure of information.  He had many old photographs of the town, showing the splendor of the square and of its Jewish heritage.  Later he proudly took us on a tour of the Jewish cemetery, just outside of town.
Cemetery Zmigrod
Covering more than four acres and four centuries,  the partially restored plots reflect the history of Zmigrod's Jews-up to their final slaughter (the 1250 men, women and children shot and buried in a mass grave in Halbow on July 7, 1942 have their own memorial).  While I could not read the Hebrew inscriptions, it was very special knowing there were people buried here who knew my grandmother when she was born, who worked beside my great grandparents, and perhaps even generations before them!  I was also struck by how different my grandmother's family life was from my mental images.
While I have little doubt that their lives were very difficult-like most of the rest of the world there was no electricity/refrigeration/automobiles- but they were considerably more mobile than I would have imagined.  Trade routes brought goods and people from Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and beyond.  I have since learned that the "Fiddler on the Roof" image was promulgated in part as propaganda to serve political  exigencies.  While my grandmother (Frieda) only lived in Zmigrod for a few years (more on her later history to come), this was her first home and the documented home of her father and as such, represented for me a generational connection of great importance and I was commensurately moved.

Rabbi's grave Zmigrod

From Zmigrod, we traveled 8 short miles to Dukla-home of Frieda's mother.  This town is strategically situated at the lowest and easiest pass through the Carpathian mountains-a critical link between Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland (the Austro-Hungarian Empire).  It was a prosperous trading town that was more than 80% Jewish.   An old baroque palace (of Mecinski) remains the only real evidence of Dukla's former glory.  The original town square is quite large and an ornate, but now decrepit, Town Hall commands the central place.  Several of the building around the square had clear evidence of former mezzuzah (a religious ornament placed on the door frame) but no Jewish life remains.  We took pictures of every house here in hopes that one day we may determine where my great-grandmother lived.  Dukla did have a small tourist center where we got directions to both the synagogue and the cemetery.  I also bought a spectacular little book of late19th and early 20th century post-card photographs of the town (it is written in Polish but the pictures tell enough fo a story).
Synagogue remains, Dukla
The synagogue was built in 1758 (nearly 20 years BEFORE the Declaration of Independence) but like most of Polish-Jewish life was destroyed during WWII.  Today, the external brick structure remains as an eerie monument that I found more poignant than many "official" memorials.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine my great-grandmother, standing in the women's galleries, praying within these walls.  And I thought also about how this woman took her family out of Poland to Germany-the beginning of the journey that had now come full circle with our visit here.
The Jewish cemetery would be our next stop in Dukla and I was glad we saved it for last.  By now, we expected the graves to be desecrated but devoted locals have worked to restore what they could to a state of honor with a respect for the departed.  I watched my mother wander through the few rows of tombstones and I felt a deep ache in my heart for all the sad history of repression, pogroms, and death that have despoiled the lovely Galician hills and the nearby mountains that we splendidly visible from the hillside position of the cemetery.  I had seen Auschwitz-Birkenau, Schindler's Factory, the Krakow ghetto, and more but for the first time, tears sprang to my eyes.  Why this spot in Dukla helped serve as my catharsis I will never know but I sensed my mother felt similarly and we returned to the car and began the long drive onto to Rzeszow in silence.

Cemetery, Dukla


  1. dr. rousseau...have you ever seen the page devoted to zmigrod's jewish history?? i would like to correspond with you.
    phyllis kramer
    vp, education, jewishgen

  2. i would like to put a link on my pages (shtetlins) to your travelogue...and try to help you find your grandmother's historical information..

  3. I jsut found your comment-please feel free to link to your pages which I used extensively in preparing for the trip. Please let me know how to contact you!

  4. Thank you for posting the photos of Zmigrod along with your account. It is where my mother's mother's family [Laks] came from

  5. Dvora-
    Hope you cna make direct contact with me about Poland. Would be great to connect!

  6. I was also struck by how different my grandmother's family life was from my mental images. buy levitra While I have little doubt that their lives were very difficult-like most of the rest of the world there was no

  7. Thanks for your posting, which was of interest to me because I've been trying to determine what happened to my great grandfather, Hersch Keller, who was on old man living in Dukla at the time of the Nazi invasion. There is so little information about people like him, it seems that the Nazis largely accomplished their objective to remove any memory of their ever having existed. Very sad.