Thursday, October 18, 2018 (continued): One of our goals in Mielec (Me-ell-its) is to visit its two Jewish cemeteries—the old one on Jadernych Street and the new one on Traugutta Street. When a Jewish community’s cemetery runs out of space to bury its dead, they close it and open a new one. They often refer to the closed one as the Old Cemetery, and to the new one, of course, as the New Cemetery. We also want to visit the Marketplace. Sadly, Beth and I soon learn the truth of what Rochelle Saidel writes in her book about Mielec: “The vibrant Jewish community of Mielec, instituted in the sixteenth century, is now nothing but a memory. Even its communal buildings and cemeteries have been demolished or desecrated.”¹
Tarnów—> Pilzno—>Dąbie—> Dobrynin—> Rzochów—> Mielec—> Ropczyce—> Rzeszów.
Wojtek parks the car in a lot off Wolności Street, not far from the Old Jewish Cemetery. I take our lunch from the car and Beth and I walk to a small park at the corner of Wolności and Jadernych Streets. We find a park bench and sit down to eat our lunch. Wojtek wanders off on his own, but soon returns and sits on a bench near us.
While we are eating, I look around the park and think about where I am. I tell Beth that I would never have imagined, while growing up in Mississippi, that I would one day be sitting in a park in Mielec, Poland, waiting to visit a Jewish cemetery.
We finish our lunch and walk back to the car for the short drive to the cemetery. Soon, we are standing outside the cemetery’s fence. The entry gate is locked. Wojtek gets on his phone, and presently a woman comes out of a building across the street from the cemetery and unlocks the gate for us. She leaves. The three of us enter the graveyard.
Almost every marker is toppled or damaged in some other way. We find none with the name Leiman on them. There are not as many gravestones as one might expect for a town in which, before the war, over half of its residents were Jewish. We are viewing firsthand the lingering effects of the Nazi destruction of Polish Jewry.
While Beth takes photos, Wojtek and I stand together talking. I tell him that there is something that I can’t understand. How is it possible, I ask, to hate another people so much that you not only kill them, but you also destroy the places where they bury their dead. He doesn’t say anything. How can he?
Beth finishes taking pictures. Wojtek calls the woman who opened the gate for us. She comes promptly and relocks it. We walk back to the car and begin the hunt for the New Jewish Cemetery. We have some difficulty finding it. Finally, Wojtek stops and asks an elderly woman walking nearby if she can help us. She points in the direction we have come. We turn the car around and almost immediately see the cemetery on our left.
The cemetery sits in the midst of farmers’ fields, private homes, and factories. It is surrounded by a fence. Its entry gate is locked and appears not to have been opened for a long time. We can only view the grounds from outside the fence. We see no grave markers standing, only a stone memorial to victims of the Holocaust. I walk about a hundred yards down one side of the cemetery and never see a standing marker. Occasionally, I come across what seem to be pieces of gravestones lying outside the fence. I have no idea why they’re there, or how they got there. I rejoin Beth and Vojtek.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. It was not long before German soldiers arrived in Mielec. In her book, The Choice, Irene Eber, a Holocaust survivor who was nine years old and living in Mielec at the time, writes:
In September, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, the Germans’ motorcycles roared into town. They came on the same road as the Polish army and the refugees. There were not many Germans, I seem to remember, but there were enough to accomplish what they had come to do…We did not know then as we watched from the balcony that they came for one purpose only: to murder Jews.²
And they did. “Mielec, Poland, today is a city with a population of 65,000 people, none of them known to be Jewish.”³
We leave Mielec and head to Ropczyce.
¹Saidel, Rochelle. Mielec, Poland: The Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp (p. 1). Gefen Publishing. Kindle Edition.
²Irene Eber, The Choice (Schocken Books: New York, 2004), p. 75
³Saidel, Mielec (p. 1).
Photo of The Old Jewish Cemetery, Mielec, Poland © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.