A Wielkie Oczy Journal

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The First Day

I left for Poland on Sunday morning April 22, 2001 and landed in Krakow airport at 9:00 a.m. After a short visit with friends I rented a car and traveled east toward Wielkie Oczy. I arrived at 6:00 p.m. 

At the  Wielkie Oczy cemetery I met Bogdan and 2 journalists. One of them from the Polish edition of National Geographic, and the second from Gazeta, the leading Polish newspaper. They explained to me that National Geographic (the Polish edition) is preparing a general article on Wielkie Oczy and that they also wanted to write about the cemetery. Additionally, Gazeta (the local Rzeszow edition) is preparing an article on the cemetery and our initiative. It was getting late, so we agreed to meet the next day at noon.

Belzec memorial
The Belzec Memorial

school director
Jadwiga Palczynska, headmistress of the high school in Wieklie Oczy receives a resolution from the Catholic Jewish Relations Council of Northeast Queens (in New York City) that acknowledes the humanitarian efforts of the students, their teachers, religious and governmental officials and others for their role in helping to restore the Jewish cemetery.

assembled students
The director of the school speaks to the students. Books presented to the school can be seen on a table to the right.

Krakowiec
Krakowiec

Jawarow
Jaworów

Jaworow memorial
A memorial outside Jaworow where Jews from Jaworów and Wielkie Oczy were shot.

WO resident
In Wielkie Oczy...that's the synagogue in the background.

headstone 1        headstone 3
Headstones

From Bogdan I also heard about the status of the work at the cemetery and saw the first results of these efforts. There were rains in this part of Poland in  previous weeks and work has gone on more slowly than we had anticipated. There were also some bureaucratic obstacles and some differences between the priest and Bogdan about what type of fence to build, so they waited for my arrival to settle things. Now everything is on track, and the weather is good. I made decisions about the details of the fence, and the bureaucratic obstacles were broken. The fence should be ready by the end of May.

The Second Day

First I took the resolution from the Catholic Jewish Relations Council sent by Rabbi Stadtmauer, including my Polish translation, and I asked the local craftsman to make a wooden frame and to put it under glass. I was told that it would be ready at 1:00 p.m., so I went 50 km to Belzec  to see the extermination camp where hundreds of  thousands of Jews were murdered by Germans in 1942-43, including 1300 Jews of Jaworów and Wielkie Oczy sent to Belzec on 7 Nov 1942.

On the way from Belzec to the meeting with the journalists I met the director of the Wielkie Oczy middle school (a pretty young woman named Jadwiga) and I gave her the resolution (see photo). She was very happy that people in the distant America know about her children cleaning the cemetery. I told her that we'd like to contribute something to the school. 

She answered that anything will be most welcome, because the school is brand new (it has only existed for 2 years) and except for some basic books they have nothing. I promised to be back tomorrow.

In the afternoon I had a long meeting with the journalists and I told them everything I knew about Wielkie Oczy, about our initiative, about the cemetery and the synagogue, etc., etc. I spent the entire afternoon and evening speaking with them. I think it's very important to tell the Polish people about all we do.

The Third Day

I did some shopping in the Lubaczow bookshop and  then went to the school. The students received from us the following books:

  • Polish-English and English-Polish Dictionary (Collins)
  • Polish-German and German Polish Dictionary 
  • Encyclopedia for Middle Schools
    Biology
  • Encyclopedia for Middle Schools Literature
  • Encyclopedia for Middle Schools History
  • The Big Illustrated Atlas of the World
  • The General Encyclopedia (in 7 Volumes)
  • and some other books

All the students from the school were present. They asked some questions and were really happy to get all these books. I have a commitment from the school that in the coming years the cemetery will be cleaned by the students twice a year (spring and autumn). 

In the afternoon I crossed the Ukrainian border—not an easy thing to do—and I went to Krakowiec (see photo) and to Jaworów (see photo), following the route that the Jews from Wielkie Oczy were forced to take in 1942.

In the Krakowiec photo you can see one of the streets of this village. I tried to talk to some older people, but they were frightened and told me that they knew nothing about Jews. In Jaworów I was lucky to meet a man named Ivan who told me where the Jaworów ghetto had once stood (see the photo on the left). The old houses of the ghetto don t exist anymore. They were destroyed during the War. Ivan took me into the forest 3 km from Jaworow, where Jews from Jaworów and Wielkie Oczy were shot by Germans (see photo). 

It would be impossible to find this place without the help of a local, because to get there you almost have to cross a gate to the nearby camp of a Ukrainian Army armored division, and it is perhaps not the wisest thing to do in this part of the world. I returned to Poland after midnight, after 6 hours of checking by Ukrainian and Polish border guards.

The Fourth Day

In the morning I traveled through the countryside around Wielkie Oczy, including Zmijowiska, where I took some photographs. [Click here to see photographs of Zmijowiska] At noon I had a meeting with the director of the Lubaczow Regional Museum Mr. Kubrak  and his staff. They have a little Judaica exhibition at the museum. 

We discussed possibilities of restoring the synagogue in Wielkie Oczy. The chances are poor because it would need much money. Without rich sponsors it would be impossible to restore. We decided we should start by meeting with the head of the local Wielkie Oczy authority, Mr Strojny. 

Within one hour a representative of the Museum (Mr. Mazur), Bogdan and I were in the office of Mr. Strojny. We were given assurances that the local authority would immediately finance an expert's  report on the [scope of] work (and costs) needed for restoration of the roof, walls and foundations of the synagogue—the main problem is the roof. We decided also that the best thing (after the possible restoration of the synagogue) would be for it possibly to fulfill such three functions as: a village library, an internet-café for youth and a place for a Judaica exhibition of the region. All this is only a fantasy at this stage, but I think it's worth to try. 

Later, I had some conversations with local people who remember my family (see photo). And in the evening I invited Bogdan and his wife for a dinner.  (Bogdan is a guest at home; he spends almost all the time in Wielkie Oczy, so I felt I should invite his wife and himself to a restaurant).

The Fifth Day

I spent all morning with a priest and read the parish chronicle to find some facts about the history of Wielkie Oczy. I also gave him a copy of the resolution of the Catholic Jewish Relations Council (the photos are not ready yet). He was really affected. Afterwards, we (the priest, Bogdan and I) left for the cemetery to settle  differences on the type of  fence to be built. Bogdan showed me tens of pieces of headstonestones that he found at local farms (see photo examples). He still knows about other headstones, and they too will find their way to the cemetery. In the afternoon I left for Krakow and I was there by 9:00 p.m.

The Sixth Day

I spent much time on research in Krakow libraries looking for materials on Wielkie Oczy and I found a lot. Afternoon...some shopping.

The Seventh Day

The day with my Krakow friends...and then a flight home.

Some important information. The funds we had collected were not enough. All additional expenses were kindly donated by my brother (this in addition to his basic donation). Before my journey he offered to contribute this not insignificant sum for these expenses that were not included in the official cost estimation—including, for example, some money related to bringing back the headstones to the cemetery, some money that was used to help to break the bureaucratic obstacles, and so on. This money was also used to double the sum to the gift for the school.

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