Memorial draws tears in small Polish town

WYSZKOW, Poland — It was an ordinary town — where ordinary Jewish life was all but destroyed.

And what was lost was reflected in the tears of the former Jewish residents who came from far away to witness the recent dedication of a Holocaust memorial here.

The memorial in this small town near Warsaw commemorates the thousands of local Jews who were deported to their deaths by the Nazis in 1943.

The ceremony was also a rededication of the Jewish cemetery, which the Nazis had destroyed in 1939 by uprooting the tombstones and using them for paving materials and for the construction of the local Gestapo headquarters.

Scores of the desecrated tombstones were recovered and used for the creation of the monument.

Dozens of Jewish survivors from Wyszkow and Jews who traced their ancestry to Wyszkow attended Sunday's dedication ceremonies.

Coming from the United States, Israel, Costa Rica and Germany, some were the children or grandchildren of Jews who had left Wyszkow before the Holocaust.

Others were survivors making their first trips back since the war.

Many later walked around, finding old landmarks and sometimes encountering old acquaintances.

"This ceremony and the monument are very important, particularly for young people, to show them that there was once a Jewish community here," said Israeli Rachel Friedman, who was born in Wyszkow in 1923.

U.S. and Polish officials also joined the Holocaust survivors and their descendants at the dedication of a memorial they had all worked together to create.

Hundreds of local townspeople also attended.

"Half of Wyszkow's population before World War II were Jews," the town's mayor, Jan Malinowski, said. "Thanks to them, we had bustling shops and beautiful crowded streets. Through the symbolic rededication of the Jewish cemetery we remember their contribution and importance here."

The monument's $60,000 in construction costs came from private donors that included families of several former Wyszkow Jews.

The project was organized by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, which worked for more than four years in close cooperation with the Polish government and local Wyszkow officials.

During the ceremony, U.S. Ambassador Nicolas Ray read a letter from President Clinton praising the unique Polish-American-Jewish cooperation that led to the memorial's creation.

A local Roman Catholic church was packed for a special Mass before the ceremony at which the priest spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust and the importance of memory.

He led the congregation in prayers for peace, justice and Jewish-Polish reconciliation.

Shira Rubin of Jerusalem, 26, said she hoped that the memorial would serve both Jews and local Poles "The challenge is for it to become a memorial for both communities so that both can be in touch with each other," she added.