Montreal, April 2, 2012
Grand Jewish Museum to Open in the Polish Capital Next Year
Presentation by Peter Jassem,
Canadian Representative of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
|When:||Sunday, April 22, 2012, 2:00 PM|
|Where:||Montreal Museum of Fine Arts|
1370 Sherbrooke Street West
The $120 million new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw - built on the site in
the former Warsaw Ghetto and facing the famous Nathan Rappaport monument
commemorating the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 19, 1943 - is scheduled
to open just months following the 70th anniversary of that historic event, in the fall of next
As the world's first and only museum to focus on the history of Polish Jews, the Museum of
the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw will stand on par in its significance with the US
Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and Jerusalem's Yad Vashem. However,
the tragic culmination of the Jewish presence in Poland inflicted by the Nazis, will be featured
in only one of the eight galleries depicting distinct periods of the history of Polish Jews and
their rich civilization created over the course of nearly 1000 years. Today over 50% of world
Jewry can trace their roots to Poland.
An initiative of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and funded by the
City of Warsaw and the government of Poland with support from donors and friends from
around the world, this 140,000 sq. ft. cutting-edge educational and cultural centre is built
under the auspices of the presidents of Israel and Poland.
Peter Jassem, chair of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, Toronto Chapter,
will speak about the history, the importance, the rich contents and the role of the Museum,
against the backdrop of the revival of Jewish life in Poland and the dramatic increase in
interest in Jewish Culture. He will also discuss his personal experience in discovering his
Jewish roots which led to his fascination in this project and to his major involvement in its
promotion, all on a volunteer basis.
Organized by the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, Montreal Chapter, and
sponsored by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Montreal the event will
include remarks by Consul General Tadeusz Żylinski and will feature Klezmer music with a
touch of Jazz by the acclaimed Jan Jarczyk Trio.
For more information about the museum please visit its official website at
IT IS WITH A DEEP SADNESS THAT WE WOULD LIKE TO ANNOUNCE TO ALL OUR MEMBERS, THE PASSING OF ANNA (ALA) GIŻYCKI, THE LONG STANDING MEMBER AND SUPPORTER OF OUR FOUNDATION.
Board of Polish Jewish Heritage Foundation
by Mila Mesner
Ala was my friend. Her frienship was very special to me. She was a sincere, loving, caring friend. We worked together on many interesting projects. Her good sense of organization and her willingness to be of assistance was heartwarming. Most of all her good ideas and wise advice was priceless.
Visiting her was always a treat. Ringing the bell downstairs to her apartment I could hear a melodious voice "Witam już otwieram". There she was standing in the open door with a smile and outstretched arms in a warm greeting. Inside the table was already set for a tasty treat. The atmosphere of her home was peaceful, orderly uncluttered and aesthetically pleasing. It was good to be in her presence.
I will miss you Alu.
I only wish that when my time comes to cross the threshold to the other side - there will be Ala's voice telling me...
A memorable journey to Ukraine
by Mila Mesner
At the suggestion of Irena Belert, the former president of The Polish Jewish Heritage Foundation in Montreal, my wartime memoires, documented in my book "The Light from the Shadows", were first published by this organization in 2005.
The book covered the relatively happy period in my life in Zaleszczyki, (my home town in Poland, currently Ukraine referred to as Zalischyky), before the outbreak of the war on September the 1st, l939. I also detailed the tragic devastation and horror of the war in the years that followed. I was very pleased that many people found this book helpful and inspiring. I also discovered that it was also of special interest to some former residents, as well as the relatives of former residents of Zalischyky, who are currently spread out in various locations around the world.
This brought me to the realization that considering that Zalischyki is currently a Ukrainian town, with a handful of Poles and no Jews whatsoever, it is very likely that the new generation in that town are completely unaware that there were Jews, Poles and Ukrainians (each group constituted approximately 1/3 of the population before the war) who lived together in relative harmony until the war started. They are also very likely unaware that people like my family and me had to flee Zalischyky in 1940, as we no longer felt safe there. So, considering that I did not have any relatives or friends, nor any acquaintances left in Zalischyky, I decided to send a copy of my book to the attention of the mayor of Zalischyki. Two months later I received a response. The Mayor, Mr.Vladimir Beneviat who understands some English, read the book with great interest, and invited us (my husband and I) to come for a visit to Zalischyky.
As a result of this invitation Izio and I (age 88 and 84 respectively at that time), we undertook this arduous trip in June of 2008. I say arduous because it is not a place that is easily accessible. This trip involves long hours of travel by air, by train, bus or taxi on roads that are not always in the best of conditions.
Upon our arrival, we received an overwhelming welcome by Mr. Vladimir Beneviat and by the Director of the regional museum, Mr. Wasyl Olijnyk and his family.
During our many talks it was decided to have my book translated and published in Ukrainian so as to make it accessible especially to the new generation in that town. We also agreed to erect a monument on the unmarked mass grave of over 800 people, men and women of this town, of Jewish faith, who were savagely killed on November l4, l941.
As a result of this discussion, after three years of earnest cooperation and much good will, the book was published in the Ukrainian language, and received a very favorable review in the local paper. At the same time a very beautiful and dignified monument was erected and ready for an official unveiling.
April 27th was set for the official presentation of my book "The Light from the Shadows" in Ukrainian, and April 28th was set for the unveiling of the monument.
A group of us, consisting of four nieces, a nephew, as well as friends from England, United States, Austria and the Ukraine (Lviv), travelled to Zalischyky, to take part in this solemn event. In addition there were representatives from B'nai Brith organizations in Lviv and Tarnopol, as well as the Honorary Canadian Consul in Lviv Oksana Wynnyskyj The ceremony was officiated by Rabbi Koffmansky from Chernovtsy.
On April 27th, we (my husband and I, my nieces and nephew, as well as a couple of friends from Austria) arrived in a mini bus accompanied by Mr. Wasyl Olijnyk and his family, to the school where the book launch was to occur. We were greeted by several students in colorful regional costumes, standing poised in two rows on either side of the entrance way to the school. The director of the school Svetlana Bodnar, as well as the mayor Mr. Vladimir Beneviat greeted me with flowers and warm embraces.
We were led to the school auditorium filled with students and teachers as well as visitors. On the stage there was an enlarged photo of the back cover of my book (including my photo) and a panoramic photo of Zalishchyky from many years ago.
The ceremony started with a young girl dressed in Ukrainian costume slowly approaching us with a gracious offer of a Paska (Ukrainian Easter bread) and salt on a beautifully embroidered towel. This gesture was followed by a number of dances and songs, poetry readings, speeches and as well as readings from my book.
I was moved to tears. I felt the outpouring of good will all around me. There were smiling faces everywhere. Everyone tried their best to show us that they appreciate me and my book and that they were grateful for my efforts.
That same afternoon our little group was invited to participate in an official ceremony to commemorate the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. My husband and I felt honored to be asked to plant a tree in memory of the victims of this terrible event.
The next day, Thursday April 28th, was designated for the unveiling of the monument.
As we approached the monument we were gently beckoned by the beautiful sound of Lacrimosa Deis Irae (The day of tears and mourning) from Mozart's Requiem. It was a sunny day although a strong wind was blowing as the guests from Canada, United States, Austria, England, Oksana Wynnyckyj the honorary Canadian consul from Lviv, Gregory Pikman, the representative of B'nai Brith from Lviv and Tarnopol, Rabbi M. Koffmansky from Czernovitsy, representative of various institutions in Zalishchyky, a number of students, and towns people, the mayor, the director of the museum , my friend Olena Luczka from Lviv (with whom I shared the same school bench during my high school years) all gathered around the monument.
The mayor laid a wreath on the monument. The offering of additional bouquets from friends and the representatives of the B'nai Brith followed. Most poignantly a group of elderly Polish women, current residents of Zalischyki, brought lots of beautiful red tulips from their gardens, and lovingly spread them on the monument.
The Rabbi said a few words and a prayer and then intoned El Mole Rachmim. The Canadian Consul and various other representatives from various organizations had moving speeches, and than it was my turn. As I was speaking in English a young grandson of Wasyl Olejnik, stood beside me reading the translation in Ukrainian. This is what we said.
Prepared by Mila Mesner,
It has been almost three years since the four of us, the mayor of Zaleschiki Mr. Wolodimir Beneviat, the Director of the Regional Museum Wasyl Olijnyk, my husband Ijio Mesner, and I stood together in this field, discussing the importance and possibility of erecting a monument to commemorate the lives of over 800 people of this town, who were brutally murdered 70 years ago, on this very spot where we stand today.
My personal thanks and gratitude go first and foremost to Wasilij Olejnik without whom this project could not have gotten off the ground. Thank you my dear friend for your dedication, your thoughtfulness, and your kindness, not to speak of the countless hours that you have spent in realizing this project. I am also very grateful to Mr. Wolodimir Beneviat who paved the way for us to be able to stand here together to dedicate this stone to the memory of those martyrs.
I would like to begin with naming some of these people whose lives were cut short. I knew many of them personally. Some of them were young people who went to school with me : Sabina Stettner , Dziunka Schwebel, Dziunka Hackmayer, Rozia Wolkowicz and Ditta Wolkowicz, Tonka Meyer. Some were members of my family such as my cousins Mina Elberger, Pepka Wenkert, Berta Wenkert, Lola Wenkert and Fanka Wenkert, my aunt Frima Wenkert, and my uncle Jancio Elberger. There were among them people who served our town in many ways. There was Dr. Rosen, who helped heal the sick, the architect Morice Schwebel who designed beautiful buildings in our city. There were tradesmen like carpenter Holtzman who was my neighbor, as well as a roofer, a tinsmith, and a carriage driver whose names I do not remember. All these people had hopes and dreams like everyone else for themselves and their children.
I also want to tell you about the life in our town during the time I was growing up. The population of Z was almost evenly divided among the Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. There was little socializing or mixing between the Ukrainians and Poles, and even less between the Jews and non-Jews. Nevertheless all three groups had a lot in common.
First of all everybody loved the land we lived on. We loved the river Dniester, the high cliffs towering over the river, the blooming orchards, the chestnut trees, the black fertile soil, the wonderful summers full of music and life and the summer tourists bringing relative prosperity to our town. This was the land of our ancestors, Ukrainians, Poles and Jews, who for centuries lived here, worked here, produced goods, and died here.
All the people regardless of their culture or religion, shared the same fear of the unknown and the feeling of helplessness in the face of calamities. Everybody got up in the morning hoping for a good day without unexpected tragedies and unpleasant occurrences. Most people started the day with a prayer. The Ukrainnas with Otcze nasz, the Poles with Ojcze Nas, and the Jews with Moidi Any. Some crossed themselves three times, some only once, and some turned to the Eastern wall facing Jerusalem praying to the higher power we all called God. We all asked that our wishes be granted. We wanted protection from evil and misfortune. We prayed for good health, for ourselves and for our loved ones. We prayed for our daily bread, and a little bit of extra money to be able to give our children a good education and a secure trade. We all wanted our children to have a better life than their parents had. These prayers, rituals and practices were passed on from generation to generation, from parents to their children. Each and everyone thought that their way was the right way to reach the attention of the Almighty, who in the end was the only one who could protect us.
While our celebrations, and rituals were different, our sentiments were the same. We all shared much joy during the birth of a new baby, at weddings of family members and friends. We all feasted at family gatherings during various holidays. We also shared the sorrow and sadness that illness and death inevitably brought to all of us.
Unfortunately, life was and continues to be full of misfortunes and catastrophes. The situation in Germany after the First World War was catastrophic. Inflation, unemployment played havoc with the lives of people there. This became a fertile ground for the most evil and destructive form of government -Nazism. In times of difficulties the common practice is to look for scapegoats. The most frequent targets were the Jews. The victims were innocent people who could not defend themselves, such as the Jews who are buried right here. The Nazi doctrine promoted a culture of hatred that resulted in brutality, sadism and hideous crimes against humanity. Some people profited materially by robbing and stealing from those who were helpless. They benefitted from other people's misfortunes. Those who were humane and who cared for the people who were persecuted, were punished by death. Here in this earth, under our feet, are some of the victims of this monstrous regime.
Now I would like to say a few words to the young people who are here today. Our beautiful town of Z, is now inhabited by a new generation of people, far removed from all those horrors . It is up to you whom you will elect to govern you, what new progressive laws will be enacted, and what ethics and morals will guide you and your children. You are lucky to be born after the horror and depravity of those war years. The people who witnessed or committed these crimes are almost all gone. The world we live in and the future of this land is now in your hands. You are the future generation that will be deciding what is just, what is humane, and what kind of a society you will build.
I am so grateful that you came out today to stand together to affirm our joint humanity and to promise to each other that we will do individually and collectively everything we possibly can to eradicate hatred and prejudice in our communities, in our towns and in the world.
How do we do that you might ask? Think of the Golden rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". This rule can serve as a guiding light that will point you in the right direction. And let this monument be a symbol, a reminder and a promise that NEVER AGAIN will Zalishschyky be a witness to such horrendous brutality.
When all the speeches were done, and just before the ceremony ended, a few drops of rain began to fall gently unto the monument. Rabbi Koffmansky finished his speech with a blessing and a comment that these raindrops are the tears of the people who are buried here. Some of us imagined that these tears were perhaps tears of gratitude from these martyrs, gratitude for remembering them.