The small town of Wojsławice in southeastern Poland for centuries was home to three religious communities – Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian. Its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural character was destroyed during and after World War II, with the depredations of the Shoah and the forced resettlement of the Orthodox population after new post-WW2 state borders were drawn; both the synagogue and the Orthodox church were desecrated.
As we reported, a new permanent exhibit focusing on the pre-WW2 multicultural tradition opened in November in the former synagogue.
In this essay, cultural activist Emil Majuk – who was born in Wojsławice and curated the exhibit – describes the exhibit, its back story, and his own personal involvement with the synagogue. He describes how past, present, and future converge in the narrative the exhibit tells and questions it addresses — basic but also complex questions including what should, could, or can be the role of a post-Holocaust synagogue building in a town devoid of Jews.
Around the Market Square in Wojsławice …..
By Emil Majuk
February 1, 2021
Three historic houses of prayer — a Catholic church, an Orthodox church, and a synagogue — are located around the market square of Wojsławice. Of the three, only the Catholic church is still actively used for religious purposes. The synagogue became derelict as a result of the Holocaust, while the Orthodox church fell into disuse following the displacement of the Orthodox inhabitants of the community in 1945-47, when Polish communist authorities forced out locals whom they recognized as Ukrainians to the USSR or to what is today western Poland.
The Orthodox church at first functioned as a warehouse for icons looted from other churches in the region, and then was used as a storehouse for fertilizers and a garage. Its renovation began in the 1990s and has continued until today. The building belongs to the Orthodox parish of the town of Chełm, 25 kilometres away, and is occasionally used for local festivals and pilgrimages.
The synagogue was converted into a stable at the beginning of the German occupation in 1939, and was used as a granary after the war. The renovation of the devastated building began in the 1980s, and after its completion in 1991 it was converted into a public library.
A few years ago the library was transferred to a new location, and the building was once again deserted and started to deteriorate. Henryk Gołębiowski, Mayor of the Wojsławice township, decided to create a historical exhibition hall there. The local government managed to obtain funds for a project called The Wojsławice Area Cultures and Traditions Trail – the Protection and Use of the Cultural Heritage of the Wojsławice Community, under which the former synagogue in Wojsławice, as well as the former school and the community centre in the neighboring villages of Majdan Ostrowski and Rozięcin, were renovated, modernised and repurposed to serve the cultural needs of the communities.
In cooperation with Paulina Kowalczyk I wrote the scenario for the new exhibition, Wojsławice Войславичі וואיסלאוויץ, that was installed in the former synagogue, and I supervised the final stage of its production.
The task had a personal dimension for me, as I was born in Wojslawice and have been linked with the former synagogue since childhood. My mother used to work in the library that operated there in the 1990s, and I would often substitute for her on Saturday afternoons. As my friend Leora Tec put it in her Neshoma Project about non-Jewish Poles dealing with local Jewish heritage, “As a teenager, Emil used to spend Saturdays in the synagogue.”
While working on the exhibition, we had to confront dilemmas frequently faced by people dealing with the subject of Jewish heritage in Central and Eastern Europe, including the basic one – what to do with cultural heritage sites no longer fulfilling their original functions.
The most obvious examples of such places are empty synagogues, abandoned as a result of genocide. What functions can they be given today? Should they be given any functions at all? Would it not perhaps be fairer to leave them abandoned as a symbol of the extermination that befell the local Jews? And if we renovate, how? Perhaps it would be best if the former synagogue remained only a memorial site for those who built it and were murdered.
But Wojsławice is a tiny town, with fewer than 3,500 people in the entire township. There is no museum in it, and it is the Historical Exhibition Hall of the Wojsławice area in the former synagogue that is to play such a role, combining a historical narrative with a story of the town’s inhabitants of different denominations and ethnic backgrounds. The former synagogue is thus a place where we tell about the Jews of Wojsławice, as well as the local Catholic and Orthodox Christians; people who, despite their differences and conflicts, were able to live together here for five hundred years. And since they lived in one community, it is also possible to remember them together.
The narrative of the Wojsławice Войславичі וואיסלאוויץ exhibition consists of several overlapping layers.
The first deals with the original purpose of the building and the Jewish community whose needs the synagogue served. The eastern wall features an empty recess that used to hold the Aron ha-Kodesh, and the reconstructef bima can be seen in the centre of the hall. The designers highlighted these places and their original functions with modern metal decorations. Prayer desks whose shape alludes to the prayer desks typically found in synagogues were placed around the bima.
Four of them have touch screens displaying interactive multimedia content. Four others exhibit hand-made books called: Book of Prayers, Book of Names, Book of Memories, Book of Photographs – containing texts of Jewish prayers in Hebrew and Polish; translated excerpts of the Wojsławice Yizkor Book; a list of the synagogue fee payers from the 19th century; the names of Wojsławice Jews murdered in the Holocaust; and also the signatures of students of the local school, children of various genders, religious denominations, and ethnic backgrounds.
The second layer is a chronological narrative of the history of Wojsławice placed in ten showcases with artefacts and text boards. The story begins with the founding of the town in the 15th century on the trade route connecting the East and West of Europe. The next boards are devoted to the three denominations that shaped the local cultural landscape over the centuries, Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, as well as Judaism.
A separate display case titled “Falsely Accused” refers to dramatic events of the 18th century, when local Jews were accused of committing ritual murder. These events became a legend, conveyed in various ways by the town’s Christian and Jewish inhabitants. Recently, a literary description of those events was depicted by the Nobel Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk in her novel The Books of Jacob. The other boards describe the history of the local aristocratic family, the functioning of the town as a shtetl, the interwar period after Poland regained independence, the tragic events of World War II and the Holocaust. The last showcase, titled “Towards the Present Day”, depicts the post-war period and the efforts made by various circles of people to preserve the memory of this place and its inhabitants.
The third layer of the exhibition has been called “The Street of Stories”. It features stands with headphone sets, where you can listen to the memories of former and present-day inhabitants of the local community. The testimonies come from the oral history collection of the Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre Centre, a Lublin-based cultural center, as well as the recordings of the USC Shoah Foundation. The permanent exhibition is located in the main prayer hall, while the women’s section on the upper floor has been turned into a multi-functional room, to be used for educational purposes and temporary exhibitions.
Watch video tour of the exhibition (with English subtitles)
Places such as the Wojsławice Historical Exhibition Hall will be interpreted in various ways, and sometimes must be read in various ways. A visit to a former synagogue can be an encounter with emptiness and absence, but it can also, for a resident of a small Polish town, be the first meeting with cultural diversity understood as something close, one’s own, even if the encounter is only symbolic.
What we recognise as our cultural heritage today will shape the thinking of the future generations.
Already in 2017, at the initiative of a Jewish descendant, a commemorative plaque and memory wall was unveiled at the devastated Jewish cemetery; since then local residents have begun to return to the cemetery fragments of matzevot found in the town.
By creating the Wojsławice Войславичі וואיסלאוויץ exhibition, the local community further signals its wish to remember its multicultural and multi-religious past, as well as to build its local identity on such an understanding of its heritage. Wojsławice, where no Jews live anymore, cares for the former synagogue on behalf of the common memory, hoping that despite the burden of the difficult history, it is possible to build a community that binds the present-day residents with descendants of the former inhabitants around the local cultural heritage, and create a space of encounter, conversation and finding common ground.
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Emil Majuk is a cultural heritage interpretation expert at the “Brama Grodzka – NN Theatre” Centre in Lublin and the coordinator of the Shtetl Routes project. He was born in Wojsławice.
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