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The Gombin Society's Memorial Initiatives in Poland

by Leon Zamosc

[Not included in the original book]

 

 

The Gombin Jewish Historical and Genealogical Society

The Gombin Society was established in 1997 by people from younger Gombiner generations who were keen on celebrating family roots, remembering the Yiddish civilization that flourished in Poland, and bearing witness to the destruction of the Jewish community of Gombin during the Shoah. In the early years of activity, many participants from several countries joined the society's daily exchanges through electronic mail and the group worked in collaboration with the senior landsmen Gombiner organizations that were still functioning at the time.

The Gombin Society is officially registered in the United States as a nonprofit organization that seeks to educate Gombiner descendants and the public about the history and genealogy of the Gombin Jews. Thanks to the work of its members, it has been able to obtain and publish substantial amounts of information about the Gombin Jewish community. In the process, a variety of pictorial materials and documents have been collected, and the society continues to encourage descendants to investigate their family trees, re–establish contact with relatives and friends, and document the Shoah victims from Gombin.

In 1997, the directors of the Gombin Society decided to undertake special initiatives to restore and protect the Jewish Cemetery in Gombin and to dedicate a memorial to the Gombin Jews at the Chelmno extermination camp. These projects were successfully completed in the course of 1998 and 1999.

 

Restoration of the Gombin Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish community of Gombin was destroyed in the Spring of 1942, when the Germans liquidated the ghetto and sent the remaining Jews to their deaths at Chelmno extermination camp. After the deportation, the Jewish cemetery was razed: the fences were torn down, the gravestones removed for use in construction, and a trench was dug accross the burial grounds as part of the belt of German fortifications that surrounded the town. With the end of the war, no initiatives were taken to protect the site, and for the next fifty years the Gombin Jewish cemetery was an abandoned wasteland. In the mid–1990s, when the Gombin Society started to explore ways to protect it, the cemetery was being desecrated on a daily basis. Part of the area was used as a soccer playground, most of the ground was littered with garbage and bottles left behind by drunkards, and the cemetery was cited in a study of the Jewish Heritage Council and the World Monuments Fund as endangered by pollution and nearby development.

In August 1997 the Gombin Society approved a project to save the Jewish cemetery in Gombin. The decision came after exploratory visits of members of the society and extensive consultations with the Gabin Land Lovers Association, a group interested in the local history and cultural heritage of Gombin. In October 1997, two representatives of the Gombin Society, Leon Zamosc and Jeremy Freedman, signed a cooperation agreement with Zbigniew Lukascewski, president of the Gabin Land Lovers Association. At the same time, they reached an agreement on a project to restore the cemetery with the Nissenbaum Family Foundation, a Warsaw–based institution that worked to preserve the traces of Jewish history and culture in Poland. The realization of the project was made possible by the contributions of survivors and descendants of Jewish Gombiners from all over the world and matching funds from the Nissenbaum Foundation. In addition to counting with the active support of the Gabin Land Lovers Association, the project was sympathetically endorsed by the civil and religious authorities of the town. Overall, the restoration of the Gombin Jewish cemetery included the following elements:

Demarcation: In the real estate registry, the Gombin Jewish cemetery appeared as part of a larger lot that included a German Military Cemetery from the First World War, a sizeable sand pit, and other adjacent areas. As a first step to protect the cemetery, it was necessary to establish its boundaries. The Gombin Society hired a surveyor who, on the basis of testimonies and a 1915 chart of the Jewish cemetery, demarcated the cemetery limits. A decree was obtained from the Plock Regional Conservator Office on December 23 1997, officially approving the boundaries of the cemetery with a perimeter of 580 metres and a total area of 3.5 hectares.

Recovery of gravestones: Through a contract with the town's Communal Construction Company, the Gombin Society recovered the gravestones that the Germans had used to line about 80 meters of sidewalk in Browarna Street. The Communal Construction Company, which had already recovered Jewish tombstones and fragments while doing re–pavement work in other streets of Gombin, dug out the Browarna Street matzevot, took them to storage, and replaced the sidewalk's curb. This work was also finished by the end of December 1997.

Enclosure of the cemetery: After designing the project and obtaining approval from the competent authorities, the Nissenbaum Foundation undertook the actual construction work. A quality welded metal fence, set on bases of concrete, was erected around the entire perimeter of the cemetery. Brick pillars and an iron–wrought gate were installed at the entrance, where a marble plaque reads: “Jewish Cemetery of Gombin, destroyed by the Nazis, restored in 1998 by the Gombin Jewish Historical and Genealogical Society and the Nissenbaum Foundation.” The enclosure of the cemetery was completed in October 1998.

 

 

 

Lapidarium: In the final stage of the project, the Nissenbaum Foundation brought back the recovered matzevot to the cemetery, where whole stones and large fragments were re– erected and arranged as part of a lapidarium, and smaller fragments were incorporated into the memorial monument's wall. With the construction of the lapidarium, the restoration works at the site of the Gombin Jewish Cemetery were completed.

 

Gombin Memorial Monument at Chelmno

Gombin was occupied by the German army on September 7, 1939. On arrival, the Germans subjected the Jews to a regime of forced labor and a few weeks later they burned the town's wooden synagogue and beit hamidrash. Early in 1940, the Gombin Jews were evicted from their homes and concentrated in a ghetto. In the following months, about 200 Jews were deported to slave labor camps in Konin, Eindziov, and Hohenzaltz; many of them were later sent to Auschwitz. Then, in the Spring of 1942, the Germans liquidated the Gombin ghetto, dispatching the more than 2,000 remaining Jews to the extermination camp at Chelmno. Only 212 of the Jews who were in Gombin at the time of the German invasion survived the Holocaust.

In the 1990s, the Konin Regional Museum, which was responsible for administering the site of the Chelmno extermination camp, facilitated the installation of monuments memorializing the Shoah victims from individual towns. Some monuments and plaques were erected by survivors and descendants of various Jewish communities, but nothing had been done to perpetuate the memory of the Gombin Jews who were murdered at Chelmno.

In 1997 the Gombin Society approved the realization of a project to dedicate a memorial to the Gombiner Shoah victims. In October of that same year, acting in representation of the society, Leon Zamosc negotiated the details of the monument with Lucja Pawlicka Nowak, director of the Konin Regional Museum, and Jan Rassumowski, the artist recommended by the museum.

 

 

In the course of 1998, while the director of Konin Regional Museum obtained all the necessary approvals and permits from the Polish authorities, the Gombin Society raised the funds for the construction of the monument among Gombiner survivors and descendants from Israel, the United States, and other countries. The construction work, which was initiated in 1998, was temporarily suspended as a result of the unfortunate death of the artist, Jan Rassumowski.

Eventually, an agreement was reached with Stanislaw Mystek, colleague and friend of Rassumowski, who took responsibility for the project. The work was successfully completed in the early Spring of 1999.

On the walls of the Gombin Memorial Monument at Chelmno, four plaques bear the following inscription in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and English:

Gombin In Eternal Memory

In this place of horror
The valley of the shadow of death, Chelmno
in the Spring of 1942
over 2,000 Jews from Gombin
men and women, young and old
were gassed and burned by the German Nazis

If only my head was filled with water
and my eyes were a fountain of tears
Then I would weep by day and night
Over the destruction of the flower of my people
(Jeremiah Ch.8 v.23)

We are still here
We shall never forget
Survivors and descendants of Gombin
from all over the world

The configuration of the plaques is reminiscent of the classic Jewish Eastern European matzevah, with a semicircular design that features a bass–relief image of the Synagogue of Gombin. The monument is a tall white–concrete structure, in the shape of two integrated triangular obelisks. The plaques, which are made of iron, have been especially treated with chemicals to resist abrasion and weathering. The first column, capped with a Star of David, displays the plaques with the image of the Gombin wooden schul and the Hebrew and Yiddish versions of the text. The Polish and English versions of the text are displayed on the second column, which is topped with the traditional Jewish Menorah.

 

Dedication ceremonies

On August 15 and 16 of 1999, about fifty people from three generations of Gombiners came from different parts of the world to be present in the memorial services and dedication ceremonies at the restored Jewish Cemetery in Gombin and at the Gombin Memorial Monument in Chelmno. The Israeli ambassador to Poland, delegates of various Jewish institutions, and representatives of the Polish authorities participated in the events. The momentous experience was chronicled in the documentary film “Back to Gombin”, produced and directed by Minna Packer.

 

Dedication, Gombin Jewish Cemetery Restoration Works

 

Dedication, Gombin Memorial Monument in Chelmno

 

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