Leaving Auschwitz Twice

In 1945 he left the infamous camp on a death march; 40 years later he came back - and left - a free man

“I am doing what very few people did. I am walking out alive.” Fred Bachner leaving the crematorium on his 1988 visit to Auschwitz. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

My grandfather and father, Abraham and Fred Bachner, survived Auschwitz, but the exact fate of their beloved wife and mother, Erna Widmann Bachner, has remained a mystery for more than 75 years.

Erna, or “Mutti” as she was known to my father, was transported from Chrzanow to Auschwitz on February 18, 1943, but after that, the only “record” that remained was the word of someone who told my father that he saw Mutti as she was herded to the gas chamber.

Looking and inquiring for decades, my father held out hope that by some miracle his Mutti had not been murdered.

Erna Widmann Bachner. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

In 1981, my parents attended the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. At Yad Vashem, my father put an engraved stone as a marker that Esther Widmann Bachner was one of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

Nearly forty years after her murder, this gave my father some closure.

Stone in memory of Esther Bachner, placed by her son at Yad Vashem in 1981. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

In 1988 he wanted to say goodbye to Mutti at the place she was murdered and took my mother and a video camcorder to Auschwitz.  He was always a logical pragmatist and until I listened to his testimonial, I never knew that he had actually long wondered if Mutti had somehow miraculously survived the camp.

Fred and Ruth Bachner at Auschwitz, 1988. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

Although I was always told Mutti was murdered at Auschwitz and saw the memorial plaque in the synagogue we attended, I also always held out hope, wondering if she had survived. Even 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, whenever I read a story of survivors finding one another, I always thought of Mutti and how painful it would have been had she survived yet never been found by her family.

This idea haunted me until I recently read the following two sentences in Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945:

“February 18, 1943:  1,000 Jews are deported from a labor camp in Chrzanow to Auschwitz.  All the deportees are killed in the gas chambers.”

The question whether or not Mutti survived finally seemed to have a concrete answer.



Walking around Auschwitz four decades later, my father pointed out where the orchestra had played, where the selection process had taken place, and where the gas chamber and crematorium were.

Inside the crematorium, my mother – also a Holocaust survivor – can be seen on the video reading a plaque on the wall and getting emotional.

My father, on the other hand, is very matter of fact and businesslike.  As he walks out of the crematorium he says, “I am doing what very few people did.  I am walking out alive.”

As he walks out the main gates, his hands are raised, he is smiling, and he looks victorious.

Fred Bachner walking out of Auschwitz a free man, 1988. From footage of the visit

I can imagine my father saying, “This time I am walking out free.”

My father, who survived Falbruck, Graditz, Annaberg, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Dachau, gave several testimonials and spoke about the Holocaust at schools and synagogues for decades until he passed away in December 2008.

I watched his testimonials about his life before the Holocaust, listening to the grueling details of being forced out of Berlin, his birthplace, and settling in Chrzanow, where he had to work for the Germans. It was from there that the Nazis took him and transported him and his family to the concentration camps.

Over the years I heard his message of strength, perseverance, and love. I long ago embraced them, and they are now part of me.

My father did not talk in terms of dates so I do not know the exact sequence of events and the dates on which he was transported from one camp to another.

Several times he said:

“I lived hour to hour and day to day. I told myself, ‘I made it through this day and now I have to make it through the next day.’”

I imagine it would have been difficult to keep track of time and there was little to differentiate even which month it was.  Surviving was what mattered. The date was insignificant.


More questions than answers

I know my father was taken from Chrzanow to a concentration camp on February 18, 1943, the same day his mother was taken to Auschwitz.

On September 30, 1944 his transport from Annaberg arrived at Auschwitz. In his testimonial, he recalled the infamous death camp as a place:

“Where the ovens were burning 24 hours a day and starvation, beatings, and hard labor were a constant. My Mutti (Mother) was sent here… and I was pretty sure she was murdered in the gas chamber. I knew I was one step closer to death.”

Crematorium furnaces at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1945 (State Museum in Auschwitz). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies; available via the NLI Digital Collection

While at Auschwitz, he was selected for forced labor at IG Farben and then worked on the railway.

“Food was scarce and all we had were the clothes on our backs that were wet from the snow and rain so we took the paper from the bags of cement we had to carry and wrapped it around ourselves underneath the clothes. It made walking difficult, but we were happy for the little warmth it gave us.”

Though the Germans are known for their perfect penmanship and meticulous recording keeping, in the case of my father detailed accuracy seemed to take a back seat to the more pressing task of murdering Jews.

Besides the dates detailed above, we only know a few other specific dates from that indescribable two-year period of his life.  He left Auschwitz on January 28, 1945, arrived at Dachau on February 21, 1945 and was liberated on May 1, 1945.

Death march

Things changed dramatically in January 1945, as the Russian forces approached.

Russian troops in World War II. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) at the National Library of Israel

Worried about leaving behind any proof of their crimes, the Germans dismantled the gas chambers, burned documents, and removed evidence. Thousands of prisoners – the Nazi criminals’ greatest liability – were evacuated out of Auschwitz in the middle of January. They left not knowing where they were going, with no idea how long and brutal their journeys – which came to be known as “death marches” – would be.

I knew my father was on a death march out of Auschwitz and it seemed that he went directly to Dachau.  I recently listened to a testimonial that I had not heard before. The interviewer asked my father the name of the camp he marched to from Auschwitz.

I now know that my father was sent on a death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen with a group that started out with over 1,000 prisoners according to his estimate.

Wearing only striped pajamas and wooden shoes, holding one loaf of bread, they trudged for 170 km.

Rare photograph of prisoners marching to Dachau, 1945. Courtesy: Maria Seidenberger / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Anyone who was not walking fast enough or fell to the ground was shot in the head by the German soldiers. Frozen corpses with bullets in their heads lined the entire route and were a constant reminder to either keep up or die.

January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months that 20th century Europe experienced, with blizzards and temperatures as low as -22° F (-30° C). Snow covered the ground between Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen.

My father remembered the prisoners somehow dragging their skeletal bodies.

“…we walked for days – how many I do not know. The Russians had detected movement and planes were flying all around, dropping flares to see if it was troops moving. The flares lit up the sky like fireworks and fortunately they did not think we were the German army and attack us.  We came to a barn and were permitted to lie down in straw and rest up for a couple of hours. I made a friend and we kept together and promised to help each other as much as we could.”

When it was time to reassemble the next morning, my father’s friend said he could not go on and was going to hide in the straw and stay in the barn. My father tried convincing him to continue.

“When we march away, they’re going to set this on fire.  It will burn with you in there. My friend stayed and there was no doubt in my mind he died. Imagine my surprise when I saw him at the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel in 1981.”

On cold blistery days in New York, I think of my Dad trudging through the snow on a death march.

I am bundled up in a down coat, hat, gloves and boots and cannot fathom how my father, or anyone could have survived days and miles of walking when they were starving, emotionally and physically abused, sick, and frostbitten.  I ask myself how my father, who was 19 years old at the time and had been in concentration camps for almost two years, had that enormous desire to live.

He had defied the odds. He left Auschwitz with thousands of prisoners and was one of only a few hundred who made it to Gross-Rosen.



They finally arrived at Gross-Rosen, which was chaotic, dirty, and so overcrowded there was no room to lie down to sleep. With word that the Russians were approaching, my father knew the Germans would evacuate Gross-Rosen as they had Auschwitz.

“I made it through that horrendous death march when I didn’t know if I was dead or living. I didn’t know if I had it in me to survive another death march and I didn’t want to find out that I didn’t.”

My father saw a large crowd waiting to be transported by train out of Gross-Rosen.

“I did not know where they were going and did not care where they were going. I knew my chances of surviving Gross-Rosen or another death march were slim. I needed to get myself on that transport out and I did. I squeezed myself into the group and onto the transport.”

The transport, an open railroad car with no room to sit down, was headed to Dachau.

It was the middle of the winter and it was snowing.

“There was nothing to eat, and the only way to get water was to tilt your head back, open your mouth and catch whatever amount of rain or snow that you could… The area was being bombed and we felt the earth shaking. Sometimes the train did not move for days. I wondered what is going to happen to us… People all around were dying.  Those who had enough strength to lift the bodies picked them up and tossed them over the top of the car.”

I hear my father say those words and am struck by how nonchalant he is in the testimonial talking about how the dead were handled, especially compared to his 14 year-old self who had felt compelled to find a way to bury the corpses he saw thrown into piles at the Trezbina labor camp, just a few kilometers from the Chrzanow ghetto where he and his parents were living.  He returned to Trezbina with a horse and carriage and brought the deceased to the Jewish cemetery in Chrzanow.

It did not matter that he did not know them, not even their names. He was upholding the Jewish commandment of honoring the dead with a proper burial.

Cremation of corpses on pyres at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1945 (State Museum in Auschwitz). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies; available via the NLI Digital Collection

Then, just a few years later, after being immersed in a world where starvation, beatings, murders, gassings and cremating human beings was a daily reality, my father, like many others, became desensitized and immune. I suppose if they hadn’t, it would have been even more difficult to survive.

My father recalled it taking around 12 days to arrive at Dachau, but did not know for certain. He was transported  in an open rail car that was standing room only when it left and had plenty of room to sit when it arrived. He weighed 80 pounds and was barely alive.

Fred Bachner’s Dachau arrival document

It seems plausible that he could have arrived at Dachau on February 21, 1945, as indicated on the official paperwork. There, likely hoping to be selected for work instead of death, he claimed to be an auto mechanic. He was given two weeks to rest and regain some strength before he was sent to Muhldorf, a sub camp of Dachau to work building a factory.

Liberation for some

My father survived the death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen, and the later transport from Gross-Rosen to Dachau. The dates and places are not of paramount importance. To have survived either of those journeys is amazing.  To have survived both is a miracle.

Fred Bachner at the gates of Dachau, 1988. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

With the allied forces approaching, the Germans began evacuating Dachau in the middle of April and my father was sent on a transport heading towards the Alps, where the prisoners would likely be shot. It was six years since my father had to flee his home in Germany. He had spent the past 27 months in concentration camps.

A firm believer in “taking things into your own hands,” he later recalled, “I made it this far and now was not the time to give up.”

Undoing the wire on one of the small train windows, my father leapt from the train to freedom. He hid in a barn for a few days and came out when he saw white flags.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated annually on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest of the extermination and death camps. In a sense, that day marked the beginning of the end of the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, for millions of victims, January 27, 1945, was a date completely devoid of meaning. For some, like Mutti, it came far too late.

For countless others, it was just another day. Some, like my father, would not be liberated until weeks or even months later. Many were not even that fortunate; murdered in the waning days of the war, before they could once again know freedom.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Manmade Climate Change 150 Years Ago? In Yiddish?!

1871 article: "Hardly anybody knows that war affects the weather strongly and causes heavy rain falls, strong winds, thunder and lightning.”

Original illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich appearing in the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

With the recent re-introduction of rabbis into the German army, I started to read about rabbis in the German army during the First World War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the 150th anniversary of which is now being commemorated. As often happens in the course of research, serendipity led me to an unrelated and unexpected, yet fascinating find: an article on the environmental effects of war printed in a leading Yiddish newspaper during the Franco-Prussian War.

Kol Mevaser was published from its inception in 1862 until its discontinuation in 1872-73 in Odessa, an important Jewish center at the time. It was one of the very first newspapers in Yiddish and one of the most important in the history of Yiddish journalism.

Published in Odessa, Kol Mevaser was one of the first and most influential Yiddish newspapers

The National Library of Israel’s online Historical Jewish Press (JPress) collection includes Kol Mevaser, as well as a short historical survey about the periodical by Prof. Avraham Novershtern.

The orientation of the newspaper runs along the lines of the Haskala (Jewish enlightenment) movement, and the editors often aimed to educate their “plain folk” readership about events in the world or about modern science. While they often achieved these goals, to the modern reader, some of these attempts appear rather absurd.

On February 9, 1871 (January 28 according to the Julian calendar date indicated on the newspaper’s masthead), an article was published in Kol Mevaser entitled “The War and the Air”. In it, the author – identified only by the initials G.D.D – argues that during and after big battles there are often heavy rain falls, strong winds, thunder and lightning – as compared to the normal average.

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“All of this is no coincidence. The cause of it is the continuous shooting with big canons.”

In addition to the then-contemporary Franco-Prussian War, the author provides a list of recent conflicts after which such observations were made, including examples from the Italian War of 1859 and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866:

“In the year 1859, during the War in Italy, scientists have realized for the first time… this phenomenon has been noticed even more clearly in the year 1866 when Prussia was at war with Austria… every time there was heavy rain fall accompanied by winds and also thunder and lightning, as has been reported by the newspapers at the time.”

According to the article, the phenomenon is not limited to the immediate vicinity, but rather extends to a great geographical area, as well:

“After the battle of Königsgrätz, a heavy storm blew for eight days accompanied by heavy rain falls. Not only on the battlefield itself, but in the entire country, and even as far as deep into France.”

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After the Battle of Solferino – the cruelty of which led Henry Dunant to establish the Red Cross – such weather phenomena were said to have affected all of Europe.

To some, the reported connection between war and weather was apparently as reliable as the sun:

“If we look at the present war between France and Prussia, we can notice this strange phenomenon even better… The moment they saw rain, the inhabitants of Alsace already knew it and said: ‘Most likely today there already was a big battle somewhere’ – and indeed it was this way.”

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der Französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The author bases his statements on “scientists” (נאטורפארשער in Yiddish, which translates more literally to “researchers of nature”), but does not name them.

The causal relationship is explained as follows: Rain is caused by the fact that shooting creates heat, which evaporates water, which then ascends and turns back into droplets once a cold northern wind crosses its way.

As to why the air cools down the evaporated water, the author gives a further explanation, though its relationship to the first one (the cold northern wind) is not clear: When shooting, the gun powder is broken up into its component parts which are dispersed into the air; ultimately this creates electricity, which somehow cools down the air.

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The author’s thoughts then become even harder to follow, and it is probable that he had no real scientific knowledge of the topics about which he wrote:

“It is known that in a place where a big electrical force is concentrated, rain, thunder and lightning are created. That is how the wind, which appears during battles, develops. And when the evaporated water which is in the air is being cooled down and turns back into water, it takes up a larger volume, seventeen hundred times more than in its evaporated form. Therefore, when rain falls, it pushes aside the air. But the air returns and takes up its previous place from where the rain has dispelled it and it carries the clouds along with it. A quick movement is created in the air which we call “wind”. According to all of this we can name the battlefield ‘the machine which drags in the air’.”

Generally speaking, Kol Mevaser was a respectable newspaper, and while the thoughts expressed in this particular article appear naïve to the modern reader, they do in fact constitute an early awareness of the effects small man can have on the massive planet on which he lives.

Moreover, the article deals with two scourges that 21st century humanity continues to face – war and man’s role in global climate change.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Additional reading on this topic in Hebrew can be found in the book Scientific God: Popular Science in Hebrew in Eastern Europe in the Second Half of the 19th Century – Between Knowledge and a New Image of the Universe, by Yaacov Shavit and Jehuda Reinhartz.

The Continued Destruction of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter

Local landmarks approved for demolition

Though the chances of stopping the destruction seem small, activists continue their efforts to save cultural heritage sites in the Hungarian capital (Source images: Fortepan / Berkó Pál and Kispados; CC BY-SA 3.0)

A few days ago, news that one of the oldest houses in the Jewish district of Budapest will soon be demolished spread like wildfire on social media, sparking outrage.

The house at Kazinczy Street 55 will be leveled to make way for a 5-storey hotel belonging to a company linked to people with friends in high places. Although from an architectural perspective the house is rather nondescript, it is one of the last remnants of how the Jewish district looked before large-scale construction projects at the end of the 19th century.

This little house witnessed the crushing of the Revolution of 1849, the Second World War, the Revolution of 1956 and the horrors of the ghetto in 1944-45.

Budapest, 1945 (Photo: Fortepan / Kramer István dr; CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1834, a man named József Schneider bought the building, which at the time had only one floor. It was here that he created the “Magyar Kártya” card game still popular today. Schneider decided to illustrate some of the cards with the figure of William Tell, as a symbol of the Hungarian struggle for independence from the Habsburgs.

“Magyar Kártya” cards, ca. 1860

Towards the end of the 19th century, the building housed a fashion store that belonged to Mór Rothauser, a distant relative of the famous opera singer Teréz Rothauser, who starred for years as part of the  Berlin Royal Opera before ultimately being murdered in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust.

Kazinczy Street 55 when it was the Rothauser fashion store
(Source: Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum,

In 1895, Cecília Fischer established a brothel in the house, which was equipped with running water and modern toilets, a first for such an establishment in Budapest.

Ten years later, followers of the Theosophical Movement, founded by Helena Blavatsky, bought the building. This esoteric movement influenced some of the greatest minds of the turn of the 20th century, including Thomas Edison, Alfred Russel Wallace, Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Maria Montessori.

The disciples of the movement left their symbol on the door of the house.

The symbol of the Theosophical Movement remains on the front door of Kazinczy Street 55 until today (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)

After it was vacated by the movement’s adherents, the building housed several small businesses before being purchased by Tamás Wichmann, three-time Olympic medal-winning canoeist. He opened a famous tavern there, which survived Hungary’s 1989 regime change and quickly became a legendary hangout for locals.

No sign indicated the establishment’s existence, and its prices made it a hidden gem amid the dozens of bars catering to tourists’ tastes (and budgets).

Wichmann’s tavern, 2009. A small plaque next to the door indicates that József Schneider created the “Magyar Kártya” game in the very same building (Photo: Jerzy Celichowski; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, in 2018 Tamás Wichmann announced that he was forced to close his business after becoming seriously ill. The Olympic champion, who passed away in 2020, had greatly improved the quality of life in the district by funding a new playground in place of a parking lot next to his establishment.

The building was bought by a company with ties to government officials, which initially rented the ground floor to a pizzeria. On December 23, 2019, a building permit was filed for a hotel, which was approved on August 10, 2020.

Leading Hungarian news outlets have recently reported that adjacent and nearby lots on Király Street, including the playground developed by Wichmann, will also be demolished soon. These tenements, built during the first half of the 19th century, are also part of Budapest’s Jewish district, each an important part of the city’s history.

A Jewish wedding on Kazinczy Street, 1946 (Photo: Fortepan / Hámori Gyula; CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1891, a wealthy Jewish man named Mór Ungerleider opened a café at Király Street 27. Five years later, to attract clients, he came up with the idea of screening a motion picture there – for the first time in Budapest!

Ungerleider immediately understood that movies were going to become very popular, and he went on to own a number of theaters including the Royal-Apollo and the Apolló mozgó, the biggest movie theater in Budapest in the early years of the 20th century. Along with partners Lajos Weitzenfeld and Imre Roboz, Ungerleider founded the Főnix movie production company, which produced many films throughout the 1920s.

Ad for a screening of Cecille B. DeMille’s film “The Sign of the Cross” (known as “Ave Caesar” in Hungarian) at the Royal-Apollo Theater in Budapest, printed in Egyenlöség⁩⁩, 4 February 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Despite their importance and the mobilization of many local history and culture enthusiasts, the chances of saving these historic landmarks from demolition seems small.

The news leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who witnessed a wave of destruction in the Jewish quarter between 2002 and 2010, when the disappearance of many historic buildings occurred after the district’s local council considerably weakened protections for historical monuments.

Plaque on Kazinczy Street placed by a group of artist activists, 2014 (Photo: Kispados; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Activists continue efforts to save historical treasures from destruction, as countless buildings linked to Jewish and general Budapester history are constantly under threat, with the prospects of financial profit unfortunately often outweighing the importance of preserving cultural heritage.

UPDATE: Soon after this article was published, following extensive civil society and media efforts, the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office announced that the building at Kazinczy 55 will be registered as an historical monument, and saved from demolition.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Ghost Shtetl of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Youth

30 years after his death, the Nobel laureate's village is being rebuilt, including a massive replica of a synagogue that was never there

Isaac Bashevis Singer in his Nobel Prize ceremony tuxedo appears in front of the Wolpa Synagogue [Source: Photo by Israel Zamir, from the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at NLI / Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem]

In his 1978 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer employed memories from his earliest years as a source of hope for coping with the troubles of modern times:

“In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation.”

As a teenager, in the midst of the First World War, Singer moved with his siblings and his mother to her hometown, the small shtetl of Biłgoraj, where they belonged to a prominent rabbinical family.

The main square in Biłgoraj around the time Singer lived there

Following a short stint in a Warsaw rabbinical seminary, a young Singer would return to the ancestral shtetl, where he would fail to support himself by giving Hebrew lessons – an interesting historical detail for the man destined become the first Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize.

Biłgoraj was home to a thriving, if modest, Jewish community, and would inspire many of Singer’s later works.

A rabbinic text printed in Biłgoraj, 1912. From the National Library of Israel collection

Nearly a century has passed since Singer left Biłgoraj for good. Other notable former residents included Rabbi Mordecai Rokeach of the Belz Hasidic Dynasty, who famously fled Europe for the Land of Israel in 1944, and the well-known writer and educator Shmuel Ben-Artzi, father-in-law of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The town has long been bereft of Jewish inhabitants, yet a replica shtetl now stands there, the brainchild of Tadeusz Kuźmiński, a businessman and philanthropist, who recently passed away.

Tadeusz Kuźmiński stands in front of the replica synagogue in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Kuźmiński dreamed of building a site that reflected the multicultural nature of pre-War Poland, which could also serve as a contemporary cultural, commercial and residential center. With the vision only partially realized, Biłgoraj is now home to a recreated Jewish marketplace, with plans ready for a second market square set to include replicas of wooden churches and a wooden mosque (of the type long-used by some descendants of Tatars in eastern Poland).

The new square in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

A small museum in Singer’s honor is housed in one of the replica town’s structures, yet the most striking feature of the modern reincarnation of Jewish Biłgoraj is Kuźmiński’s full-scale reproduction of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Wolpa (a town in modern-day Belarus) – some 400 km (250 miles) away.

Postcard featuring a ca. 1930 photo of the Wolpa Synagogue (Publisher: Tomy). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection
Prayer for the czar inside the Wolpa Synagogue (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Somewhat ironically, Wolpa was probably most well-known for the very synagogue now recreated in Biłgoraj.

Wood synagogues were quite common throughout Eastern Europe, and yet the Wolpa Synagogue was considered to be one of the finest examples, an aesthetic and technical masterpiece, which stood for well over two centuries – surviving one world war before being destroyed in the next.

Interior photo of the Wolpa Synagogue’s dome, ca. 1910-1913 (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Singer addressed the distinguished guests at the subsequent banquet:

“People ask me often, ‘Why do you write in a dying language?’ And I want to explain it in a few words.

Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: “Is there any new Yiddish book to read?” For them Yiddish will not be dead.

Thirdly, for 2000 years Hebrew was considered a dead language. Suddenly it became strangely alive. What happened to Hebrew may also happen to Yiddish one day, (although I haven’t the slightest idea how this miracle can take place).

There is still a fourth minor reason for not forsaking Yiddish and this is: Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer preparing his speech before the official Nobel Prize ceremony, 1978 (Photo: Israel Zamir). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Isaac Bashevis Singer passed away some two decades before Tadeusz Kuźmiński’s dream of a simulated pre-War Biłgoraj began to take shape.

What would Singer have thought or written about Kuźmiński’s renascent Biłgoraj?

Would he have seen humor in the idea of a replica shtetl with no Jews?

Or the notion of a once-iconic synagogue transported through space and time, plopped down in tiny Biłgoraj, steps away from a modest museum in his honor (despite the fact that he himself only lived there for a brief period)?

Is Kuźmiński’s Biłgoraj a living ghost? A mother that was never really dead?

Or – in the spirit of Singer’s childhood home – an attempt in post-Holocaust Poland to “find… happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation”?

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

For more on the replica shtetl in Bilgoraj and other news, information and resources about Jewish monuments and heritage sites all over Europe, check out Jewish Heritage Europe.