Poland -- Hidden Beit Midrash in Bedzin

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

It's always inspiring to meet yet more people who take it upon themselves to care for and promote sites of Jewish heritage in Poland (and elsewhere). This week, I accompanied Tomek Kuncewicz and his group of fellows at the Auschwitz Jewish Center to the run-down town of Bedzin, where we visited a nondescript apartment that was once a private Beit Midrash, or prayer house -- and still has traces of the vivid paintings that once covered its walls.

photos (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

In March of this year, young people in the town created a Foundation -- the Fundacja Brama Cukerman (Cukerman's Gate Foundation) -- to conserve and protect the prayer house and make it available for visitors as part of Bedzin's rich Jewish heritage.

The Prayer House is located in an upstairs apartment at Aleja Kollataja 24 -- in a building that was part of a grand complex of tenement dwellings and businesses owned by Nuchim Cukerman. You have to enter a narrow courtyard (open at one end) and climb the stairs.

Courtyard. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Front of Cukerman house. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

After World War II, the Prayer House was divided into two rooms and a kitchen, to serve as a flat. The paintings were covered over by cheap paint and stenciling. Apparently the owner always knew about the hidden murals, which became known publicly a couple of years ago, when highschool students were brought in to clear off some of the over-paint with sponges and water.

The discovery of the Cukerman prayer house came on the heels of the discovery four years ago of another private prayer house, known as the Mizrachi synagogue, in a building nearby. The Mizrachi synagogue is closed -- and apparently the paintings have deteriorated seriously over the past four years.

The Brama Cukerman Foundation is also placing plaques on former Jewish sites, including places of business, such as a one-time Jewish cinema house, around town, to create a heritage route.

Hundreds of non-Jewish Poles have dedicated their time and passion over the past 20-30 years to preserve and protect sites of Jewish heritage and memory in Poland. For 10 years now, they have been honored by the Israeli Ambassador each year with an award initiated by the American lawyer Michael Traison and now presented at a ceremony during the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow.

Award ceremony, at Galicia Museum. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

This year's honorees came from Lodz, Rymanow, Ryki and other towns...