Remembering Jewish life in Tarnow

Remembering Jewish life in Tarnow

The Tarnow community, a center of Polish Jewish life in Galicia, was devastated during the Shoah when its 25,000 Jewish residents were deported, and its synagogues were destroyed. Along with this vibrant Jewish community, located 45 miles east of Krakow, the details of the lives of Jewish writers, esteemed rabbis, intellectuals and hardworking laborers who had help make Tarnow an important trade center became a memory. Frances Leder Kornmehl, my mother-in-law, was my own connection to the loss of these vanishing narratives of Jewish life in her ancestral town.

My mother-in-law chose to share few details about her childhood in Tarnow, including any pleasant prewar memories. It was only when she was interviewed for a Holocaust oral history program in Buffalo that she talked both about the devastation the Tarnow Jewish community faced and her journey from the Tarnow ghetto to Plaszow and then to Auschwitz.

Frances and Nathan Kornmehl.

After her death, it became clear that preserving the history of communities after the Holocaust posed a profound challenge for the families of survivors like ours. The stories of resilience and loss survivors had told were long embedded in family histories. Yet the lives that these survivors led in their towns before the war, in a time when their world was whole, were less well documented and preserved.  The magnitude of losing an entire family was so overwhelming for survivors that they rarely shared memories of their pleasant existence before the war.

Frances was born and raised in Tarnow, a city that was almost half Jewish before the war. Its Jewish residents represented a cross-section of religious observance, social backgrounds, and cultural affiliations. The town had a large number of chasidic and ultra-Orthodox families, including the Leder family, which had more than 40 members. They were a pious bunch. Frances had a maternal uncle who ran his own shteibel and had 14 children. Her father insisted that her sister marry a very religious man when she became interested in making aliyah with her more enlightened Zionist friends.

The cover of the Yarnow Yizkor book

Occasionally Frances shared brief tidbits about her close-knit family and her school experiences with us. She took particular pride in having attended one of the first Beit Yaacov schools, established to provide a superior Jewish education for religious girls. At times, she remembered her childhood as happy, but she did not elaborate, providing few details. Clearly the loss of her family and memories of their times together brought her much sadness. The Holocaust robbed her of her entire family and erased their existence in a town that had been their home for more than 120 years.

Fortunately, some people took on the task of preserving the memory of Jewish existence in Polish cities. JewishGen, a genealogy organization, has dedicated itself to ensuring that the stories of Jewish life in ancestral towns like ours endure for future generations. Through initiatives such as the JewishGen Yizkor Book project, the organization has actively engaged in preserving the rich tapestry of the lives our ancestors lived in their town before the Shoah.

The Yizkor books are a compilation of memories about Jewish communities that were tragically destroyed during the Holocaust. They were written by survivors after the war, largely in Yiddish, to pay tribute to their communities and include descriptions and histories of the communities, biographies of notable people, lists of the names of those who perished, and photographs. They were published as hardcover books after the war, and were of little use to descendants who were not fluent in Yiddish. JewishGen has sought to change that. Paid and unpaid translators have rendered the Yizkor books from Yiddish to English. JewishGen has digitized the English translations of some chapters and made them available on its website.

The Yizkor book translation project is an extensive undertaking. It relies on coordinators who oversee the work of each town’s book; that position’s responsibilities include supervising the translators, editing their work product, and fundraising to pay for chapter translations. Some Yizkor books are large, so this work can take several years. Once it is completed, the books are printed in hard copy; they are available for purchase through the publishing arm of JewishGen known as JewishGen Press.

The gates, left, lead to the cemetery in Tarnow, at right.

Reconstructing the life Holocaust survivors once led in Tarnów, when their childhood world was intact and their lives were filled with joy, was never a role I might have envisioned for myself, but the coordinator position for the town was unfilled for a few years. Someone had to step forward and assume the responsibility.  For years, I have been interested in keeping Tarnow’s memory alive by administering the 1.5K-member Jewish Tarnow Facebook page for survivor families and helping descendants with their genealogy research and documentation. I realized that it was crucial to complete this effort; it not, the Yizkor book would remain inaccessible to future generations, including our own family descendants.

So I took on this project and became the town coordinator. It was challenging to find volunteer translators for it. Our local community provided several expert volunteer Yiddish-to-English translators. The remaining chapters required paid translators and that necessitated fundraising to support their contribution. Five years later, my work as coordinator has been completed. This month, JewishGen Press published the English translation of the Tarnow Yizkor book, and that guarantees that the memories it holds will be available to our family members and others.  This also ensures that the legacy of Jewish Tarnow will never disappear. Instead, it will be available to future generations.

Jill Kornmehl of Teaneck is a physician. She is involved in various activities related to the preservation of Jewish history in Poland and Jewish genealogy.

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