Marla Raucher Osborn writes that you are fortunate if you trace your family roots to Ulanów, a little town in southeastern Poland between Zamosc and Rzeszow, because a local man, an avid collector and local historian named Janusz Dąbek, has created a small but impressive museum there. Dąbek, as she writes in this report on a recent visit there tracing her own family history, is one of the many Poles who have a particular interest in the history of the Jewish community that lived in their town before the Holocaust.
The Unexpected in Ulanów: Judaica Museum Collection, 1930s Registry of Residents, Jewish Cemetery
June 7, 2012
by Marla Raucher Osborn
The Museum is located upstairs in a building that serves primarily as parish community hall. Mr. Dąbek opened it about four years ago, and although only composed of 2 1/2 rooms, it is replete with all kinds of objects from the town’s past – both Jewish and non-Jewish. I have visited dozens of community museums in my extensive travels across central and eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Moldova, and I do not recall ever being as impressed with the variety and extensiveness of a local collection and the quality of its public presentation. The Ulanów Museum has hundreds if not thousands of historic artifacts of daily life, including household, farming and commercial items, tools, utensils, souvenirs, books, memorabilia, photos, paintings, posters, maps, furniture, clothing, and historic newspapers, to name a few.
But what really makes this Museum unique are its items of Judaica. Although only a handful of Ulanów’s Jews managed to survive the War (because they were sent to work camps rather than death camps) and return to the village after liberation, no Jews live here today, the residual having left in the 1950s for Israel and America. The presence of these items – vibrant and varied remnants of Ulanów’s pre-War Jewish community (nearly 40 percent of the town’s inhabitants) – is due to the passion, efforts, and foresight of this man.
Mr. Dąbek is not Jewish. He does not think he has any Jewish ancestry. His spoken English is very limited although he seems to comprehend quite a bit. I am glad we to have had a friend fluent in both Polish and English traveling with us to act as translator.
The main room of the Museum contains the Judaica. Mr. Dąbek would like three or four more glass cases to house the remainder of the items not yet on display. In addition to old photos of pre-War Jewish families and views of the village, the current cases and glass cabinets contain dozens of personal hand-written letters and envelopes – with surnames and addresses to and from Ulanów – still legible. There are also Hebrew books and bibles, a small leather-bound ledger with hand-written entries of surnames and loan amounts owed to the local Jewish lawyer, as well as personal items and handicrafts. Behind the Museum door hangs a large beige, coarse cloth with black Hebrew lettering – it was made from a rubbing of one of the Jewish headstones at the Ulanów Jewish cemetery.
Mr. Dąbek brought us here to show us what pre-War – pre-Holocaust – Jewish life had been like in Ulanów. At one point he disappeared into a back room and returned moments later with several boxes containing hundreds of pages and fragments of Jewish papers (torahs, letters, newspapers, receipts, notes) found in an Ulanów attic. He cannot read most of these. I cannot read any of them. They are in Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Some pages are in type; many are hand-written. Each has been carefully smoothed and placed inside a clear plastic sleeve for preservation. Many are in excellent condition.
How did we come to meet Mr. Dąbek on this beautiful June afternoon? Quite fortuitously is the answer. This trip was my first foray into southeastern Poland. Before Ulanów, we had passed a casual hour milling around nearby Sokołów Małopolski, the village where my great-grandmother Rose Silber had been born. Her mother had come from Ulanów. Rose married my great-grandfather Isak Horn from Rohatyn, and from that union – and that town – came my 100% Galician grandmother Annie Horn.
When we arrived in Ulanów by car, my husband I played tourist and shot the mandatory photo with me standing beside the village’s sign as you enter town. Meanwhile, our friend walked over to a nearby cafe at the river’s edge to look for someone to help us find the Jewish cemetery. No luck. We continued further into the village, then stopped to speak with a young man walking along the road: might he know the whereabouts of the Jewish cemetery? Yes, he had replied in perfect English. He then guided us to the cemetery. Together we found the headstone of my great-great-great grandfather Asher Selig Silber.
Then, he told us, “There is a town historian and he has a museum with Jewish items – you must meet him.”
Minutes later we found ourselves welcomed into the home of Mr. Dąbek and seated around a table examining a faded but well preserved large ledger book dating from 1935-39. The book contained dozens of pages of hand-written surnames – in alphabetical order- of all the residents of Ulanów, together with street addresses and house numbers. The completed entries abruptly ended at the letter “H”: the recording of information had been interrupted by the arrival of the Germans in Ulanów in 1939. The book had originally been part of a 3-volume set. The other two volumes (completed before the third volume and no longer in existence) had included the same information, but presented differently: one volume, alphabetically by street; the other, numerically by house number.
We then left for the Museum. There, we saw exhibited a well-worn cobbler’s work bench in the corner of the second room. Mr. Dąbek recounted for us a family story: when the Nazis arrived in Ulanów they wanted each man to have custom leather riding boots. Unfortunately, the best bootmaker in the village was a Jew. Naturally this arrangement was unacceptable, and so the Jew was ordered to teach his craft to a non-Jew. This is how the grandfather of Mr. Dąbek became Ulanów’s cobbler and bootmaker. The work bench before us – its tools and boot forms – had all belonged to him.
I asked Mr. Dąbek if other Jewish people – children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, like me – ever came to Ulanów. Yes, he said. Several individuals and small groups have come to the Museum in the last five years or so. Some were from America; a few from Israel. As with us, he shared with them the personal letters and scraps of Jewish papers found in the Ulanów attic. He even made copies and scans of these items for them. They had promised him translations. But, he said rather sadly, none of them had ever contacted him again.
I promised Mr. Dąbek that I would write about the Museum and its collection — and I also told him I would try to find one artifact that is missing — a photograph of the Ulanow synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941 (according to Virtual Shtetl, a school now stands on the site and some of the synagogue bricks were used in its construction).
Two days later when I returned home to Krakow, I searched the internet for a photo but without success.
I can only hope that someone who reads this article may recall that, tucked away and forgotten in a worn family album there is a photo; say, a photo of a grandmother as a young girl in Ulanów. She will be smiling because it is a beautiful June afternoon and she is wearing her favorite dress and holding a small bouquet of flowers picked from her nearby family garden.
…..and, the synagogue of Ulanów will be visible over her right shoulder.
Contact information for Mr. Dąbek:
Address: ul. Sikorskiego 33, 37-410 Ulanów, Poland
Tel: +48 158 763 309 (between hours of 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.)
Links to photos from Ms. Raucher Osborn’s visit:
Pages from the Registry of Residents (1935-39 period):
Shtetlinks page for Ulanów (with photos and info of some items today in the Museum):
(A warm and grateful thank you to friend and translator Witek Stępień – and also to his wife Ania for sparing him for several days of travel with us.)