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by Audrey Partington
Special to The Greater Olney News
Silver Spring resident Myrna Teck posed with her grandmother for a photograph at her childhood home in Blackstone, Va., in 1944.
That year marked the final destruction of the Jews of Goniadz, Poland, who were among the six million people killed by the Nazis.
Teck’s grandmother emigrated from Goniadz to the United States in the early 20th century. She sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on Dec. 3, 1905, with five children under 13, to join her husband and oldest son already settled in New York.
Her youngest son Joseph, Teck’s father, would be born in America.
A few years ago, Teck located the ship’s manifest, which listed her grandmother, Rochel Leah Guperstein Tikotski, as a passenger. The surname was changed to Teck in 1915.
“My grandparents left behind parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles,” Teck said. “What became of them?”
While attending the 2018 Conference of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies in Warsaw last August, Teck and her sister, Dee Seligman, decided to make it “the trip of a lifetime” by visiting their ancestral home.
“If not now, when?” Teck asked herself, having just celebrated her 80th birthday.
“We were advised to hire Witold Wrzosinski, the best guide in Warsaw,” Teck said. “Witold met us in Warsaw and drove us three hours to Bialystok, which is over an hour from Goniadz. During the next few days, we visited Tykocin, Suchawola, Krinki and, of course, Goniadz. We learned that there are no Jews living in these towns today. The only tangible evidence that Jews lived in these towns for hundreds of years are abandoned synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.”
Teck was shocked and saddened at the condition of the Goniadz Jewish Cemetery. The number “1547” on the entrance gate was visible, indicating the year the town received its city charter. But the roughly three acres beyond the gate were in shambles.
“Time, nature and vandals had all done their work,” Teck said. “Many of the headstones are overturned. How much longer would anyone know that this was a Jewish cemetery?”
Teck has not yet found definitive proof that any of her relatives are buried in Goniadz, but nonetheless she is concerned about the condition of the cemetery. She left with many questions: “Who is responsible for maintaining the cemetery? The Polish government? Descendants?”
But soon she realized that it doesn’t matter.
“What’s important is who can do something about it,” Teck said. “I thought there must be a reason I’m here now. I feel fortunate that I can at least try to do something.”
Upon her return home last fall, Teck got to work. The task at hand was to bring attention to the plight of the Goniadz Jewish Cemetery, form partnerships and raise funds for the project.
Wrzosinski suggested she begin with Dan Oren, founder of Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland, based in Connecticut. Oren told her about the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) and its “Adopt a Cemetery” program.
There are similar efforts to restore Jewish cemeteries throughout Europe.
Teck, an art educator who develops slide shows for her nonprofit organization, Jewish Art Education (jarted.org), created a visual presentation about her trip and the cemetery project. She presented it to family and friends in her home and to local groups. She set up a Facebook page, Friends of Goniadz, Poland Jewish Cemetery, and reached out to descendants with ties to Goniadz residing in the U.S., Israel or England.
Before long, Teck met her goal of raising $5,500, the estimate that FODZ provided for phase one of the multi-year project.
Teck enlisted filmmaker Tomek Wisniewski and historian Arek Studniarek to be her contacts in Poland. Wisniewski produced a 48-minutes film based on 25 hours of interviews with a dozen people, now in their nineties, who recalled life in Goniadz before World War II.
Titled “Absent Neighbors,” the film, available on YouTube, recalls a time when Jews and Gentiles lived side by side in Goniadz.
Teck arranged for English subtitles to be added to the film, which was scheduled to debut at the clean-up event on June 14, and she booked her second trip to Poland.
Teck was not prepared for what awaited her in Poland on the day of the event.
“I was shocked to see 20 cars. The Mayor of Goniadz approached me and kissed my hand,” she said.
The more than 45 people who pitched in to clean up the cemetery included municipal workers sent by the mayor, as well as local adults and teenagers. The city sent a bulldozer to clear the brush. Within two hours, one-third of the first acre of the cemetery was cleared by volunteers.
The film premiered at an afternoon program at the Kulture Center. With help from a translator, Teck expressed her gratitude and told the crowd of nearly 100 that she could not believe how much the cemetery had changed since her visit last year.
She held up the photograph with her grandmother and explained her connection to Goniadz.
“I’m happy to come home,” she said.
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