The testimonials below collect various descriptions of Bircza and the members of its society are an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the Bircza qehīllāh (community) and can be divided into three sections. The personal recollections include testimonials from survivors from Bircza and town residents, the modern descriptions consist mostly of comments by researchers and visitors to the area, and the historical and official accounts contain scholarly reporting, statements by various governmental and non-profit organisations, and other third-party remarks on Bircza and its area. The index on the right may help you browse through the testimonials. If you or anyone you know, are from (or have visited) the Bircza area, please contact me. Any information would be gladly appreciated in this effort to preserve forever the memory of the Bircza pre-1941 Jewish community.
I visited Bircza with my daughter Sarah about five years ago [2001—DGL] with a guide named Jacek Proszyk who had done a fair amount of genealogical research for Linda Lipson and for me. … Here is a brief travelogue I wrote after our visit:
The trip began with a pretrip to NYC where Linda and I met with cousins Linda Lipson (granddaughter of Ethel Rubenfeld, my father’s sister and Sandy Prinz, my father’s cousin, and Paul Rubinfeld’s sister. Paul is the one who stimulated my interest in going to Bircza in the first place (see family tree for exact relationships of the players).
Linda had been to Bircza on her own and Sandy may have been there before her. Linda gave me the name of Jacek Polatsek [Proszyk—DGL], our guide in Poland, whom she had heard of or met when she went to the opening of the Auschwitz Educational Center. She had never met him but he had done research for her, gleaning a great deal of information about her two ancestral families in Poland, the Rubenfelds and the Grapels. She gave copies of pages from the report and Jacek eventually gave me a copy of the full report.
In addition, Sandy had done research at YIVO Institute about Bircza and, either at YIVO or elsewhere, found information about the Bircza’s Society. A commitment to have a Rubenfeld/Rubinfeld reunion in October 2002 came out of our meeting in New York.
We also found a guide for Vienna through Joanna Fletcher of Shtetlschleppers, an organization that Linda Lipson put me in touch with on the Internet (as well as Bircza on-line). His name was Dr. Hermann David Karplus.
So, Sarah and I left on Friday, August 3, 2001, taking Continental to Chicago, Air Austria to Vienna and then Cracow, arriving around 3p.m. on Saturday. I watched the Wedding Planner on the way there, with Sarah raving about Business Class on Air Austria all the way.
We spent the night in the Hotel Eden in the Jewish section of Cracow, Kazmierecz. The cab to the hotel cost 42 zlotys while the return trip cost over 90 zlotys—go figure. The Eden was a nominally kosher hotel, but the mashgiach was the hotel’s owner, Howie from Miami Beach. We took a very small elevator up to the first floor (the ground floor in Europe is not, apparently, the first floor). Our room was very compact with the narrowest beds I’ve ever seen and a very nice floor fan for ventilation. I walked to the market in Cracow and bought a roughly carved statue of a doctor. When I returned to the room, Sarah was half-asleep so I had some of her M&M’s for dinner and then went to sleep myself.
The next morning, our guide Jacek and our driver Andrew picked us up at the Hotel Eden after a breakfast of bread and lox. Jacek planned a visit to a 1000-year-old salt mine, a Jewish site, and then Krasiczyn. The trip to the salt mine was very interesting, especially since our guide, Marek from Silesia, was a comedian. We heard a band underground, saw numerous inventive ways of hauling both salt and water, and marveled at the beautiful salt sculptures. I bought a mug and Marek gave me a piece of salt to go.
We were going to go to a Jewish site but we were rear-ended on the road after visiting the salt mine, by nuns no less. After pulling into a little garage/house for repairs for two hours, and stopping for lunch (? salmon) at a gas station/restaurant, we took off for the castle in Krasiczyn. We had wanted to stay in the castle itself but all the rooms were booked! We therefore stayed in the servants’ quarters, which were not too shabby, windows wide open.
Sarah and I walked around the grounds, noted wallpaper on the outside of the castle, and ate at the castle restaurant. They served a good Polish beer, Lezajsk kutel. Sarah ordered trout, which came as a whole fish, so she ate my salmon instead. The menu was interesting for all the different types of “Wodki.”
While driving to the castle, Jacek discussed Poland and its Jews, including the Polish President’s apology for the Polish massacre of 1300 Jews in Jebwadne in 1941. He also emphasized the Polish hatred for the Ukrainians, who threw their lot in with the German invaders in World War II, hoping to reclaim that part of Poland for the Ukraine. When it became apparent that the Germans were going to lose, the Ukrainians and the Poles fought a war from 1944 to 1947 in the area of Bircza. Although Jacek said the Poles in that area had nothing against the Jews, they did not like the Ukrainians at all. He did say that prior to World War I or II, relationships between all the ethnic groups in the Bircza area were good, even though there was lots of contention over who owned the land i.e. Poland, Ukraine, or Austria/Hungary.
Andrew did not participate because he did not speak English, although he did understand some. Jacek’s English was barely passable and we had to avoid big words and difficult concepts.
Jacek lives about 100 km west of Cracow and he knows Edith Minceberg from Houston. He has already written a book about the Jews of another city in Poland and is currently working on his doctorate.
On Monday, August 6, nine days before Sarah’s birthday, Jacek and Andrew picked us up at 7:45 a.m. We had another interesting breakfast, with Sarah having eggs covered with tasteless white goo followed by bread covered with chocolate spread. I probably had lox but can’t recall for sure.
Jacek stopped at the archives in Przemsyl where Jacek secured a document transferring Aaron Lieb Rubenfeld’s share of ownership in the Rubenfeld house to Ethel Rubenfeld—he will get us a copy of the document later.
We then drove to Bircza and took a picture at the sign welcoming us to the city of my father’s birth. Sarah’s foot got all muddy and Jacek covered her foot with tissues before putting it back into her sandal. Bircza is in a beautiful, lush, green valley or, as Sarah said, “pretty.”
We met with the mayor of Bircza (Jacek kept calling him the “major” and I figured out only later that he must have meant the “mayor.”) The mayor was very friendly and receptive, showing a particular interest in developing a Bircza museum, including a section on its Jews. He turned down my cash offer of $100.00 for the museum, perhaps hoping to hit me up for bigger bucks later on. He may even have bigger ideas, about which Jacek spoke later.
Although we were able to locate the Rubenfeld house on the document from the archives in Przemysl, the mayor said it would be almost impossible to locate the actual house since there are no surviving surveying documents after the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1944–47 and the Nazi invasion. Jacek added that the Nazis destroyed most of the Jewish homes and the Communists then abolished private property. So, if any surveying documents survived, they would be in private hands and not readily available. The mayor then took my e-mail address from me, which, naturally, led to an explanation “ZLOTY125” @aol.com. We all had a good laugh about that!
We then strolled around Bircza and saw:
site of a burned down synagogue in the center of Bircza
a stone synagogue building, unrecognizable as a synagogue, and now abandoned
the Bircza “castle,” which was once owned by the “owner” of Bircza. The Communists took it over and it is now a school. There was a little stream by the “castle” in which an old woman was crabbing.
a man selling fruit out of the back of his car, according to Sarah
a souvenir store in which we bought postcards
a monument to the Poles who died in the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1944-1947.
We then drove up to “Stone Hill” [Kamienna Górka—DGL], the site where the Nazis killed the Jews of Bircza by digging a grave and then machine-gunning them. A cross marks the spot. We lit a yahrtzeit candle, recited El Maleh Rachamim, and said Kaddish.
Our next stop was the Jewish cemetery, which was right next to the Christian cemetery. Jacek had been here before and found only 12 sandstone headstones—the Nazis had taken all the harder granite and marble headstones for construction purposes.
We then drove to “Skansen,” the “house museum” at Sanok along the San River, which had houses dating back 300 years. Lunch consisted of Russian perogies and “Proziaki,” which was a kind of bread. We then saw log houses that we presumed were similar to those my father lived in i.e. one large room with a stove, benches around the walls for sleeping, an oven, and one bed for the woman when she was pregnant. Some of the stoves had no chimneys because they were expensive and the walls were black in these rooms, as opposed to white walls in rooms with a chimney. Our English-speaking guide, Marie, whom the authorities dug up just for us, enhanced the tour.
After buying a mug, we drove back to the castle, sleeping all the way. Sarah went up to her room to sleep (eight-hour time difference) and I had a cappuccino with Jacek in the castle’s restaurant. He spoke about:
his research plans
travel plans for the next day
plans for a book about the Jews of Bircza
the Bircza museum
a ceremony in Bircza, to be a counterweight to the events in Jebwadne, wherein the cross would be moved from its place on Stone Hill to the new Bircza museum and replaced with an appropriate headstone/monument for a Jewish cemetery
an Internet site to gather information about Bircza Jews
his boyhood friend, who is currently the Minister of Martyrdom or something like that
a gift for his “friend” at the Przemsyl archives, since non-Poles ordinarily do not gain access to Polish archives.
After our tete-a-tete, I walked around the castle’s lake three times, called home, had dinner with Sarah, and addressed postcards that we would mail the next day from Bircza.
An amazed Sarah continues to remind me that I actually overslept the next morning. We were to meet Jacek and Andrew at 9 a.m. but I did not awaken until 9:10 a.m., having taken a Benadryl at bedtime, a Halcion 0.25 mg at 12:15 a.m. and then another Halcion 0.25 mg at 1:15 a.m. I felt very rested. Duh! We checked out of the castle without any breakfast and drove to Bircza, where we:
mailed the postal cards
met with a woman who remembered her grandparents going to “Rubenfeld’s” to shop; she had many pictures, one of which Jacek took. The picture showed Jewish and non-Jewish kids in school together i.e. they went to their separate religious schools after Public School. (We later learned that it was one of the Austro-Hungarian Emperors who both instituted Public Schools and gave Jews last names, all the better to tax you with.) Did the Jewish kids have “payes” and wear special clothes? I don’t recall but I don’t think so. She also told us that the Jews were killed in three ways:
machine-gunned down by the river (Jacek was unaware of this)
transport to Przemsyl and then to the camps
She also told us about Avraham Ritter, who was in the Polish (or Russian) army under the assumed name of Roman ?, a very prestigious Polish name, and then came back to Bircza after World War II. (“He was the last Jew to visit Stone Hill until you came here.”) He then moved to Israel and became a Brigadier General in the IDF. (Jacek has his info.) Her son then guided us to:
a second lady, one with red hair who would not let me photograph her, who also had lots of pictures. Jacek took one of the non-Jewish court, which he planned on giving to the mayor of Bircza for his museum.
a third lady, whom I don’t remember at all (? Halcion effect). She told us that her 3 year-old Jewish friend just disappeared one day and she didn’t know why. She also did not remember any special Jewish behavior on the Sabbath but she would have been very young when Hitler invaded. This lady lived in the old Rabbi’s house!
We then walked back to the center of Bircza, where we ran into Jacek’s relatives, including a good looking cousin that Andrew is sweet on. He said he might have to marry her, give up his career as a taxi driver, become a farmer and move to beautiful Bircza. We would, of course, be invited to the wedding. Jacek’s grandfather lived in a nearby town, and his relatives had lived there for possibly 12 generations.
We then bought bread and cheese (Emanthaler) for breakfast and drove to Przesmyl, where we:
changed traveler’s checks for zlotys (Jacek was $400.00 for the three days, Andrew was $60.00 per day, and we gave Jacek the $440.00 from Linda. We also gave Andrew and Jacek nice tips, especiallly Jacek since he had a sick wife—perhaps Crohn’s disease—and a young child. He said he needed about 3000 zlotys per month to live and that is about what I gave him, together with Linda’s money.)
bought gifts for the Przesmyl archivist (pens) and for the first lady in Bircza (face cream) that might be helpful for Jacek’s research in the future
searched unsuccessfully for a Przesmyl mug. We actually found one but it was a specialty item in a printing plant and the two guys wouldn’t sell it because the “boss” wasn’t there. I would have pressed the issue but my Polish was not up to snuff and Jacek wasn’t interested in going to the mat for the mug
left Jacek at the Przemsyl archives around 1 p.m. so he could begin his $440.00-three-day research for Linda Lipson.
We then took off for Cracow with Andrew, stopping at the synagogue in Lancut (pronounced “Winsoot”), where the nearby castle was closed but the Avon store was open. Much to Sarah’s chagrin and amazement, we found another mug after a long search through the town of Lancut!
We arrived at the Hotel Ester in Cracow’s Jewish section, ate a vegetarian restaurant, had desert at Ariel’s café (Senik Pascha, which was awful) and went to bed.
That night I took a Benadryl at 11 p.m., two 5 mg Ambiens at 12:15 a.m., and awakened at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, August 8. We had breakfast in the Hotel dining room and Sarah went back up to our room. I walked around Jewish section and:
visited the old synagogue, where I bought two books’
visited the Izak synagogue, where I left Ora Paransky’s sheliach mitzvah dime (empty inside except and primarily a Holocaust memorial)
visited the Remuh’s synagogue, where I gave $20.00 because the Remuh (Moses Isserles) is buried there and I had good memories of this synagogue from the MOL
bought two mugs at Ariel’s café (Old Synagogue and Izak Synagogue) along with some post cards
revisited Hotel Eden, which was near the Izak synagogue and visited with the receptionist I had met before as well as with Howie, the owner and mashgiach from Miami, wearing a cap turned back on his head. He says he will have mugs and T-shirts next time we come.
did not buy a Kasmiericyn T-shirt and I regret it
We then took a taxi to the Cracow airport, with an overly enthusiastic cab driver, and we did not have enough zlotys to pay for the ride. The driver had no problem with dollars. Somehow, he managed to have the meter say twice as much as the trip from the airport to Kasmiericyn! At the airport, we went through passport control, manned by a very stern looking customs woman, and I thought that I am glad that Poland is no longer ruled by the Soviets; we might never get out. We then flew Tyrolean Air to Vienna in the “first-class section” which was the front half of the plane separated from the back half of the plane by a flimsy plastic divider. Good-bye Poland.
Chris Wozniak photographed himself standing by the famous Old Oak of Bircza (1998).Location:
22 kms South-West from Przemyśl, on the road to Sanok, on the hillside over the stream valley.
Lovely and unspoiled. Steep hills covered with beautiful deciduous forests, narrow stream valleys. Lots of wild mushrooms and forest fruits in summer/autumn.
Bircza nowadays is a very small town, little more than a village, consisting of a tiny market square, a few streets with modest houses, church, and the high school located in the old manor. The town is mainly rural and it seems to be quite poor, as there is no industry of any kind and no sources of employment. Houses, apart from the main square are scattered single storey cottages. Buildings around the square are two/three storey houses, on the northern and eastern side old (prewar), on the other sides newer, dating from the 1960s and 70s. The church occupies the top of the hill not far from the market square. Across the road from the church is the former synagogue, now the priest’s house. It seems to have been altered very little and is in a very good repair. Near the church grows an enormous oak tree, several hundred years old. The town has a library with a cultural centre and offices of municipal (Gmina) administration. There are few small grocery shops, one or two places selling clothing and footwear, one small hardware/general store, but the overall impression is of a place the time passes by. All basic conveniences like running water, electricity, phone, etc. are available, but the modernisation Poland has been undergoing over the last few years is hardly noticeable.
There are no Jews in Bircza. Jewish cemetery still exists though, side by side with the catholic one, but is totally neglected. The cemetery, roughly triangular in shape, has on one side a stone wall in a very poor state of repair and the stream on the other. Almost all headstones are down or tilted, the ones still standing are badly weathered. All stones are hidden in the waist high weeds. There is a sign nailed to a tree reading ‘Żydowski cmentarż’ (Jewish Cemetery in Polish), but very few locals are even aware of the existence of a Jewish burial ground in town. See the JewishGen cemetery database for more information.
A village 2 kms from Bircza, stretched along the road to Przemyśl. The houses are scattered; there’s no village centre, just a bus stop.
The international airports are in Warsaw and Cracow. Bircza has no railway connection; the closest railway stations are in Przemyśl and Sanok. Rapid (pospieszny in Polish) trains from Cracow to Przemyśl run on the average every 2 hours during the day. The 2nd class fare from Cracow to Przemyśl is about $15, the trip takes 3 hrs and 40 minutes. There are some trains from Warsaw to Przemyśl as well. The trains can run late occasionally and can be dirty. Przemyśl has numerous hotels, but most of them cater for the crossborder traders from Ukraine and are of the low standard. Check the Przemyśl WWW page for more information about accommodation there.
The road from Przemyśl to Bircza is in quite good condition, but narrow and twisting. It’s possible to hire a car in the large cities, ie. Cracow, Przemyśl, Rzeszow and drive (carefully) to Bircza or take a taxi from Przemyśl. Taxis are available in all large and medium size towns, they charge about 50 cents/km and about $6/hour of waiting. There are several (about 6) buses going from Przemyśl to Bircza and back on the working days (Oct 1998). Those buses do not terminate in Bircza, but go on to Sanok, Lesko, etc. They are reliable and very cheap (fare is $1), but slow. The trip uphill, from Przemyśl takes about 60 minutes, downhill, to Przemyśl about 40 minutes. There is a taxi stand in the Market Square in Bircza, but I never saw any taxis there.
There is no hotel in Bircza. The only accommodation in the vicinity is so called ‘agroturystyka’, ie at some farmer’s providing B&B for holiday makers (it’s on WWW somewhere) and a few small hotels 12kms away, at Krasiczyn, where the castle draws in the tourists.
There’s a restaurant in town, serving standard Polish fare. There is also a Cafe of sorts, serving mainly beer though. Several grocery shops carry full range of foodstuffs like bread, smallgoods, tinned goods, sweets, soft drinks, fruits, etc.
Bircza seems to be fairly safe; the locals are quite helpful and friendly. Countryside is, as in most countries, much safer than the cities. One should be wary of the local drunks, but they generally leave outsiders alone. I haven’t seen any signs of anti-Semitism either in Bircza, or elsewhere in Poland.
Outside the large cities it’s highly unlikely to find anybody speaking English or any other foreign language. People without knowledge of Polish will need a guide/interpreter.
Family stories about Bircza:
My great-great-grandfather, Alexander Rubinfeld was born, lived and died in Bircza. According to the family tradition he was comparatively wealthy, as he managed the sugar mill and the timber mill for the Bircza squire. He was said to be quite friendly with his employer and fairly often played chess with him. His tenure apparently ended when the sugar mill caught fire, just as my great-great-grandfather was marrying off one of his sons. He didn't attend the fire soon enough and the mill was destroyed. Jacob Rubinfeld, son of Alexander, younger brother of my great-grandfather, stayed on in Bircza as a farmer. He died childless about 1935. My mother remembers vaguely visiting him in the twenties, when she was a small girl. They had to travel to Bircza from Przemysl in the peasant’s cart, as there was no paved road. She says that there were numerous cousins in Bircza, but can’t recollect their names.