Nimrod Ariav – an interviewed with Marian Turski
(...) I can tell you what I think. Surely, Mr. Ariav wants to transfer his memory to his sons and – through sons – to the rest of the family. He wants to share this experience with all his good friends. I think this is what he wants. He stresses each time: “This is a private ceremony for me”.
Please, tell us how you met Nimrod Ariav-Szulim Cygielman.
One day my close friend called me. It turned out that he was a friend of Ariav. He is a fantastic, very decent man - Yoram Kagan – and comes from Lublin. His father was a doctor in the Jewish hospital at Lubartowska street. During the war they escaped to Russia. His father died there and Kagan managed to get out of the Soviet Union with General Anders army. Later, he settled down in Israel. As he was active in the aircraft-related circles in Israel, it was probably there, that he met Ariav. He called me and said: “Listen, I have a friend, who has not been to Poland for many years; he needs to do something, can you help him?” Well, my friend asks me to help his friend – okay. Later, at the end of the eighties, Ariav arrived and said that he had a problem – he would like to do something with the Jewish cemetery in Bełżyce; he saw the place and said it was one big pasture.
What did you remember about the former Jewish cemetery in Bełżyce?
It was a neglected area, where drunkards must have had their “parties” since there were a lot of empty bear, wine, and vodka bottles. All the area was grown up with weeds and grass. I think that when I went there for the first time, I saw the cows grazing there. But I am not sure if this is true or maybe an image of my imagination. It seems to me that I saw it. We began to think what to do with it.
What actions did you take first?
These were the last years of the communist regime. I knew that in order to force the local authorities to do something we had to act in such a way that the Board for Protection of Memorial Places, Struggle, and Martyrdom considers this place to be a memorial place. I called the President of the Board – General Paszkowski. I think that also Mr. Krężlewicz supported my initiative; anyway, we managed to do it. And when the place was included on the list of memorial places, different legal regulations applied to it. And they fenced it with some kind of fence, or maybe it had already been there… Anyway, the local authorities were aware that this was a memorial place registered by the Board for Protection of Memorial Places, Struggle, and Martyrdom. So this was the starting point; then we began to think with Mr. Ariav what to do next.
Well, what happened next?
I got in touch with the late Mr. Zbigniew Gąsior, an engineer, one of the designers of the Warsaw Tract of the Memory of Jews. He said he would design the cemetery and this beautiful wall and monument were his idea. At the beginning we only considered erection of a wall that would protect and fence the cemetery and would close it. The assumption was that this should be a wall typical for this region of Poland – made of sandstone. The example of this was what we saw in Kazimierz and in Nałęczów. But his idea was that this wall should be of a lengthening shape finally turning into a monument. A very beautiful idea in my opinion. Later we began to think what should be placed inside the cemetery, when it is built. I began to study the history of Bełżyce and I prepared an extract of the history of Jews in Bełżyce. This text is placed on the inside of the wall in two languages – in Hebrew and in Polish. Of course, at the beginning the whole area was cleaned. And after it was cleaned, we saw two or three fragments of the tombstones, which were grown up with grass. But these were just the fragments of the tombstones. We wanted to collect as many tombstones as possible. We knew from the inhabitants that most of those tombstones were put in the paving, in the street which at that time was called Manifestu Lipcowego. It was an extremely difficult thing to find all those tombstones and to dig them out. So we decided to ask those inhabitants, who had them, to bring them to the place where people were buried. Then I suggested to Ariav that there should be some personal sign. He immediately answered that he did not treat this cemetery, on which he spent a lot of money, as a personal thing but since there were no other people connected with Bełżyce, he would like to take the role of a moral and, to a certain degree, material curator of that place. I wrote a text for him which was a kind of lamentation – so that anyone who passes by can see that this is something very personal. And I believe we succeeded. On the left-hand side, next to the entrance to the cemetery, there is the information about the Jews of Bełżyce and about their history.
Did you get any help from the inhabitants of Bełżyce?
We met Mr. Bogdan Abramowicz, who was very hospitable, friendly, and reliable. Obviously, we had recommendation of the Council for Protection of Memorial Places, Struggle, and Martyrdom, so it was easier to get to the right people. But irrespective of this, I must say that Mr. Abramowicz was very nice to us and soon, there appeared a circle of people, who supported this project. One of those who helped us from the very beginning on a voluntary basis was Zenon Madzelan. He helped us to meet other people. We looked for the Jewish traces, for memories. Mr. Cygielman stayed in Bełżyce for a short time, because he came from Lublin. He was connected with Bełżyce through his mother and grandfather, who died before the war but was a popular person in the town. He was called Szlamianka. Several persons, whose memories I later recorded, remembered him. We began to look for old people, who could go to school with the Jews and might remember them. Some people invited us to their houses and showed albums, letters, or school photos. In certain yards we found the fragments of tombstones, which were used as devices for sharpening knives. Someone said he would give it to us if we pay him. I decided I should not pay for it. If a given person thinks it should stay at his possession, let him keep it. Some people, maybe convinced by Zenek Madzelan, began to bring the fragments of tombstones. Other came to the conclusion that since a rich man from abroad looked for something – and life was hard then, it was the beginning of system transformation, high unemployment, factories were closed – they could earn some money on it. They said they had some Jewish property, but wanted money for it. I was not interested in it at all. I was interested in making a film documenting the process of bringing back memory about this place.
You were in touch with the inhabitants of Bełżyce and with the local authorities. Do you remember, what was the attitude of Bełżyce inhabitants to Mr. Ariav and to the events that took place in their town at the beginning of the nineties?
There is no uniform attitude. There were such people as Abramowicz or Madzelan, and other, who gathered people around them. This was fantastic – open, friendly attitude and conviction that those who were dead deserved such commemoration. This is what you do at Brama Grodzka [“Brama Grodzka – Teatr NN Center” in Lublin – editor] – if a great vacuum occurs somewhere, it should be filled at least with images and pictures, the memory about those people should be brought back. So this was the attitude of those whom I mentioned above. The local authorities were changed several times in Bełżyce. Some people took the side of the local parish priest. People were mistrustful. We know from the research conducted by Professor Krzemiński and by other scientists that this is the syndrome of mistrust, fear of a stranger, or something unknown, fear that someone will come and will claim his property, take away apartments and so on. I also remember that one day someone came and said he wanted to sell armchairs or chairs, which had been in a Jewish apartment; he said that it was the apartment of the relatives of Cygielman. Cygielman was not interested in it. And they expected that he would buy whatever was left of his family’s property. I think he bought several candlesticks, which were the family souvenirs. Mr. Ariav was very generous to the town. His generosity regarding the reconstruction of the cemetery was something that I and other people connected with the project knew about, but the inhabitants of the town did not know it; the only thing they knew was that something new was being built and this meant that they would be deprived of this place, which used to be the place of rest, of drinking, of picnics. Maybe some people suddenly felt: well, this used to be our place and now there will be a wall. The important thing is that Mr. Ariav declared, from the very beginning, that he would be responsible for maintaining this cemetery. This was very important for the local authorities, which counted every grosz because this is a small town, with many unemployed people, and not much revenue from taxes because the major plant was closed. Thus, the fact that he promised to take care of the cemetery was accepted with relief. Second, the people of the town began to realize that this place contributed to a better image of the town. I think this was of importance as well. Third, Mr. Ariav was from the very beginning very generous and he reacted to the open attitude of the town authorities and inhabitants and offered several gifts, such as the X-ray apparatus or USG apparatus for the local hospital or computers for school. I believe that people appreciated it and they reacted to Mr. Ariav in a friendly way. I think that at least the friendly passive attitude prevailed. You know, we may speak about the negative passive attitude and friendly passive attitude. Anyway, why do I tell you about this passiveness? We agreed that the commemorating ceremony would take place around the 2nd of October, because Mr. Ariav remembered that these 150 Jews, including his father, were shot dead on October 2, 1942. The ceremony usually begins with placing wreaths at the stone monument commemorating this event, at the place where the Center of Culture is now located. And I must say that each time I feel there is something not natural in this. The organizers, especially Mr. Ariav’s family, bring the lights, wreaths, flowers and hand them to all of us. I would prefer a single bunch of flowers brought spontaneously by someone, who wants to do it. And instead, we all hold the same type of wreaths. I do not like it. Maybe it is all right. And a question may be put, who participates in this ceremony?
The same persons each year – Mr. Ariav’s family, friends, and representatives of the local authorities. In my opinion the ordinary inhabitants, especially youth, are missing.
Maybe these people should know that someone else used to live here – the Jews constituted two thirds of the inhabitants of this town. And they disappeared. The young people do not know about it. You [about “Brama Grodzka – Teatr NN Center” in Lublin – ed.] can inspire the young people with a different kind of imagination. Nothing like this occurs in Bełżyce. Once, a young teacher of Polish language tried to create this sort of sensitivity in her students. It was two years ago. The youth read the poems of the Lublin Jewish poet. I liked that very much. But the strange thing is that these young people did not appear at the cemetery during the annual ceremony. It seemed that they were equipped with the need for such imagination. Maybe this is the fault of the organizers – the memory should be sometimes organized. Maybe we are to blame? Maybe we should prepare these young people, together with you, for the ceremony in the following year, since this is an occasion for these young ones to realize that some unknown spirits wander among them. They should be the group preserving the memory about the Jews who used to live there. This is our responsibility toward those who disappeared and will never come back.
Maybe Mr. Ariav wants these meetings to have a private character?
Obviously, I cannot speak for Ariav, but since I have participated in this project from the very beginning I can tell you what I think. Surely, Mr. Ariav wants to transfer his memory to his sons and – through sons – to the rest of the family. He wants to share this experience with all his good friends. I think this is what he wants. He stresses each time: “This is a private ceremony for me”. But it should not be private for those, who live there. It should be an opportunity to turn the private ceremony into a public one. I do not mean that Mr. Ariav should take care of it; it is us, who live in Poland that should try to convey this message to the young people. And this is not just a friendly gesture toward Mr. Ariav for all he has done for Bełżyce. This is an enriching experience for us and for those who will come. I believe that the youth who would participate in this event would be internally enriched, as John Paul the Second used to say. This would be beneficiary for the inhabitants of Bełżyce, because they would perceive their lives in a more complex way.
What was your first impression of Nimrod Ariav, during his first visit, and later, during his activities connected with the reconstruction of the cemetery in Bełżyce?
If not for the request of my friend, whom I adored - Yoram Kagan – I would have treated him less friendly than I did. You may ask, why. The first impressions are often decisive. My first impression was as follows: a rich man, self-confident. I usually help the weak and poor ones and not the rich [laugh]. But I must say that I accept him more and more. I saw his involvement in this project. I realize that such people enrich our knowledge and our memory. I must say that I liked very much his warm, friendly attitude to the local inhabitants, to their needs. I also liked his relationship with Mr. Gąsior, who created the design of the wall and the concept of the cemetery. One should remember that the look of the cemetery is the result of beautiful art, imagination, and skills of Mr. Gąsior.
And to finish our conversation, I would like to ask you a question of “what would have happened if…” type. What, in your opinion, would have happened if Mr. Ariav had not appeared in Bełżyce, if he had not survived the war, if he did not exist? What would this mean for Bełżyce and for the cemetery?
As a historian I deal from time to time with the alternative history and your question falls into this category or alternative psychology category. It could have been the same as in many other places in Poland and in the world – this area as an abandoned land would have been purchased by some cooperative or by a farmer. Maybe it would have been ploughed, and later, if somebody realized what damage had been done, it would have been too late. Maybe the decision would have been like: “Let’s not touch it” and this would have remained the place of dating and drinking etc. But it might also happen that such people like Zenon Madzelan would have seen the example of Lublin, and someone would have come to the conclusion: “If the Grodzka Gate people managed to do it, why cannot we do it in Bełżyce?” This is also possible. Of course, it would not have looked the way it looks now and there would not have been the annual commemorating ceremony. But maybe someone would have gone there once a year, brought flowers from the meadow or some tulips and would have put them at the cemetery. This is also possible.
Thank you very much.