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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » May 28, 2013
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Holocaust Survivor Sees Synagogue Reopen as Museum
May 28, 2013   
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Helen Garfinkel Greenspun, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, is returning to her hometown of Chmielnik, southeastern Poland, to view the opening of a museum on the site of the former local synagogue June 15-16.

After many decades of neglect, the abandoned synagogue has been restored and converted to a museum depicting Jewish life and culture before World War II. The European Union, Poland’s Ministry of Culture, the town of Chmielnik and regional agencies financed the $3 million project, which has been in the making for more than five years.

Before World War II, Chmielnik was mostly a Jewish town with an estimated 12,000 residents. Greenspun was born, raised and educated in public schools there before Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 tore apart the lives of millions of civilians.

On visiting Chmielnik in 2008 and 2009 during the town’s annual Jewish Festival, Greenspun vowed she would return once the synagogue was renovated—provided she were alive and in good health. Now 86 years old, Greenspun lives in Orlando, Florida.

Greenspun first returned to Chmielnik in 1992. Graffiti marred the historic synagogue, a magnificent structure built in 1638.

On recent visits, Greenspun said she felt more welcome. The Jewish cemetery was partially restored in 2008. Greenspun said she was encouraged to hear that the synagogue would be renovated. Her father, Kalman Garfinkel, a grain miller, had prayed there daily. “People should know what happened here,” Greenspun said.

Piotr Krawczyk, historian for the town of Chmielnik, said the new museum will help visiting Jews research their roots. By presenting prewar history, culture and lifestyle, the synagogue will be different than other museums that focus only on the Holocaust, Krawczyk said.

Most of Chmielnik’s 10,000 Jews, including Greenspun’s parents, younger siblings and countless neighbors, friends and relatives, were gassed at the Treblinka Nazi death camp. A relatively small number of Jews, including Greenspun, were exploited as slave labor in German-run ammunition factories in Kielce, Skarżysko-Kamienna and Częstochowa. Only an estimated few hundred Jews from Chmielnik, including Greenspun, survived WW II.

Remarkably, Greenspun’s older brother Nathan Garfinkel and three sisters also lived through brutal work camps and Germany’s death camps. Their account is documented in a non-fiction book entitled Sara’s Children: The Destruction of Chmielnik.

Two of Greenspun’s sisters—Regina Garfinkel Muskovitz, 84, and Sonia Garfinkel Nothman, 90—live in Detroit. Brother Nathan Garfinkel died in Detroit in 2006. Her eldest sister, Bela Garfinkel Soloway Hurtig, died in Florida in 1997.
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