A few weeks ago we visited Rabka Zdroj, a small spa town in the lower reaches of the Polish Tatra mountains. We were going for the wedding of two friends, and until they said 'Rabka', I had never even heard of the place. So we tried to find out a bit about the town and its history - this Virtual Shtetl site is a good source.
I wasn't particularly expecting to find any Jewish assoications there, and indeed we read that there were very few Jews in Rabka during the 19C. The town was developing as a spa resort for the middle classes of the regional capital Krakow, some 100km to the north, and a few Jews came there seeking work or to set up small businesses in the tourism trade. By the 1930s, there was a holiday hostel for Jewish children, and a small wooden synagogue. A few Jews owned small hotels or guest houses.
As we were leafing through the brochures on our first evening there, and checking across to the Virtual Shtetl website, we noticed something that made our blood run cold. When the Germans occupied the town in 1939, they commandeered 3 of the grand villas on Poniatowski Street, and from 1941 started using them as barracks for a forced labour camp housing some 100 Jewish prisoners.
We were almost certainly staying in one of these buildings.
That wasn't all. The prisoners were put to work extending the building of a local Catholic college, that was to be turned into a Regional Training Centre for the security police - the SS. The 'students' were young Germans and Ukrainians. They were being taught to torture and to kill.
And there's more. The college - once more a Catholic school - is situated on the outskirts of town. There's a sign on the street that goes past the school, pointing to the Jewish Cemetery. A path leads past the school into the surrounding forest. 100 metres or so into the woods there's a clearing, with a familiar sight on the far side - an iron railing, and an iron gate with a Star of David symbol.
Inside, there's a memorial rather like the one we have in the Jewish Cemetery in Gombin, fashioned from whatever broken bits of gravestones have been found scattered around the town. They had been uprooted by the Germans, and were often used as paving stones or hard-standing; some had been brought in by people who had come across them in their own gardens.
But this is not an ordinary cemetery. It's an execution site and a mass grave. There were a series of mass executions there through the Spring of 1942, in the course of which over 200 Jews were slaughtered. The bodies were dumped straight into newly-dug ditches across the site. These atrocities were doubtless carried out by the "students" at the police college, under the direction of their "teachers". The ditches would have been dug by the Jewish prisoners, who at the end of the day would probably also have been shot and buried in the ditches they had just dug.
A group of local people has been researching these events, and has set up a memorial to the victims.
May their dear souls rest in peace.