If anyone knows anything about Czestochowa, it’s probably because it is the home of the Jasna Gora Monastery, Poland’s most popular pilgrimage spot. It’s the only reason tourists ever visit the town. In fact, when we asked the staff at our hotel for directions to places in the opposite direction to the Jasna Gora, they seemed perplexed.
The reason we were visiting Czestochowa was that it was where my grandfather lived before he was deported by the Nazis during World War II. In fact, Czestochowa was home to thousands of Jews for many years before the war.
Prior to the trip, Dad had sat down with my grandfather, who mapped out not only where he lived, but various locations of significance where members of his family lived and worked. With many places to visit, we set out early on Friday morning.
The first stop, naturally, was the building where my grandfather lived as a boy. We established which windows were his, and even snuck inside the building to try to determine which one might have been his door. We saw the courtyard behind the building where my great-grandfather had a workshop in which he made furniture. Today, the courtyard houses a cheap little market.
Map in hand, Dad competently navigated us through the streets. We saw where Uncle Mendel’s bakery used to be, where an auntie and uncle of my grandfather’s used to live, the hospital where my great-great-grandmother once ran the kitchen, and the spot where the main Synagogue stood before it was violently destroyed.
Fortunately, I often pick up snippets from my grandfather about his childhood in Czestochowa. As such, it felt really special to see where it all happened, and to walk the streets that he walked every day. My Dad especially found it pertinent, and I think my grandfather was pleased that we were able to do it.
What really struck me was going to the area of the ghetto. The buildings there were completely dilapidated; virtually falling to pieces. Unlike in Warsaw and Krakow, there was no acknowledgement that it had once been a Jewish ghetto, which bothered me. Even in the sunshine, it was an unpleasant place to be.
After having lunch, we took our hire car and drove to the area where the Jewish Cemetery of Czestochowa was. It was quite a mission to find it; it’s inside the grounds of some sort of Foundry. For lack of any signage, we found some locals to ask, who pointed us in the right direction. (They spoke little English, but when we told them we were from Australia, they said ‘Kangaroo, Kangaroo!’ It was quite funny.)
If the Cemetery in Warsaw was something, this one was even more unbelievable. It was relatively deserted, unattended to and overgrown. Thousands of graves, dating back to the early 1800s, enchant an expansive leafy forest. The stones are incredibly old, many of them no longer in place, and most of them unreadable. I have to say, there was a kind of peacefulness about the place. It is almost certain that we have ascendants buried there, but there was little hope of locating their graves.
Something I always found amusing was my grandfather recollecting how he used to go on holidays with his parents 14 kilometres away from his home. Three stops on the train, in fact. A big adventure – family members even went to the train station to say goodbye to them. Since my grandfather has fond memories of this place, and it wasn’t far away, we decided to go there. The place is pretty much a cute little street with a forest at the end. My grandfather used to stay on the street, and recalls the fun he had spending days playing in the forest.
The aforementioned Jasna Gora resembles a fortress, and is at the top of a hill in the centre of the city – it’s hard to miss. Since we had ticked everything off my Dad’s list of things we had to do, we decided to see what all the fuss is about and hit the main tourist attraction. It certainly is a remarkable place. The famous image of the Black Madonna, dating back hundreds of years, is Jasna Gora’s most precious treasure. Miraculous powers are attributed to it. It sits atop a high altar in an impressive looking chapel, adjacent to a beautiful baroque church.
Because of the Jasna Gora, Czestochowa has been able to develop itself into a town which appeals to tourists. We ate dinner on the main street, which is nicely done with a good variety of restaurants and shops. Not the entire town is aesthetically pleasing, though. A lot of it is dominated by those unattractive Soviet-style blocks we saw in Warsaw.
Czestochowa, the pen-ultimate leg of our trip, was worthwhile and even enjoyable. Watch this space for a post about Krakow, our final destination.