I informed her that I was attending a cultural festival in Kutno, and she burst out laughing.
It was a little disconcerting as a response. I was travelling with two other people from London who were forced to tell her the same thing, and her reply to the last one was, “What on earth is going on in Kutno of all places?”
We were a little unprepared for this reaction, though we had already noticed in a mildly concerned fashion that Kutno does not get a mention in any guidebook to Poland.
We were picked up by the president’s car and driven the 100 miles or so due north-west to Kutno. In this case, the president was not the surviving Kaczynski twin but rather the mayor of Kutno, who was more than happy to lend us his car and driver.
We met him the next day and wished he had been Poland’s president.
Speeding along the motorways, we had no idea what to expect but were finally relieved to see signs to Kutno. It existed.
The first thing we saw upon entering this small central Polish town was a huge Pringles factory complex with skyscraper-tall tubes of BBQ, Cheesy Cheese, Paprika and all the other varieties adorning the facade.
The hitherto charming but mostly silent presidential driver turned to me and said, ‘Mmmm – Pringles….’ I nodded in a bemused but animated fashion. If it had been a Twiglets factory, I might have got excited….
We were in Kutno for the 13th Sholem Asch Festival, which is held every other year and celebrates the great Yiddish writer who happened to have been born there in 1880.
Sholem Asch grew up in a house that no longer exists off the market square. His father was an innkeeper and cattle trader. Kutno was a 70% Jewish town when Asch lived there.
Asch moved to Warsaw before he was 20. He had great success with his first collection of short stories and became well known for his 1904 novel A Shtetl, which was based on his childhood and family back in Kutno.
The Kutno creative had many stories published and plays staged throughout the Yiddish-speaking world.
His infamous play God of Vengeance was first performed in Berlin in 1907 and then transferred to New York, first to the Yiddish theatre and then to Broadway, where it was criticised for being immoral.
The play is set in a brothel and features a lesbian kiss between the brothel keeper’s daughter and one of his female employees.
Asch was incredibly famous in his lifetime and was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize. He lived between the US and Europe. However, a second scandal in the 1940s with the publication of his New Testament Trilogy meant that he was pilloried in the press.
The incorrect belief was that he had converted, as the trilogy specifically addressed Christian themes. Asch never quite recovered from the attack. He moved to Israel but died in London in 1957.
The Sholem Asch Festival was started in Kutno in 1997 when various Eastern European countries became interested in exploring their Jewish past. We heard about it from David Mazower, Asch’s great-grandson and a former BBC colleague.
Our first stop was the town library to meet Magdalena Konczarek, who is the director of the library and runs the festival. Over an impressive teatime spread, she instructed the local historian Adrzej Olewnik to talk us through the various Jewish archives owned by the town.
The collection amounted to no more than a small collection of photographs of Jewish Kutno: a high school class, a trade union branch, a Bund portrait, a few school certificates, the market square with Jewish stalls, their owners and customers.
Things that could be found in any family attic.
The municipality also had a book of proposed Nazi monuments, including one hideous great arch symbolising the fallen German soldiers in the Battle of Kutno, fought in September 1939.
There is a terrifying news footage film of the same battlefield full of corpses of dead Polish soldiers in the recently re-opened regional museum also off the market square.
It was rather sad to think that a town that had been 70% Jewish was reduced to these meagre souvenirs in a few manilla folders, however lovingly they had been preserved.
We also learnt that no Jews are living in Kutno. The last one had died in the 1970s. He was one of the Eizyk brothers who were responsible for turning Kutno into the town of roses. They ran the biggest rose nursery in Poland from 1912 to 1939. They both lost their families in the Holocaust.
Katriel moved to Israel, but his brother Aron returned to Kutno and ran the family nursery until he died in 1979. Even in mid-October, the town is full of the most gorgeous roses.
It is a lasting tribute to the Eizyk brothers that the street signs are all in a deep pink, as are all the public buses.
Kutno is a strange mixture of old Poland, Soviet Poland and post-Soviet Poland. As one local told me, only in Poland would an underground car park be overground and opposite the main theatre in a central location.
It is a bit like going to the Polish version of Bedford Falls – the town in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.
The first festival event was an evening with the Albinski family: Wanda and her sons Luc and Dominic were interviewed on stage at the library by Konczarek.
Wladyslaw, Wanda Albinska’s father, lived in Kutno and ran one of the first European factories to manufacture synthetic rubber. After the sudden death of his first wife, he was given a fast car by his parents to cheer himself up.
He had a nasty car accident and was taken to the local hospital where Wanda’s mother, Helena, was the doctor in charge. They fell in love and soon had three children, of which Wanda was the only daughter.
Wladyslaw was fighting for Poland at the outbreak of the war and then was held captive in the USSR. Helena was pregnant with her fourth child when her family was sent to the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. She was busy as a ghetto doctor with a long list of patients.
Eventually, Helena got her children out of the ghetto to live with a Polish Catholic friend who brought them up. She sacrificed her life for a male nurse who had family in the ghetto depending on him.
Helena died with her patients in Treblinka. It was a terrible, noble story illustrated with a meagre handful of precious, happy family photographs. The room went quiet as Wanda described her last meeting with her mother.
Wanda married a Polish adventurer who took her and their two sons to South Africa in the 1960s. After the recent death of her husband, she returned with them to Warsaw.
The local audience was fascinated by Helena’s story and what had happened to her children. It meant greatly to them that she had returned to Kutno. We asked her what had happened to the factory. We soon found out.
The next day, Olewnik, the town historian, took us on a tour around Jewish Kutno. The synagogue no longer exists; in its place is a Georgian restaurant and a boulder with a memorial plaque. Sholem Asch is remembered by a street that bears his name, and a house still standing might have belonged to his uncle.
However, if you close one eye, there are times when Jewish Kutno feels very definitely present. Ghosts of houses exist around the main square and also of the small shops where the Kutno Jews would have traded.
Everything you have ever read about shtetls is to be found there. The large central square where the Jews set up their stalls in the marketplace, the stream where they bathed in summer, and the birch forests where they picnicked after that swim. The landscaped city park where they met their friends.
Olewik took us to the Rotstein factory, which is in the former industrial zone of the town. The chimney is being used as a mobile phone mast, so someone is making money from it.
All the other buildings have been abandoned and used as a squat or party venue. In one former workshop, we found a strange, mysterious bit of graffiti that said. “She falls like snow…” and below it, a framed print of the Mona Lisa.
It was sad to wander about the place with Wanda and her two sons, who looked lost and alone on the land that perhaps still belonged to their family.
They have tried to get it back. But no one will grant the family restitution nor to the nearby house owned by Wanda’s grandparents, a spacious but ruined 1920s villa where she remembers playing in the garden with her dolls and walking up the steep steps to the front door holding onto her Rotstein grandparents.
Yet again, the past is almost but not quite visible.
Bozena Gajewska is the sort of person that every town needs. Someone passionately invested in the history of Kutno and who feels keenly the injustice of history that deprived her town of so many citizens.
Gajewska curated for the Asch festival, an impressive and extensive exhibition in the Dom Kultury. They Were Our Neighbours – the Jews of Kutno, traces painstakingly the history of the Kutno Jews with a collection of documents and photographs of happier times.
The book accompanying the exhibition is a great testament and witness to Jewish Kutno before 1939.
Bozena took us to the old Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the old town, now surrounded by Soviet-style apartment buildings. It is a huge expanse of unkempt wasteland where people walk their dogs, make out or get drunk.
The ground is full of dog faeces, condoms and broken glass. Nothing remains except for bits of the wall and two memorial plaques paid for by a local company. Yet here was where the Jews of Kutno, including Asch’s innkeeper father, were buried.
They buried the Jews from the ghetto here during the war, and they have recently discovered that there was a massacre here of the remaining 1500 Jews from the ghetto in 1942. It is a sacred ground.
One of our number wanted to sing Kaddish, but as we did not have a minyan, it was sadly not possible.
What was even more heartbreaking was our next stop – a warehouse in the old industrial zone opposite an old sugar factory. Bozena produced a large key and unlocked the rusty padlock.
At the entrance to this large space were a few carnival floats and huge papier-mâché statues.
As our eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, we were confronted with a truly devastating sight – piles of broken gravestones from the Jewish cemetery we had just visited. The Germans destroyed them and then used them to make roads or new foundations by the locals after the war.
In the 1970s, they were dug up and placed in the warehouse. Pile after pile of broken tombstones. Floor to ceiling. An entire community in a forgotten warehouse on the outskirts of town. It was a sight like no other and profoundly moving.
In one way, it was a tribute to the people of Kutno that they had preserved these relics of the past until someone decided what to do with them. It might be possible to display them in the old cemetery or perhaps create a mosaic of all the broken pieces.
Whatever they eventually do with them, nothing will have the power of our first view of that room piled high with the past. We left in silence.
Our final stop was the Kutno ghetto, known as Konstancja or Hortensia, after the flowering shrub. It was another former sugar factory on the far outskirts of the town opposite the railway tracks.
The factory had been abandoned before the war. It is still surrounded by barbed wire and looks very much as it did when it became the Jewish ghetto in June 1940.
8000 Kutno Jews were transferred there in a space barely fit for 1,000. Over 7000 had to camp outside, which was bad enough in the summer but fatal once the winter arrived. There was little food, and most survived on soup made from the leaves that grew in the surrounding wasteland.
There is an extraordinary film of the ghetto in the basement of the regional museum made by a Nazi propaganda photographer called Hugo Jaeger. It shows tiny children wandering around the sugar factory, looking lost and hungry.
The adult inmates smile respectfully at the cameraman and doff their caps. It also captures the immense violence the Nazi guards and their zealous supporters inflicted upon them.
The ghetto was closed in March 1942, and 6,000 Jews, including 2,000 children, were sent to the nearby Chelmno extermination camp, where they were amongst the first Jews to be gassed in the backs of lorries. The remaining Jews were massacred after digging their grave in the old Jewish cemetery.
Like the cemetery, the former ghetto is a bleak and miserable place where the cold seeps into your bones. The land was bought a few years ago by a local poultry factory, and they plan to pull down the old sugar factory in a few months.
This spring, Gajewska staged a small protest that she called the Daffodil Action. She planted the land in front of the factory buildings with bright yellow daffodils in honour of the yellow stars worn by the ghetto Jews.
I don’t think I have ever really understood how a ghetto worked until I saw this one in Kutno. It tells you all you need to know and much more.
The next day, there was a festival talk with the town and high school students about the fate of the Jewish cemetery and the ghetto. Gajewska spoke briefly, as did Yosef Kutner.
Kutner is a French Jew whose family – as his name indicates – originally came from Kutno. He has compiled the Yizkor book for Kutno and leads a project to reclaim the land as a cemetery. It would cost $65,000 to rebuild the wall and make it look similar to the nearby Catholic cemetery.
Krzysztof Bielawski also spoke to support the project. He is a Jewish cemetery researcher from Polin, the Jewish Historical Museum in Warsaw. I asked him why the ghetto, as well as the cemetery, could not be saved.
Bielawski said in a very calm, steady voice, “But there are so many buildings just like it throughout Poland.”
There seemed to be a genuine desire on behalf of this small town to preserve the cemetery and, if at all possible, restore it to a place of contemplation. Saving the former ghetto, however, might now be a battle too far.
The festival also celebrated the lost Jewish culture in less heartrending ways. There were cookery classes, art lessons and a literary competition. The competition winners met on Saturday morning at Manolo’s, the most elegant restaurant in Kutno.
Like most buildings in Poland, one is never certain if it is truly old or a rebuild. A bright space full of honey-coloured linen tablecloths, wooden beams, storm lanterns and botanical prints.
It is all more 21st century than 19th century, but somehow, it transports you back to Kutno before the war with delicious cakes and attentive staff.
It is opposite where the old synagogue stood, and one feels the passage of time acutely. Konczarek presided over an emotional discussion around a long table full of memories and cakes.
The festival also sponsored a cheerful comic book of the life of Sholem Asch and a beautiful photographic exhibition of the lost synagogues and cemeteries of Poland from the photographer Grzegorz Stemplewski.
And there were three important concerts. The first was called *Barbaric Verses* and given by my friends whom I travelled with from London – singer Mark Glanville and pianist Marc Verter.
It was a mix of piano pieces played by Marc Verter and songs from Mark Glanville performed in Yiddish, Polish, Russian and Hebrew.
The concert was a wonderful moment from two dedicated and inspired performers. I have seen them perform many times, but this concert was different.
After agreeing to perform at the festival, Glanville discovered that his maternal great-grandmother had come from Kutno.
Gajewska had already found a photograph of a family tomb in the old cemetery. We wondered if it was amongst the piles of gravestones in the warehouse. It would have been impossible to find it, but we all felt that, in some way, it had to be there along with Asch’s father’s tomb.
She had also found photographs of Glanville’s family in late 19th century Kutno. As a surprise for him, the festival arranged for these pictures to be projected onto the backdrop of the theatre. They were not only performing to present-day Kutno but also to the past inhabitants.
It was, in a very real sense, a kind of homecoming. Glanville sang wonderful songs by Weinberg, Olivier Milhaud, Shostakovich, Sviridov and Borys Lyatoszynski – the last in Polish.
When he apologised for his bad Polish, the audience shouted back, “Don’t worry,” and signalled their pleasure at a hometown boy returning to the shtetl of his forefathers. There was not a dry eye in the house.
The next concert was great fun but not nearly as moving.
A spirited klezmer concert at the Hotel Rondo had everyone trying to remain in their seats. The final gala concert in the Dom Kultury started with many speeches from the great and the good. Roses were given to everyone, and then the lights dimmed.
The children of Kutno took to the stage to recreate Jewish Kutno’s life for its current citizens. The set was a huge photograph of the marketplace with the Jewish traders and stalls scattered about.
Local amateur actors and their children went through various scenes of Jewish life – the market, the sabbath dinner, young people horsing around in the city park, a courtship, a marriage, Rosh Hashanah and a class of small children.
It was an odd evening with some quite remarkable performers and twenty serious children who were, of course, the real stars. It felt uncomfortable because of what had been lost but also optimistic because they were at least doing their level best to remember that lost part of their history.
There are things I will never forget about the Sholem Asch Festival in Kutno. I left it with a glimmer of hope and was even more convinced that it was indeed a Polish Bedford Falls, for good or bad.