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People, Not Numbers

I am a canoeist, an Olympian. I have been representing Poland for twenty years at international sports events. I love my hometown, and where I am from is very important to me. Although till recently, I knew nothing about the history of my hometown. Because how can you say that you are connected to your hometown, that you are a patriot when you did not know about the greatest tragedy in the history of this city?

This tragedy is the murder of 16,000 Jews by Nazi Germans in the Nowy Sącz ghetto, including 11,000 Jews from Nowy Sącz. I clearly remember the day when I found out about what happened in my town - the overwhelming feeling of shame led to anger. The tragic story is one thing, but the fact that I completed elementary school and high school, and I didn't know anything about it? I was angry with myself. I was angry that a third of my city were killed, and there is no place to light candles, leave a stone or pray. There was no memorial.

I discovered that the place where I used to train as a child, dreaming about the Olympic championship in my head, was the actual place of the execution of all Jews from the Ghetto. The same landscape that I looked at since childhood, accompanied the generations of Jews from Nowy Sącz in the last moments before their deportation to Bełżec. That day changed everything for me.

I didn't know any Jews, I didn't know Jewish culture, I didn't know what to do. But I knew one thing - all these people did not deserve the oblivion that their torturers condemned them to. With time I discovered that, surprisingly, caring for the memory of the victims of the Holocaust evoke various reactions, including negative ones and many people are afraid to act. Why? I have been carrying that question in my heart while working for the victims of the Holocaust. I realised that the stories of Esther, Rachel, Salomon, Henryk, Mundek, Szlomuś were also my own stories, and that realisation gave me great strength.

I do not know if, as a gentile, I am the proper custodian of the memory of all these people, but I do know that I cannot ignore it. That is why I set up a foundation: The Project People, not numbers. This project is my inner self, my answer to the Holocaust.

As part of the project, we renovated four cemeteries in which we commemorated the names and surnames of the victims of the Holocaust; 256 victims in Krościenko, 1774 victims in Grybów, 494 victims in Czarny Dunajec, this year in Nowy Targ, we will commemorate over 2000 victims. We cherish the names because each one of the victims is unique, like each one of us. We found eight mass graves in which about 300 victims were buried. We properly secured them and erected matzevot - monuments for the victims. During the ceremony of reading the names of the victims, we all meet together: descendants, local community, rabbis, priests, representatives of local authorities. We read, cry, and hug each other. We say goodbye to victims who have never had the chance to say goodbye.

When I start a project, the cemetery usually looks like a jungle or a meadow. It is very symbolic because the condition of cemeteries often reflects the state of knowledge about the tragedy of Jews from that place. The collective memory is overgrown with stereotypes, superstitions, and ignorance. With each day of the project, we not only change the cemetery but also change how the local community feels about it. I start alone, and then more and more local volunteers appear to help.

Often I hear from the local authorities that it is better not to do anything because the Jews will come and take the property. I have to listen to this because I want to change something about this place. I do not judge because I know how much I did not know myself. In this situation, I tell the story of Shlomo, a Jewish highlander who fought for Poland in September 1939. I tell the story of Henio the skier and many, many others. Because they are people, not numbers, and in the case of seized property, one would say that they are people - not properties.

You will ask why when I hear anti-Semitic stereotypes I don't turn around and go away. I believe that it is necessary to talk. The same mayor who was afraid of my project and property claims, six months later, at the official ceremony greeted the descendants with the following statement: "I welcome you to your homeland on the land of your ancestors". How is it possible? Once we have the victims in front of our eyes and hearts, these changes are possible.

After each statement made by politicians creating divisions, many people have doubts. I hear "... we mean well but Israel is picking on us again ..." "... Because Kaczynski did this and Netanyahu did that .." or the latest changes in the KPA act. Tell the victims in anonymous mass graves that politics is more important than them! Me and many activists do not see sides in our relations because we all have the victims in front of our eyes and hearts. We will continue working together, people to people, commemorating the names, the stories, the history.

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