Among the 11 Poles recognized at the 2019 “Preserving Memory” awards ceremony for their role in protecting their country’s Jewish heritage were three men from Chelm: Zbigniew S. Lubaszewski, Czeslaw Usznynski and Mariusz Matera.
Matera, a blues and rock singer, artist, activist and socio-cultural organizer, was recognized for his efforts in preserving and promoting Jewish culture and heritage in Chelm, a city in eastern Poland, including helping to erect new memorial headstones at the Jewish cemetery and a memorial to the liquidation of the Chelm ghetto. Prior to the German occupation in 1939, there were about 15,000 Jews in Chelm, over 44% of its population.
Following the awards ceremony, held in the Galicia Jewish Museum during Krakow’s 29th Jewish Culture Festival, in June 2019, we filmed an interview with Matera, which is excerpted below. Matera spoke in English
When did you first become interested in Chelm’s Jewish history?
I was a very curious boy. I was always asking my grandmother about Chelm – how it was before the war [World War II]. The city at this time, in the early ’70s, it was a very quiet, sort of sleepy town. Only on market days was it quite loud, but usually it was a very silent city. I felt there was only half of the city. I can describe it as just like a man only on one leg, without the other.
She described Chelm from before the war times – that it was loud, full of flavors, different languages. It was a really multicultural, international city. I couldn’t see that at all. I tried to imagine how it looked, how it was.
Were you familiar with the Jewish depiction of Chelm in jokes and humorous stories?
There is a quite thick Polish book with Jewish jokes called “By the Candles of Shabbat” [“Przy Szabasowych Siecach: Humor Zydowski,” by Horacy Safrin]. I got it the first time when I was maybe a 10-year-old boy. My father bought me this book in Warsaw. I read it so many times, from the beginning until the end. And there was a whole part only about Jews from Chełm. So I discovered there – hey! This is about my city! My city is very famous!
There are so many jokes about my city! And I tried to understand why. And, of course, I know: I think that everybody else is jealous of us! Really, it is from jealousy. First, because we are famous, Chelmers, you know. And second, we have a very special point of view for life. It is something really amazing philosophically, sort of a different dimension. And I love it. We are special.
The Chelm jokes, Jewish jokes, Jewish humor are a very important part of my studying Jewish culture. Because, you know, these are not only jokes. They describe living, the Jewish style of life. When you are reading jokes about yeshivot, about rabbis, you are learning the life, you are touching real life, how it was 100 years ago, how it was before the war, and it is very important.
Why did your father buy you that book?
He knew that I am interested in the Jewish history of my city from childhood. I was curious, so curious. I think that this is the reason that he bought me this book, because he knew that I loved this culture and I loved the history of my city, beautiful city. I loved Chelm always. I always said this is the most beautiful city in the whole world. This is my homeland and I never, never want to leave it or just say any bad words about this city, because it is really beautiful and something very special. You have to love this place.
[Later] I was also discovering old biblical Jewish culture. I was studying the Bible. I loved to read the Bible, especially Psalms and the old stories from the Old Testament. I was reading at church and at home. I had a very strong need to study the culture of ancient Israel times.
Did you know any Jews from Chelm?
In 2005, for the first time I met a Jew from Chelm from the times before the war. He was an old man, and he passed away a few years ago: Chaim Lender. He was the former leader of the Chelmer Organization of Israel. When I met him, and we were walking all over Chelm, he showed me the Jewish Chelm, because I knew it only as my mom and grandmother remembered it, the Polish Chelm.
He was a representative of the second leg, as I told you before. He was full of stories, beautiful stories. I started to complete this vision of my city, my beautiful city. He was in fact the first Jewish man from Chelm [I met] who remembered exactly how it was before the war from the Jewish point of view, so it was for me something totally different.
The Polish point of view I knew very well because of the stories of my grandmother. It was something really, really special, and it was this which I needed.
How did Szalom Chelm, your klezmer band of Poles singing in Hebrew and Polish and playing Jewish music, come into being?
I wanted to do something special for him [Lender]. I thought it would be very nice to sing one song in Hebrew for him. However, I did not know Hebrew. It was a hard song [I chose] to sing, because it was “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” [“Jerusalem of Gold”]. It is very hard. I started to learn it, and I did it. He was very touched with this.
From the moment I started to sing this song with Chaim Lender, I decided to make a CD, to make some more songs in Hebrew just to honor all the Jewish Chelmers that passed away during the war and those that are still living all over the world.
So I did it. This is how the Szalom Chelm band started in 2013. I recorded a disk called “Szalom Chelm.” It was with traditional Jewish songs, like “Shalom Aleichem” [“Peace be upon You”], “Lecha Dodi” [“Come my Beloved”] and the others, and also we put on the CD Chaim Lender singing “Mayn Shtetele Belz” [“My Little Town of Belz”] through the telephone [from Israel]. I recorded and I put it [on the CD], so it was something very special. It was just the beginning of the Szalom Chelm band.
Are any Jews still living in Chelm today?
You know, there are no Jews at all in Chelm, but when you open your heart, open your soul, you still feel the same atmosphere. It is really still in the air. And I think that this made the missing in my heart from my childhood. I felt it, that there is still somebody here that we can touch and can see, but they miss us – and we miss them too.
This article is adapted from a longer piece in the April issue of New English Review.
SHAI AFSAI (shaiafsai.com) lives in Rhode Island. Supported by a grant awarded to Providence’s Congregation Beth Sholom, and in collaboration with Providence photographer and picture-maker Alan Metnick, he writes about contemporary Polish-Jewish relations.
ARIELA ALUSH (lionessfilms.com) is a director, screenwriter and editor based in Israel and is currently filming a movie about emerging Judaism in Poland.