Kayaking champ helps restore memory of small town’s Jewish population wiped out in Holocaust

Kayaker Dariusz Popiela has been helping the local population restore the cemetery in Grybów. Ludzie, Nie Liczby-People, Not Numbers/Facebook

A European kayaking champion and Olympic athlete has taken time out from his sporting career to help restore the memory of the Jewish population of a small southern town wiped out in the Holocaust.

Earlier this month Dariusz Popiela attended a memorial service he had helped organise at the entrance to the Jewish cemetery in Grybów, a town of 6,000 people not far from Nowy Sącz. 

The service was the latest project run by ‘People, Not Numbers’, project directed by the kayaker that has helped unearth and now preserve the memory of a forgotten piece of Poland’s Jewish life.

Working with the group ‘People, Not Numbers’, the kayaker has helped unearth and now preserve the memory of a forgotten piece of Poland’s Jewish life.Ludzie, Nie Liczby-People, Not Numbers/Facebook

During the war the town was the location of a ghetto into which the Nazis packed Grybów’s Jewish population and Jews from neighbouring towns. In September 1942 the Germans liquidated the ghetto. 

Popiela also visits schools, determined to teach children about the past.Ludzie, Nie Liczby-People, Not Numbers/Facebook

Of around 1,776 Jews imprisoned in it, 350 were murdered and thrown into a mass grave in Grybów while the survivors were moved on, first to another ghetto and finally the Belzec death camp.

During the war Grybów was the location of a ghetto into which the Nazis packed the local Jewish population as well as Jews from neighbouring towns (illustration pic).Public domain

“If my modest sporting career can help maintain the memory of just one victim, despite kayaking’s lack of popularity, then I want this and it gives meaning to everyday work,” Popiela posted on his Facebook page.

Just why a professional athlete whose career has netted him a haul of European and world championship medals and an 8th place at the Beijing Olympics has dedicated himself to restoring the memory of Grybów’s Jews has much to with his training regime.

Survivors of the ghetto were sent to Bełżec extermination camp where Hitler’s SS murdered around 450,000 people. Public domain

A Nowy Sącz resident the kayaker would train on the River Dunajec and one day two years ago he pulled up on the river’s bank to explore a long forgotten Jewish cemetery in Krościnko nad Dunajcem, up-river from Nowy Sącz.

He had paddled passed it many times before but this time he decided to stop. What he found was a graveyard lost to time and being consumed by undergrowth. 

Jews before being executed at the extermination camp in Bełżec. Public domain

Shocked and saddened, he came back the next day to clear the plants away, and also came filled with a desire to do something to bring the memory of the area’s Jews back to life.

Using his name and fame, he first organised the restoration of the Krościenko cemetery before moving onto Grybów, which had once had, before the war, two synagogues, and about one third of its population Jewish.

Popiela has praised the support he has received from the local population and the authorities, but also stresses that his work continues. Ludzie, Nie Liczby-People, Not Numbers/Facebook

Along with renovating the cemetery he has helped install a memorial listing the names of Grybów’s Jews who were killed. 

The unveiling of the memorial earlier this month attracted hundreds of people, both from the local area and even relatives of those who died.

The cemetery in Grybów before restoration. Public domain

Popiela has praised the support he has received from the local population and the authorities, but also stresses that his work continues. 

He now visits schools, a famous athlete determined to teach children about the past.

The European kayaking champion and Olympic athlete has taken time out from his sporting career to help restore the memory of the Jewish population of the small southern town wiped out in the Holocaust.Ludzie, Nie Liczby-People, Not Numbers/Facebook

Taking to his Facebook page he wrote that it is important to remember that the victims of the Holocaust “were people, not numbers”, adding that the stories of those who died “cannot be ignored and will be in my heart and the hearts of many forever.”