Phoenix from the flames: The man who rebuilt an entire town

Replica of the old synagogue in Biłgoraj Jacek Borowski

A Polish businessman who spent 10 years rebuilding a town destroyed in WWII, tells the First News about his dream.

Insomnia can be exhausting, but sometimes it can prove to be a source of inspiration. On a particular sleepless night, 14 years ago, the millionaire Tadeusz Kuźminski, happened upon an idea. Flicking through his favourite album on architecture he had a single thought: he would rebuild the town of his origin, Biłgoraj, which had lost eighty per-cent of its buildings in WWII. In its place, Kuźminski would create a global village -- a place which would reflect the pre-war melting pot that Biłgoraj had been, where at least five ethnic groups had lived peacefully together. 

Kuźminski, who made his money in Poland and overseas and built his fortune mainly on the back of recent investments in a wine bottling plant, did not – as befits a businessman – hesitate for long. He quickly made sketches of the town’s pre-war buildings, consulted architects and started seeking  funds – with the first 5 million Euro coming out of his own pocket. Other parts of the project were financed with EU funds, with the remaining donations thereafter raised by the foundation itself.

Tadeusz Kuźminski outside the replica of the old synagogue in Biłgoraj
(Photo by Jacek Borowski)

Today, 14 years after that sleepless night, on the outskirts of the town, 270 km southeast of Warsaw, the “Bilgoraj of the pre-war years”  is coming to life. A Jewish synagogue, based on  the 18th century Wołpa Synagogue which was similarly destroyed in WWII – has been built and is considered an architectural masterpiece. This replica will give visitors a chance to admire an exceptional house of worship,  once considered the most beautiful synagogue in Eastern Europe from a region once belonging to Poland and now located in western Belarus.

And only a few hundred meters further, a wooden Catholic chapel will soon be relocated from a town nearby. 

“That’s not enough. We want to build a Calvinist church, an Eastern Orthodox church and a Tatar mosque,  just like we had here before,” says the 64 year-old Tadeusz Kuźminski. His dream is not only to reconstruct the buildings and religious monuments but also to restore the atmosphere of a pre-war town. “I want to see the place the way my father described it to me when I was a kid,” says Kuźmiński. “The main reason, why I am going with the project, though it’s not easy to finance it, is to leave something for future generations, to show how Biłgoraj looked before World War II, when Jews, Muslims, Russians and Poles were all mixed together and – for the most part – liked each other”. 

For hundreds of years, the little town truly was a real Global Village.  Its beginnings reach as far back as the first century, when Poles and Ruthenians settled in the area. In the 15th and 16th century, Wallachians visited the forest lands. Around that time, Dutch emigrants moved to the area of today’s Bilgoraj – they were employed as specialists in melioration systems. And in the neighbourhood of the Dutch village, there was a Tatar settlement with a history dating back to the 13th century. For many years, Biłgoraj was also inhabited by followers of the Orthodox religion. 

Before  World War II, however,  it was the Jewish people who constituted the largest group of inhabitants – the 5,000  who lived in Biłgoraj accounted for almost sixty per cent of the town’s population. Among them was writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s grandfather, Jakub Zylberman, who was Biłgoraj’s rabbi. Isaac B. Singer, who became a prominent Jewish writer later, spent his teenage years in Biłgoraj. 

The pre-war market square in Biłgoraj
(Fundacja Biłgoraj XXI)

From the large Jewish population, only 500 families who fled to the Soviet Union survived the Nazi occupation. Sarah Netanjahu’s father was one of them. The father of Israel’s First Lady, Shmuel Ben-Artzin, spent 14 years in Biłgoraj and later, in his books, described the places of his origin. Just two years ago, Sara Netanjahu, together with her sons, visited Biłgoraj.  

Nowadays Biłgoraj is a small town visited by tourists but the houses and apartments built by Kuźminski do not sell well. But there are signs of change - more and more buyers come from abroad, mainly from Germany and the USA. Barbara Papierz was the first resident of the new estate: "I have always lived in Biłgoraj, but I wanted to move here. I hope that the market square, the cafés and galleries will soon open and will liven the area up.  I want to feel the hustle and bustle of cultures,” she says. 

Tadeusz Kuźminski also moved here a few years ago. After his wife’s death, he could no longer endure life in his splendid villa in Warsaw. He dreams that his project will not be an open-air museum, but a living town.  "I have been everywhere in this world, I have lived and seen so many countries. I am not afraid of any culture and want to have residents in these houses I build here from all over the world,” he said.