Earlier this year, while standing in the Jewish cemetery of Wislica, Poland, Anna Shpilsky addressed her assembled classmates from the Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange. The group was there for the start of GOA’s Neshama program for high school seniors who elect to travel to Poland and Israel during the spring semester.
“My father’s side of the family is from this town, and we know that our ancestors are buried in this cemetery,” said Anna, who graduated last month.
The cemetery is not usually on the Neshama itinerary, but the site was added as Anna’s parents, Vlad and Victoria Shpilsky of Short Hills, were one of three families who sponsored its renovation several years ago. The work included clearing debris and overgrowth, building a fence around it, and dedicating a memorial, written in English, Polish, and Hebrew, commemorating the Jewish community of Wislica.
“From the outset of this project, we have stressed the importance of Anna’s generation taking the initiative to remember and preserve these very important pieces of Jewish history,” Victoria Shpilsky told NJJN after her daughter’s return in May.
Wislica, located in south-central Poland, with 1,000 years of history, is considered by some to be the oldest town in the country. (At some points in history, it was part of Austria.) Jews lived in Wislica beginning in the 16th century; by 1939 the Jewish population was about 1,500 and the town had a cemetery, a synagogue, and a mikvah.
“It was a place of learning and coexistence, and where my family came from,” said Anna. In 1942 the Jewish community was liquidated. Jews did not return after the Holocaust, and the cemetery, partially destroyed during World War II, fell into disrepair. The Shpilskys, together with their relatives, the Topel and the Landa families, both of Philadelphia, financed the restoration in 2016. All are descendants of Anna’s great-grandfather, Adolf Topel. The families worked with the Nissenbaum Family Foundation, which has focused on restoring Jewish cemeteries and other sites in Poland since 1983.
The following is an excerpt from Anna’s speech to her classmates in the cemetery:
“Jews were prominent citizens here, and in 1939 when Nazis invaded and created a ghetto here, the Jewish community suffered greatly, and in 1942 were all sent to concentration camps.
“My great-grandfather, Adolf Topel, was born and raised here — we know where his house was and where his family lived. He is the only member of his family who survived the Holocaust. His mother and two little brothers perished in Auschwitz. My father has a special connection to this town because of all the stories his grandfather told him while they were living in the Soviet Union. I remember my great-grandfather very well. He was a happy person, with a warm smile, and was always glad to see us. He would always call me and my siblings his gems and his naches. He died in 2012 and my little brother, David Adam, is named after him.”