Before World War II, Jews constituted 10% of the 2,755 registered inhabitants of Krościenko. Initially, they were mainly innkeepers, with a few involved in agriculture and crafts. Over time, they emerged at the forefront of trade and in the service industries. The majority of the Jews were Orthodox, associated with the Hassidic court of the tzadik Halberstam of Nowy Sącz. In September 1939, the German occupation of the town began. Some of the Krościeńsko Jews perished in 1942 during the mass executions in Krościenko and the surrounding area. The remaining Jews were transported to the extermination camps in Bełżec and Auschwitz. A few managed to survive the occupation by hiding in Polish homes.
For many years, Dariusz Popiela, coming from Nowy Sącz, trained near Krościenko. He is an Olympian, 2018 Polish Champion, Runner-Up in the 2018 World and European Championships in mountain kayaking. Today, he is President of the “Centrum” Popiela Family Foundation. His physiologist, Jerzy Żołądź, told him about the forgotten Jewish cemetery, located several dozen metres from his training route. For the kayaker, this was the impulse to take action.
Initailly, Popiela wanted to enclose the cemtery with a fence and to erect a monument bearing the inscription “In Memory of the Jews of Krościenko”. However, when he received the pre-War register of Jews prepared by Jewish councils, he decided that it was worth doing something more.
“I couldn’t just lump them all into one sentence. It wasn’t just a nameless mass!”, Dariusz Popiela. “(…) We will never meet most of these people. We will never know what their interests were or how they lived. We can only surmise how they died and we can only do one thing – to engrave their names on the monument.”
At the end of October 2017, the clean-up work began and, in June of the following year, the monument was unveiled with 256 names of Jewish villagers, accompanied by information boards with photographs and indicators of site of the mass grave. Today, the Jewish cemetery is cared for by the Stefan Żeromski Comprehensive High School in Krościenko. Testimonies of survivors and archival photographs have been published on the “Ludzie, nie liczby” (“People, Not Numbers”) fan page.
The commemoration in Krościenko became an inspiration to extend the “People, Not Numbers” project which, today, as well as Dariusz Popiela, is conducted by Anna Boruch, Joanna Kurczap, Aneta Święź, Kamila Popiela and Kamil Kmak. Together, they conduct regular activities to restore the memory of the Jewish inhabitants of the region – at this time, those from nearby Grybów. It is there, on 3rd November 2019 at 1:30 pm, that a ceremony will be held at the Jewish cemetery commemorating the 1,774 inhabitants of the Grybów ghetto, and that a monument will be unveiled which is dedicated to them.
During the occupation, Jews from Krynica-Zdrój, Muszyna and nearby town were imprisoned in the Grybów ghetto. Their names have been engraved on the granite slabs of the monument and will be read during the ceremony. The Foundation has also secured the mass burial sites. Families of Grybów Jews from the United States, Israel, Great Britain and Poland have been invited to attend the ceremony, which will include prayers recited by a rabbi and priests.
A partner in the “People, Not Numbers” project is the Fundacja Zapomniane (Forgotten Foundation) which commemorates victims of the Holocaust throughout Poland by placing wooden matzevot on forgotten, often anonymous, graves. Thanks to their support, three such places in southern Poland have already been marked in this manner.
In 2018, the activities of the “Centrum” Popiela Family Foundation were acknowledged - Dariusz Popiela received a distinction in the annual POLIN Awards, during which people, organisations and institutions, who actively work to protect the memory of the history of Polish Jews, are honoured. The Olympian donated his financial prize towards the continuation of the “People, Not Numbers” project.