‘Time capsule’: Jewish ritual bath found under former strip club in Poland

The owner would like to find investors to restore the structure to attract more Jewish tourism to Chmielnik, which had a large pre-war Jewish community.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

A businessman who bought a former strip club in his hometown of Chmielnik, Poland, is looking for investors to help bring more Jewish tourism to his city by restoring the source of water that is helping cause the decay of his building – a pre-World War II Jewish ritual bath, known as a mikvah.

In an interview with Haaretz, Marian Zwolski said that he had dug through the rubble in the building, where a strip pole still stands, for three years. He found two rooms tiled in blue and white, with Stars of David painted on the walls, and the required small pools still filled with water.

“It’s astonishing,” Meir Bulka, who advocates for the renewal of Jewish sites in Europe, told Haaretz. “You enter the basement, and you’re in another world. It’s like a time capsule.”

According to Virtual Shtetl, a website that records the history of Jewish towns that were destroyed in the Holocaust, Zwolski bought the property about eight years ago and told the Gazeta Wyborcza at the time that he wasn’t surprised to find the mikvah.

“When I bought this property, I wanted to learn more about it,” he told the Polish paper. “I knew about the mikvah from my father, who was born here in Chmielnik in the early 20th century. We started to dig. When we got past the rubble, we discovered the source of water.”

As an amateur historian, Zwolski is interested in having the mikvah restored due to its historical significance. It could join the 17th-century synagogue that the city has restored as a Jewish museum in order to tap into the good income stream of Jewish tourists searching for their roots. The building housing the mivkah is on the other side of the main market square where the synagogue is located.

Restoring the one-story, crumbling building would be expensive, but Zwolski says it would be worth it.

“I was born and raised here, so I care about the history of the place. I don’t want it to disappear,” he said. “I encourage the people to remember the past and I also call on you, the Jews, to preserve it and see to it that it is memorialized.”

Chmielnik was a majority-Jewish town before World War II, with its 8,000-strong community dating all the way back to the 16th century. It was completely wiped out by the Nazis by October 1942, when its ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were sent to the Treblinka death camp. Only four Chmielnik Jews survived.

In order to attract more Jewish visitors, the municipality has also published a book documenting the Jewish life of the town, put up memorials in the local Jewish cemeteries, and erected a monument honoring local Poles who tried to save their Jewish neighbors by hiding them in their homes.