Jewish cemeteries in Poland bear witness to centuries of Jewish history – often peaceful and productive, sometimes tortured, but now mostly memories buried under weathered and toppled tombstones.
That picture is changing, however, as a new generation of Poles is becoming aware of and celebrating the country’s Jewish past. Among those are groups of volunteers who have made it their mission to find, document, and refurbish those aging burial sites.
|Kamila Klauzinska was warmly received at the Teaneck Jewish Center. Charles Zusman|
Kamila Klauzinska of Zunska Wola is one of those volunteers. For 10 years she has been a prime mover in restoring that central Polish town’s Jewish cemetery, containing some 3,500 gravestones.
“People ask, ‘Why do you do it?'” she said. “There are many people and many answers. For us it’s our common memory,” she told an audience of some 30 rapt listeners Monday evening at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
Jews have been a presence in Poland for upwards of a thousand years, starting when traders and merchants from Western Europe traveled there. Larger numbers of Jews followed in the 12th through 15th centuries as they fled the Crusades and the Inquisition.
Poland proved a fertile place for Jewish life, and Jews benefited from the protection of the country’s rulers. In recent centuries, Poland became a center of Jewish learning and culture, and Jews played a role in many facets of Polish life – the arts, commerce, science, and the military. But at the same time anti-Semitism cast a shadow over Jewish life in the country.
Between the world wars, Jews made up some 10 percent of Poland’s population of 33 million. The Holocaust, followed by anti-Semitic incidents after the war and an outbreak of anti-Semitism in 1968 linked to the then Communist regime, meant there were few Jews left.
Today an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 Jews live in Poland. They are seeing a resurgence of Jewish life and a revival of interest in the country’s Jewish history, Klauzinska said. She added that many Poles are discovering they have Jewish roots and are “less afraid to say they are Jewish.
In fact it has become “trendy” in Poland to have a Jewish connection, said Menachem Daum, who introduced Klauzinska and has a unique perspective on Polish”“Jewish relations. The Brooklyn man took his family on a discover-your-roots journey to Poland, where he met and was aided by Klauzinska.
|Menachem Daum tells of his “discover-your-roots” journey to Poland and the documentary he made of it. Charles Zusman|
His travels led to an emotional visit to the couple who hid his father-in-law and the man’s two brothers for 28 months during the German occupation. The husband, Wojciech Mucha, has since died, but Daum arranged for the wife, Honorata, to be honored by Yad Vashem as a “righteous gentile.”
Daum filmed his experience in a documentary, “Hiding and Seeking,” which aired on PBS.
The new generation doesn’t have the “old paranoia” of what it means to be a Pole, Daum said, citing the influence of the late Pope John Paul II, a Pole himself and a voice for unity. “Almost 70 percent of Jews in American can trace their ancestry to Poland,” Daum said.
Klauzinska, 36, has been to Israel, learned Hebrew, and is now working, in Krakow, toward a doctorate in Judaic studies. She began her cemetery work as a student of ethnography doing her dissertation on the Zdunska Wola cemetery. There she met Elzbieta Bartsch, a resident who took it upon herself to care for the cemetery with the help of school children.
“We decided to work together, and we had to work fast, because in 10 years the cemetery would not exist,” Klauzinska said.
She sees her cemetery work as rebuilding a bridge between Poles and Jews. Former residents of her town, for example, have returned to help out with the work and with contributions. Polish students have teamed with visiting youngsters from Israel to work with her group, “YACHAD,” or together.
There are an estimated 1,200 Jewish cemeteries in Poland, Klauzinska said. In larger cities, Jewish groups carry on the work, but in the countryside the project relies on local non-Jewish volunteers. In fact Klauzinska hoped to find Jews in her area to help out, but there were none left.
Klauzinska said her efforts have met with resistance from some Polish quarters, and surprisingly from some Jewish groups, who see the work by non-Jews as meddling. The Polish government, while slow on the uptake, is now assisting the efforts.
Decribing the cemetery restoration work at Zunska Wola, Klauzinska said it was labor-intensive, involving three stages. The first challenge was to document the graves with the aid of old records and photos, and then to sketch out the cemetery sections.
After that, workers cleaned and deciphered the tombstones, and then the work moved on to the renovation stage. The sudden activity at the long-forgotten cemetery sparked the curiosity of townsfolk, and more volunteers emerged, Klauzinska said.
She added that the work is made more difficult because burial sites around the country have been covered up. The former Communist regime actually erected buildings over some cemetery areas.
Another unforeseen difficulty Klauzinska encountered was that some gravestones were taken for use as building materials at houses, and volunteers had to knock on doors to try and get them back. The volunteers would explain that the stones represented precious memories and should be returned. There was no malice, Klauzinksa said – the homeowners often just “didn’t know.”
Sigi Laster, adult education leader at the synagogue, thanked Klauzinska for her talk and efforts, and she apologized for her accented English.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” he said, as the audience gave her a warm, standing ovation.
For further information and to help the project, go to www.yachad.pl. Klausinska said participation by students from this area would be most welcome.