At this time of year we remember our ancestors and visit the cemeteries where they rest. Those whose families perished in the Holocaust often have none to visit, and many of our ancestral shtetl cemeteries are neglected or worse.
Dr. Norman L. Weinberg, executive coordinator of the Poland Jewish Cemeteries Restoration Project (PJCRP), has organized an online petition appeal to the German government to restore the Jewish cemeteries of Poland.
Weinberg recalls the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939 and the murder of 3 million Polish Jews, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. Today, some 1,400 “devastated and desecrated” cemeteries exist there, along with unmarked mass graves, some in cemeteries and forests. Only a few have been restored, generally using funds from survivors and descendants of the towns.
Examples of desecration include Losice, the site of a Gestapo headquarters with a German bunker that is walled and paved with some 1,500 headstones. In Ilza’s cemetery, only fragments of headstones exist, but hundreds lie under a nearby roadway.
The cost for restoring the cemeteries including funds for perpetual care, protecting and memorializing the mass graves, is estimated at more than $200 million.
Why restore the cemeteries?
Says Weinberg, “We do this because Jews are buried in these sacred sites and we do this in memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, including 3 million Polish Jews who had no proper burial.
“We remember them in our prayers, in Holocaust museums, memorials, books, the arts and educational programs. This is as it should be. But for the Holocaust, they and their descendants would have been caring for their cemeteries.
“Now the obligation falls to us. By saving and restoring the cemeteries, we can do for them what they cannot…one of the greatest of mitzvot, good deeds.”
Weinberg’s first cemetery project, in Ozarow in 2001, including contacting descendants, forming a Polish repair team and fund-raising. The cemetery dates back some 400 years, and has nearly 300 recovered grave markers.
During the work, two early 1700s stones were uncovered. Most others date from the 1800s. Dr. Eleanora Bergman of Warsaw’s Jewish Historical Institute suggests that this cemetery, like others in Poland, may have been built in layers as it filled, because of the limited burial space allowed Jews.
The Web site includes photographs of the town and cemetery, as well as its history.
By May of 2006, the PJCRP had been involved in 14 restorations, and has 30 more currently underway.