Cemetery director Przemyslaw Isroel Szpilman walks among the moss-covered and crumbling gravestones of the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, painstakingly jotting details in his notebook.
The Nazis burned the offices and files of the sprawling 19th-Century burial site in 1943, and now Szpilman is taking on the monumental task of reconstructing the cemetery's records of its estimated 250,000 graves.
"When I became director ... many people from around the world would come every day and ask about the graves of their ancestors," said Szpilman, 36, who has run the cemetery since 2002.
"Each time I had to explain why I cannot help them," he said. "I decided that as a director I must help them, so I started to make" records of the graves.
He had completed some 60,000 records as of last week, after five years. This represents about 25% of the work to be done. He believes he may be done by 2012. It is made a bit easier by a Chicago philanthropist who has supported four Jewish students who have been taking pictures, notes and organizing a website.
Opened in 1806, the first burial was a year later. Warsaw's Jewish community of about 350,000 was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust. The cemetery survived, but not the records. Szpilman handles some 20 burials annually and maintains the site.
Stone by stone, Szpilman reads the inscriptions (Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish) and records the details in a notebook (full name of the deceased, father's name, date of death, etc.) and transcribes notes and grave location into his computer.
There is a personal motivation for Szpilman. His great-grandfather, Jankiel Szpilman, was buried somewhere in the cemetery in the 1930s but has not yet been located. His grandfather was a distant relative of Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story of survival was told in the Oscar-winning movie "The Pianist" by Roman Polanski.
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