Restore to forget: Poland and its Jewish cemeteries (continued)

Gabriel Rom continues his report on how Polish cemeteries have become an increasingly sensitive issue in Polish society over the years. With the emergence of a Jewish memory that can finally be talked about, albeit contested or revised, Rom examines the history of Nazi and Polish efforts to destroy Jewish cemeteries. Yet, he is also astonished by local initiatives to recreate them, suggesting the beginnings of a sense of history.


Grave in the Jewish cemetery of Słomniki

Matan Sheffi, a researcher of Polish-Jewish history, recalls walking through the Jewish cemetery of Kielce with a local priest and two town historians. Sheffi remembers seeing something odd: centuries-old gravestones surrounded with fresh earth. It was a striking sight: people had brought these tombstones from somewhere else, from a part of a fence, a part of a road, from their home.

“When people see looted cemetery stones around their property, they recognize that these stones came from somewhere — that someone took that stone and used it for their own purposes,” Sheffi said. “And that person could have been a grandfather, a great uncle, a neighbor, a friend.” 

Almost weekly, a Jewish cemetery dedication occurs somewhere in Poland, often with refurbished or recently discovered tombstones. These are usually small occasions attended by a dozen local activists, perhaps a priest or a mayor, in which a stone wall is erected, or a small memorial plaque consecrated. Many are spontaneous, others are organized by groups such as the Poland Jewish Cemeteries Restoration. The former Olympic athlete Dariusz Popiela and his group “People, Not Numbers” has become the public face of these restoration projects. In short, a generation of Poles is beginning to embrace a newfound sense of historical ownership.

The question is why? 

“Demons,” Sheffi, an Israeli, says. “To deal with the Jewish subject for Poles is to deal with demons. It’s about people taking responsibility for the place they live in.”

It’s precisely such a story that led Krzysztof Bielawski from travel insurance to a life dedicated to unearthing Jewish memory.

Ruins of the Jewish cemetery in Płaszów, near the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp – Gabriel Rom

Bielawski, now a researcher at POLIN Museum in Warsaw, was born in a town that had been 80 percent Jewish before the war. But as a child in Communist Poland, Jews were present only as the butt of jokes. One afternoon, Bielawski spotted a Jewish grave nestled into a fence in a family member’s backyard. He knew that it didn’t belong there, that it had been stolen. Its  presence stuck like a splinter in his mind and led him down a path that was to alter his life. 

Bielawski is not Jewish.  “I’m not so lucky,” he quipped. And though he looks like an academic — pencil-thin, bald and bespectacled — he does not consider himself one. A travel insurance agent by profession, he maintained a casual interest in Jewish history for decades and built a small website in 2005 cataloging Jewish cemeteries across Poland. At the age of 45, he began learning Hebrew and decided to enroll in Warsaw University’s Jewish Studies program.

Zaglada cmentarzy zydowskich (The Annihilation of Jewish Cemeteries), the book by Krzystof Bielawski

His dissertation culminated in a provocative book published in 2020 titled Zaglada cmentarzy zydowskich (The Annihilation of Jewish Cemeteries), which painstakingly catalogs the neglect and decay of Jewish cemeteries in Poland over the past century. Two decades after the historian Jan Gross spurred a painful reckoning over Polish-Jewish relations with his book Neighbors, Bielawski documents a history of neglect in which hundreds of Jewish cemeteries were destroyed throughout the 20th century not by the Soviets or Nazis but by Poles themselves. Bielawski, one of the first Polish scholars to conduct comprehensive research on the destruction of Jewish cemeteries, has upended what existing historiography there was by exploring the destruction of Jewish cemeteries not exclusively by Nazis but also by Poles after the Holocaust. 

The book, published by an organization run by progressive Catholics, quickly sold out on its first run. It has become a reference for local historians and activists, almost all of them non-Jewish, who are attempting to map and memorialize Jewish cemeteries. Bielawski’s book has been used to help prove the location of long-lost cemeteries to reluctant municipal authorities.

“Cemeteries opens the door for Polish to understand something crucial, which Bielawski’s book emphasizes: the destruction of Jewish cemeteries was intimate, and it was local,” Sheffi, the researcher, said. “You can’t simply blame the government and you can’t simply blame the Germans.” 


Yet, any story of the destruction of Jewish life in Poland must deal with the Germans.

The destruction of Jewish cemeteries was an element of a larger Nazi campaign to use the Jewish past in service of a new historical beginning. In 1942, the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany initiated a project intended to “secure the historical and anthropological material” of Jewish cemeteries in an effort to construct a new German historiography. “By researching the hard and ultimately victorious battle between our German nation and the racially foreign element of Judaism,” wrote Volkmar Eichstat, a librarian and bibliographer at the Institute, “we gain a closer understanding of our own German character. And by doing so we increase not only our knowledge but strengthen our commitment to national life.”

Gate in the Jewish cemetery in Słomniki- Gabriel Rom

The historian Alon Confino called the Holocaust a “Nazi memory project” in which a world free of Jews was meant to mark a new historical epoch for the Aryan race. The foundation of this Nazi narrative, Confino argues in his 2014 book A World Without Jews, was the conviction that Jewish life would be a historical artifact meant to remind Germans of a civilizational enemy now defeated. If Nazism has largely been understood by both German and Jewish historians as a state project of racial supremacy, Confino argued that it was also a type of cultural movement built upon a narrative of time – both past and future. Beneath the Nazi regime’s ideology was a “world of fantasies” to rid the world Jews. It was this dream world of extermination, Confino says, where Nazism found its purpose.

As Hannah Arendt wrote, “one could do as one pleased only with stateless people.” Unlike Jewish cemeteries in Germany, those in Nazi-occupied Poland did not become objects of trade or sites of Nazi “scholarly research” on their racial enemy. The Reich Institute had no interest in gathering artifacts from Poland. Rather, as Biealawski shows, they were obliterated: pre-burial houses were set on fire, looted materials from graveyards were shipped across the Reich, while tombstones excavated by Jewish slaves were used to construct living quarters for SS officials, a highway to Berlin and an artificial lake in Rusalka. In Rybnik, Gestapo officials had Jews unearth graves to look for valuables. Prisoners hit the skeletons with shovels and split open their skulls, broke their jaws, and removed the bridges from their teeth. “They may wipe out our memory altogether, as if we had never existed,” wrote Isaac Schipper, a distinguished Jewish historian murdered in the Holocaust. “Not even a dog will howl for us.”

This is the history which opens Bielawski’s book. And as he argues, the end of the war “should be regarded as a caesura only formally” in the context of the destruction of Jewish cemeteries. In many cases, Poles continued the process of the devastation of cemeteries started by the German administration. Throughout Europe, the murder of Jews had created opportunities for massive theft. Poland was no exception. “The Germans allowed Poles to steal, and the Soviets allowed Poles to keep what they had stolen,” writes the historian Timothy Snyder. During and after the war, looting of cemeteries was rampant, part of a broader phenomenon of property theft. “I don’t think there was a person in Radziłów who didn’t have wheelbarrows made of these cemetery stones,” a Polish villager told Bielawski. 

As the Holocaust receded in Polish memory and the country modernized under Communism, the sites of Poland’s Jewish past were utilized to build the Communist Polish state. New laws stripped pre-war Jewish communities of their right to own any communal property, while nearly all  Jewish cemeteries became officially designated as “abandoned property” and were expropriated to the Polish state, state-owned enterprises, or local Poles. Cemeteries became sand mines, parks, forest greens, even monasteries. 

Beginning in the 1970s, as Polish society opened to the outside world, Jewish cemeteries became a salient propaganda tool the country’s Communist government wielded in their campaign of global public relations. Proper upkeep of Jewish cemeteries was meant to represent the “good will” of the Polish state, while the protection and memorialization of cemeteries was to be explicitly dictated by “political needs,” according to government documents which Bielawski cites. Jews themselves played almost no role in this process. “There is a need to take measures that would prevent the unleashing of anti-Polish campaigns abroad by Jewish nationalist and Zionist circles,” read one government memo from 1974.  When, a few years later, a Jewish group attempted to compile a complete inventory of Jewish cemeteries in Poland, the government deemed the initiative as an “enemy” activity. 

The political transformation following the collapse of the People’s Republic of Poland in 1989 brought about a radical change in the Polish state’s attitude toward Jewish memorial sites. “A cemetery remains an area held in the highest reverence, regardless of what condition it is in or what remains of it on the surface of the earth,” reads a government memo. The document was an admission of nearly half a century of neglect toward Jewish property and Jewish memory. This thaw coincided with a broader willingness within Polish society to look at the pandora’s box of Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War anew. Questions of historical responsibility were no longer dismissed as anti-Polish propaganda and a new critical attitude towards Polish-Jewish history emerged amongst a sizeable minority of the country’s intellectual elite.

Jews themselves were reincorporated into discussions of Jewish memory. Strikingly, after 1989, the first Jewish groups in Poland to concern themselves with cemeteries were largely religious. The hundreds of Jewish monumental tombs (ohelim) located across Poland were largely built in the 1950s and 1960s by Hasidim from the United States and Israel, often without the knowledge of local authorities. 

Yet the revival of Hasidic life in Europe has a role to play in this story, as well.


In Jewish culture, there are two schools of thought, one in which the cemetery, and death itself, is marginal and another for which it is central. The Mishnah and Talmud largely discouraged the practice of visiting the dead, while Maimonides and The Vilna Gaon hoped that the Jews would not visit the graves of their leaders, lest they be touched by evil spirits. There are no halakhic monographs on the cemetery, nor has any other treatise been devoted solely to the topic in traditional Jewish literature. Only a brief chapter in the minor rabbinic tractate Semahot treats the cemetery:  “He who mourns too much over his dead is actually weeping for someone else.”

Yet sages are few, and mourners are many. Indeed, one of the most active elements of Jewish revival in Poland has gone mostly unnoticed by mainstream Polish Jewish organizations: Hasidic pilgrimage trips. Hundreds of miles away from the closest established Jewish communities, hotels, synagogues, and mikvehs are being built, and more are on their way. These small self-sustaining Jewish communities exist almost entirely outside the country’s mainstream Jewish institutional world. They are in Nowy Sanz, Radomskow, Przyslucha, Lejansk, and elsewhere. Krakow’s Jewish community has begun leasing synagogues to Hasidim, while in Lelow — birthplace of David Biederman — local authorities have started a Chulent festival.  

Meanwhile, Polish municipalities see these visitors as a potential source of tourism, and official ties are growing. The cemetery is a meeting place between the dead and the living.

Tombs in the Słomniki cemetery – Gabriel Rom

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Przysłucha. In a country replete with Rabbinic sages, the village of Przysłucha has special status. It was a seat of spiritual influence and political power for Jews across the Kingdom of Poland in the 19th century, and its rabbinical leaders remained the source of inspiration and awe for Jews worldwide. The Przysucha (Yiddish: Pshiskha, pronounced Pe-shis-kha) school of Hasidism believed in a service of God that demanded both passion and analytical study. Once home to several great Rabbis, it is a town of “legendary reality,” in the words of Martin Buber, where the tales and teachings of the Przysucha Tzaddikim spread to generations of pious Jews across the world.

Seen within the longue durée of Polish-Jewish life, the ohelim at Przyslucha are quite new. Built in 1989 after the fall of the Iron Curtain when Jews were allowed to travel to Poland freely, many Hasidim rushed to Przyslucha looking for the graves of their masters. What they found was a barren site; graves but nothing to mark them. The ohelim were built as holy markers, to make the forgotten visible again.

Jan Werenc, a Polish carpenter who lives in a small hut at the outskirts of the village, is a guardian with the keys to one of the holiest gates in European Jewry. Werenc, like his father before him, has taken care of the town’s ohelim where three Przyslucha Rabbis are buried. Suffering from illness, Werenc is restricted to a wheelchair. An elderly lady named Malgorzarta escorted me to the graves.

The intimacy of the building — three stones, a few small benches, a stack of prayerbooks, and a blue flame indicating the soul’s ascent — calls to mind Martin Buber’s insight that great rabbis “even helps the hasid through his death; those near him in the hour of his death receive a great illuminating.” One can easily imagine busloads of Hasidim from places very far away  arriving to this small town in the early hours of the morning.

“When the Jews come here I watch them,” Werenc said. “They sing, they dance, they light candles. I see their culture.”

A few weeks later, on the streets of central Berlin, I met two young Hasidim who had been to Przysłucha many times. It was an hour before Shabbat began. I was a stranger in Germany, a country I had never been to before. Their presence was, in some way, comforting and I assumed they would talk about Przysłucha in reverent, otherworldly tones.

“Yeah the Poles will welcome you, if you have money,” one said to me, blowing cigarette smoke out his nostrils. “If not, it’s ‘goodbye’. That’s what makes the world go round.”

Gabriel Rom

Gabriel Rom is a reporter, editor, and translator. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The European Review of Books, and The Los Angeles Times. He is currently pursuing a PhD in European History at Yale University where his research focuses on nineteenth century political thought.

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