Witold Wrzosiński is the co-founder and co-director of the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland. Currently, with a grant from the Polish Ministry of Culture, he is writing a Field Guide to Jewish Cemeteries, mainly aimed at local Poles. In this “Have Your Say” essay he tells us why he feels this project is important.
Why I Am Writing a Field Guide to Jewish Cemeteries – for Poles
by Witold Wrzosiński
In recent years a huge increase of interest in the Jewish past has taken place in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe. It has taken many forms, ranging from thousands of private genealogy projects, to preservation and digitization efforts, to museums, TV shows and conferences, to a notable growth in heritage tourism.
One of the outcomes is that, after years of silence, local people are being put in touch with the memory of local Jewish history in their own towns, cities and villages — and they also witness researchers or descendants of prewar Jewish residents coming to these places to explore it. At the same time, the third postwar generation in Eastern Europe is also becoming more and more interested in discovering and preserving the past of their towns, leading to many grassroots initiatives.
The interest and the efforts of the local population could very well match the need of the Jewish world to commemorate and preserve Jewish heritage sites. But decades of neglect have taken their toll.
Over the years, remaining Jewish heritage sites have in many if not most cases become excluded, stigmatized and forgotten. In Poland, the Jewish cemetery in particular is now frequently regarded as a sort of a taboo space, usually heavily damaged, overgrown with vegetation and overtaken by the socially marginalized; often it is not marked in any way and is ignored by local civic authorities. Some of these cemeteries sit in the middle of a town’s urban fabric like a foreign object, perceived as a dark place with difficult memories of a long gone civilization. It requires more than just effort to take care of them.
As the co-founder and co-director of the Foundation for the Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland I have been indexing epitaph inscriptions from Polish Jewish cemeteries for the last 10 years and run an open access, searchable online database with more than 100,000 photographs and transcriptions from more than 90 cemeteries. As the founder and manager of the Genealogy Research Office “Avanim” I have been doing archival research and organizing Jewish heritage tours all over Poland for the last five years.
When carrying out my indexing work at Jewish cemeteries, I have met with increasing interest in those sites from local guides, teachers, school children, activists, historians and even representatives of the local town administrations.
At the same time, however, I have also met with uncertainty, suspicion – and even fear: powerful and even contradictory emotions that were highlighted, for example, in the recent Polish feature film Aftermath.
I aim to address all of this in my Field Guide.
There are about 1,400 known sites of Jewish cemeteries in Poland, only about 400 with visible gravestones. In a number of places, gravestones from destroyed cemeteries were removed and used for construction work, or lie hidden on private property.
Local people know that there are rules that govern the way Jewish tombstones look; they know that there are special rules regarding cemeteries within Judaism, and they know that there are procedures that help preserve such built heritage instead of speeding up the processes of destruction.
They are afraid of breaking those rules — but they often do not know where to learn them, or even to learn about them. They sometimes try to reach out to Jewish organizations and descendants of prewar residents to find help, but rarely with success.
My book aims at filling the gap. As a basic guide to best practices for working with Jewish cemeteries, it will be a field guide for everyone who wants to find a way to incorporate Jewish heritage sites into the living tissue of their town’s life again. It will be a manual on Jewish cemeteries for educators, indexers, photographers, clean-up organizers, simple visitors and local authorities, with advice on what to do, what not to do, and whom to contact. Written in Polish, it will have as its main target the local Polish population, but the guidelines will also serve to inform Jewish residents and visitors as well.
I strongly believe that, given the fact that most sites of Jewish heritage in Poland are in places where no Jews live today, the only way to prevent these sites from disappearing completely is for them to become meaningful for local people in general, as sites that commemorate an important part of their own history: to become places where a teacher or guide can take first-graders – or highschool students, or even pensioners — on a sunny day for a lesson on local Jewish history, excite them with attempts to read the names on the stones, tell the stories of the people buried there, and clean up the area with them.
My book, I hope, will help this vision become reality.
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Warsaw, July 3, 2016
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