A groundbreaking year for the restoration of Jewish cemeteries in Poland


In 2021 thousands of Poles decided to take care of their local Polish Jewish heritage and tidied up local Jewish cemeteries. The youngest participant of this year’s campaigns was 4 years old. The oldest, over 90!. Activities at Jewish cemeteries all over Poland took place from early Spring to the first snowfall. The last one took place at the end of November in Trzemeszno and gathered over 100 participants.

Most single-cemetery actions however took place in Łódź. Tadeusz Ołubek, a probation officer, has been employing people sentenced to community service almost every week for the last four years and successively cleaning the largest Jewish necropolis in Poland of wild trees and bushes. The 45-hectare cemetery is now almost completely cleared. In addition to cleaning, Tadeusz Ołubek also conducts educational activities, teaching about the Jewish history of Łódź. In 2021 alone he organized over 40 of such events.

At the second largest Jewish cemetery in Poland – in Warsaw at Okopowa Street – 27 volunteering events took place this year. They were organized by Michał Laszczkowski, President of the Cultural Heritage Foundation. A total of over 600 people took active part, mostly students of Warsaw schools, who were there practically every Sunday to clear up sections of the cemetery of leaves and soil. In the process they revealed tombstones, often of great historical and artistic value.

The highest number of smaller cemetery events this year was recorded in Upper Silesia. The Coalition of Guardians of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland backed a local activist, Sławek Pastuszka who succeeded in persuading over a dozen mayors to get involved in cleaning up cemeteries in their cities. Over 600 people took part in four cleanup events at the Jewish cemetery in Katowice alone.

Before the outbreak of World War II there were 1,200 Jewish cemeteries within the present borders of Poland. Most of them were devastated by the German Third Reich during the war. After the war, Communist authorities liquidated what remained of numerous cemeteries, and those without care were looted. About 800 cemeteries have survived to our times, some of them no longer having any tombstones. Nevertheless, for many Poles these places are important and worthy of respect. Even though the number of people who care about the preservation and commemoration of Jewish cemeteries does increase every year, 2021 was still quite exceptional in that matter.

Volunteering events took place in Sieniawa, Iwaniska, Tarnowskie Góry, Łódź, Świdwin, Brzesko, Mysłowice, Cieszyn, Wieliczka, Staszów, Nowy Żmigród, Sokołów Małopolski, Warsaw, Suchowola, Głogówek, Jędrzejów, Jasło, Nowy Targ, Kielce, Mielec, Pabianszice, Grybów, Pabianszczyzna, Pabianszczyzna, , Będzin, Leśnica, Czechowice Dziedzice, Zambrów, Częstochowa, Dukla Rymanów, Kraśnik, Ostrów Mazowiecka, Biały Bór, Małogoszcz, Orla, Szczebrzeszyn, Sędziszów Małopolski, Łomża, Żory, Janów Lubelski, Gliwice, Mirosławiec, Mielec, Siedliszcze, Sidbiszech , Dąbrowa Białostocka, Kalisz, Katowice, Kazimierz Dolny, Goniądz, Tykocin, Tuszyn, Zduńska Wola, Żarki, Brzeziny, Ryczywole, Turek, Dębowa, Płock, Lubaczów, Niezdrowice, Zielona Góra, Kraśnik, Krapkowice, Wrocław, Bolimów, Warpnie, Lublin, Bieruń, Mikołów, Rusocice, Biała, Trzemeszno. In some of these places more than once.

Cemetery caretakers are people of all backgrounds – local activists, retirees, students, scouts, neighbors, ordinary people who simply refuse to forget. Among the participants of you can hear that the Jewish heritage in Poland is an important part of Polish heritage – their heritage. This is the driving force behind most activities. The guardians see their activity as working for themselves, for their own identity and for the sake of building a broader awareness of the multicultural history of Poland.

In Małogoszcz in the Świętokrzyskie voivodship, the Local Patriots Association, headed by Tomasz Ważyński nurtures the traditions of the region, but above all the memory of Polish partisans during and after World War II. Along with local students, they cleared the cemetery that had been completely overgrown, making it possible to create an inventory of people buried there. The complete index with photographs has been put online at www.cemetery.jewish.org.pl by a partner of the Coalition, the Foundation for the Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland.

Thanks to the Social Guardians of Monuments of the Kraśnik County, Dominik Szulc and Monika Tarajko from the “Well of Remembrance” Association, the Kraśnik cemetery in the Lublin region, one of the most neglected Polish Jewish cemeteries so far, was cleaned up and over 1.500 kgs of garbage has been taken out.
Local history enthusiasts engaged the Volunteer Fire Brigade to clean up the entire cemetery in Sidra on the border with Belarus and to prepare a spot to put up an information board next year.

Dawid Gudel from the Center of Three Cultures in nearby Suchowola cleaned almost the entire two-hectare cemetery in his city. He was also joined by volunteers, of course.

The works were carried out in cooperation with the Jewish Communities in Warsaw, Łódź, Katowice, Wrocław and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage. Thanks to grants obtained by the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Warsaw, it was possible to help volunteers to finance heavier works on greenery, cutting bushes or taking out garbage. There were also a dozen or so educational meetings organized.
Some of the organizers of volunteer campaigns are members of the newly established Coalition of Guardians of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, whose activities are coordinated by the Cultural Heritage Foundation.

The Coalition of Guardians of Jewish Cemeteries is a network of organizations and people who look after or want to look after Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Although it has no formal status, participants sign agreements and commit to constantly care for the cemeteries in their localities. Not all cemetery caretakers join the Coalition and it is not obligatory. It is also not a condition for receiving support. The Cultural Heritage Foundation identifies the needs of caregivers and tries to obtain subsidies for their implementation. In 2021, it was over PLN 300,000 (65 000 Euro) obtained from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the National Center for Culture, the National Institute of Freedom, the Ministry of the Interior and Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Due to restrictive religious regulations, working in Jewish cemeteries has to be properly prepared and their participants have to acknowledge guidelines of the Rabbinical Commission for Cemeteries operating with the Union of Religious Jewish Communities in Poland. Members of the Coalitions train volunteers in working with accordance to the Halacha.

We knew that all over Poland there are people who care about Jewish heritage. We did not know, however, that there are so many of them – says Michał Laszczkowski, president of the Cultural Heritage Foundation and initiator of the Coalition. – When you connect separate actions into a network, it automatically generates new ones of the similar kind. We already know of a dozen or so neglected cemeteries that may be covered next year too.

Everyone willing to look after Jewish cemeteries in Poland or to support such activities can apply to the Coalition via their website www.cmentarzazydowskie.org There is a map of cemeteries there, reports on volunteer campaigns, as well as a list of Coalition participants with contact details. Apart from the Polish version, the website also has an English version and a Hebrew version that is successively supplemented.
The Coalition has also found its first Ambassador this year. Prof. Roald Hoffmann, Nobel laureate in chemistry in 1981, who was born before the war in Złoczów (now in Ukraine) and took care of the cemetery in his hometown, thanked the volunteers for taking care of the cemeteries and appealed for further care for them in a short film.

Information about the Coalition of Guardians of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland is provided by:
Michał Laszczkowski tel. +48 600 900 326 e-mail. michal.laszczkowski@dziedzictwo.org

Link to the movie with Roald Hoffmann: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-OSmm0lEYw

Link to the photos of the  volunteering actions: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/1/folders/19B91MXc1dO6qIlXIqXfDgDAb5s9F8TeG