Orthodox Jews, Polish Government in Accord on Jewish Cemeteries

A leadership delegation of Orthodox Jews returned from Warsaw last week with a signed agreement from the Polish government granting Orthodox communities outside of Poland control in the preservation of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. The agreement includes the establishment of a joint committee which will have the responsibility of restoring some of the 434 cemeteries which still exist in what was the largest Jewish community in prewar Europe.

The report of the agreement was disclosed by Dr. Isaac Lewin and Rabbi Chaskel Besser, who headed the American delegation to the Warsaw talks. Other members of the delegation included Rabbi Chaim David Halberstam of the U.S., Rabbi Yehuda Meir Abramowitz of Israel, chairman of the Agudath Israel World Organization, I. M. Zimmerman of England, and Sholom David Horowitz of Belgium. The Polish government was represented by several ministers and representatives of the Prime Minister.

According to Besser, the delegation was accorded a royal welcome almost from the moment they arrived at Warsaw’s International Airport, where they were greeted by a high level Polish delegation. The Orthodox leaders had traveled to Poland at the request of leading Torah authorities from around the world.

In their report, Lewin and Besser noted that there were over 800 cemeteries in Poland before the war. Currently, only 434 remain, of which only 22 can be classified as in decent condition. The Polish government itself concedes that 68 are “half damaged” and a further 73 are over 60 percent ruined.

There are 136 burial grounds in which only a few tombstones remain, and 129 of which there are no signs of graves or tombstones, but the areas and boundaries are still known by local inhabitants. All have no fences, with the result that they are increasingly vandalized and often used as recreational grounds.

The worst condition involves some 250 burial grounds in the smaller towns and villages of which not only is there no trace of graves but it is difficult to establish the proximity of their former existence, the report added.

PERMANENT COMMISSION ESTABLISHED

The permanent commission that was established as a result of the agreement will include the Polish Ministries of Religion. Finance, Home and Culture. The Polish Jewish community will be represented by their President, Moshe Finkelstein, and Orthodox communities outside Poland will be represented by delegates from Israel, the United States, England, Belgium and Switzerland. The next plenary session is to be convened in November, at which time a comprehensive plan will be available for implementation, according to Lewin and Besser.

During their visit, the delegation also visited the former concentration camp in Auschwitz. Two members of the delegation were former inmates of the camp. In the report, Besser noted that there are still a number of synagogues in Warsaw, Cracow, Lodz and Wroclaw, but that they can only muster a quorum on the Sabbath. Those attending are mostly elderly and there is little sign of youth. No Jewish marriages take place.

In their discussions with Polish government officials, the Orthodox leaders raised the issue of the preservation of synagogues in Poland, including such historic sites as the huge Beth Hamedrash of the Gerer Rebbe. Also under discussion was a plan to provide kosher food in several locations throughout Poland for visitors.

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