Two men from the Warsaw Jewish community wander slowly through an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Karczew, a small town 15 miles southeast of Warsaw.
They walk through an eerie and disconcerting wasteland. Dozens of tombstones stand broken or eroded, or lie toppled haphazardly on drifted dunes of pale river sand.
Every now and again, the men bend to pick something up from the surface.
The men bring the bones to Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the American rabbi who serves the Warsaw community, and lay them at his feet. Leg bones, arm bones, a vertebra, all bleached white with age.
Schudrich, a youthful-looking man in his 40s, squats and scoops out a deep hole with his bare hands. He lays the bones in the hole and then reburies them under the sand.
Before the Holocaust, Karczew was a popular resort where Warsaw Jews kept summer homes. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, “The Family Moskat,” the female protagonist, Hadassah, is killed by Nazi bombs in the first days of World War II and buried here.
Today, the Karczew cemetery is one of more than 1,000 abandoned Jewish cemeteries around Poland, and one of dozens in the Warsaw area.
Most of these cemeteries are in bad condition – some ravaged by the Nazis, others simply left neglected and vandalized in the decades since the end of World War II.
But because of unique ecological problems, Karczew is in the worst shape.
The hill of river soil on which the cemetery is located has lost most of its vegetation, and rain and wind cause the sand to shift, exposing graves.
“Bones come to the surface after every storm,” says Schudrich. “It is very disturbing.”
The Karczew cemetery was returned to the Warsaw Jewish community a year ago as part of the complex process of restitution of confiscated or nationalized Jewish communal property.
The Warsaw Jewish community has made restoring it and stabilizing the soil a target of its communal activities.
“This is the first time that the Warsaw Jewish community has taken the initiative on a project like this,” says Schudrich. “We have very little money, but we have to apportion some to cemeteries. We identified Karczew as our target because of the ecological situation.
“As a Jewish community, we cannot allow this cemetery to remain as it is,” he says. “If we are going to be a living Jewish community, we cannot forget our obligation to those who came before.”
The Warsaw Jewish community was reconstituted as a legal entity only three years ago, and the lay leadership hired Schudrich as its rabbi this summer.
Previously, he had spent a decade as director of the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland, whose educational and youth programs have played a key role in the post-Communist revival of Jewish life in Poland.
This month, Schudrich and two lay leaders of the Warsaw community met with a town official in Karczew and with Joel Barries, executive director of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
The commission works to document and help raise money to preserve sites of religious and other cultural heritage of Americans in Eastern and Central Europe.
It recently oversaw and coordinated salvaging tombstones and building a memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Wyszkow, northeast of Warsaw.
Neither the Warsaw Jewish community nor the town of Karczew has much money at its disposal, even for the most urgent preliminary work – stabilizing the soil to stop the shifting and enclosing the cemetery with a fence.
Cooperation among Jewish, local and outside bodies will be essential on a project that could run into tens of thousands of dollars.
“The town official we met with has promised to come up with a preliminary cost assessment within a few weeks, and once we see this it will help in clarifying the needs,” said Barries.
Says Schudrich, “The bones should be buried. This is the pivotal point.”