Around the Jewish World for Buffalo Man, Concern for Roots Leads to Cemetery Project in Poland

For decades, the abandoned Jewish cemetery in Karczew, a small town near Warsaw on the banks of the Vistula River, languished as an eerie and disconcerting wasteland.

Dozens of tombstones stood broken or eroded or lay toppled haphazardly on dunes of pale river sand, scattered with debris that included human bones exposed by wind and rain.

All that is changing now, thanks to cooperation between local townspeople, Polish Jews and a new volunteer organization aimed at cleaning up and restoring the hundreds of abandoned Jewish graveyards in Poland.

A recent ceremony marked the completion of the first stage of restoration.

“There are new walls and a metal gate,” said Norman Weinberg, executive coordinator of the new Poland Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project, or PJCRP. “Dogs can no longer enter here and chew on the bones.”

The next stage will involve planting trees and shrubs to stabilize the sand, he said.

Weinberg, a retired research chemist who lives near Buffalo, established the project in June after successfully organizing the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Ozarow, the small Polish town where his parents were born.

The organization aims to restore as many as possible of Poland’s devastated Jewish cemeteries; document the restoration process through words, pictures and video; translate the inscriptions on all the monuments; and put all the material on the Internet, Weinberg told JTA in an e-mail interview.

“We want to build awareness and show others how cemetery restoration can be done,” he said. “Realistically, of course, we will do this one” cemetery “at a time as funds become available.”

There are more than 1,000 Jewish cemeteries in Poland, most of them abandoned, overgrown and often devastated. Many, ravaged by the Nazis, were confiscated under communism.

They all are expected to be given back to the Polish Jewish community under Poland’s restitution law, as was the cemetery in Karczew. But Poland’s Jews do not have the financial resources to restore or maintain them.

That’s where the restoration project comes in.

“The PJCRP can advise, raise some funds, gain support from governments and organizations,” Weinberg said.

About 80 percent of North American Jews trace their ancestry to Poland. The PJCRP actively targets associations of Jews and their descendants from individual towns — known as landsmanschaften — for funding and other support. The project already has begun exploring cemetery restoration projects in more than a dozen Polish towns.

Except for the actual workers and contractors who restore the cemeteries, the PJCRP consists of a group of volunteers.

“We’re trying to create a framework that will enable people who want to help to do so,” said Michael Schudrich, the American-born rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz who is the PJCRP’s executive coordinator for halachic affairs.

Schudrich makes sure that halachic standards are observed in carrying out the restoration. Work supervised by the PJCRP is never done on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.

For Weinberg, last year’s Ozarow project was a life-changing experience. It also provided him with a model for involving Jews, local Poles and official institutions that could be applied to other cemeteries.

“It started off about eight years ago with the birth of our first grandchild,” he said. “What could I tell him some day about his family, his ancestors and his heritage?

“From a growing interest in family genealogy and learning about Ozarow came the realization that our ancestral cemetery there was a shambles, most of the monuments gone, the walls all but demolished, and that 120 Jews were rounded up after most were deported to Treblinka, forced to dig their own grave and then murdered by the Nazis,” he said.

Weinberg retired from his business on May 1, 2001.

“On May 2, I was determined to try to restore the Ozarow cemetery,” he said.

With the help of the Israel-based Ozarower Rebbe, Rabbi Tanchum Becker, Weinberg and some friends began contacting associations of Jews from Ozarow to raise funds.

They also contacted individuals and organizations including Schudrich, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and the Washington-based U.S. Commission for America’s Heritage Abroad.

A non-Jewish Polish businessman, Andrzej Omasta, became the Poland-based project manager and met with the mayor, priest and townspeople in Ozarow.

“The town became immediately supportive when they realized what we wanted to do,” Weinberg recalled.

About a month after taking on the project, “We announced that the dedication ceremony would be barely five months away,” on Oct. 15, 2001, he said. “Ozarowers were very responsive, and within about two months we had raised or had commitments for all the funds we needed.

“Ozarowers paid for the work, but thanks are due also to the generosity of many Poles, who gave freely of their time,” he said.

A tour bus full of Jews from Ozarow and their families traveled to the town for the emotional dedication ceremony. There they were greeted by over 500 townspeople dressed in their best, including school children, the mayor, town priest, contractors and representatives from the American and Canadian embassies, Weinberg said.

Tears flowed freely as the priest, in Polish, and Becker, in Hebrew, intoned Psalm 79 before the commemorative monument at the mass grave.

In January, Weinberg said, pupils at the Ozarow High School decided to put on an evening of Jewish heritage and remembrance.

Two weeks later, he received a letter from the headmaster, informing him that students would take on the responsibility of maintaining and cleaning the cemetery.

The Weinberg family subsequently endowed an annual scholarship for a senior student writing the winning essay on Ozarow’s Jews and Polish-Jewish relations, with the winner chosen by high school staff.

“Restoration of the Jewish cemeteries of Poland is about remembering and honoring the dead and the many hundreds of thousands murdered and buried in mass graves in many of the cemeteries and in nearby forests,” Weinberg said.

But, he added, “It is also about life and living, about doing mitzvot and about reconciliation of Poles and Jews.”

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