Together in Toil: Jewish Students Unite to Restore Neglected Cemetery in Poland

Daphna Berman
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Daphna Berman

A program that brought together Polish, Israeli and American Jewish students for nearly three weeks of work restoring a Jewish cemetery in the south of Poland ends tomorrow.

The trip, organized by the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), brought 45 students together in an attempt to invigorate the young Jewish community in Poland, create ties between Jewish students worldwide, and teach up-and-coming leaders that Poland is not the Jewish wasteland they may have been led to believe.

"We didn't want Israelis to only see the cemeteries, hear stories about Jewish history in Poland, and learn about the theoretical implications of the Holocaust," Peleg Reshef, chairman of WUJS and a student at Haifa University, said. "Our goal was for the students to see how Jews in Poland continue to live and how the community has renewed itself because the Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora have much to learn from each other."

Focusing the program around physical work, he added, was a way to engage students beyond textual and theoretical study.

The university students, most of whom were in their early 20s, spent most days toiling in the Jewish cemetery of Czchow, which dates back several centuries, but has been overrun as a result of decades of neglect and abandonment. Volunteers cleared paths of weeds, reinstated overturned headstones, and cleaned graffiti. Although program organizers still can't claim to have completed the job, they report a significant amount of headway, and vow to return next summer.

The trip was sponsored partly by the Polish Union of Jewish Students (PUZS) and was also funded by the Claims Conference and the JDC.

"One of our goals was to dispel certain notions among Israeli and American students and show them there's more to Poland than they might have thought or been taught," said Laurence Weinbaum, director of research at the World Jewish Congress and the vice president of the Israel-Poland Friendship Society, who accompanied the group. "The perception of Poland is that it's devoid of Jews and that it's a vast Jewish cemetery, and that's just inaccurate."

Official Jewish community estimates put the number of Polish Jews at some 2,000, but Weinbaum, who specializes in Eastern European Jewish history, believes the number to be far higher. Jews not affiliated with a religious community, including participants in the WUJS program, he explains, are left out of that calculation.

Jacob Kasz, a participant in the cemetery restoration and a student of anthropology at the University of Warsaw, has already participated in a number of similar summer programs aiming to build bridges between Jewish students around the world. This summer program was no different, he says, but that doesn't seem to bother him: "It's important I show that we exist."

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