LEZAJSK, Poland – The first gravestone was uncovered on July 8. Then more and more quickly followed. By the end of the summer it was clear that this was a historic discovery of a kind that only comes along once in decades. One that would draw the attention of many people around the world. One that could bring relatives to tears, make a major contribution to historical research and, above all, close a circle and bring some justice for those who can no longer make their cries heard.
Eighty years they waited there, below the ground. No one undertook to extricate them, even though it was widely known that they were there. Only this summer, in the midst of infrastructure work on the market square in Lezajsk, in southeastern Poland, were the 150 tombstones of the town’s Jews brought to light.
“It’s part of the history of our city. Before the war, many of the residents here were Jews,” says Mayor Ireneusz Stefanski, a Lezajsk native, interviewed in his office. Outside the window come the sounds of the bulldozers and drills that are back at work in the square now that the historical treasure has been removed from it.
Not much happens usually in a sleepy place like Lezajsk, which is about 50 kilometers and a 45-minute drive from Rzeszow, the county seat and capital of the Subcarpathian Voivodeship. This year, due to the pandemic, even the Hasidim who make an annual pilgrimage every March to the grave of the 18th-century rabbi Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk have stayed away, at the authorities’ request.
While this didn’t make the kind of news that has surrounded the annual Uman pilgrimage, the absence of Jewish visitors who normally throng the town streets each spring was deeply felt. Which helps to explain the excitement that gripped the town in the wake of the sensational discovery that occurred in the summer.
Between the world wars, 4,500 Jews lived in Lezajsk, about 90 percent of the shtetl’s population. Like many other towns of its type, it was home to an array of Jewish schools, including a Talmud Torah, a school from the secular Tarbut movement, a Yavneh school from the Mizrahi movement and a Beis Yaakov girls’ school from the Agudath Israel movement. Youth movements were also active in the town, where there was also a pre-aliyah training kibbutz. There was a Jewish library that was also used as a center for lectures and amateur productions. The Zionist parties that were active in Poland in the early 20th century also opened branches in the town.
As World War II began on September 1, 1939, the Germans occupied the town. Only a few of the local Jews managed to flee to the east. Those who couldn’t were left at the mercy of the Nazis, who sent some Jews to forced labor and deported others and confiscated their property. The synagogue and nearby shtibels were torched. In 1941, a ghetto was established in the town. When the ghetto was liquidated in 1942, its residents were deported to the Belzec extermination camp.
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The Germans used the rubble of Jewish homes and of the synagogue for construction. When that material was used up, they went to the Jewish cemetery and uprooted some of the gravestones. That is how, starting in 1939, these gravestones came to be located in the market square, where they were used to pave roads and build sidewalks. Starting in the 1980s, they began to be uncovered, little by little. Until now, the last ones that had come to light were discovered at the start of this century. But nothing prepared the town’s residents for a discovery on the scale of what was recently unearthed.
A locked iron gate blocks the yard of a building adjacent to city hall that is used by the municipality as a storage area for construction materials and heavy machinery. Through the gate the gravestones are visible. The sight is astounding. Although most are broken and some are almost completely shattered, names and some inscriptions are clearly legible. Ironically, the Nazis, who sought to wipe out any trace of the Jewish community, helped to preserve its heritage by burying it underground, thus protecting it from the ravages of time and climate.
Sarah, Yosef, Avraham, Rosa, Beila, Bracha, Aharon, Leah, Sheindel, Menachem, Ze’ev, Atil, Avraham Aba. One after the other the Jewish names etched into the stones in Hebrew letters are revealed. One gravestone is inscribed with the name Elimelech. Was he a descendant of the Tzaddik? His Hasidim are tremendously excited about the possibility.
“A good and honest woman, supporter of all around her, shared her gifts with the poor. In her 72 years she did as much good as she was able. In her virtue may her children be protected,” reads one gravestone. Another reads: “26 years were all her days. Many tears were spilled over her.” Another honors “a quiet man of integrity” and another, “an honorable, good and honest man.”
On some of the stones, the year of death is preserved too, the Hebrew dates corresponding to the 1920s and 1930s. On some, the color red that adorned the inscriptions is still clearly visible, having also survived unscathed.
Not surprisingly, not everyone in the city shares the excitement. “If you dig further, maybe you’ll find gold and we’ll be able to get out of the deficit,” wrote one local in response to a post by the mayor on his Facebook page. Others deliberately ignored the discovery, while some protested the impact on the businesses by the square due to the ongoing restoration work.
“The city’s residents are accustomed to such discoveries, so it’s not a controversial subject,” Mayor Stefanski tried to explain at first, though he went on to provide examples of other voices. “Some people said we were deliberately destroying the market square, with Jewish funding, just to remove the gravestones from there,” he said, immediately insisting that this was untrue.
“I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ of personally meeting with one of these radical voices,” he remarked, before describing an encounter with a local man who told him callously of how, as a kid, he used to run around on the gravestones that were uncovered earlier and couldn’t have cared less. “How would you feel if it were your grandfather’s grave?” the mayor asked him. “Would you be okay with people trampling on it? Would you care then?” The man was left speechless.
Stefanski himself is adamant: “These gravestones need to find their appropriate place and it certainly is not underground.”
The gravestones are currently being documented by a government conservation specialist and academic research is being done on their origins. What will become of them? At first the municipality thought about transferring them to the local museum, but after consultation with Jewish organizations, the possibility of returning them to their natural location, the cemetery from which the Germans uprooted them, is now under consideration.
Bartosz Podubny, the district preservation specialist, says the municipality, the national government and the relevant Jewish organizations are working together to ensure that the gravestones are preserved from now on in good condition where they are being kept at present.
“We cleaned them, we put them in order,” says Mayor Stefanski. “Unfortunately, none of them is completely preserved. The Germans broke and cut them for their construction needs.”
Meanwhile, reports about the discovery in Lezajsk have caught the attention of Jews in other countries who trace their family history to the town. They have contacted the municipality for more information, hoping to identify their relatives’ gravestones. To facilitate the search, last week full visual documentation of the gravestones was posted on the mayor’s Facebook page. Among the replies to the post: “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The People of Israel Lives”).
Special thanks to Wojciech Bk for his assistance***