Opinion

Don’t 'Rescue' the Jewish Gravestones Pillaged in Poland

Gravestones were used to build a Christian cemetery’s wall in my mother’s hometown. Should we push for Polish restitution - or reconciliation?

Kazimierz Jewish cemetery, Poland
James E. Young

There are walls and there are Walls. Walls that protect, walls that demarcate, walls that divide, walls that are so much cement or stone, and Walls invested with holiness, sanctified by generations of suppliant hands and lips. (Jerusalem, where I live, has its share of each of these.)

There is a wall demarcating the Christian cemetery in a small town in south-central Poland. As the outer layer of plaster peeled off, Jewish tombstones were revealed--presumably stolen from the Jewish cemetery down the road. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I read the story of this wall by Ofer Aderet (“Jewish Gravestones Used to Build Wall around Christian Cemetery in Polish Town”).

Then something caught my eye: the town, Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski, is my mother’s hometown. The central figure in the story, who researched the cemetery’s fate, is Meir Bulka. His great-great-grandfather, Reb Isaac Mendel Bulka, was my great-grandfather. Between death and daughters, Meir is the only one to carry on the family name.

He visited Ostrowiec, which the Jews call “Ostrovtse,” two years ago and began to investigate the family’s history and to look for traces of their lives and their deaths. Like his grandparents, and mine, some had migrated to Palestine or to the U.S., but most who stayed perished in Auschwitz or Treblinka. Approximately 11,000 Jews lived in Ostrowiec before the war; today there are no Jews in Ostrowiec.

And there are very few recognizable tombstones of those who were lucky enough to have been buried in their hometown’s cemetery.

Meir is, understandably, incensed by the desecration of tombstones in the Jewish cemetery itself—and even more so by the use of such stones as construction materials for the Christian cemetery. He is campaigning to get the town to dismantle the wall and give the broken tombstones themselves a proper “burial”—either as a “gal-ed” (monument) in Ostrowiec or transported to Yad Vashem.

I sympathize with my new-found cousin, who stumbled upon what is, unfortunately, a widespread phenomenon in Poland, as so many pilgrims to ancestral homes have discovered and so many scholars have chronicled.

There is much to say not only about the hooligans who desecrated the graves during and after the war—but also about those intrepid souls who have tried to repair, restore, document and commemorate the resting places of those pre-war Jews who were lucky enough to have been afforded a respectful burial in their native land.

The wall of the cemetery
Meir Bulka

Monica and Stanislaw Krajewski were among the first to organize legions of dedicated Polish volunteers to salvage what they could and commemorate what they couldn’t (see A Tribe of Stones: Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, 1993).

One of the scholars who has studied eastern Europe’s Jewish burial sites and memorial venues is James E. Young, professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “From what I’ve seen in Poland,” he wrote to me, “just about every shtetl cemetery was either destroyed by local Nazi officials (who plundered the stone for paving projects) or abandoned (and often later desecrated) by local Poles looking for treasuresI have also documented dozens of shtetlach with destroyed cemeteries where the broken tombstones had been arranged into ‘tombstone memorial obelisks,’ usually by post-war Jewish returnees to their hometowns, but occasionally also by local Polish youth groups (as in Warsaw, Krakow, and Kazimierz na Dolny).”

In his recent essay, Shever bli Tikkun in Post-Holocaust Memorial Art and Design, Young recalls the words of poet Jerzy Ficowski in his poem Broken Tablets and Jewish Memory in Poland:

Sandstone is good

for honing scythes

so that all that is left

is a rib of stone

here a foot of stone

a tibia

there a shinbone

a bone of sto

a shank of st

Young writes that Ficowski’s verbally “broken epitaph” reflects the “architectural impulse” in which “fragments of shattered Jewish tombstones became the predominant iconographic figure by which public memory of the Shoah was constructed in Poland immediately after the war.”

Sandomierz Jewish cemetery, Poland
James E. Young

But we, after all, aren’t living in the past but in the present, in 2017. For me the only question worth asking is that of an educator: What ethical message can emerge from this story for people alive today? What kind of person would have been involved in such a desecration and what can younger Poles learn? What might I have done in those conditions? Are European cemeteries of the Jewish dead the primary totems of our Israeli identity? And what kind of a Jew am I?

That got me thinking in a different direction from that of my cousin: not of retribution, or even “justice”—but of a new kind of memorialization and dialogue.

What, if we, the descendants of the Jews of Ostrovtse, took these figures of brokenness and turned them into something else—by reaching out to the youth of the town, and to its mayor, in the spirit of dialogue and reconciliation?

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the chief curator of the stunning POLIN museum exhibition in Warsaw, did something like this. Her father Mayer hailed from Apt (Opatów), Ostrowiec’s neighboring town. When his book of painted memories of the Apt of his childhood and youth, They Called me Mayer July, appeared, the town arranged an exhibition and a ceremony as a gesture of sorrow and honor.

Similarly, might not a group of peace-minded Jews and Catholics come together in Ostrowiec at the site of the wall and consecrate it through a plaque and an interfaith ceremony, leaving it intact and turning it into a memorial site of its own?

Hall of Names, Yad Vashem
AP

Cousin Meir is not interested in my ideas for an alternative to the dismantling of the wall. He ended the conversation with me by asserting that he is certain that “by the end of 2017, the wall will fall.” How, I asked, is that to come about, given that nothing has come of his appeals to the mayor. Will the wall fall by itself? “Ulai,” was his answer. Perhaps.

But are any of us so blameless that we have a right to cast such stones? Does Yad Vashem really need more fragments of Polish Jewish tombstones?

Yehuda Amichai had such a fragment on his desk, with a Hebrew word carved on a broken stone:

On my desk is a stone with “Amen” carved on it, one survivor fragment

of the thousands upon thousands of bits of broken tombstones

in Jewish graveyards. I know all these broken pieces

now fill the great Jewish time bomb

along with the other fragments and shrapnel, broken Tablets of the Law

broken altars broken crosses rusty crucifixion nails

broken houseware and holyware and broken bones

eyeglasses shoes prostheses false teeth

empty cans of lethal poison. All these broken pieces

fill the Jewish time bomb until the end of days.

And though I know about all this, and about the end of days,

the stone on my desk gives me peace.

It is the touchstone no one touches, more philosophical

than any philosopher’s stone, broken stone from a broken tomb

more whole than any wholeness,

a stone of witness to what has always been

and what will always be, a stone of amen and love.

Amen, amen, and may it come to pass.

Amen, amen ve-ken yehi ratzon.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is professor emerita of comparative literature at the Hebrew University, and a Guggenheim Fellow.

This article has been revised.