In This Polish City, Schoolkids Play Soccer on Top of a Rabbi's Grave

'How would the local mayor, or any other resident of these cities, feel if children were playing soccer on his grandfather’s grave?'

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Hasids pray at the site of the Rebbe's grave in Poland
Hasids pray at the site of the Rebbe's grave in PolandCredit: J-nerations
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

One day last month a group of Hasidim from Israel entered the gate of a new sports field where schoolchildren play soccer and basketball, in the yard of a school in the Polish city of Kazimierz Dolny (or as Jews call it, Kuzmir). They walked to a certain place on the field, placed the cover of a Torah ark over the spot, lay down on the ground – and began to pray.

This scene at the field, which was quite strange to onlookers, marked the height of a struggle that has been waged for several years by Hasidim of the Modzitz dynasty, whose venerated leader, the Rebbe Yechezkel Taub of Kuzmir, died in 1856, and who they say is buried there.

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The memorial built outside of the school soccer field in PolandCredit: J-nerations

Leading the group was Shlomo Tzvi Hirsch Taub, who calls himself “the seventh generation of the righteous one.” Five years ago, he says, he discovered that the rebbe was buried in the old Jewish cemetery that once stood at the site, which was then the backyard of the local school.

Then, “miraculously,” Taub says, the school collapsed after a gas explosion. However, when the school was subsequently renovated, a sports field was built over the cemetery.

“The whole cemetery is under the sports field. It’s a shameful site,” Taub told Haaretz last month, during a visit there.

Taub is especially disturbed by the fact that the most important grave of all – that of the Rebbe of Kuzmir – is right in the center of the field. Taub says that a ground-penetrating radar test carried out at his behest confirmed that under the ground at that place in the field is a stone structure that is 2.4 meters long, with two smaller structures nearby. When the Hasidim checked their sources, they discovered that the rebbe had been a very tall man, and that he was buried next to his son and grandson.

Negotiations with the local authorities ran aground after the municipality built a small monument outside the wall surrounding the field, noting that the place had once been a Jewish cemetery.

“They thought that they would calm us down with that, but our feelings are very hurt. You never know if you can go in and pray there or not, whether they’ll disturb you or not,” Taub said, while local workers operating heavy equipment disturbed the praying Hasidim.

A few months ago, Meir Bulka, a kippah-clad resident of the Israeli West Bank Jewish settlement of Sha’arei Tikva came to the Hasids' aid. Bulka, 50, whose roots are Polish, heads an organization called J-nerations that works to “renew Jewish heritage in Europe” in tandem with various local authorities, he says.

Meir Bulka, head of J-nerations Credit: J-nerations

Among other things, Bulka has expertise mainly in dealing with the desecration of Jewish graves throughout Poland. Indeed, J-nerations is currently waging a similar struggle in another town in the country, Ostrowiec, where the Nazis and later the Soviets, who occupied Poland, uprooted many Jewish graves, including those of 150 members of Bulka’s own family.

“How would the local mayor, or any other resident of these cities, feel if children were playing soccer on his grandfather’s grave?” Bulka says angrily.

In extensive research that he carried out both on the ground and in archives on Kazimierz Dolny, he was able to obtain archaeological and historical reports that prove that the new sports field was built over the ruins of the Jewish cemetery. It had been in use between the 16th and the 19th centuries and contained some 200 tombstones.

In the 1940s, the Nazis destroyed the site along with countless others in occupied Poland. The tombstones were removed and used to pave the local road, as also happened elsewhere in the country.

In addition to the historical materials, Bulka documented tombstones, bones and skeletons that likely belonged to Jews buried in the centuries-old cemetery. Some of them turned up during renovation of the school. Others protruded from the surface of the ground in nearby areas, and are well known to local residents, who led Bulka to the sites. One resident showed him a tombstone and pieces of bones in the yard of her home.

A local archaeologist, Dr. Edmund Mitrus, explained that in the coming years more bones would likely surface, as well, as a result of various factors. He says he warned the authorities about this before the school was built, but they took no note of it.

Kazimierz Dolny, which dates back to the 14th century and is located in the central eastern part of Poland, is a prime tourist destination because of its spectacular scenery and history. There was a Jewish community there from the start, which gained renown because of the story of Esther, the Jewish lover of King Casimir the Great, who ruled the country from 1333 to 1370.

At present, Bulka is waging a legal fight against the municipality, demanding that the area of the cemetery that was turned into a sports field be evacuated immediately, and that the land serve once again as a Jewish cemetery. He is also trying to delay the opening of the school at the end of the summer because of evidence he wants to examine that indicates that parts of the school building itself were built over Jewish graves.

“No one denies that the sports field was built over this cemetery. This fact is known to everyone. Until today no one has done anything to preserve it,” he asserts.

For its part, the Kazimierz Dolny municipality has said it is open to discussions about the future of the place.

“We have proven that we are ready to talk and find the best solutions,” one official said. But city officials also noted that the solutions “will only be achieved through dialogue intended to find the best compromise.”

Bulka feels that such comments are only intended to buy time until the new school year starts, after more renovations, and the students will start playing soccer and basketball on the field covering the old cemetery.

“The Hasidim have been hearing these things from the municipality for years now,” Bulka says, noting that at a time like this, when Israel and Poland are working toward reconciliation after the tensions surrounding the so-called Polish Holocaust law – whose punitive criminal clauses were nullified last week – “city leaders should rethink their path and stop this desecration of graves.

Shlomo Taub, the Hasid, does not mince words: “Even if the Germans are the ones who committed this crime, the Poles are the ones letting it go on. As long as the cemetery stays in the situation it is in now, we want to build a proper monument and allow anyone who wants to, who has a Jewish heart, to pray there.”

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