Poles and Israelis Are Piecing Together Fragments of a Jewish Cemetery

Two Poles discovered hundreds of pieces of Jewish headstones torn out decades ago and used in construction of a railroad station. Israeli students are helping them decipher the writings on the stones

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A fragment of one of the Jewish headstones discovered in Poland.
A fragment of one of the Jewish headstones discovered in Poland.Credit: Adam Shidlovsky
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Near the old train track in the city of Bedzin, Poland, Meir Bulka, of Sha’arei Tikvah, found a stone bearing the Hebrew word “Sukkot.” Bulka, a 54-year-old religious Jew, considered it symbolic that he had discovered the stone just before the High Holy Days. The stone was part of a broken tombstone, the rest of which has not yet been found; the person who it belonged to died during the holiday of Sukkot.

Bulka, who has worked in recent years to preserve Jewish heritage sites in Poland, was called to the abandoned location after a local historian and businessman found hundreds of Jewish headstones at the site. Historical research showed that tombstones in one of the city’s Jewish cemeteries from before World War II were not demolished by the Nazis, but were removed after the war by communists to use as raw material for construction of the train platform.

Historian Adam Szydlowski says that in 2008 he tried to pry the stone from the platform but stopped when he was unable to obtain the proper equipment. Work was renewed this year after he raised special funding from businessman Marcin Majchrowicz. Majchrowitz explains that his investment in conserving local Jewish heritage is a way to give back to the Jewish community who contributed to culture and education in the city before World War II, and allowing them to rest in peace.

Stories of this type are common in Poland in recent years. In more and more villages, towns and cities throughout the country, local people are popping up who are dedicated to looking for remnants of forgotten Jewish sites. The mission requires Hebrew speakers to help decipher writing on tombstones, to catalogue them, and, more importantly, to reunite their fragments.

Businessman Marcin Majchrowicz and historian Adam Szydlowski with the headstone fragments.Credit: Adam Shidlovsky

The excavations at Bedzin began last April. After it turned out how many fragments there were – apparently around a thousand – Bulka enlisted participants in the Gideonites project from the Re’ut School in Jerusalem, who have been refurbishing and documenting Jewish cemeteries in Poland since 2004. At present, because of coronavirus restrictions, computer work has replaced the students’ field work.

“When I visited the site I realized that we needed to decipher the words on the tombstones to try to put them back together,” says Bulka, who heads J-nerations, the Forum for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in the EU. The coronavirus caused them to work on “two fronts” – local and virtual, he adds.

The Polish team photographs all the fragments and sends them to israel, where the Israeli team deciphers them and helps put the pieces back together. “There is fine Polish-Israeli cooperation here, without any involvement of political figures and completely on a volunteer basis,” Bulka says.

Szydlowski says enthusiastically: “In many cases the headstones can be put back together, and more importantly, the names and family names of the Jewish inhabitants of Bedzin can be read.” According to Bulka, after the work is completed, it may be possible to locate descendants of the deceased. Dina Weiner, coordinator of the Gideonites, says she hopes in the near future that the students will be able to see the headstones not only on a computer monitor. “It’s very hard to work long-distance. We want to touch them,” she adds.

The cemetery from which the tombstones came was established in 1871 on Zagorska Street in Bedzin. It was the third Jewish cemetery in the city and was in use until 1916. According to Szydlowski the cemetery was damaged before the war by stone factories in the area. The German occupation added more destruction to the site but the worst came during the 1960s, when the communist authorities demolished the tombs to use the area for other public purposes. The tombstones themselves were used to build the train platform. “Eye witnesses say trucks came into the cemetery and bones were loaded onto them,” Szydlowski says. One witness told him he saw wheelbarrows full of bones being taken from the site and later bulldozers came in and prepared the ground to be asphalted.

Fragments of the tombstones discovered in Bedzin, Poland.Credit: Adam Shidlovsky

After the tombstones are reassembled, construction of a monument incorporating them nearby will be considered. It will be a unique cemetery – constructed for existing tombstones. It seems that only one possibility cannot be realized – to return them to their original sites. Where the cemetery once stood, there is now a bus stop.

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