Poland Promises $28 Million to Restore Major Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, established in 1806, is one of the largest cemeteries in the world, with some 250,000 graves in an area exceeding 75 acres

File photo: A volunteer helps to clean a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland.
AP

The Polish government has donated 100 million zlotys (around $28 million, or 100 million shekels), to restore the largest Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.

In Warsaw on Friday, Polish Culture Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski signed a contract with the Cultural Heritage Foundation, a private organization that preserves Polish heritage sites. The money established an endowment, returns from which are supposed to go to cleaning the cemetery, preserving its tombstones and monuments and reinforcing an outer wall.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Glinski said: "This area of over 33 hectares where Polish Jews are buried is part of the Polish cultural and national heritage."

Jewish community leaders praised the initiative. Anna Chipczynska, the head of the Warsaw Jewish community, called the donation "the Polish state's most important gesture aimed at protecting the Jewish material heritage." Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, said that it is about "honoring the dead, which is very important in our culture."

On December 8, the lower house of the Polish parliament, the Sejm, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the allocation, with 416 "yes" votes, four opposed and six abstaining. During the debate on the resolution, one member of Parliament, Robert Winnicki, objected, saying the Jewish organizations could fund the work themselves.

The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, established in 1806, is one of the largest cemeteries in the world, with some 250,000 graves in an area exceeding 75 acres. Among the notable people buried at the Okopowa Street cemetery are the writers Y.L. Peretz and S. Ansky, the actress Ester Rachel Kaminska; Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language; Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto and numerous notable rabbis. It also contains memorials to and the  mass graves of fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Jewish tourists often come to the cemetery to search for the remains of family members or to learn about Polish Jewry. Many of the gravestones are broken, neglected and covered in weeds. While occasional cleanup campaigns are conducted, some of them organized by Poles, the overall condition of the cemetery is poor.

Poland's Jewish population numbered nearly 3.5 million on the eve of World War II. More than 90 percent were murdered in ghettos or death camps set up by Nazi Germany during its wartime occupation of Poland. After the war, the majority of the survivors emigrated, bringing an end to the Jewish community that thrived in Poland for more than 1,000 years.