Convicts Help Rescue Neglected Jewish Cemeteries in Poland


polish-jewish-cemeteryNearly a dozen Polish prisons and detention centers have signed up their inmates to an unusual form of labor – rescuing overgrown, long-neglected Jewish cemeteries. 

Poland was home to an estimated third of the world’s Jews before World War II but the vast majority perished in the Holocaust during Nazi Germany’s occupation of the country.

With few if any relatives left to tend family graves, Jewish cemeteries have fallen into a bad state of disrepair over the decades. The Polish interior ministry’s cemetery renewal program is now aimed at reversing this process.

“For sure there is time here to reflect on our life mistakes and sins, but doing work for others like this also helps our self-esteem,” said convict Andrzej, who would only give his first name as he swept leaves at the Trzebinia cemetery in southern Poland.

Trzebinia is about 22 miles northeast of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp where some 1.3 million people were murdered during the war.

Local historian Andrzej Kostka said the prisoners had helped uncover lost tombstones and Hebrew inscriptions.

“People come here looking for their grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and they are very glad when they manage to find here a grave belonging to a relative,” Kostka said.

Ten prisons across Poland are taking part in the program. Prisoners receive instruction in Jewish religion and culture before starting work.

The work is not only physically demanding as they remove decades’ worth of tangled vegetation and flotsam, it must also conform to stringent Jewish religious rules concerning the dead.

They had to get special permission before touching gravestones.

“The attitude of the prisoners involved can change while working here, they can discover new perspectives on life,” said prison warden Tomasz Waclawek.

“The aim of the program is to learn about our common culture and heritage and to build up respect and care for it,” he added.

Rabbi Szlomo Kucera, head of the Jewish community in the southern city of Katowice, praised the work of the convicts.

“Respecting the dead is…a very important commandment in the Jewish religion, and looking after graves is a very big spiritual feat. Of course Jews should mainly look after a Jewish cemetery but given the situation in which we find ourselves in we are grateful for any help,” he said.

“Anybody who does something demonstrating respect for our dead will receive their reward in heaven.”

{Reuters/Dovid Newscenter}