Lakewood Family Dedicates Restored Cemetery in Poland


opatutThe Opatut cousins got to see their Polish family at rest.
From about 2003 to 2005, their grandfather, Joel Opatut, known for philanthropic work in Monmouth and Ocean counties, spent $100,000 restoring the Jewish cemetery in Szadek, Poland, where his grandparents and other family are buried, that was desecrated during World War II. Opatut, who died at 82 in 2006 at his Long Branch home, asked his two grandsons to visit the Szadek cemetery every few years.Earlier this month, Peter Opatut, 32, of Freehold Township and Nathan Hammer, 21, of Lakewood kept that promise, visiting the cemetery for the first time since 2005. On the 2005 visit with his grandfather, cousin and other family, Peter Opatut saw a cemetery that was about 90 percent restored.

“This time, the whole thing was done,” Opatut said. “No graffiti, no vandalism. It was nice to see they (members of the Szadek community) kept it up.”

So, Opatut and Hammer, representing their family, and the Poland Jewish Cemeteries Restoration Project dedicated a plaque at the cemetery to Szadek government officials.

Various dignitaries attended the ceremony – representatives of Szadek’s government; the restoration project; the office of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski; of Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich; and the Jewish community of Lodz, a Polish city an estimated 45- to 60-minute car drive from Szadek. Also, attending were townspeople, including schoolchildren.

With schoolchildren there to learn about the past, it shows the heart of Szadek’s people is in the right place, Hammer said.

“The only thing more important than Szadek’s past is Szadek’s future,” Hammer said.

The Poles, in turn, honored Joel Opatut at the ceremony.

“I think both of us wished our grandfather was there to see something like this happening,” Opatut said. “We were both proud of what my grandfather did. I felt good about what we did for our ancestors and reminding the Polish people (that) there was a thriving Jewish community, there.”

“It was more sweet than bitter, knowing we were fulfilling one of his last wishes, one of his major wishes,” Hammer said.

Poland’s Jewish cemeteries were destroyed because of their Jewish background and because the invading military needed the gravestones for roads to move tanks, said Norman Weinberg, the executive coordinator of the restoration project, based in New York.

Of Poland’s Jewish cemeteries, 1,200 to 1,400 were in need of restoration, said Weinberg, whose parents were born in Poland. Less than 100 have been restored, with his group involved with 28 restorations, Weinberg said.

Beginning in 1982 and continuing every few years, Joel Opatut, who settled in Monmouth County in 1950, would visit his Polish hometown of Szadek, from which he was driven out during World War II by the Nazis.

Today, there is no Jewish community in the immediate area, Peter Opatut said.

From about 2003 to 2005, Joel Opatut worked on the project to restore the four-acre cemetery. In recent years, the cemetery was an overgrown field.

Today, it is a fenced-in, maintained field, with tree stumps left alone, so as not to disturb graves. It sits in a forested area, about a half-mile outside of the heart of Szadek.

Hammer noted “seeing the commitment of the town and the people to the entire project, the seriousness of maintaining the cemetery and memory of Jews in town.”

Following Jewish custom when visiting a cemetery, Opatut placed rocks, brought from his Freehold Township yard, at the cemetery.

Hammer said he hopes his family returns, every few years, to honor Joel Opatut’s request.

The Opatut family performed a good deed, or mitzvah in Hebrew, Weinberg said.

“A great mitzvah generates others,” Weinberg said.

“By their example, other people have been interested in restoring their ancestral cemeteries,” Weinberg said. “Polish kids are learning about the Holocaust. They are improving the town of Szadek. I could go on and on.”

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