During a 1988 visit to Nowy Dwór Mazowieck, the town in central Poland where his Holocaust survivor father grew up, David Wluka found a child’s skull lying, unearthed, at the site of what was once the town’s Jewish cemetery. He picked up the skull and smuggled it into the United States.
Wluka gave the skull a Jewish burial in Sharon, Mass., where he works as a realtor. This was his way of commemorating the Nowy Dwór cemetery, which at the time was nothing more than a decaying pit.
“The side of a hill was gone, with caskets sticking out,” Wluka recalled. “It was mined like you mine a gravel pit: open holes, open graves.” Gypsies camped out at the site, and it was routinely pillaged for sand and gravel, he said.
The Nazis destroyed the cemetery after the town ghetto was liquidated in 1942, repurposing the tombstones — as they did with many Jewish graveyards — to pave roads.
These days, Nowy Dwór, one of Poland’s roughly 1,400 Jewish cemeteries — reminders of what was once Europe’s largest Jewish community — is undergoing restoration, with its own rededication scheduled for July 2011.
There are more to come. A 1997 law granting Poland’s Jewish community the right to reclaim communal property has brought hundreds of cemeteries back under Jewish communal ownership, thanks in large part to the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, which also helps conserve synagogues and other Jewish monuments. The Polish Jewish community currently lays claim to almost 1,000 cemeteries, said Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich.
After reacquiring a cemetery, Schudrich and the Poland Jewish Cemeteries Restoration Project, a communal organization, work with the local government to clean, fence and refurbish the burial ground. Non-Jewish Poles participate in site cleanup and extract tombstones from nearby roads. To avoid historical inaccuracy, broken tombstones are usually incorporated into a memorial wall rather than placed back in the ground.
One program, called Projekt Izrael, has Polish prisoners clean cemeteries as part of their rehabilitation, while they receive lessons in Jewish religion and culture.
“Poland has been overwhelmingly positive on the national and local level,” Schudrich said, but dozens of cemeteries remain derelict and deserted.
The cemeteries suffer from “over 50 years of neglect and destruction” by Nazi and communist regimes, Schudrich added. “The major challenge is that we now have the infrastructure to restore hundreds and hundreds of cemeteries, but we don’t have the funds.” The Polish government does not provide financial aid.
Meanwhile, in Austria, home to 61 Jewish cemeteries, the federal government earmarked $27 million in early November for restorations over the next two decades. Like Poland, surrounding towns will take responsibility for upkeep.
The size of the Austrian government’s outlay for just 61 cemeteries underlines the enormity of what it would cost to restore the 1,000 cemeteries to which the Polish Jewish community now lays claim.
For Nowy Dwor, Wluka has raised more than $40,000 — enough to pay for protective fencing and basic landscaping, but far short of his $500,000 goal for fully restoring the site. Most of the money has come from Israeli, Australian and American donors. A letter of support from Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank was read at the groundbreaking ceremony in early June. Even without money to build a monument or memorial wall, Wluka still plans to dedicate the cemetery next summer.
“The cemetery,” Wluka said, “ought to be brought back to some semblance of what it was, so it’s a reminder of what happened.”
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