04 August 2009

Philly 2009: Polish cemetery projects

The Jewish Records Indexing-Poland (JRI-Poland) luncheon was held Sunday, with speaker Monica Krawczyk of the Foundation for Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Visit the multimedia site Polin, which presents the history of Jewish communities - some 1,200 towns - at the English site. The Foundation was founded in 2002 by the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and the WJRO.

Its mission was to protect surviving monuments of Jewish heritage in Poland, Its important projects include: The Chassidic Route, The Zamosc Synagogue Revitalization Project, To Bring Memory Back, The POLIN - Jewish Jews' Heritage website.

She covered the discoveries of Jewish gravestones taken for roads, embankments and building foundations. Some 30% of stones have been destroyed, while another 30% have been preserved.
Preservation projects have been conducted by groups (SIGs, associations of immigrants and survivors etc.) and include monuments and memorials, listing names from specific localities. The Foundation also works on cemeteries, signage, memorials, reclaiming of burial grounds, fencing and gates.

A recent project in Zuromin focused on something planned for some time, They had wanted to enclose the open field. This has been done and now a memorial is planned to include all the names of those who had been killed.

Uppermost in such projects is the perspective of Judaism in regards to Jewish preservation and cooperation with interest groups. According to Monica, the most uniting aspect of working with Jewish groups has been the cooperation and coming together of a wide gamut of groups, ranging from the most Orthodox to the most secular.

They cooperate with the chief rabbi of Poland, Israeli rabbis and Orthodox groups in the US in solving problems based on customs and religious law. One specific case she mentioned is the law against digging in a cemetery (other than for graves), thus as far as landscaping, she said that a bush or tree cannot be dug up by the roots but can be cut off at ground level. This was a new one to me, but then Jewish cemetery laws are not my specialty.

Cooperating in today's projects are local authorities, Jewish communities, NGOs, international Jewish organizations, scouting groups and Polish and international student groups.

Another important aspect is that the group talks to local authorities and gains their cooperation and assistance with projects by explaining that those towns that help with marking cemeteries or other sites will benefit from increased tourism. Economic benefits mean cooperation with local authorities.

They explain to local governments that they have sites visited by many Jewish tourists, and ask, "why don't you promote your site or sites as a tourist destination? Thus cooperation has been arranged to the extent that localities help build roads, co-fund memorial plaques and generally ingrain in their minds that something should be done. She gave the example of a town with a synagogue but no sign, The town says the Jews aren't interested. Monica's group must bring the two sides together to talk,

There is also cooperation with the Polish antiquities authorities, as road construction reveals gravestones and the subsequent action of what to do with them. They help religious groups decide what to do.

The authorities say that the outside groups have no legal standing, producing sometimes cantankerous fights. Sometimes they obtain very good results. One example showed a walled-in plot of land with the preserved gravestones set in the walls.

Questions were raised as to the disposition Jewish community property and areas of Poland now in other countries

As genealogists know, discoveries of gravestones can be extremely important for genealogical research. Monica also shared with luncheon attendees that groups in Israel and elsewhere are now fund-raising for various projects.

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