Israelis working together with Poles to restore their country´s Jewish past (HA´ARETZ NEWS) By Amiram Barkat 05/05/05)
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More than 22,000 Israeli teenagers took part in Holocaust
remembrance trips to Poland last year, an all-time record.
Participation in delegations to Poland under the auspices of the
Israel Defense Forces has also soared, from two delegations in 2001
to 15 this year. But alongside the standard visits to death camps, a
growing number of Israelis, second- and third-generation Holocaust
survivors, are involved in a more independent and profound manner
with restoring Poland´s Jewish past.
Last August, Menachem Bornstein, 81, revisited his birthplace of
Szczekociny in central Poland. Before the Holocaust, the town had a
population of around 5,000, half of them Jews. Only several dozen
Jews returned there after the Holocaust. Bornstein, whose entire
family was wiped out, came to Israel after the war. He hesitated for
years before agreeing to return to his hometown, accompanied by his
son, Yossi, a 47-year-old businessman.
The visit left deeply disturbing impressions on both: Public
restrooms had been erected in the middle of the ancient Jewish
cemetery and a shopping center had been put up inside the opulent
synagogue. Numerous headstones had been pilfered from the cemetery
and used for pathways in private gardens.
The younger Bornstein decided upon returning to Israel to devote his
free time to the restoration of Szczekociny´s Jewish past. Since
then he has devoted several hours a week to the cause. With help
from the World Jewish Congress, he appealed to the Polish president
and other dignitaries to help rehabilitate the local Jewish cemetery.
He is currently organizing a delegation to Szczekociny this summer
of former townspeople, their children and grandchildren.
Bornstein hopes his activity will be a bridge between Jews and
Poles. "My father, like many other survivors, has bad memories of
the Poles, but I think our activity can bridge the huge chasm
between the peoples. I believe the Poles will be persuaded this is
something positive that will help to correct the distortion which,
perhaps, exists in their attitude to Jews."
Bornstein´s story may sound remarkable, but it´s not singular.
Former residents of Rozahn who now live in Israel and the United
States have in recent years invested time and money in the
preservation of the town´s Jewish cemetery. They purchased the
cemetery land, fenced it in and erected a monument in memory of
Holocaust victims. The memorial was unveiled this year in the
presence of a delegation of dozens of former townspeople.
That project would not have been possible without the willing
cooperation of local Poles.
A museum in Chelm
Former residents of Chelm, perhaps the most famous town in Jewish
folklore, are trying to buy the building that housed the yeshiva
study hall from a local entrepreneur, to turn it into a museum.
"Every time we come on a visit to Chelm, we are accorded an official
ceremonial welcome from the mayor, including an exchange of gifts,"
says Benzion Lefkovitz, of the association of former Chelm residents
in Israel. Two years ago, the mayor of Wodz approached former
residents living in Israel about getting involved in a major project
to preserve Jewish sites there. Productive relations have flourished
since then between the two sides.
Israeli schools have also begun recently to take part in the
preservation of Jewish cemeteries. One of the schools most involved
is the Reut school in Jerusalem. The school decided three years ago
to devote two days of each Poland trip to restoring cemeteries,
together with teenagers from Poland and Germany. The school´s
principal, Dr. Aryeh Geiger, says the joint activity has helped
subdue tension surrounding sensitive historic issues that might have
erupted in an ordinary face-to-face meeting. The preservation
project has also led students to discover for themselves Poland´s
"In contrast to visiting a death camp, when a student cleans a
tombstone with his own hands he connects with the personal story
behind it and feels that he has done something to preserve the
memory of that person," Geiger said.
After the school´s first trip, a group of 23 students and graduates
decided to return to Poland for two weeks over the summer to restore
a Jewish cemetery. Some 60 students and graduates are planning to go
on the next trip this summer.
Another school, the AMIT religious girls´ school in Be´er Sheva,
this year sent a first group of students to restore a Jewish
cemetery. Principal Michael Benson says the project was "without a
doubt the most powerful experience the girls encountered on the trip
A number of organizations have already recognized the potential
inherent in the renewed interest in Poland´s Jewish past. The World
Jewish Congress is sponsoring a project to restore and document the
mammoth Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, employing young Jews from Israel
and the Diaspora.
Peleg Reshef, chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS),
says the object is to create within five years an online database
containing photographs, maps and data on the 200,000 people buried
Meir Shilo of the Yad Lezahava memorial museum in Kedumim, made a
similar proposal to the Education Ministry. Shilo says there are
some 12,000 Jewish cemeteries in Poland, of which only about 700 are
registered. "If every student who goes to Poland were to document a
single tombstone, it would be possible to do a great deal to
preserve Poland´s magnificent Jewish past." (© Copyright 2005
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