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InterviewThe majority of the devastation occurred post-WWII

‘Annihilation’ of Poland’s Jewish cemeteries documented in provocative book

Krzysztof Bielawski publishes 1st ‘historical synthesis’ of Poland’s destroyed Jewish graveyards, emphasizing role of government-led campaigns and new grassroots efforts to rebuild

Jewish Cemetery in Karczew, Poland, 2017 (courtesy: Christian Herrmann/vanishedworld.blog)
Jewish Cemetery in Karczew, Poland, 2017 (courtesy: Christian Herrmann/vanishedworld.blog)

Most people assume that Poland’s destroyed Jewish burial grounds were desecrated by the Nazis. An expert on Jewish cemeteries in Poland, however, said Polish citizens likely did more damage after the war than the country’s German occupiers.

Called “The Annihilation of Jewish Cemeteries,” author Krzysztof Bielawski’s book — available in Polish — examines the erasure of Poland’s Jewish cemeteries since World War II. So far, no book has linked Nazi-era destruction to the ensuing decades, said Bielawski, who is seeking Hebrew and English publishers.

“This work disproves a few myths, including the supposed mass destruction of cemeteries during Kristallnacht and a very common saying that ‘cemeteries were totally destroyed by Germans,’” said Bielawski in an interview with The Times of Israel.

“In fact, even if a cemetery was devastated by the Nazis during the war, it was also destroyed by the local population,” said Bielawski. “Giant destruction was done by the post-war Polish state.”

About 20 years ago, when he was working as a travel agent in Warsaw, Bielawski, who is not Jewish, became fascinated with Jewish history. After creating a website about Jewish cemeteries in Poland, he pursued Jewish studies at the graduate level and joined the staff of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in 2009.

During his years of research, Bielawski has found himself in the spotlight. Ten years ago, he reported that Jewish tombstones were used to build a Red Army plot in Warsaw’s municipal cemetery. Media attention helped spur the transfer of the tombstones to the adjacent Brodno Jewish cemetery, where they “were broken up by the homeless who live in the cemetery,” said Bielawski.

Warsaw Jewish cemetery in Brodno, 2017 (Christian Herrmann/vanishedworld.blog)

The Brodno Jewish cemetery has been in use since 1740. Although the Nazis did destroy some of the grounds, said Bielawski, “the biggest destruction was done in the 1950s when Warsaw authorities decided to convert the cemetery into a park. Bulldozers moved all the matzevot [Hebrew for tombstones] into huge heaps.”

In his comprehensive study, Bielawski documents hundreds of examples of the destruction of Jewish cemeteries. During the 1960s, burial grounds disappeared to make way for schools, malls, sports arenas, and parks.

Jewish tombstones used to make Red Army plot at Brodno cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, 2011 (courtesy: Krzysztof Bielawski)

“From the beginning of Jewish settlement, about 1,200 Jewish cemeteries were created. Probably even not one avoided the destruction,” said historian Krzysztof Persak of the Polish Academy of Science. “In his book, Bielawski describes a sad reality, which evokes moral indignation and shame.”

In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Bielawski spoke about why it took so long for a book like his to be published, as well as the current state of Polish-Jewish relations.

Why has no one published a book on this topic yet, given how many books have been written about Jews in Poland?

Author Krzysztof Bielawski (Studio MTJ T. Wrzesinski)

The book is not easy for many readers. It proves that the post-war state and thousands of Poles took part in destroying Jewish cemeteries. This is another “heavy stone” in research on Polish-Jewish relations.

My book is the first historical synthesis focusing on the period from 1933 — when Hitler came to power — until today. The majority of the 280-page book deals with the devastation after World War II. After the downfall of Communism the situation changed, but Jewish cemeteries are still in danger.

Today, after the downfall of Communism in Europe, there are new possibilities for the discussion of Jewish history in Poland. This became possible thanks to the annulment of censorship; new media and the Internet, as well as the ability to conduct independent research. Poles confronted the difficult past and facts from history, like pogroms in 1941 in Jedwabne and other towns, and the Kielce pogrom in 1946 and post-war killings of Jews.

Many people accept this knowledge. Others deny it and — for sure — many are not interested

There was also the 1968 anti-Semitic campaign, in which 13,000 Jews were forced to emigrate from Poland. Even more cemeteries were left without caretakers. Many people accept this knowledge. Others deny it and — for sure — many are not interested.

Can you tell us — in a nutshell — what happened during the decades after World War II to Jewish cemeteries in Poland?

First of all, the Communists did not allow the recreation of prewar Jewish communities. They allowed the creation of “Jewish Religious Congregations” which were associations, not kehillot — communities — in the traditional pre-war sense. This meant the congregations could not inherit the property of the pre-war Jewish communities, so they had no assets.

Memorial monument made of Jewish tombstones in Chmielnik, Poland, a town with 10,000 Jews in 1939 (courtesy: Krzysztof Bielawski)

Of course, approximately 90% of Polish Jews perished in the Shoah. Keeping the legal continuity between pre-war and post-war Jewish organizations would have given the survivors the right to sell or rent unused synagogues and other buildings. Those funds would have been used to maintain the cemeteries. However, the Communist authorities made transfer of ownership impossible.

The government initiated a “cleaning” campaign of “abandoned cemeteries” in 1958. However, the challenge was huge and local authorities did not want to spend funds. The cheapest solution was closing the cemeteries and converting them into construction sites, parks or playgrounds. The beginning of the 1960s brought a wide wave of cemetery destruction.

Jewish tombstones in Nowy Zmigrod, Poland, where 800 Jews lived in 1939 (courtesy: Krzysztof Bielawski)

After 1989, the state’s participation in the cemetery destruction declined. A few new laws provided better protection for cemeteries. Still, every year we have cases with town authorities trying to build roads through cemetery grounds — recently in Zamość and Jasło — or desecrate cemeteries in another way.

What about “everyday” Poles who took part in destroying Jewish cemeteries? How did you research that and what were your findings?

One of the biggest challenges was explaining the reasons for why people took part in destroying cemeteries. I can’t make a survey and ask, “Why did you destroy the cemetery?” It is obvious the Germans destroyed cemeteries as a part of their annihilation of European Jews. But after the war, it became less straightforward.

Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew, Poland, where 4,000 Jews lived in 1939 (courtesy: Krzysztof Bielawski)

Assuming each of 1,200 Jewish cemeteries was destroyed by at least 30 people, the total amount of Poles taking part in this process would be tens of thousands. Many others were indifferent, and some were against it. But of course it is impossible to give precise statistics.

In the case of local people, the main reason was getting access to “ownerless” property, like stone from matzevot [tombstones], wood and bricks from walls and pre-burial houses, etc. Some cemeteries were used as agricultural fields or construction plots.

I am sure that anti-Semitism was an important part as well. The same people did not devastate Catholic cemeteries. They destroyed Jewish or Protestant cemeteries as the places of “strangers” — ethnic and religious strangers. In this case, the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal” was not compulsory.

Jewish tombstones used to make a building in Parysow, Poland (courtesy: Krzysztof Bielawski)

What is important is that diverse people took part in the process. They were not only “low-life” people. Quite often they were respected members of society. A house in a certain cemetery was built by a teacher. In a few towns, priests and monks used courtyards that Germans paved with matzevot. Many destructive acts were done by youth.

I included people who decided to take care of these places, in part to show that history and people are not black and white

On the other hand, I also quoted letters sent by Poles who were against the destruction of the cemeteries. I included people who decided to take care of these places, in part to show that history and people are not black and white.

When it comes to this bleak topic, is there anything that gives you hope for the future?

What gives me hope is the growing activity of local, non-Jewish residents since 1989. They take care of the cemeteries in their towns and villages because of their respect for burial places, local heritage, or interest in Jewish history and culture.

Brodno Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, 2017 (courtesy: Christian Herrmann/vanishedworld.blog)

When these cemetery initiatives are undertaken by local Poles, they usually try to find and invite Jews with roots from the town. That helps unite people, learn our common history, and understand each other. If Jewish organizations or Jews from abroad try to restore a cemetery, in most cases they cooperate with local authorities, companies, schools, and associations.

Many cemeteries were cleaned, fenced, and commemorated thanks to Jews from Poland and their descendants who live now in other countries. But still, all of this has not been enough. Most burial grounds have no caretakers. As Jan Jagielski from the Jewish Historical Institute said: “These cemeteries die.”

The only remaining Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim, Poland, May 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
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