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Polish musclemen move monument

The Polish Strongman Federation volunteered to relocate 380-kilogram Jewish gravestone from urban agriculture plot in Warsaw

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Members of the Polish Strongman Federation, headed by former world champion Tomasz Kowal (left) remove a Jewish gravestone from an urban farm plot in Warsaw. (courtesy From the Depths)
Members of the Polish Strongman Federation, headed by former world champion Tomasz Kowal (left) remove a Jewish gravestone from an urban farm plot in Warsaw. (courtesy From the Depths)

Two Polish strongmen were required to remove a unique pre-Holocaust era Jewish tombstone from a urban farm plot in Warsaw this week. Carved in sandstone in the shape of a severed tree limb, the gravemarker weighs in at some 380 kilos.

The agricultural plot is part of an allotment of land given to party members during the Communist regime. It was inherited 20 years ago by its current owner — a niece, who, now in her 60s, visits it weekly and uses it to grow vegetables and flowers.

Since assuming ownership, the Warsaw resident said she was uneasy about the unusual stone, which, although broken in two parts, was impossible to move. The plot is located some 50 meters from the urban farm’s gate, precluding any attempt to bring machinery to aid in its removal.

For decades the family was unaware of the stone’s Jewish provenance, says From the Depths head Jonny Daniels, who organized the stone’s relocation back to the Warsaw Okopowa Jewish cemetery across the street. When the owner’s architect son realized the Jewish connection he turned to Polish Jewish institutions for aid, but received no response.

Polish Strongman Federation head and former world champion Tomasz Kowal. (courtesy From the Depths)
Polish Strongman Federation head and former world champion Tomasz Kowal. (courtesy From the Depths)

When an American cousin recently read about the Warsaw municipality’s joint efforts with From the Depths in returning tombstones to Jewish cemeteries, he brought the organization to his family’s attention.

Coincidentally, says Daniels, members of the Polish Strongman Federation, headed by former world champion Tomasz Kowal, had just offered their services to the organization, should the need for their strength arise.

Originally Kowal had thought he could lift the stones alone. Upon reaching the allotment he quickly saw this was a job for two super strong men. Together they lifted the heavier of the two pieces — 250 kilos — and Kowal removed the second smaller piece — 120 kilos — alone.

The stone, now in a section of the Jewish graveyard where similar returned stones are kept, once marked the grave of a young girl called Miriam, says Daniels. He thinks the tree limb, a motif that indicates a life cut short, was taken to the urban agriculture plot as decoration. Though because of its weight, he said, “It’s like the building of the pyramids — I’m not sure how people did it.”

Daniels says that in contrast to the care taken in Polish Christian cemeteries, where citizens gather every year on November 1 to clean and visit their ancestors’ graves, since the utter destruction of the Jewish communities during the Holocaust, Jewish graveyards have been the source for building materials and decorations. Even today they are treated with utter disrespect, he says.

Hebrew inscription on the 'light' 120 kilo portion of the Jewish gravestone. (courtesy From the Depths)
Hebrew inscription on the ‘light’ 120 kilo portion of the Jewish gravestone. (courtesy From the Depths)

In a visit to Sobibor this week, Daniels says he had a run-in with two Polish youth who were blissfully riding bikes over the remains of thousands of Jews. He asked them to desist, horrified, saying, “Would you ride bikes on your grandfathers’ graves?”

However, Daniels says, the volunteer Polish strongmen who removed the gravemarker were not alone in offering their services. Since the gravestone reclamation project kicked off this summer, there’s been a huge amount of media exposure in the Polish press. The organization, which bases most of its efforts around Polish student volunteers, now counts firemen, and even nuns, in its ranks.

Daniels says he is inundated with phone calls and emails with information for gravestones, but notes the markers are just an opening to talk about other parts of Jewish heritage, including Torah scrolls, that Polish citizens are eager to finally give back, some 75 years after the end of World War II.

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