Jewish At-Risk Teens Repair Polish Cemeteries
Located in what is currently western Ukraine, south-eastern Poland, and north-eastern Romania – the provinces that were once known as Galicia and Bukovina and were once home to over 8 million Jews before the Holocaust, made up nearly a quarter of all Ashkenazi Jewry at the time. Today the area is almost entirely devoid of Jews. In an effort to document and preserve what little remains of the bygone Jewish community of the region, the “Jewish Galicia and Bukovina Association” was founded four years ago to create an electronic database of primary materials pertaining to Galician and Bukovinian Jewry.
As part of its ongoing projects, the Jewish Galicia and Bukovina Association recently sent a group of students from ACE High School in Israel – a small alternative yeshiva in Israel for English speaking teens – on a heritage trip through Poland. A total of eight students and two staff members spent just over a week in Poland, three days of which were dedicated entirely to a cemetery renovation and documentation in the village of Nowy Żmigród and the city of Olsyce.
Nowy Żmigród is located in the south-eastern corner of Poland, approximately 20 miles from the Slovakian border. The population of Żmigród over the last few centuries has fluctuated from 1,500 to 3,000 people – at times Jews constituted 60% of the population. The first record of Jews in Żmigród dates to 1410 when they were permitted to settle throughout the city. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the majority of Żmigród’s Jews were Chassidic, largely followers of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam – the Rav of nearbye Nowy SÄ…cz and the first Sanzer Rav. Early in 1942, the Nazi’s established a ghetto in Żmigród to house over 2000 of the area’s Jews. On July 7, 1942, 1,250 Jews were rounded up and led to the forest of Halbow where they were massacred and dumped into mass open graves. The survivors from the town were sent to the Zaslaw labor camp near Kraków, or met their end in the Belzec or Płaszów death camps.
Upon arriving in Żmigród, the High School group was warmly greeted by Rabbi Natan Dudek Levin from the Rabbinic Commission for Cemeteries in Poland as well as by Mr. Jerzy DÄ™biec, the Polish Director of Culture for the region. They were then met by the administration and senior class of the local high school who showed them a presentation that they had created about the history of town’s Jews. The majority of students in the town had never met a Jew before in their life. Local news crews covered the event for over 2 million Polish viewers, filming the students working in the cemetery. Despite inclement weather, the team documented over three hundred gravestones, mapped out the cemetery, and did general maintenance and cleaning of the cemetery.
“Doing the work enriched our trip like nothing else could have done,” Rabbi Ariel Fishman said. Fishman co-founded ACE three years ago to provide an alternative yeshiva high school for Anglo boys from Israel and the U.S who have not “made it” in the regular yeshiva system.
“The boys felt more connected and respected because we came with a mission, and it meant more to them because they earned their way,” Fishman continued. “We weren’t just looking at sites – we were scrubbing the gravestones with our own hands. The experience entered into our bones. It was deeply moving and inspiring at the same time.”
From there, the students went on to the larger city of Olsyce. Upon their arrival in the city, they were ushered in to meet the mayor in his board room.”We received a royal welcome fit for ambassadors,” Fishman recalled. “The table was set with the most amazing spread of food. Although it was non-kosher, we were deeply moved by their effort.”
The students went on to repair and document the gravestones in the local Jewish cemetery. While they were working, an elderly man approached them who had lived in the town all his life. Although he wasn’t Jewish, he had many Jewish friends and was intimately familiar with Jewish life in the city before the war. He recounted dozens of stories about the Jews of the town, culminating with the Nazis killing 1000 Jews in a single day. He was nine years old at the time. “He recalled the stories with total lucidity, as if it happened yesterday,” Fishman said. “The guys were completely dumbfounded.”
Afterwards, the group went on to visit Poland’s major Jewish historical sites, including a number of the concentration camps. They spent Shabbat in Kracow – the only Polish city whose synagogues were preserved by the Nazis as testimony of the “extinct Jewish race.” During Shabbat services in the Kupa Synagogue, the ACE students roused the entire congregation made up of 150 international guests and a handful of locals to dance together hand in hand in lively celebration. “We went from learning about the history of Jews in the towns where they lived, to working in the cemeteries where they were buried, to visiting the concentration camps where they died, and now we were dancing and praying in the shul where they prayed, that was set aside to become a museum. The effect was nothing short of powerful,” Fishman said.
The students found the entire experience to be invigorating and emotional and are looking forward to being part of such ventures again in the future. Tzvi M. of Brooklyn, New York, age 16, joined the school in September. He was one of the eight students selected to attend the trip. “Poland was intense,” he recalled. “I always thought the Holocaust took place way in the past but when you go there and see everything still standing it hits home how recent it really was. It gave me an appreciation to be Jewish, walking the streets of Poland with a yarmulke on. We’re still here! Where are the Nazis today? We won.”