Thursday, September 11, 2008

Conference of Poles Who Preserve Jewish Heritage, September 15-16, 2008

photo: Jan Jagielski in Warsaw Jewish Cemetery
photo: Samuel D. Gruber 1993

Conference of Poles Who Preserve Jewish Heritage, September 15-16, 2008

by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The first national conference of (non-Jewish) Poles who care for Jewish heritage sites in Poland is scheduled for next week (Sept. 15-16) in the town of Zdunska Wola, near Lodz in central Poland. The government-supported conference is the brain-child of local activist Kamila Klauzinska, graduate student in Jewish studies at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, one of many non-Jewish Poles who volunteer to protect and preserve Jewish heritage in Poland. To read more and to see the schedule go to Ruth Ellen Gruber’s Jewish-Heritage-Travel blog. Ruth has been covering many of these efforts as a journalist and travel writer for more than 20 years.

This conference is a welcome development and similar events are being encouraged in other countries where Jews are often “caretaker” communities, and cannot provide alone the protection and maintenance that so many of the Jewish sites for which they are responsible require. Only with the help of local people can this be done, and locals are most often willing to help when the better understand the sanctity of sites, and their history and cultural significance. I am pleased to see that Jan Jagielski of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw will be addressing the conference. Long before the fall of Communism, Jan and a small group of colleagues began to document forgotten Jewish sites, and to encourage and train local people in their care.

No one knows more about the location and condition of Jewish sites in Poland, especially cemeteries, than Jan. I had the privilege of collaborating with Jan and Eleonora Bergman (now director of the Institute) in the early 1990s as we prepared the first comprehensive inventory of Jewish cemeteries in Poland.

That work, which was a project of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund on behalf of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, was in a small way the foundation on which almost all subsequent planning, preservation and legal actions were built. Lena and Jan directed that survey which included sites visits to close 1200 sites over forty participants.

Today, Lena, Jan and many of those first survey field workers still lead the way in the care of Poland’s Jewish heritage. Others, like Adam Penkalla of Radom have sadly passed away. Fortunately, however, a new general of younger volunteers and trained professionals has come forward, inspired by the work of the "pioneers." As the documentary and conservation work of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland demonstrates, much has been accomplished in Poland. Much, of course, remains to be done.

We must remember, too, that volunteerism is only one part of what is required to protect and preserve Jewish heritage sites in Poland and elsewhere. There must be government recognition and support of these activites, and they must be fully integrated into broader cultural heritage, education and economic development policies. Lastly, more Jewish communities must be educated and empowered to participate more fully in this role. Sometimes small communities are too overwhelmed with the needs of the present to look back at the remains from the past. Sometimes Jewish leadership is scared (often with good reason) to take on local vested interests of government and business to insist on return of religious and cultural heritage sites. In the 1990s Central and Eastern European governments had incentives - EU and NATO membership among them - to cooperate in this effort. Now, with other global problems looming, it is difficult to gain (often new) governments' interest and commitment.

ISJM applauds the efforts of the volunteers of Poland and encourages others to learn from their example.

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