Thursday, January 7, 2010

Poland: Still Urgency in Preservation of Jewish Sites

Poland: Still Urgency in Preservation of Jewish Sites

by Samuel D. Gruber

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post emphasizes the continuing need for resources (money!) and action to protect and preserve the Jewish heritage sites of Poland. Much has been done in the past 20 years...but the task has always been enormous and the support slow and small.

I've written frequently about the work of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) and its important role of stewardship of abandoned and neglected Jewish historic properties- especially cemeteries and former synagogues - throughout Poland. These are the place the no active Jewish communities - or anyone else - choose to use or care for. The costs in money, labor, materials and education to protect, maintain, preserve and properly present this sites is tremendous, and the real cash resources of the Foundation are extremely limited. General funds are needed for the upkeep of hundreds of cemeteries, and targeted donations can also be used for specific repair, restoration and education projects underway or in the planning stage.

The need for this work is not new. I recently came across this passage from 1947 from artist Louis Lozowick:

"A short time ago I heard a traveller, recently returned from Poland, tell the now familiar tale of Nazi depredation, violence and inhumanity. One thing caught my ear especially. 'From time to time,' he said, 'climbing over the rubble piled high where a house of worship used to be, you discover a piece of wood carving, from the Aron perhaps, a twisted metal candlestick, a painted slab. I read of so many millions and tens of millions of dollars spent on charity here and abroad - couldn't some pennies be spared to salvage the few remaining relics of a rich cultural heritage , while there is still time?"

[Louis Lozowick, "Synagogue Art: Review of Jewish Art in European Synagogues by George Loukomski' Menorah Journal (Autumn 1948), pp. 380-384. cited in Mark Godfrey, Abstraction and the Holocaust (New Haven, Yale Univ. Press, 2007), p 94].

Many of appeals I wrote in the early 1990s while Director of the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund have similar urgency.

Even before the Holocaust many historic Jewish sites were rundown. Forgotten by many is the fact that some Jewish sites received government support for repairs since they were recognized as national historic monuments. But after the general destruction of war and the targeted destruction as part of the genocide of the Holocaust, came decades of neglect under Communism. As I have written elsewhere, only in the 1980s did this begin to change - for a very few sites (such as the former synagogue in Tykocin, Staary Synagogue in Krakow, and the Nosyk Synagogue in Warsaw). Gradually through the 1990s the pace of care for Jewish sites accelerated due to private and public initiatives. Still, the amount of work to do is immense, and the total resources applied are minuscule compared to other national and international initiatives for cultural projects (and I won't even try to compare the costs against the price of single tomahawk or cruise missile, or a fighter plane or an unmanned drone).

In recent years with the slow, often erratic but continuing process of communal property restitution - responsibility for a great many sites has shifted to the Jewish Communities in Poland and to the FODZ, but financial support remains elusive. Some have pointed out restitution of many properties has allowed Polish authorities to unburden themselves of near-useless properties - and the responsibility (mostly avoided) - for their care. Some Jewish administrators while recognizing a moral need to protect these sites have hesitated to receive them, knowing the resources for their care are lacking- which can (and has) allowed in some cases a shift of blame for neglect from Poles to Jews. In truth, care for these properties is a collective problem and a collective responsibility of Poles and Jews, and of the international community.

Last month it was announced that Germany has contributed €60 million to the Perpetual Fund of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation - about half the amount said to be needed to implement the entire master conservation plan for the extensive concentration and death camp site. No total of funds spent to conserve and restore other Jewish sites in Poland exists, but I would estimate that the total spent in 20 years on care for some 1500 cemeteries and former synagogues probably does not exceed half the amount of the recent Auschwitz contribution, and perhaps much less. This includes the major restoration projects of the synagogues of Wroclaw, Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow, as well as ongoing work at Zamosc, Lancut and elsewhere. Most modest Polish cemetery interventions still run between 10,000 and 50,000 euro. Building complete walls around cemeteries can cost much more - and therefore is rarely done. No similar fund for Jewish cemeteries has even been created - despite many efforts over the years. The current work of FODZ is the closest that has been achieved.

I do support continued international support for the preservation of Auschwitz and other death camp and Holocaust-related sites – and I praise the conservation initiative – one begun twenty years ago. I continue to believe, however, that similar efforts must be made to protect and find new and appropriate use for the remaining physical traces of the Jewish cultural and religious life and achievement that was destroyed. Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Belzec and other camps are cemeteries and memorials. Their protection honors the dead, and continues to remind us of their suffering as victims of Nazi culture of intolerance, cruelty, destruction and death. But the care and preservation of older cemeteries, synagogues and other Jewish sites remembers the culture of Jews – not Nazism. Preservation (and explanation) honors the dead, but also recognizes generations of Jewish culture and community of faith, leaning, creativity and community.

For more information about how to help fund Jewish heritage projects in Poland, please contact me directly at

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