Wednesday, December 19, 2012

USA: Time to Designate the Biaystoker Home a New York City Landmark

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home, main entrance. Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

USA: Time to Designate the Biaystoker Home a New York City Landmark 
 by Samuel D. Gruber

One of the most distinctive buildings on the Lower East Side - Jewish or otherwise - is the Bialystoker Home at 228 East Broadway, known officially in its last years as the Bialystoker Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, located nor far from another distinctive landmark and secular tower - the former Forward Building at Straus Square, now re-purposed as condominium apartments. 

Opened on June 21, 1931, the Bialystoker carries the residual optimism found in so much of New York's architecture of the late 1920s, planned before the November 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression.  At the same time, the very purpose of the home was to provide care for elderly, mostly immigrant Jews, who could not manage to care of themselves.  This growing population was already recognized as needy and under-serviced during the period of post-World War I prosperity. 

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)  

The 10-story Bialystoker tower stands out architecturally as an exemplar of the embrace of the modern and Art Deco styles by New York's Jews (think of the office skyscrapers of Ely Jacques Kahn and Irwin Chanin) but also as an important and successful social experiment.  The Bialystoker is the physical manifestation of the shift in the charitable impulses of the late 19th-century landsmanshaft groups to more modern community-wide social services.  For the first time, place-based immigrant groups (led by the many Bialystoker organizations) pooled their resources to provide a necessary charitable service available to all needy Jews.  This style of care, already known in uptown Jewish hospitals such as Sinai and Montefiore, was new on the Lower East Side.  And while those earlier institutions had been founded by New York's German-speaking Jewish population, the success of the Bialystoker Home was due entirely to "Polish" Jews.

When the Bialystoker Home opened The New York Times reported that “Twenty-five years to the day after many of their number had fled from a pogrom in Bialystok, Poland, more than 5,000 Jews crowded East Broadway between Clinton and Montgomery Streets…and witnessed the opening and dedication of the $500,000 Bialystoker Home for the Aged.”   President Franklin Roosevelt and other  officials sent congratulatory telegrams.  Representative Samuel Dickstein  saw in the home evidence that the Jews had always “taken care of their own people, without calling upon the government to find a place for the orphans and the aged.”

The home provided for 250 residents and included an auditorium, dormitories, two synagogues, sun parlors and hospital wards. It later added assisted living options for elderly so that they could continue to socialize as part of the neighborhood’s fabric.

Read more about the history of the Bialystoker home here.

The building was designed by Harry Hurwit (1888-1963), a Jewish architect who was also a local boy; he grew up on the Lower East Side.  According to the Friends of the Bialystoker Home, Hurwit was veteran of several battles of World War I and was able to attend Cooper Union after the war.  After graduation, he established his own firm where designed he residential, institutional and commercial buildings. Hurwit is best known for the Bialystoker Home, one of his last fully realized buildings.  After the onset of the Great Depression, he made a living with small jobs and building alterations.  Harry Hurwit remained involved with the Lower East Side community throughout his life.  He was a member of the Educational Alliance, the Grand Street Boys Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Several of his descendants have joined the campaign to save the Bialystoker Center and Home.

Hurwit managed to create a very multi-functional building that is also one of the more striking Art Deco buildings in the city, seemingly both intimate and tall at the same time.  This is due in part to the building's narrow facade, and also to the fact that it's ten stories - while puny compared to Wall Street or midtown towers - was quite high on the Lower East Side in 1931.  Perhaps a timeless quality is intended by the inclusion of roundels in which symbols in relief of the Twelve Tribes of Israel surround the main entrance portal, or the message may be more explicitly Zionist.  And perhaps just as the charitable program of the Home competed with uptown precursors, the builders of the Home were also inspired by the inclusion of sign of the Twelve Tribes  on the great bronze doors of Uptown's newest marvel - the grand Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue, completed in January 1930.  There, we find the symbols of the tribes - with very similar depictions - suggesting a common source for both representations. 

 New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005) 

The Symbols of the Twelve Tribes are described in detail in an article by Richard McBee “The Twelve Tribes At The Bialystoker Home” The Jewish Press (3/15/2012), who was asssisted by the research of Elissa Sampson.  McBee writes:

The images are ensconced in roundels that approximate a Hebraic formulation (right to left) of Jacob’s “blessings” found at the end of Genesis. They start on the right with the first born, Reuben, travel up, cross the transept and down the left side to the final child, Benjamin

The exact order and most of the images actually follows the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 2:2 that expands on the arrangement of the tribes around the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness; “The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ household.” This midrash codifies the information from Jacob’s blessings (Genesis 49) and Moses’ blessings (Deuteronomy 33) into a blueprint for the color and image for each tribe’s flag or symbol.

At the base of each side panel there are stylized representations of the Temple Menorah superimposed over a Star of David/pyramid design anchored by schematic sunrises. These images link this building on East Broadway with both the ancient Temple and the growing Zionist movement in Palestine. Reuben’s mandrakes, a gift of fertility for both his mother and Rachel, effectively sidesteps Jacob’s stinging castigation. Simon is represented by a massive city gate, alluding to the city of Shechem, while Levi gets off scot-free with a depiction of the High Priest’s breastplate, the Choshen HaMishpat that contained the Urim and Tumin. The right side panel is then completed with the Lion of Judah confirming Jacob’s blessing of kingship to his fourth born son.
  New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

The Bialystoker Home is already listed on the the National Register of Historic Places, but the honorific offers no real protection to the structure, though the designation will allow a future developer the advantage of historic preservation tax credits for any project that maintains the character of the building.   Local residents - many of whom have labored for years to protect and preserve some of the historic character of the Lower East Side, have been especially concerned  since the closing of the Bialystoker Home in 2011 about its  possible sale to a tear-down developer who would replace it with a luxury condo.  The Friends of the Bialystoker Home was formed and has been active in promoting the preservation of this historic building, including lining up endorsement for Landmark designation. 

After a long wait, The Landmarks Preservation Commission last week calendared the Bialystoker Home and the New York Public Library, Seward Park Branch, the 1909 building that like the Bialystoker home has long been central to the identity of the neighborhood.  They are the last remaining historic buildings on the north side of East Broadway.  Public hearings on these two buildings have not yet been scheduled, but now is the time for those who wish to see these building preserved to weigh in.

Friends of the Bialystoker Home urges supporters of the building's landmark designation to write letter to:

Hon. Robert B. Tierney, Chair,
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.
1 Centre St. 9th floor
New York, N.Y. 10007  or
Please cc the organization at:

New York, NY. The Bialystoker Home. Harry Hurwit, arch., 1930-31.  Photo: Samuel Gruber (2005)

In related news, this month the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission approved plans for the restoration of the Jarmulowsky Bank, the third "Jewish tower" in the neighborhood.  The plans, which include rooftop modifications but are mostly aimed at returning the structure to its original 1912 glory.  The former Jarmulowsky Bank building will become a boutique hotel.   A successful effort to protect the building was undertaken in 2009.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

USA: New York's Moorish Masters

New York, NY. Former congregation Shaare Zedek of Harlem, 25 West 118th Street. Schneider & Herter, architects (1900).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012  

New York's Moorish Masters
by Samuel D. Gruber    

I recently had the good fortune on an early morning walk through Harlem (New York) to have bright sunlight illuminating the facade of the former Congregation Shaare Zedek at 25 West 118 Street (above), one of the many former Harlem synagogues that have served as churches for much of the last century. The building was erected in 1900 as a branch of the successful congregation that still maintained a presence downtown.  In this sense it was  similar to new (21st century) facilities built in suburbs and exurbs by contemporary congregations that haven't quite made the decision to pick of stakes from an historic location and move.  The Shaare Zedek facility could hold on to displaced congregants while still not fully committing to a new neighborhood. In the end, Shaaray Zedek only used its new building for 14 years.  It became the Canaan Baptist Church and today it is the Bethel Way of the Cross Church of Christ.
New York, NY. Former congregation Shaare Zedek of Harlem, 25 West 118th Street. Schneider & Herter, architects (1900).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012 

While breaking new (Jewish) ground far Uptown, Shaare Zedek of Harlem was architecturally and liturgically conservative. It is one of the last in a line of Moorish Revival style synagogues built in Manhattan beginning with Temple Emanu-el in the 1860s.  Today, the best remembered are three standing and still Jewish buildings - the great Central Synagogue (Congregation Ahavath Chesed) designed by Henry Fernbach and erected in 1872, the impressive Eldridge Street Synagogue ( K'hal Adath Jeshurun) built in 1887 by Peter and Francis Herter, and the Park East Synagogue (Cong. Zichron Ephraim) built by Ernest E. W. Schneider and Henry J. Herter in 1890-91.

To these might  be added the magnificent Beth El Synagogue designed by a still-young Arnold W. Brunner (with Thomas Tryon) and dedicated in 1891 (demolished in 1947), and the former Congregation Shaaray Tefilla, (West End Synagogue), 166 W. 82nd St., (1894), also be Brunner & Tryon, and now the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalic Church.   The relationship of these buildings to each other is complex, and relationship of the architects still undetermined.  Brunner's buildings are not truly Moorish; the semi-circular arches, rustication  and other elements link them more to medieval revival styles (Beth El has Richardsonian and Ruskinian parentage) and Shaaray Tefilla is also strongly shaped by Venetian architecture.  Still, I think the public at the time would have had difficulty distinguishing between a highly decorative and eclectic Medieval style and a decorative Moorish. All were highly decorative and sufficiently exotic not to be confused with traditional Christian church design.

 New York, NY. Temple Beth El.  Brunner & Tryon, architects (1891)

 New York, NY. Former Congregation Shaaray Tefilla, (West End Synagogue). Brunner & Tryon, architects (1894). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber.

Already when Shaare Zedek opened, Brunner was writing in the first volume of The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901) that "There has been much divergence of taste in the building of synagogues; but a vague Oriental tendency can generally be noticed in all of them. The preference for the Moorish style, at one time so much in favor, seems to have passed away, experience having shown it to be eminently unsuitable and un-Jewish" (Arnold W. Brunner, "America, Jewish Architecture," The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 508).  Thus for Brunner, who had repudiated the Moorish style and had re-introduced full-blown classicism to American synagogue architecture for America's oldest congregation Shearith Israel in 1897, Shaare Zedek in Harlem was already "eminently unsuitable and un-Jewish" when built.  While the congregation no doubt disagreed, they only stayed the building for fourteen years before moving to the Upper West Side, where they erected an impressive Classical Temple style synagogue (in keeping with Brunner's ideas) on West 93rd Street designee by Sommerfeld and Steckler.

So far in my research, only Arnold W. Brunner has emerged as a distinct personality with now-clearly understood links to multiple branches of New York's Jewish community (Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Reform and Orthodox).  Despite much research effort by others, the Herter Brothers of Eldridge Street remain something of a mystery. Except that we know they were Catholic and designed many tenement buildings, their place in the New York architectural and Jewish worlds in the late 19th-century is sketchy.   Relatively little is known, too, of Schneider and (Henry J.) Herter.  They too, designed scores of residential buildings, but these included higher-end houses for the professional classes on the burgeoning Upper West Side.  They also worked on at least four synagogues, of which the two already mentioned are among the most distinctive Moorish Revival style building in the city.  

Known as the firm of Schneider & Herter; the company began as Schneider & Co., and was later listed as the Schneider & Herter Building and Construction Company (1909).  Though they worked extensively for German-Jewish patrons, such as Jonas Weil and Bernard Mayer, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that either Schneider or Herter was Jewish.  They also designed at least one German church (the Gothic-style St. Paul's German Evangelical Lutheran Church), which suggests their German origin, and that their connection to local Jews was based on common German language and culture rather than religion.

For Weil and Mayer they designed numerous multiple dwellings and it is through Weil that they become associated with Congregation Zichron Ephraim (Park East Synagogue) at 163 East 67th Street (1889–90), which was funded by Weil.

New York, NY.  Park East Synagogue.  Schneider & Herter, architect.  Note distinctive baldachin structure over gable.  It and tall towers have been removed.  From Kings Handbook of New York (1893)

Schneider and Herter were successful developers of residential properties in New York, especially tenements in the lower East Side, and also housing the Greenwich Village and later uptown along Riverside Drive and 93rd Street.  Many of their distinctive houses have been designated singly or within historic districts as New York City landmarks.  There is more of their work still to be identified. 

According to the 1990 Upper West Side Historic District designation report  
"Schneider & Herter developed a somewhat idiosyncratic and mannerist aesthetic characterized by a lack of reverence for the traditional placement of ornament, an unexpected combining of architectural styles, and asymmetry in the composition of facades and their detailing; these characteristics appear in the firm's early designs for tenements, rowhouses and synagogues. In the ornamental programs of several buildings, including the 858 West End Avenue House, Schneider & Herter combined incised, machine-cut ornament— recalling the earlier Neo-Grec style of incised ornament — with both abstracted naturalistic designs and romantic figurative carving. An uncommon approach to the composition and placement of ornament appears in the design of the entrance where the architects combined pilasters with the projecting balcony above to suggest an entrance portico." 
The pair were designers of a series of notable but often overlooked synagogues, including a number of impressive and architecturally distinctive houses of worship of Orthodox (and nascent) Conservative congregations. In 1889-1890 they designed the Landmark Moorish style, but idiosyncratic Congregation Zichron Ephriam, best known as Park East Synagogue. 

New York, NY.  Top: Park East Synagogue.  Bottom: Cong. Shaare Zedek, Schneider & Herter, archs.  Photos: Samuel D. Gruber .

In 1892 they apparently designed Congregation Kol Israel Arshi at 20-22 Forsyth Street (demolished, presumably for the construction of the Manhattan Bridge ca. 1910).  In 1893 they were called upon to strengthen and remodel Beth HaMidrash Hagadol synagogue on the Lower East Side, which had previously been a Baptist and then a Methodist Church (For a full account see: National Register of Historic Places Nomination, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue, NPS Forms 10-900/10-900a, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, June 30, 1999).

New York, NY. Beth HaMidrash HaGadol.  Remodeled by Schnieider & Herter 1893 ff. Note the baldachin with Moorish elements (now removed), similar to Zichron Ephriam (above). Photo: Jewish Encyclopedia.

In 1900 the firm was commissioned to design the new home of Congregation Shaare Zedek at 118th and Lenox Avenue (see: Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, Volume 64 (Oct 14 1899) p. 551) in the expanding Jewish neighborhood of Harlem. That building is also Moorish in style, but also owes its form to the common two-tower synagogue-type familiar in 19th century Europe and America in a wide range of historicist styles. The building subsequently became the Canaan Baptist Church, and is now the Bethel Way of the Cross, Church of Christ.

To my knowledge, there is no compiled biography for either Ernest Schneider or Henry Herter.  Schneider may have come to New York from Erie, Pennsylvania, where an Ernest E. W. Schnieder is listed as a architect and supervisor of building in 1884 (Erie Morning Dispatch; Erie, Erie Co. PA; April 22, 1884).  I have not yet found information on his life after 1909, or an obituary.  I wonder if there is a family connection with the architect Walter Schneider who was involved in the design of several important post-World War I Byzantine/Moorish style synagogues in New York; most notably B'nai Jeshurun (1916-18), designed with Henry B. Herts.  Walter Schneider WAS Jewish, and with Herts, a member of B'nai Jeshurun.  If he was related to Ernest E.W. Schneider (a son or nephew?) that would considerably change our understanding of the Schneider and Herter.  In a sense, Walter Schneider continued the favored synagogue style of Schneider & Herter, so it is attractive- - though entirely unproven - to find more than a stylistic connection between the two firms.  

We also know very little about Henry J. Herter.  He was not, presumably, related to the famous Herter Brothers furniture designers, nor was he one of the Catholic Herter Brothers (responsible for the design of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in 1884).  In 1903 a Henry J. Herter was living at the Antoinettes at 51-53 East 58th Street.  Herter is described as secretary and treasurer of the Herter Realty Co., which was owner of the apartment building. The Schneider and Herter Building and Construction Co. at 1741 Topping Ave., New York, remained in business into the 20th century and is listed in The Trow (formerly Wilson's) Copartnership and Corporation Directory of New York City of 1909.

New York, NY. Former congregation Shaare Zedek of Harlem, 25 West 118th Street. Schneider & Herter, architects (1900).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012 

For an upcoming article ("Moorish Across America") I welcome information and impressions about any of the above mention buildings and architects, and other Oriental or Moorish synagogues across America.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Publication: New Book by Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland

Jozefow Bilgoraski, Poland.  Cemetery repair, summer 2012. Photo: FODZ

Publication: New Book by Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland

(ISJM) For many years I have been recording the challenges and successes of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (Fundacja Ochrony Dziedzictwa Żydowskiego), best known by its Polish acronym FODZ.  The Foundation continues to rank among the most successful and sustained efforts to manage, maintain, preserve and promote immovable Jewish cultural heritage.  This year we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Foundation and on the occasion FODZ has produced a book introducing many of its most impressive projects in cemetery and synagogue protection, conservation and protection.  The book with its many excellent and often dramatic photographic illustrations is available as a downloadable pdf here.

Krasnik, Poland.  Former synagogue, Photo: FODZ
While the text of the book makes light of the many continuing political, financial, religious, technical and aesthetic difficulties the foundation faces every day in the process of obtaining legal title to properties, and then planning their long term survival, it does illustrate the wide range of solutions adopted.  There is no one way to protect and preserve Jewish heritage, and this book demonstrates that often a related and coordinated mix of solutions is the best way to proceed.  Some sites of commemorated with plaques, others are fully restored. Some are conserved as protected ruins, others are made new again for religious or cultural use.  This book can be used as handbook on Jewish heritage preservation.  It demonstrate how through persistent and creative actions many of the theoretical discussions of the 1990s have been taken to heart, and tested and adapted in the world of real politics and physical monuments

A decade of demonstrated success by FODZ now provides an example to be followed in other countries of the world (for example in addition to East European countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, the model could also be adapted in more distant places with small Jewish communities by large stocks of Jewish monuments, such as Morocco and India.

Prysucha, Poland. Restoration of former synagogue. Photo: FODZ (2012)

The book is published as part of a project co-financed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the framework of the program 'Cooperation in the field of public diplomacy 2012'. Partners of the project are the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland.

For a full accounting of the foundation's many other commemorative and educational programs, as well more complete documentary and photographic evidence of the site it manages, one should still consult the Foundation'sever-expanding website.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lower East Side Conservancy Offers Tour of Colonial Jewish NYC Sites

New York, NY. First Jewish Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel. Photo: Samuel Gruber (2008)

 Lower East Side Conservancy Offers Tour of Colonial Jewish NYC

For readers worried about the state of Lower Manhattan two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, you can see for yourself on a walking tour of those spaces and places known to Jewish during the colonial period.  While few physical traces remains of the first Jewish houses or the first synagogue that stood on Mill Street, The Lower East Side Conservancy will introduce the Jewish history of the area.  

Sites are likely to include those of the:

• First & Second Spanish/Portuguese Rented Synagogues of Congregation Shearith Israel;
• First Mill Street Synagogue;
• Colonial Revival Houses;
• Stone Street;
• Sites of the homes of: Asser Levy,( ?-1681) New Amsterdam's first kosher butcher &
Gershom Mendes Seixas, (1745-1816), first native-born Jewish minister.

The tour will also include a visit to the still extant, but usually closed, Jewish cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel located at Chatham Square in Chinatown.  A perfect ending for those who'd like to head for some dim sum (spoiler alert - there were no Chinese restaurants for Jews or anyone else in old New Amsterdam).

You can read more about Shearith Israel cemeteries here.

Huguenots and Jews in Early New York from Historical Atlas of NYC , p43

Here is the information about the tour form the LES Conservancy:
Jewish Community of Colonial New Amsterdam Walking Tour 

Sunday, November 18, 2012      10:45 AM 
Fraunces Tavern
Join us as we trace the origins of Jewish settlement in New Amsterdam. We will visit the former locations of Jewish sites in Lower Manhattan and discuss their historical significance. Sites include early Spanish and Portuguese rented synagogues and Mill Street Synagogue, the first synagogue built in North America.

A tour of Congregation Shearith Israel's cemetery at Chatham Square (now Chinatown) is included. This is the oldest known Jewish cemetery in New York City. From 1654 to 1825 all Jews in New York City belonged to this one congregation. This Jewish cemetery dates from 1683.
Meet at the corner of Pearl Street and Broad Streets across from Fraunces Tavern.
Adults: $18; seniors and students: $16
($2 additional day of tour)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

For Veterans / Armistice Day: More Monuments of Jews who Died in World War I

For Veterans / Armistice Day: More Monuments of Jews who Died in World War I  
by Samuel D. Gruber (all photos Samuel D. Gruber 2011)

Today is Veterans' Day - originally  Armistice Day - celebrating the end of the First World War - the War to End all Wars (that didn't).  In honor of all Veterans, but especially Jews who fought and died on both sides in World War I, I refer you to some images of Jewish war memorials from Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic that I first put only line in May 2009.

I am also adding a new one from the New Jewish Cemetery in Worms, Germany that I visited in 2011. worms, is much better know for its Old Jewish Cemetery and medieval synagogue and Judengasse, but it had a prosperous Jewish community until the rise of Hitler.

The Jewish community had been trying since the late 19th century to establish a new burial ground, since the old Jewish cemetery was filled.  In 1910 the community was able to establish the Hochheim cemetery, right next to the Hauptfriedhof Worms (Friedhof Hochheimer Höhe), with a separate entrance. The new cemetery was inaugurated in 1911, just a few years before the war.  

Inscribed in gold letters over a triumphal archway is the phrase "Unsern Henden" (Our Heroes). 

 Nineteen of Worms' Jews were killed in the war, their names are listed on the monument.

The monument was restored in 2006 with help from the Rotary Club Worms.

Ruth Ellen Gruber has posted more examples of Jewish War Monuments on her blog. Click here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Poland: Jewish Gravestones from Poznan Found in Strzeszyńskie Lake

Poland: Jewish Gravestones from Poznań Found in Strzeszyńskie Lake
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) When I was involved in documenting Jewish cemeteries within the present-day boundaries of Poland in the early 1990s about two thirds of the approximately 1200 cemeteries identified had no visible gravestones, and several hundred mroe cemeteries only had a small number still in situ.  In most cases, matzavot  had been toppled during the Holocaust and often removed for use as paving stones by the Nazis to make more passable the many dirt (and mud) roads their mechanized army traversed.  

But stones were used in a variety of ways.  In 1990, I was shown matzevot used to build a pigsty on a farm in the northeastern town of Krynki, and gravestones were also used to pave an area at a monastery in Kazimierz Dolny when it was used as a Gestapo headquarters.  In some case stones were hauled away whole.  Other stones were broken up.  Often Jews were forced to do the work of destroying the gravestones.

 Krynki, Poland. Jewish gravestones used a foundation for a pigsty. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 1990

 Krynki, Poland. Jewish gravestones used a foundation for a pigsty. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 1990

 Radom, Poland.  Cemetery monument made of recovered gravestones. Photo: FODZ.  Click here for more.

Those stones not removed by the Germans were either hauled often for building material by Poles in the post-War period (probably this is how matzevot from the cemetery of Wyszkow came to used as foundation stones for a local barn), or during the communist period, when many cemeteries were cleared for roads or buildings.  In the luckiest circumstances old stones knocked over just lay in place and were covered by a half century of vegetation, soil and sometimes trash.

Since 1990, more and more  Jewish gravestones,  though still only a tiny percentage of what's been lost, have been re-discovered and often moved, either back to cemeteries here they are often made into lapidary commemorative monuments, or to museums.  Those found in Radom in 2008 are a good example.  Most recently, as reported on the Virtual Shtetl website  matzevot identified as originating from the Głogowska Street cemetery in  Poznań were discovered by Joanna Członkowska, who spotted German and Hebrew inscriptions on stone slabs of a breakwater used to protect a meadow against flooding.  Ms Członkowska immediately notified the Museum of the History of Polish Jews which in turn notified  the Jewish Religious Community in Poznań, the Jewish Cemetery Rabbinical Commission and local media in Poznań.

 Strzeszyńskie Lake,  Poland.  Recently discovered Jewish gravestones:  Photo: Virtual Shtetl

According to Virtual Shtetl, the cemetery was established in 1803 and was severely damaged during WWII, when most tombstones were used to pave roads, including the Poznań-Berlin highway. Under Communist rule, the International Poznań Fair Complex was erected in the cemetery.  I do not know thew extent of excavation on the cemetery for the construction of the Fairgrounds and whether the actual burial were disturbed or if they remain underground and intact.  In only a few cases in Poland and elsewhere has post-Word War II construction been removed from known cemeteries.

Over the past several years, a number of tombstones have been found in various parts of Poznań. Some of them were included in the collection of stone monuments in an undeveloped area at the Jewish cemetery. Others were transported to and secured in the Martyrs’ Museum in Żabikowo.  It is not known where the recently discovered stones will be taken and whether their discovery will lead to more in other places around the lake.

Poland: After Two Decades, a New Generation Takes Leadership in Care of Jewish Monuments

After Two Decades, A New Generation of Poles Takes Leadership in Care of Jewish Monuments
by Samuel D. Gruber 

Dzialoszyce, Poland.  A much younger Sam Gruber, with synagogue historians Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, learns of Jewish sites from local villagers in 1990.  Photo: Judith Meighan (1990).

When I first began to work in Poland in 1989-1990 for the documentation, protection and preservation of Polish-Jewish heritage sites (synagogues, cemeteries, Jewish quarters, Holocaust sites, archives,  etc.) it was immediately clear that the task was so enormous, that any hope of success depended on educating, engaging and empowering local Poles to assist and indeed to take leadership roles in the work.  At the time the international Jewish community was mostly indifferent to the need and financially not supportive of the job, and the local Jewish community could hardly be identified; it was so small, so fragmented, and leaderless.

I was lucky to work with a dedicated group of (mostly) young Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish, who identifying themselves as the Citizens’ Committee for the Protection of Jewish Monuments, who had quietly begun this work under Communism in 1981.  The excitement of political and cultural freedoms experienced during the Solidarity Movement percolated through many areas of Polish life, and also helped the first stirring of Jewish renewal.  

Despite the setbacks of Marshall Law in 1981 -1983 and following, the Citizens' Committee and a small group of Polish intellectuals and cultural leaders such as the late Józef Gierowski (d. 2006) of the Jagiellonian University and Januz Smólski of the Citizen's Committee for the Restoration of Krakow's Historical Monuments and others, were ready and receptive to engage Jewish cultural issues almost immediately after the end of Communist rule in 1989. With this group, and with the support of the World Monuments Fund and the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, I directed a massive (but very modestly funded - the total budget was around $35,000) project to document the standing synagogue buildings and identifiable Jewish cemeteries within the modern border of Poland.  

Many of the leaders and participants in that project continued their good work and have been honored in many ways since. Citizen’s Committee co-founder and survey Research Director Jan Jagielski received the Irena Sendler Memorial Award by the Taube Foundation in 2009 and Eleanora Bergman was just last week awarded the French Legion of Honor (congratulations Lena!).

Much has changed in the past twenty years since we published Survey of Historic Jewish Monuments in Poland. An entire new generation, many of which hardly remembers Communism, has grown up increasingly aware of the history of Jews in Poland and the enormity of the Jewish cultural contribution.  Still, there remains much work to do. The pending opening of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews will  accelerate this process. 

The following article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency focuses on this new generation.  These (mostly) young people, in collaboration with the still small but now robust Polish Jewish community, will be the primary custodians of Jewish heritage sites in Poland in the future.  This process has been evolving.  These new participants are part of a continuum of polish involvement.  As Ruth Ellen Gruber, JTA senior correspondent and editor of reminds me, "For something like 15 years, thanks to Michael Traison, non-Jewish Poles who have devoted themselves to preserving and documenting Jewish heritage and culture have been honored each year at a ceremony in Krakow at the summer Festival. It is wonderful -- and necessary -- for new generations to pick up the reins. But it should not be forgotten that their interest and activities by now form part of a continuous and continuing process, not a startling new development."

Not every new project is to my taste or meets my critical approval, but the same can be said of projects by Jewish groups and the many self-appointed Jewish "protectors" of heritage sites.  what is important is that collectively their is continuing and growing recognition of the  religious, cultural, artistic and community importance of these places, both for memory and for the creation a informed dynamic future.
For growing number of Polish gentiles, Jewish culture seen as part of their own heritage

By Katarzyna Markusz · October 28, 2012 (Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) -- Marek Tuszewicki is doing doctoral work at the Institute of Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, teaches Yiddish at the Krakow JCC, and leads a club that brings together those who like to sing Chasidic songs and read Yiddish literature.
He also co-founded a Jewish literature and art quarterly called Cwiszn and publishes articles and poems in Yiddish.

There’s just one thing: Tuszewicki is not himself Jewish.

"There is the whole Polish background with the ruins of cemeteries and synagogues from which there is no escape," Tuszewicki told JTA.

"There are more and more people interested in Yiddish and opportunities to learn," he said. “What are the proportions of Jews and non-Jews I cannot say exactly, but I'm sure at the university there are more students from non-Jewish backgrounds."

Tuszewicki is among the growing number of non-Jewish Poles who are immersing themselves in Jewish culture. They organize Jewish events or ceremonies commemorating the Jews who lived in their cities. They are building monuments and teaching others about the history of their Jewish neighbors. They write in Yiddish.

Many Poles have begin to look at Polish Jewish history as part of their own cultural heritage -- something to be appreciated and remembered, not cast aside.

"I know that many Poles are interested in Yiddish because it is the heritage of Poland,” Tuszewicki said. “Yiddish developed here and great Yiddish literature has been written here. Besides, it not only coexisted with Polish, but it also entered with it into intensive contact. Forgetting Yiddish we would forget an important part of our culture.”

Martyna Majewska is another of the many Polish gentiles to have charted a Jewish path. She was granted a scholarship from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to teach about the Holocaust and Jewish history. She took part in education courses organized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum.

Majewska also co-authored a book called "Warsaw: City of many cultures" that helps educators teach about Poland’s minority communities.

Now Majewska, along with Marcin Kozlinski, a fellow Polish gentile, is preparing the first postwar Polish animated fairy tale in Yiddish. It’s part of the Multicultural Mosaic of Tales and Legends project funded by the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. The Jewish story is titled "Happy Man" and will be a short animated film in three languages: Polish, English and Yiddish.
  "We decided to create a series of stories so children could learn more about the fairy tales in different cultures and see that they have universal appeal,” Majewska said. “And another advantage of every fairy tale is that it can be seen in its original language, giving the opportunity to familiarize children with an unknown language.”

Bogdan Bialek does not speak Yiddish. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Bialystok, where he had Jewish friends. One was a neighbor who was a survivor of Auschwitz from whom he learned about the Holocaust. Poland’s anti-Zionist campaign of 1968 decimated what Jewish life remained in Bialystok, and Bialek eventually moved away, marrying a girl from Kielce, the site of a 1946 pogrom resulting from a blood libel.

In Kielce, Bialek wanted to learn more about the massacre, in which 37 Jews and three non-Jewish Poles were killed. The locals, however, were reluctant to talk about it.  "In 1982, one of the priests warned me to not talk about this because Jews kidnapped children and made them into matzah,” he said. “I met with a Poland which I did not know before. Thus began my stubbornness confronting the city with the pogrom."

Even in the 1990s, with Poland emerging from its communist shell, it wasn't easy to talk openly about Jewish history. Bialek endured several attacks for delving into Jewish history. Perpetrators threw grenades into the newspaper office where he worked. But in 1996, on the 50th anniversary of the pogrom, Bialek organized a ceremony commemorating the murdered Jews. Then he began to organize annual memorial marches, the first of which drew just three people. At this year’s there were 300.  He built a monument of a menorah in town as well as a statue of Jan Karski, a hero of the Polish resistance who delivered news of the extermination of Polish Jewry to the outside world. Today, Bialek says, Kielce is a different city than it was a generation ago.

"For many years in Kielce there have been no anti-Semitic slogans on the walls,” Bialek said. “Yes, there are anti-Semites, but they understand that divulging this is indecent." A few weeks ago, thanks to Bialek, a sukkah was erected in the mall in the center of Kielce. Locals came to listen to stories and watch films about Kielce’s Jewish past. In the central Polish town of Grodzisk Mazowiecki, a group of locals convened in 2009 to try to figure out how to commemorate their town’s local Jewish heritage. They started their project, called Jewish Street, by lighting up the walls of the old Jewish cemetery one night.
  "I wanted to let people know that the current area of the cemetery is only one-tenth of its original area,” said Robert Augustyniak, one of the project’s initiators. “Since 1953 on the rest of the area of the cemetery there is a junkyard. Most people today do not know that there was also a cemetery.”

In 2010, Augustyniak managed to excavate Jewish gravestones that had been used to build a sidewalk in one of the backyards in town and return them to the cemetery. It was an eerie undertaking, he recalls. "It was raining that day. From the mud began to appear some symbols: hands, candles, ornaments, plants and finally the Hebrew inscriptions,” Augustyniak said. “Jan Jagielski of the Jewish Historical Institute was with us then. He read inscriptions from the gravestones and we felt that behind these strange-sounding names there are people who ask to be remembered."

That same year the group organized Grodzisk’s first Jewish cultural festival with workshops, a book fair, meetings, and theater and concert performances. The town’s mayor was an enthusiastic supporter, according to Augustyniak. In 2011, the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw gave Jewish Street an award.

“The memory of the Jews is now fashionable in the city," Augustyniak said. Sixty miles away, in Minsk Mazowiecki, Justyna Jekalska decided recently to restore the old Jewish cemetery in her city. Thanks to her efforts, the place was cleaned up and soon will have a new fence.

Jekalska says she was motivated by simple human decency. "I was ashamed that the cemetery in my city looks like that," she told JTA. "I'm not associated with Judaism in any way. I phoned rabbi's office. It turned out that they liked the idea that I wanted to do that. It is, after all, not only to clean but also to preserve human knowledge about this place and change the way it is seen."