Sunday, September 14, 2014

Poland: Holocaust Memorial in Serock, Dedicated on August 27, 2014

Serock, Poland.  New Monument at Jewish Cemetery, just before completion.  Photo courtesy of Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland

Poland: Holocaust Memorial in Serock,  Dedicated on August 27, 2014 

  (n.b. post revised and expanded 9/15/2014)

by Samuel D. Gruber

An unlikely partnership has produced a new Holocaust memorial at the once devastated Polish Jewish cemetery in Serock, located about 25 miles north of Warsaw.  Begun by the desire of a thirteen-year-old Washington, DC girl, the project engaged a Polish Foundation, a United States Government Commission, and local authorities and residents. 

For a Bat Mitzvah project, Hannah Champness decided to raise money to build a monument at the destroyed Jewish cemetery in Serock, the town where her grandmother Diana Albert (Doba Ita Drezner) was born and where she hid (with her brother) before landing in the Warsaw Ghetto, before eventually escaping and finding refuge with a Polish family.  Later, Diana Albert came to America, the sole survivor of her family.

Serock, Poland.  U.S. Commission member Lee Seeman speaking at dedication of new monument at Jewish cemetery, Aug 27, 2014.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Commission for Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad

Champness was able to enlist the assistance of the United State Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, and especially Commission member Lee Seeman, of Great Neck, New York, who has been involved in several similar documentation and commemoration projects (I worked with Lee a decade ago documenting and marking the sites of labor camps in Estonia).  Lee was already aware of the plight of the cemetery in the town (where her friend Congressman Gary Ackerman's family originated), so she decided to take on the project.  

Over a period of several years Seeman and Champness raised money for the work by talking it up to almost everyone they knew, and the Commission helped solicit funds (by law, Commission sanctioned projects must be funded form private donations).  The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ), which has restored many cemeteries and built several memorials such as the one in Radom, arranged and oversaw the building of the memorial on land donated and made accessible by PKO Bank Polski. The Bank was a willing and active partner in the work.  Though a relatively small project - compared to a big synagogue restoration - the project was complex, and developed as a model collaborative effort with many key participants along the way.

The stele-style monument is located at the site of the town's Jewish cemetery of which the Nazi Germans  destroyed most visible evidence.  It incorporates matzevah fragments in what is now an time-honored cemetery-Holocaust memorial type (see construction photos here). 

The multilingual inscription on the monument, reads in part: 

This area comprises the Jewish Cemetery of Serock. Jews were buried here from the 18th century until 1939, when Nazi German forces ordered that all traces of the cemetery be obliterated. For many years, the gravestones on the wall were piled up on a nearby site. This memorial pays tribute to a once vibrant Jewish community and honours those citizens of Serock who were murdered in the Holocaust solely because they were Jewish.

Broken pieces of some gravestones were found in recent years after being piled not far from the cemetery site, an these were cleaned and incorporated into the memorial. I presume they have been transcribed and translated.

The monument was dedicated at a public ceremony on August 27, 2014 (see photos here). Hannah Champness, now sixteen years old, gave an intelligent and moving presentation about the project and in tribute to her grandmother, and the murdered Jews of Serock.  Watch her here.  This should be played for teens everywhere as a Holocaust history lesson, but even more so in how committing to a cause can have real results.

The dedication ceremony also included remarks by U.S. Ambassador to Poland Stephen Mull, who said that “One of our most sacred duties is to keep the memory of the crimes committed by the Nazis during World War II. So it could never happen again ...The monument in Serock is an important symbol of American support for the Polish efforts to ensure that no one ever again has to be a witness or a victim of the terrible crimes that took place here in Serock and many other cities and towns in Poland and Europe.” 

Other participants included Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, Serock Mayor Sylwester Edwin Sokolniki, Legionowo Powiat Starost Jan Grabiec, Agnieszka Zawadzka of the Mazowieckie province Voivod, Piotr Kadlcik of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, Justyna Borkiewicz of the PKO Bank Foundation. Piotr Kadlcik, said “When the ceremony ends we will go to our homes. But this monument will remain here... a testimony to what once was here in the Jewish community.” 

The U.S. Commission first began similar work - which many others have since carried forth - when in 1998 it built and dedicated a monument at the Jewish cemetery in the Polish town of Wyszkow, not far from Serock.  Writing in article about the project and monument, Michael Schudrich, Chief Rabbi of Poland and the Jewish Community in Warsaw and Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, recollect that "since the two towns were historically connected, many former “Vyshkovers” shared family links to Serock, and by then the idea of a Serock cemetery commemoration had been conceived." 


Unknown said...

I visited the memorial which was erected in the former cemetery of Wyszków few months ago. Sadly, this latter is painted with graffiti and a plaque is destroyed.
Jacques Lahitte

jefarl said...

The story you tell sounds wonderful even if not correct! While Hannah did raise funds as part of her Bat Mitzvah project, she did not initiate the memorial project. This was started in 2007 by my cousin, then US Congressman Gary Ackerman, who was inspired by the photos taken by my son, Seth Barnett, in 2000 and the work done by both Howard Orenstein
and myself to have each stone photographed and translated on Howard's wevsite for the town of Serock. Gary contacted Lee Seeman and together the 4 of us spent the next 6 years raising funds from family members and concerned of the public. Hannah's financial contribution was a wonderfull addition and she was an elegant speaker at the actual dedication.