Thursday, September 18, 2014

Poland: New Monument at Rajgrod Jewish Cemetery

Raigrod, Poland. Monument at edge of Jewish cemetery. Chen Winkler, designer, 2014.  Photo courtesy FODZ.

Poland: New Monument at Rajgród Jewish Cemetery
by Samuel D. Gruber  

A few days ago I reported on the new monument erected at the Jewish cemetery of Serock, Poland.  Today, (September 18th) another monument will be dedicated in Poland - this time in the small town of Rajgród in the northeastern part of Poland between Grajewo and Suwalki. 

The new monument is built on the edge of the old Jewish cemetery, now completely covered with forest. Like all the erection of many of these individually inspired projects the project took several years to organize and finance. Descendants of Jews of the town, including  Avi Tzur from Israel who initiated the project,  visited and first discussed a memorial in 2011. Unlike many Jewish cemeteries in Poland, this was not owned by the local municipality, but rather by the Forest Authority based in Warsaw. 

A Jewish community existed in Rajgród from the 16th century until World War II. In 1857 the Jewish population was 1,569, or 90% of the population. In July 1941 the Germans established a ghetto for all local Jews. During this period approximately 100 Jews were murdered in Rajgród. The ghetto was liquidated in 1942, the remaining Jews were sent first to Grajewo, than to the Bogusz transit camp and then later to their deaths at Treblinka. There were no survivors.  

The monument was designed and made by Chen Winkler in Natanya, Israel and then shipped by sea from Ashdod to Gdansk, Poland, where it was loaded to a truck to travel the final  200 km to the site, where it was assembled on site by local workman. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) was responsible for administration, management, and legal and technical work on the project. Funding came mostly from descendants of Jews from Rajgród, now scattered in many countries across the globe. On the monument is inscribed:"The Rajgrod Jewish cemetery was founded in the 18th century and was destroyed during World War II."

Winkler is a prominent sculptor and maker of monuments in Israel, especially for the Ministry of Defense. He mostly uses natural materials found in Israel and employs a variety of forms in his work. These include the pierced or cut-out stone, sometimes with the Jewish star, seen in the Rajgród monument. On Israeli military monuments these stars can be seen as Zionist and patriotic symbols. At Rajgród the star is more broadly emblematic of the Jewish people; the population buried here, and those victims who had no proper cemetery burial at all.  

On the new Rajgród monument the Star of David is intersected by a break in the matzevah-like upright stone slab. The break in the stone, now an accepted Holocaust monument motif, represents a break in a life (like the earlier symbol of the cut-down tree), but also a break in the community, and even a break in history.  This device was probably first used to great effect in the Jewish cemetery monument in Kazimierz Dolny, south of Warsaw. This type of break is used effectively in Warsaw at the Umschlagplatz Memorial, where the break give view to a living growing tree - a bit of optimism about the possibility of renewal after destruction - perhaps for a people, it not for the individual.

 Warsaw, Poland. Umschlagplatz Monument. Hanna Szmalenberg and Wladyslaw Klamerus, designers, 1988. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2008).

Kazimierz Dolny, Poland. Jewish cemetery monument. Tadeusz Augustynek, designer, 1983-85. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2008

The Rajgród monument allows the viewer to look through, too, but more into the dense forest that now covers the cemetery.  It is window to the past, but not perhaps not so optimistic about the future, or at least the future of the Jews in Poland.  And indeed, no jews live in Rajgród anymore, and few Jews live in this part of the country. I am also reminded in the form and the isolation of the monument of a memorial on the site of the Concentration Camp in Ereda, Estonia.  There the Soviet-era designers could not use the Star of David as a symbol, so instead incorporated and pierced two towers, suggestive of the Tablets of the Law, into the design.

 Ereda, Estonia. monument at Concentration/Labor camp site.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2003

According to Monika Krawczyk, CEO pf FODZ, "The travel by sea and importing it to Poland, required enormous effort connected with taxes and customs - where we had to prove that the monument is an artistic object to be located in the war cemetery - that way it could have been exempted from VAT and customs duty".  There are many monuments scattered through the forests of Poland, commemorated events and graves from World War II.

Karen Kaplan from the United States also helped  raise funds for the project. She recently published a memoir Descendants of Rajgród: Learning to Forgive about her father's escape and survival during the Holocaust and about how he and she coped with the legacy of destruction.  

About the monument, Krawczyk writes: "Personally, I am very moved (even though it is already the 7th commemoration project for FODZ this year), because this forgotten very tiny community produced sons and daughters who never forgot, and did everything for saving the memory of those who perished. And their strong will travelled across the oceans, conecting Brazil, USA, Israel to this village in Poland."

Congratulations to all who worked on this project, and our thoughts are with you and with all the perished Jews of Rajgród.

[Thanks to Monika Krawczyk for information used in this post]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you. Gt Grandfather Okraglinski left Rajgród late C19th but did his father the Rabbi leave also? Thank you to all who built this memorial. Maddy