Thursday, May 7, 2015

Poland: Rajgród Holocaust Monument Vandalized

Poland: Rajgród Holocaust Monument Vandalized 
by Samuel D. Gruber (ISJM) 

Last September I wrote about an attractive new monument erected on the site of the Jewish cemetery of Rajgród, in northeastern Poland, which is now overgrown with forest. I wrote:"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 dedication of the monument was a significant event in the Jewish history of the region. The monument, designed by noted Israeli sculptor Chen Winkler was made in Israel and shipped to Poland. Sadly, the monument was recently vandalized. The damage was discovered about a month ago and since then an investigation has been ongoing. The marble Star of David, an important component of the piece, has been smashed to pieces. Because the monument is located in an area that is under the authority of the Polish National Forest Authority it is not technically the responsibility of the local municipality (Rajgród). So far, the attacker is not known. Presumably, because the perpetrator smashed the stone some heavy equipment - at least a sledge hammer - was used in the attack. Therefore, it seems to have been premeditated. 

The local forest authority, which reports to officers in Bialystok, has informed sponsors of the monument that in the future increased security measures will be put in place. Local authorities have apparently apologized and expressed concern personally to the monument sponsors but to my knowledge no formal written statement has been released. Meanwhile, a local construction company has volunteered to fix the damaged monument. It cannot be made as good as new, but the cracks of repair in the once monolithic stone will now be part of the complicated and sad narrative of the local Jewish (and anti-Jewish) history of the area. 

In a statement to ISJM, FODZ Director Monika Krawczyk wrote "We were deeply saddened and concerned to hear that one of the most beautiful monuments relating to the Jewish heritage in Poland, which was recently installed to commemorate the Jewish community of Rajgrod, was destroyed. This destruction demonstrates an utter and ugly attack on Holocaust victims and their families, who took tremendous care and effort to finance this beautiful piece of art. The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland – FODZ (established by the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland and the World Jewish Restitution Organization), which assisted in the erection of the monument, calls upon the Polish authorities to take determined steps to find the perpetrators and to protect this and other such monuments in Poland." 

There are obvious lessons to be learned from this destruction. First and foremost, commemoration of the Holocaust is not a passive or neutral event but an active present engagement of often raw and violent attitudes and emotions. Monuments are but one step on the road of commemoration. Education and engagement are ingredients in public confrontation and reconciliation with unpleasant truths about the past. As part of this process an event was already planned in Rajgród for this May 28th, when American Karen Kaplan, daughter of Holocaust survivor Arie Kaplan, and author of Descendants of Rajgrod - Learning To Forgive will be presenting the book to the town's mayor. The violence against the monument makes Ms. Kaplan's visit and book all the more meaningful. 

There are other more practical lessons to be learned. All public art, and especially isolated monuments - of any sort - are always at risk, for many reasons. Drunken football fans recently damaged Rome's Barcaccia Fountain, and even artworks in well guarded museums have been defaced and even slashed. Teenagers regularly are known to topple cemetery gravestones, and countless statues in public parks across the world now stand handless and headless. Bronze plaques and even entire statues are sometimes ripped from their settings to be sold as scrap metal by those in need of quick cash. Still, while we don't yet know the motive of the Rajgrod vandal, this seems more than youthful hijinks and a crime for gain. The violence in Rajgrod - a literal smashing attack on the symbol of Jewish resilience - is a challenge to historic truth, collective memory and continuing efforts at Jewish-Polish reconciliation. It is a special shame that such a beautifully carved and imported monument was attacked. Perhaps it was too tempting. 

Sadly, for this reason and not aesthetics, many projects in which I have been engaged or have observed have settled for nearly indestructible boulders or big blocks of stone with incised lettering. But even these get attacked - though more often with paint than with hammers. We are in period where the destruction of art, monuments and historic sites for religious and ideological purpose is on the upsurge. The destruction of museums and historic sites in Iraq and Syria by ISIS is the worst instance of cultural destruction since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, though the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in the Holocaust was still much worse. ISIS's ravages are certainly the worst case of religious inspired iconoclasm since the French Revolution. 

But violence against Jewish sites, especially cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, has been a ongoing problem for a long time. State sanctioned destruction of Jewish heritage sites ended with the fall of Communism but individual acts of violence that cannot by attributed to youthful high spirits regularly occur. These are deliberate - though cowardly - political acts of anti-Semitic defiance. No amount of security will stop these attacks altogether and given the number in Europe of Jewish cemetery repairs and restoration and of new Holocaust memorials, the actual number of acts of vandalism is small, but still terribly painful. For example, the Rajgród monuments was just one of seven similar projects in which the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (FODZ) was engaged in 2014. 

Still, such acts cannot be ignored. In the case of Rajgród, and also in the recently vandalized cemetery of Gyöngyös, Hungary, these acts of violence become opportunities for governments and law enforcement to step forward to investigate and prosecute these crimes, and also to quickly repair the damage; but also opportunities for Jews and local communities to work together collaboratively through action and education to ensure that these acts are not supported and will not be representative of most people. At Gyöngyös, the vandalism led directly to a community-wide clean-up the overgrown cemetery.

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