Polish city returns medieval cemetery to Jewish community

The decision marks a triumph for the Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

February 23, 2010 02:11
2 minute read.
Gate marks entrance to Przemysl cemetery

przemysl cemetery 311. (photo credit: Michael Freund)


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PRZEMYSL, Poland - After years of negotiations, a centuries-old Jewish burial ground in southeastern Poland that was desecrated by the Germans during the Holocaust has been restored to the Jewish community.

The cemetery, located in the city of Przemysl, near Poland's border with the Ukraine, dates back to the 16th century and served local Jews, as well as those in nearby towns such as Jaroslav, Pruchnik, Kanczuga and Dynow, for hundreds of years.

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But the Przemysl municipality, which took over the site following the end of World War II, resisted calls to return it.

At a meeting last week, however, Poland's government-backed Regulatory Commission, which resolves claims regarding Jewish communal property, instructed city officials to turn the cemetery over to Jewish control.

The decision marks a triumph for the Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and especially for its president, Monika Krawczyk, who led the effort in recent years to recover the graveyard.

Krawczyk, whose foundation is responsible for safeguarding thousands of Jewish cultural, historical and religious sites throughout Poland, expressed satisfaction at the news.

"We are happy that the Przemysl cemetery was returned to Jewish hands," she told XXThe Jerusalem Post,  noting that "its history is so important and intriguing."

Known as the "old cemetery," the Przemysl burial ground was in use for nearly 300 years until it became full in the middle of the 19th century, prompting the Jewish community to open a second one in the area.

Sitting on two hectares (20 dunams), the "old cemetery" had graves dating back to at least 1574.

But after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and occupied Przemysl, they vandalized and despoiled the site.

Prior to the Holocaust, the city was home to an estimated 20,000 Jews, constituting nearly 30 percent of the city's population. Most of them were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators.

"The ancient tombstones in the cemetery were used by the Germans during the war to pave local roads, and until now, we have not succeeded in tracing them," Krawczyk said. "After the war, the brick wall surrounding it was demolished, and the materials were used by neighbors to repair local buildings."

No graves are currently visible at the site, which is overrun by weeds and vegetation and badly in need of renovation. The only trace left standing is one of the entrance gates to the cemetery.

Krawczyk, whose group will be responsible for restoring and administering the site, said that the first priority will be to take steps to prevent its further deterioration.

"We need to start with securing the perimeter of the cemetery and building a fence to protect it," she said. The foundation has already commissioned a technical team to prepare a design.

Krawczyk expressed the hope that Jews from abroad will assist with the refurbishment of the cemetery grounds.

"We have to remember that we do it for the past generations who contributed so much to our people and our culture, and we do it also for future generations," she said.

"The least we can do for those who were buried in the old Przemysl cemetery is to try and restore the dignity of their final resting place," she added.

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