jewish cemetery 224.
(photo credit: Michael Freund/Shavei Israel)
About 30 Roman Catholic Poles have taken it upon themselves to preserve what they see as a unique and important aspect of their nation's history - the crooked and crumbling markers in Poland's neglected Jewish cemeteries.
Kamila Klauzinska, 35, has helped lead the grassroot efforts by average Poles who believe that preserving the nation's roughly 1,400 Jewish cemeteries is important to remembering and preserving a shared past.
"It's our common heritage, so how can we not try to save it?" Klauzinska said at a meeting this week of some 30 people involved in similar community efforts across the eastern European nation.
Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe - nearly 3.5 million strong - before the Nazis destroyed their synagogues and sent them to ghettos and death camps they set up across the country during World War II.
But the cemeteries survived - most of them in small towns now devoid of Jewish life and far away from the remaining elements of Poland's tiny Jewish community, centered in big cities like Warsaw and Krakow.
For those reasons, Poland's surviving Jewish community is grateful to the activists.
"It is amazing, important, positive and moving to know that there are people like you," Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told the gathering Zdunska Wola, 130 miles (200 kilometers) west of Warsaw. "What you do for our cemeteries gives me and my team the strength to continue our work."
As a child, Klauzinska recalls slipping through holes in the fence surrounding the Jewish cemetery and wandering among the tattered tombstones lost in the wild tangle of weeds, garbage and underbrush.
Several years ago she joined forces with a local organization to galvanize school children to assist in hauling loads of garbage from the cemetery - everything from bottles, bags and wrappers to a dead dog. They also cut the weeds, trimmed the grass and pruned the trees.
But their goal doesn't stop there.
"We also try to mobilize the whole community, everybody from students to city officials, to unite in order to reach a common goal - that one day nobody ever again will damage even one tombstone in the cemetery," Klauzinska said.
Scattered across the country, the graveyards belong to the Jewish community, but Schudrich freely admits it is too small to preserve all 1,400 of the cemeteries.
"It is physically impossible for our Jewish community in Poland to think about, guard, and care for all of them," he said.
That's why the private grassroot initiative of the activists from across the country who gathered in Zdunska Wola is so important.
Most of them also lead educational efforts in their towns to get the local communities involved and give them a stake in preserving their Jewish heritage.
Grzegorz Kaminski, a history teacher in Gliwice in southern Poland, became interested in the cemeteries in nearby Toszek and Wielowies in 2002.
Along with his students, Kaminski, 36, hauled bags of bottles, cans, broken furniture from the cemeteries, where he now leads visitor tours through the two graveyards.
Like Klauzinska, he believes it is important to honor a community that was an integral part of Poland for almost a thousand years.
"The history of the Jews of Toszek and Wielowies is the history of those towns," Kaminski said. "We have to remember these people."