Polish prisoners preserving Jewish history

An unusual partnership between prison services from Poland and Israel is working to preserve Jewish gravesites, redeem local Jewish history and change people's attitudes.

Polish prisioners (photo credit: ESTERA WIEJA)
Polish prisioners
(photo credit: ESTERA WIEJA)
In Poland there are some 400 Jewish cemeteries, most of them run down and forgotten. Often, this is a result not so much of anti-Semitism, but of local poverty, as the Jewish community has found it difficult to raise funds for their upkeep and renovation. At the same time, stereotypical views of Polish anti-Semitism discouraged Israelis from getting involved.
However, a unique partnership between the prison services from both Poland and Israel is working hand-in-hand to preserve these gravesites, redeem the local Jewish history and change attitudes among peoples.
The story of this unusual partnership began five years ago, when a delegation of Polish Prisons Service workers visited Israel in May of 2005. They soon returned the favor, hosting a delegation from the Israeli Prisons Service in Poland in September of that year.
Around the same time, Capt. Artur Cyruk of the penitentiary in Hajnowka began an extraordinary program to educate inmates in his facility about local Jewish history. He called the initiative “Atlantis,” after the mythical land that once was beautiful but eventually disappeared and was forgotten, leading people to start questioning its former existence.
Capt. Cyruk saw a close corollary with Jewish life in Poland – once thriving but today almost forgotten and even doubted by some. Under his supervision, the prisoners volunteered for physical labor at Jewish cemeteries, cleaning, weeding, removing broken trees, and restoring gravestones. The first place they visited was a cemetery in Narewka, once a highly populated Jewish town.
The work was preceded by a lecture delivered by Anna Cialowicz about Polish Jewry. What was most fascinating to the prisoners was her focus on religious Jews who were put in Polish prisons and managed to keep their religious beliefs and rituals while being detained unjustly. The audience – which included serious criminals serving out long sentences and one person imprisoned for life – was captivated by the story.
Atlantis depended on volunteers – neither the prisoners nor lecturers were being paid for their work. The lectures were conducted by members of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and the Jewish Historical Institute, as well as by Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland.
But before long, the Polish Prisons Service decided to team up with the local Jewish community to expand the project to restore abandoned Jewish cemeteries throughout the country. It seemed like an odd partnership, yet it has proven to be an unexpectedly positive experience for both sides.
The resulting project, named Tikkun (Hebrew for “repair”), was launched two years ago, with the added cooperation of Israeli authorities, to not only maintain the Jewish legacy in Eastern Europe but also to combat anti-Semitism in perhaps the most challenging part of society – among prison inmates.
The project is divided into two segments. The first part is educational, so that the prisoners can learn more about the history of Polish Jewry and of Israel. They are also being introduced to Jewish culture and religious beliefs, in order to better understand the codes of conduct at Jewish graveyards and other sites.
The instructors and lecturers come from the Jewish community and a wide range of Polish organizations and institutions. The educational aspects of the program also include exhibitions, movie screenings, concerts and other presentations all related to Jewry or to Israel. Some prisoners have also toured the Museum of Auschwitz to learn more about the Holocaust.
The second facet of Tikkun is the actual physical work at Jewish cemeteries all over Poland. In the majority of cases, this work involves cleaning up garbage, weeding, setting tombstones up straight, and sometimes putting them back together if they are broken.
Since the project’s nationwide launch in 2009, some 55 penitentiaries and remand centers in Poland have expressed their readiness to restore and preserve places of Jewish heritage.
Ironically, some prisons were forced to drop out of the program, because there were no such commemorative sites in their regions. Nevertheless, many of these correctional centers still decided to participate in the educational part of Tikkun.
Initially, Tikkun was to be just a oneyear project. However, many prisons around the country declared their eagerness to continue. One of them was the prison in Cieszyn, in southern Poland, where the head warden, Lt.
Rafal Kaczmarczyk, was encouraged by the impact of the program on his inmates. In fact, he had taken an interest in restoring the Jewish cemetery in Cieszyn even before Tikkun was officially launched.
“I met Mrs. Dorota Wiewiora, the chairwoman of the Jewish community in Bielsko-Biala, in 2008, and she shared with me the history of the Jewish cemetery in Cieszyn,” Lt. Kaczmarczyk recently told The Christian Edition. “It is about 300 years old and it needed our help. It was completely run down… Since then she has faithfully supervised all our work at the gravesite.”
As soon as the Tikkun initiative was launched, the prison in Cieszyn joined the official cooperation with Israel, and then urged that it be extended beyond the first year.
Chief Rabbi Schudrich is also encouraged by the initiative and points to Tikkun as proof that anti-Semitism can be conquered.
I had an opportunity to see it for myself when I was invited to the prison in Cieszyn to give a lecture to a couple dozen prisoners about the history of modern Israel. I was quickly surprised with how much my audience already knew about Jewish history. As I spoke of Israel’s geography, they commented with biblical references. When I acquainted them with the establishment of Israel in 1948, they knew which leader came from Poland and were curious how many spoke Polish.
A couple weeks later, Lt. Kaczmarczyk told me that after the lecture, the interest never waned. Prisoners were still asking for books about the current history of Israel.
During the week, the prison even airs its own radio programs about Jewish culture and history. The prison also screens movies about Jewish history, usually provided by the Museum in Auschwitz. The prisoners can also participate in special meetings where they can study the Bible.
“The lectures are not mandatory, so prisoners can sign up themselves whether they want to come. When we started organizing them, we didn’t know what to expect. Would anyone show up? Should we prepare for disturbances?” recounted Lt. Kaczmarczyk of his initial concerns.
“The outcome pleasantly surprised us. There was such great, positive interest that we had to put a limit to the number of prisoners we could let in to each lecture, for security reasons.”
It seems Tikkun has done the impossible – stereotypes and prejudices on both sides are slowly diminishing. As a result of such collaboration, a monument to Polish Jewry was erected in Radom and unveiled last November, thanks to the local penitentiary and finances provided by Israeli partners.