Trip to Poland reveals sad state of historic Jewish cemetery

Some tombstones were used for roadwork during the Communist era, and some simply gave way to climatic conditions.

Alon Goldman and Aleksandra Janikowka Perczak in snow covered Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alon Goldman and Aleksandra Janikowka Perczak in snow covered Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Alon Goldman, Israel chairman of the Association of Czestochowa Jews and Their Descendants, is frustrated. He would dearly like to properly restore the Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa, Poland, but he feels that there has been sufficient Israeli input and not enough Polish input toward that aim.
For several years now, Israeli high school students have been going in groups to Czestochowa to remove the undergrowth, clean the tombstones and catalogue the names of the deceased.
Many of the graves have been vandalized.
Some tombstones were used for roadwork during the Communist era, and some simply gave way to climatic conditions.
Goldman, who travels from Israel to Czestochowa at least twice a year, was there in mid-January in yet another attempt to finalize the ownership of the cemetery, and the responsibility for its restoration and upkeep.
The fence around the cemetery is in such a sorry state of disrepair that it has almost collapsed. Many trees have fallen, and despite the efforts of the Israeli high schoolers, many graves are covered in vegetation.
Whereas there are active and growing Jewish communities in Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Lodz and elsewhere, this is not the case in Czestochowa, where the remaining Jewish community is very small in number. On the eve of the Holocaust, Czestochowa was home to some 30,000 Jews.
The cemetery itself is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Poland. It is almost surrounded by factory plants, and entry during the Communist era was via the Huta steel mill, where visitors had to present their passports before being allowed to go and look for the graves of relatives.
Today, they can freely walk through the gate.
According to Goldman, the overall issue – namely responsibility for the maintenance of the cemetery – has not been dealt with since the end of the Second World War.
The municipality did not take responsibility for the cemetery, even though it is within its jurisdiction, and the people buried there were all Polish citizens who were residents of Czestochowa.
The Jewish community of Katowice now bears responsibility for Czestochowa, but has shirked in its duty insofar as the Jewish cemetery is concerned.
In the land ownership registry, says Goldman, the Jewish cemetery is listed as belonging to the Jewish Community of Czestochowa, which officially has not existed for years.
He raised the matter with the mayor and other officials when he was previously in Czestochowa in September 2018, and was assured that there will be an in-depth discussion on the subject with the participation of Wlodzimierz Kac, who heads the Katowice Jewish community.
The meeting finally did take place in January, and although there was a willingness on all sides to be helpful, no one was actually ready to accept responsibility.
The situation is becoming increasingly urgent, says Goldman, given the antisemitic graffiti that appeared on the cemetery gate a little over a month ago, and the massive construction that is taking place in the area adjacent to the cemetery, with factory premises going up very close to the fence.
Goldman is fearful that while construction is taking place, the land around the gravestones will sink and cause the grave stones to either break or fall.
The main reason for the reluctance to take responsibility is of course the cost factor. Goldman has argued with the municipality, saying that his organization is willing to make major concessions regarding the return of Jewish community assets or their value, providing that the money is used to restore the cemetery, but although the municipality would be happy to accept part of such a deal, it refuses to accept responsibility for the cemetery.
However, it will file a request for funds with the district committee responsible for war graves, because in addition to individual graves, the cemetery also contains a mass grave of Jews murdered by the Nazis.
Without actually taking responsibility, the municipality will also ask the district committee for permission to manage the cemetery and to fix the fence.
The visit was not entirely disappointing.
Although it was the height of the Polish winter and the cemetery was covered in snow, Goldman persuaded architectural engineer Aleksandra Janikowska-Perczak, the director for the preservation of heritage sites in Czestochowa, to accompany him to the cemetery.
She immediately realized that it should be preserved and began talking about what could be done and how. Goldman was impressed by her goodwill, but realizes that there are still a lot of bureaucratic hurdles to overcome.
Aside from his concern for the cemetery, he did experience an emotional high before leaving Poland to return to Israel. He was invited to lecture at the Henryk Sienkiewicz High School, where he told the students about what had befallen the city’s Jewish community in general and his family in particular during the war. When he left, it was with his father’s matriculation certificate. His father, Jerucham Jerzy Goldman, had been a pre-war student at the school from which he matriculated in 1935.