Restoring life to forgotten cemeteries

A group of seniors from the Reut School are spending 10 days of their summer vacation identifying and cleaning up Jewish gravestones in Poland.

students repaint names on gravestones 521 (photo credit: Courtesy )
students repaint names on gravestones 521
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Last August, Chaim Bismuth, 18, stood beside an old gravestone in an abandoned cemetery near Chrzanow, Poland. He had just worked for hours alongside his peers to erect fallen gravestones, pull up weeds and repaint names to identify the dead. Next to the grave, he found a letter from the life whose dignity he had helped to restore: “Thank you very much for renovating my tomb and remembering my name,” the letter said.
The same letter was waiting next to every newly restored gravestone for the 11th grade students to read, placed there by Bismuth’s teachers, so that each student who worked that day would know the meaning behind their actions and for whom they were working. The letter was written by Reut School founder, the late Dr. Aryeh Geiger, who in 2004 started the Jerusalem high school’s Gidonim Project, a rehabilitation mission of Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
But the program only lasted until 2007. Geiger, who died in 2008, had raised money for the Gidonim mission each year to send students and school alumni, but since he became ill, the program lay dormant.
Until now.
A group of seniors from Reut – a religiously pluralistic, socially minded seventh- to 12th-grade school – who were so inspired by their experience last summer during their Trip of Remembrance, have revived the program for another trip this month. The students, who left on Monday for Poland, are devoting 10 days of their summer before they enter the army to cleaning up Jewish graves.
They have spent nearly the entire year fund-raising and gathering more work tools (they store their tools in a warehouse in Poland) since they returned last summer.
They raised enough to send 11 students, though a handful more were still hoping to join a couple weeks prior to the trip. This year’s trip is about relaunching the program for years to come, students said.
“This year we pull up the program again,” said 18- year-old Dekel Foind, a senior at Reut, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post a few weeks ago.
Bismuth, the student representative of the project, worked avidly to gather funds to support students.
“I’d do anything just to raise the money,” he said a few weeks prior to leaving for Poland.
The trip students took last summer, which notably was the first 11th-grade trip from Israel to include physically handicapped students, wasn’t all about restoring Jewish cemeteries. The class also visited Auschwitz and other death camps, “the normal tour,” Foind said. Reut opts to show its 11th graders what life looked like before the Holocaust as well.
“On our tour you saw the synagogues, the neighborhoods,” Foind said. “On regular trips, you just see death in the Holocaust, all the sad things.”
“When we go, we see Jewish culture in Poland. We go see synagogues, a lot of places where the Jews were, a lot of positive stuff, and then we also see the death there. You can see death here in Israel and in movies,” added Bismuth, sitting beside Foind.
But it was the hours Foind and Bismuth spent rehabilitating the cemetery near Chrzanow that moved them most. The Jews of Chrzanow – a town of 22,000 that was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939 – were moved to a ghetto and were almost all deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II.
The dedicated students cleaned up the town’s longforgotten cemetery, scraped moss away from graves, unearthed tombstones, used black oil paint to reprint deeply faded names on gravestones and recited Kaddish over the dead.
The students knew their work in this particular cemetery was far from complete. “We looked at each other and said, ‘We have to renew this program. We have to go back to Poland.’ If we had more time, just imagine the possibilities. In four hours we renovated 53 gravestones,” Bismuth said proudly.
The students chose to return to this cemetery near Chrzanow on their current trip, though it is a massive undertaking. The students said it is over five dunams in size. “We’re not going to be able to finish it in 10 days.
Still, we want to start somewhere,” Bismuth said. In addition to this cemetery, the students will find another smaller cemetery to work in.
Looking to the future, the students identify each grave, take a picture of it and write down its location in the cemetery. When they returned to Israel last summer, they uploaded the images to, where visitors, mostly survivors, can see each repaired grave Gidonim has ever worked on. Students aim for the site to be a resource for identifying lost family and friends, and indeed it has been.
“There’s no point taking a picture if you’re going to go back to Israel and you’re not going to know where it is,” Bismuth said. It’s meant “for people to go back and find their loved ones. Weeds grow very fast after a year, and you need a map to go back and find it.”
Even when they can’t identify a grave, students take a picture of it and upload it to the site.
“Some you can’t even read the name. You can’t do much. Maybe somebody remembers,” Bismuth said.
“Some gravestones are shattered or broken in two, some are still standing, some are right under the ground and you wouldn’t know about them.”
Some years ago on a trip with Geiger, who always led the group, Bismuth said the students stopped in one particularly bleak-looking cemetery. “There was nothing there, just a field,” Bismuth said. “They went with metal sticks and stuck them in the ground to see if they could find gravestones.”
After working for hours, they still could not find anything. The students asked Geiger if they could leave, but he refused. “No, let’s stay here,” Bismuth recalled Geiger saying, having heard the story from the students who had been there. Soon after, the students came across a mass grave in the field. They were shocked.
Foind said that prior to the trip he had not thought so deeply about Poland and about what the experience would mean to him. It was only afterward that he realized how important it was.
“The work was very special and you feel that you’re really doing something. I think that’s why I’m doing it,” he said.
On his 2010 trip in the Chrzanow cemetery, Bismuth decided to work on a gravestone by himself.
He gathered a few tools and looked around. “It looks like a forest, you can’t even see the gravestone that’s on the ground,” he said. He pulled weeds, grabbed the low-hanging branches and pulled them away.
With the help of a few friends, he raised the fallen gravestone.
“It was amazing. That’s why I want to go back. The small gravestone that I picked up, sitting there...
nobody knew it for the last 70 years,” Bismuth said.
LIKE ALL high-school students, Reut juniors spend a great deal of their history unit learning about the Holocaust in preparation for the matriculation exam.
Actually going to Poland allowed the students to see and feel a part of everything they had just learned.
“Auschwitz is right in front of you and you’re standing in Auschwitz,” Bismuth said.
From the cemeteries, the students said they found themselves learning about Jewish life before the war, noticing who was a kohen – a title engraved on the stone – where and when the Jews were born and when they died.
“You see the cemeteries and you’re hearing that there’s not a Jew in the area and you start to think what happened here. Something’s not natural here,” Bismuth said.
The experience also gave the students an opportunity to interact with a few of their Polish peers who came to help them renovate the cemetery. This impressed Bismuth and Foind. “They really care about the Jewish community that was there,” Bismuth said.
Since Gidonim began, students and alumni have worked in cemeteries in Yosefow, Chelm, Blazwova, Bedzin, Szcerbreszn, Bizsche, Schikochin, Sieniava, Krashnik, Ulanow and others.
When launching Gidonim in 2003, Geiger thought of Genia and Nachum Manor when he sought a name for the program. The Manors, Holocaust survivors who had lived in Chrzanow and were on Schindler’s List, had become good friends of the Reut School, accompanying 11th graders many times on their summer trip to Poland. Nachum was a member of Gidonim, the unit of communications experts that worked with Aliya Bet before the State of Israel was founded.
“That’s how Aryeh chose it,” Bismuth said. One year, Reut students erected a gravestone in honor of Nachum Manor’s father in the Jewish cemetery by Chrzanow.
It’s been a long road of fund-raising, writing letters and making phone calls to the Polish Embassy, school alumni, and American and Polish rabbis, that all began just a week after their return from Poland last summer. The students even made a film ( Ka2Wl8tgitU) to promote the project.
Yoni Yefet Reich, the administrative director of the school, said it’s been a totally student-run endeavor from the start. When a class of 11th-graders first returned from their 2003 trip, they decided then that they wanted to return to work in cemeteries, and Gidonim was born. “They did everything to come back and they did it,” said Reich, who is accompanying this year’s students for several days of their trip.
When this year’s students said they wanted to do the same, he told them they might be setting their sights too high. He has happily been proven wrong.
“I want them to feel that they succeed. That’d be something amazing,” he said.
Students raised roughly NIS 40,000 to cover trip expenses. They reached out to potential donors locally and in the US. They even “sent e-mails to shtetls in Poland,” Bismuth said. Though their contacts in Poland offered support, they could not give financially.
Still, the hard work of the students and donations gathered have made this year’s revival of Gidonim a reality.
That is not enough for Bismuth and Foind. The fund-raising efforts are meant to revive the program for years to come, they said. “Our goal is not just to send Gidonim to Poland this year,” Bismuth said.
They hope the donor contacts they make will sustain Gidonim for years to come.
And the project, though it expressly involves gravestones, is not about death or even the Holocaust, according to the letter students wrote to raise money, but about preserving the rich Jewish history and culture that once existed in Poland, a facet of life lost in the horror of the Holocaust.
The letter reads: “As the torchbearers of the next generation, it is important to us not only to commemorate the Shoah in general, but also to commemorate the people themselves, Jews with names and lives of their own, who, without this project, might remain abandoned and forgotten among the uncountable and unnamed millions.”
To make a donation to Gidonim, e-mail or call the school at 566-7374. The school is located at Rehov Elazar Hagadol 4 in Katamon.