Restoring cemeteries, Polish convicts find Jewish community past and present

In Poland, which was once home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, prisoners are refurbishing abandoned Jewish cemeteries.

Hilary Heuler
A cleaned tombstone of the Jewish community's deceased reveals a memory and culture.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

It isn’t unusual for prisons to put their inmates to work, teaching them the value of manual labor and community service. But in Poland, some convicts have been assigned a particularly sensitive task: restoring abandoned Jewish cemeteries.

In the 1930s, Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, but the Holocaust murdered millions, and communist-era purges drove thousands more into exile. Today, Poland’s Jewish population is a fraction of what it was. Nearly every Polish town has a Jewish cemetery, but most are unkempt and overgrown, crumbling testaments to a vanished people.

As Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich explains, the prison program – called Projekt Izrael – is about more than just cemeteries. Rabbi Schudrich helped start the project, and today he and other members of the Jewish community travel around Poland giving seminars for participating prisons. The talks focus on Jewish traditions and culture, particularly on the close ties between Polish and Jewish heritage. “It opens their eyes to other parts of the world, and it can really begin to help them to change stereotypes that they may have,” Schudrich says. “Sometimes the best questions I’ve ever heard have come from prisoners. They have time to think.”

One of the convicts is Artur Bilinski, who recently helped pull weeds and scrub tombstones in a small Jewish cemetery outside Warsaw. “There are a lot of stereotypes in Poland about Jews, but these talks challenge them,” Mr. Bilinski says. “Doing this has really changed my ideas. I didn’t really know much about Jews before, and yet the two cultures are so closely linked.”

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