Eastern Europe: Restoring and Honoring the Past
Conflicts over remembering the past, particularly the Holocaust, are common in Eastern Europe. Yet, the act of remembering also engenders solidarity that transcends ethnic divides. Many non-Jews have, in recent years, joined forces with their Jewish neighbors to ensure the memory of the Holocaust survives. In addition to expressing solidarity and neighborliness, this collaboration reflects a nostalgia for the multiethnic society that existed before the Second World War.
One area of collaboration in Eastern Europe between Jewish and non-Jewish residents and organizations is the restoration of Jewish cemeteries.
In Poland, the Cultural Heritage Foundation partnered with local rabbis to restore the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, established in 1806. This project, funded by the Polish Ministry of Culture, is part of a larger project to preserve the history of a multiethnic Poland and includes the restoration of Muslim cemeteries as well. In addition to this major project, in small towns and villages, Jews and young non-Jewish volunteers are working together to restore the few remaining Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
For example, on 1 October 2021, Jeffrey Cymbler reported in the Facebook Group “Jewish Life in Poland and Central Europe” that a Jewish cemetery in Sosnowiec was in terrible condition. He posted again on 29 October 2021, thanking a non-Jewish resident, Sławek Pastuszka, for finding the funds to mow the cemetery’s grass. Cymbler noted that the funding did not come from Israel or the Jewish community. He also noted that Mr. Sławomir Witkowski, a history teacher at the First High School in Katowice, together with his students, promised to care for the cemetery in the future. Notably, Mr. Witkowski and his students have participated in similar Jewish cemetery restoration projects in the past.
In other Eastern European countries, non-Jewish youths are working to restore Jewish cemeteries in locations where there is currently no Jewish community. In the village of Vinodol, Slovakia, located roughly 80 kilometers from the capital city of Bratislava, Vladimir Spanik, a 73-year-old member of the village council, spearheaded a 2021 project to restore the village’s abandoned Jewish cemetery. He recruited several young Roma boys for the project, expressing his hope “that they [Roma youth] discover the Holocaust and the evil time for both Jews and Roma.” For Mr. Spanik, the project is an opportunity to instill an appreciation of the past and the importance of cross-racial solidarity in the young people of his community.
This focus on involving non-Jewish youth in Jewish cemetery restoration projects is also happening at schools throughout Eastern Europe. In the small Polish city of Cieszyn, a museum employee, with the help of a teacher at the Evangelical Society School, organized and recruited students for a Jewish cemetery restoration project in 2021. The project, explained the teacher, provided students with a concrete way to engage with local history and develop intercultural understanding. In Kielce, a city located in south-central Poland, high school students commemorated the 75th anniversary of a post-Second World War anti-Jewish pogrom by cleaning the local Jewish cemetery.
Other projects involved the collaboration of current residents and the descendants of Eastern European Jews who fled their Eastern European homes during the war or relocated abroad after the war. Marla Osborn, a US citizen whose paternal grandmother was originally from Rohatyn, Ukraine, heads the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage project.
The project brings together local non-Jewish residents and volunteers from across the globe to restore the local Jewish cemetery and research the history of Jews in the region. Ms. Osborn is involved in other collaborative projects in the area as well. On 18 October 2021, she posted an update on the Facebook Page “Why We Study Eastern Europe” about a new memorial for local Holocaust victims in the village of Chesnyky.
The memorial was established by a local non-Jewish Rosolovska family, with assistance from the United Jewish Community of Ukraine and the Jewish community of Ivano-Frankivsk. Ms. Osborn notes the growing enthusiasm in the region for such projects: “There is a growing number of local Ukrainians in cities and villages in western Ukraine who are interested in the multicultural history of these places, including Jewish history, and often they want to do something to preserve what is left. Many of these interested people are young people born during the period of independence of Ukraine; some are historians and teachers.” These young volunteers are disturbed by the disappearance of Jewish “sites of memory” because they want to retain the memory of the region’s multicultural past.
Although these projects are usually crowdfunded, some organizations assist local volunteers who restore Jewish cemeteries. These organizations provide critical information regarding historical restorations, such as how to do so in accordance with rabbinic law. For example, the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Poland created a website that provides those interested in cemetery restoration with guidelines for carrying out the project. Similarly, Ms. Osborn created an online guide on Jewish Cemetery Preservation in Western Ukraine. These resources and others on Jewish cemetery restoration enable Eastern European youth to pursue an applied cross-cultural dialogue on the region’s multicultural past.
- Centralize information on one website. Information on the restoration and preservation of Jewish cemeteries in various Eastern European countries should be available on one website. In partnership with the European Union, the Israeli government should develop a website with specific information about possible funding sources, technical information about preservation, ongoing projects for potential volunteers, and assistance rendered by Israel, European states, and local authorities. It should also include a forum for exchanging information between people involved in various projects within the region.
- Professional development of teachers. Often, local history teachers initiate Jewish cemetery restoration projects in Eastern Europe. These teachers, especially in small villages, likely have little access to professional development information on this topic. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs should partner with Eastern European governments to develop an educational website for teachers with material translated into local languages, including lesson plans, suggested reading assignments, detailed overviews of recent works in regional history, and information on different schools involved in Jewish cemetery restoration projects.
- Publicly honor individuals and authorities for their help. Local figures and teachers who initiate Jewish cemetery restoration projects, as well as local authorities who assist them, should be publicly honored in some way on a local and international level.
- Dr. Inna Shtakser