A few days ago (late July 2006) we arrived in Szczebrzeszyn, a small town in southeastern Poland. In this town there is a monumental Jewish cemetery from the beginning of 16th century, one of the oldest remaining Jewish cemeteries in Poland. The first remembrances of the cemetery date from 1593. Jews of Szczebrzeszyn are mentioned for the first time in 1507. The oldest tombstone is dated from 26 nissan 5305 (1545).
The cemetery is located on a beautiful hill at Cmentarna Street. There are about 400 tombstones visible. Many of them are broken, collapsed, and toppled over onto the ground, covered with grass. More than three times as many of the tombstones are still to be excavated according to specialists. The 18th, 19th and 20th century sandstone markers are either finely smoothed and inscribed, or flat shaped with carved relief decoration and inscriptions in Hebrew. The cemetery size is 1.8 ha. It is protected as an official monument but there are no signs of any maintenance or care.
It was an incredible surprise to see a group of a young people working at the cemetery on this hot, beautiful sunny day. We asked them who they were and the answer was even more surprising. They are students from Israel, from RE'UT SCHOOL in Jerusalem.
As you can find out on their website: in the past several years, students from the RE'UT SCHOOL, a religious pluralistic secondary school in Jerusalem, have traveled to Poland to explore their roots and to learn about the Holocaust. Apart from their regular touring, the students, during the trip, have devoted several days to the physical restoration of Jewish cemeteries. In the trips in 2001 and 2003, Re'ut students were involved in significant restoration activity in cemeteries in Krzepice, Dobrodzien and Chrzanow. The restoration activities included unearthing tombstones, painting them, putting them together, mapping the cemetery along with general cleaning and restoration of the graveyard.
This activity has left a very deep and lasting impression on all of those involved including a commitment to help to expand the activity and to involve other Jewish youth who visit Poland (and possibly other areas in Europe) in this unfinished work. The restoration process has engaged young people in fulfilling the mitzvah of ZACHOR in a very tangible way. It enables them, through mapping and restoration work, to offer a service to family members in the Jewish community around the world. It also rekindles the memory and a living Judaism amongst communities many of whom have no Jewish communities today.
The project is named for the GIDONIM, the communications experts who, before the State of Israel was established, worked with Aliya Bet. One of the Gidonim is an Holocaust survivor and a member of Schindler’s List. He and his wife who survived the Holocaust and is, as well, on Schindler’s List, have been actively involved , since its inception, in the Re’ut project for travel and work in Poland. We name this project in their honor and recognize their contributions with gratitude.
In the summer of 2004, a group of 25 students and some adults, returned to Poland with the purpose of spending two weeks in restoring two Jewish cemeteries. One cemetery was in Chrzanow, (the area of Krakow), where they were to complete a task that was begun on the earlier trip in the fall of 2003. A second cemetery in the Lublin area was selected and work has begun there. During the course of the restoration, the group fixed tombstones and painted tombstones, cleaned the cemetery grounds, repaired the outside wall and gates (in Chrzanow) and mapped the gravesite . The information is to be scanned into a computer site. In addition, a group of students and adults searched daily for additional cemeteries in the vicinity, mapping them and preparing the logistics of restoration for future groups. This activity is the beginning of a gradual process of creating a catalogue of Jewish cemeteries to be restored.
This summer they arrived in Szczebrzeszyn (after first visiting the other Jewish cemeteries, for example in Jozefow, and before traveling to Kielce). It was a very impressive group of young people and it was a tremendous pleasure to see their magnificent work and to talk to them about it.
For us the meaning of this encounter was also particularly deep and symbolic. We remember the history of the Holocaust in Szczebrzeszyn very well, thanks to a seminal book by well-known Polish physician and historian, Zygmunt Klukowski, author of a "Diary from the years of occupation 1939-1944". "A doctor by profession, a writer, historian and book collector by avocation, Klukowski determined to record daily life under the occupation, unflinchingly noting the actions of informers, looters and collaborators, along with individual acts of heroism, both large and small, he witnessed. No matter how familiar the brutality of the Nazis, readers will respond anew to Klukowski's rendering of the round-ups of Jews, of the transports of gentiles to labor camps, of the reprisal killings for sabotage, of the scarcity of food, heat, and medicine. The diary is unusual in its depiction of a region's population at large, gentiles as well as Jews, making this a document of particular historical value." (from Publisher's Weekly)
When you read the excerpts from his book, you will probably share our feelings regarding that special moment when we saw young Jews from Israel in Szczebrzeszyn.
October 21, 1942
By 3 P.M. more than 900 Jews had been assembled. The Germans began moving them to the outskirts of the city. The Germans still carried on the search for Jews. It was posted that the penalty for hiding Jews is death, but for showing their hiding places special rewards will be given. All Jews will be shot. Between 400 and 500 have been killed. Poles were forced begin digging graves. It was terrifying day. I cannot describe everything that took place. You cannot even imagine the barbarism of the Germans. I am completely broken and cannot seem to find myself.
The action against the Jews continues. The only difference is that SS has moved out and the job is now in the hands of our own local gendarmes and the "blue police". They received orders to kill all the Jews and they are obeying them. (...) It is a shame to say it but some Polish people took part in that crime /looting Jewish homes/. Some people even helped the gendarmes look for hidden Jews. The Germans even killed small Jewish children. It is hard to describe.
While I was gone, the Gestapo, local gendarmes, "blue police" and some street people in Szczebrzeszyn again started the hunt for the Jews. Particularly active was Matysiak, a policeman from Sulowo, and Skorzak, a city janitor. Skorzak had no gun, only an ax, and with the ax he killed several Jews. The whole day people hunted and killed Jews, while others brought corpses to the cemetery for burial.
The hunt for the Jews is still on. Additional Gestapo agents came from Bilgoraj. With the help of gendarmes, "blue police" and some citizens they looked every where for Jews. All cellars, attics and barns were searched. Most Jews were killed on the spot, but some were taken to the Jewish cemetery for public execution. I witnessed a group of Jews being forced to march to the cemetery. On both sides of prisoners marched gendarmes, "blue police", and so called Polish guards dressed in black uniforms. The speed things up the Jews were beaten on their heads and backs with wooden sticks. This was a terrible picture.(...) Most of the murdered Jews are old men, women, and small children. The younger men are in the forest.
I witnessed how Jews were removed from a hiding place in the rope maker Dym's house. I counted approximately fifty Jews as they were taken to the jail. A crowd looked on, laughing and even beating the Jews; others searched homes for more victims. (...) What happened to dr Bolotny I do not know. Dentist Bronsztajnowa, along with her two young daughters was transported to Belzec. Dr Sztrejcherowa was shot in her own house.
I feel it is correct to give some names of the German gendarmes and members of the "blue police" who were very active in the killing of the Jews. Commandant Frymer, gendarmes Pryczing and Schultz, Polish-speaking gendarmes Mendykowski, Bot, Prestlaw and Syring. "Blue police" - Muranowski, Tatulinski, Hajduczak and Jan Gall. The cruelest of all is Gall, who is even teaching his teenage son how to kill Jews.
I went to town twice and both times I observed a group of Jews being taken to their death. I saw an old Jewish women unable to walk anymore. A Gestapo man shot her once but she was still alive; so he shot her again, then left.
In the forest the Jews live alone. Some bandits even take their clothing, leaving them naked. Today Gestapo executed several Jews. The last to be shot were four young Jews who helped the Germans during the liquidation. From the eye witnesses I have information that the Germans forced Jews to lie face down on top of the dead and then shot them with machine guns. Some did not die instantly but tried to stand up and cry for help.
Officially all Jews have been liquidated in the entire county of Bilgoraj. Only small number still hides in the forest. Sometimes they come to town for food, but gendarme night patrols hunt for them.
During the past two years the household of the German gendarme post was managed by a thirty-year-old women, Oberwais. She was a convert from Judaism . She cooked for the gendarmes, and everyone was sure that she would survive, even after the complete liquidation of the Jews. Yesterday she was sent to buy something at the store. A gendarme followed her and shot her in the head. At least she was not expecting her death.
Today again several Jews were executed. I was told that two young Jewish women with small children arrived at the gendarme post and asked to be shot. They had been in the forest for days; the children were half-dead from starvation. They all were shot by the Germans.
March 22, 1943
At the hospital I admitted a villager from Gruszka Zaporska. He had been hiding six Jews from Radecznica in his barn, giving them not only shelter but also food for several weeks. When the Germans began searching his farm he attempted to escape and was wounded. He died a few hours after his admission to the hospital. The Germans ordered that he be buried in the cemetery as a bandit, which means without a casket in an unmarked grave. The next day this man's wife, his eight-year-old son, and the three-year-old daughter were executed, along with the six Jews.
(...) the Jews are being transported totally naked. During the journey some of the Jews try to escape by jumping from the train, but guards shoot them to death. A few days ago a young Jewish women attempted to escape with her seven-year-old child. She was killed by the guards but the child was not harmed. Workers at the Alwa factory gave the child the food, but when the Germans learned of this a gendarme went there and killed the youngster.
The next day we arrived in the small town of Jozefow. Seeing the stunning effects of the recent work at this cemetery made us regard these young students from Jerusalem with great reverence. The symbol (the Star of David) we found at the entrance to the cemetery left no doubt as to who had been here just a few days earlier.