Last week’s conference on Jewish genealogy in New York featured many sessions dealing with the issues of tracing Jewish lineage. One subject that came up in many of the discussion groups is the use of cemeteries in finding the last trace of ancient family members. There were talks on how to read a tombstone, recognizing names and titles, and the meaning of many of the decorations and other markings found on grave markers around the world.
Some presenters discussed how, when they went back to their ancestral home, they found the cemetery in an appalling state. Often tombstones were missing or broken, the plots covered with dirt and garbage, or even built over.
There has been a movement by individuals as well as foundations to rectify the situation. In a session dealing specifically with cemeteries, work that has been done was showcased with videos showing the original condition of the cemetery, the work done to refurbish, and the situation as it is today. It was pointed out that this situation is not unique to Eastern Europe but that cemeteries fall prey to neglect wherever there is not constant maintenance.
Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, has been involved in cemetery work in Poland for almost as long as he has been in Poland. There are around 1,500 cemeteries in Poland, many of them in a state of disrepair, and Rabbi Shudrich has become an expert in cemetery restoration.
Rabbi Schudrich has developed guidelines for anyone interested in working in old cemeteries.
“First of all, we have to set priorities,” Rabbi Schudrich said. “There are mainly two categories of cemeteries, those that need work and those that are in imminent danger of being destroyed.
The danger can be due to a city’s plan to take over the property and develop it for either commercial or private use. Whenever Rabbi Schudrich is apprised of a situation, he goes to the authorities and enlists their help in correcting it. He mentioned that he has enjoyed a very good and close relationship with the authorities, and that they have been very respectful as well as helpful.
“Often the situation can be resolved with simple logic,” Rabbi Shudrich explained. “There is a town that wanted to run a sewer line adjacent to a cemetery wall. I explained that the walls are not always the exact boundaries of the cemetery and that there was also the danger of leakage from the pipes. After consulting the maps of the area I suggested that the pipe be laid on the other side of the road, and that this would solve a lot of problems. The solution was readily accepted.
“In some cases we have to find the right official. In Poland there are often strong rivalries in local politics, and while one politician might be hesitant, another will be very responsive to our needs.”
Before any work can be done on any cemetery, a complete survey has to be conducted to determine its exact location and boundaries. It has happened in the past that there was funding for 75 percent of the cemetery, so the cemetery was given at a discount, leaving 25 percent open for development. An example was the Warsaw cemetery, which had one corner sliced off and apartment buildings built over it. In other places where there is no fence or wall, people think that the area is abandoned and houses are built on the grounds – although in fact they are part of a cemetery.
In Poland there have been many problems and mistakes over the years, and legislation has been passed in the Polish parliament to try to rectify the problems in the future. Rabbi Schudrich now must be notified whenever any work is to be done in a Jewish cemetery. He supplies trained supervisors who are to be present while the work is done.
(Continued next week)