Every spring and summer, there is renewed activity throughout Poland regarding the preservation of Jewish cemeteries. There are two kinds of work being done: Some are done by private people who see a situation in a cemetery in the region from where their family originated and attempt to restore the cemetery on their own. The other type approaches the Jewish community with a proposal to do the work and it is then channeled through the proper authorities. In the next few weeks, I will be reporting on a few instances that have recently occurred.
Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, who has shown great interest in helping to restore Jewish life in Poland, was instrumental in restoring the cemetery in his ancestral town of Siedlezcka. Working with the Rabbinic Commission in Poland and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (www.fodz.pl), as well as gaining the cooperation of the local government, he did an exemplary job in preserving the remains of the cemetery. He sent the following report:
SIEDLEZCKA, POLAND (Tuesday, May 27, 2008) – In the town of Siedlezcka in Galicia, Poland, yesterday, Monday, May 26, a moving ceremony took place marking the completion of the restoration of the local Jewish cemetery, which was established in 1850. Attending the ceremony, which took place at the ancient cemetery’s entrance, were Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, and the mayor of Kanczuga, Jacek Solek (who agreed to pave a new road to the cemetery at the town’s expense).
The restoration works, which were financed in part by Freund and his family (through the Warsaw-based Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland and the Siedlezcka-Kanczuga Landsmanschaft headed by Howard Nightingale) included: the general cleaning of the cemetery, restoration of the gravesites and building anew the stone wall surrounding the cemetery. The urgent need to build a wall arose recently due to the incursion into the cemetery by local Polish farmers attempting to expand their farming area.
Michael Freund in front of the new gate of the restored Jewish cemetery.
The town of Siedlezcka is located in the district of Galicia, which is in the southeast of Poland near the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. For many years the local Jewish cemetery served various Jewish communities in the area, among them: Kanczuga (the community where Michael Freund’s family is from), as well as the villages of Gac, Bialoboki, Markowa, Manasterz, Zagorze, Chmielnik, Jawornik Polski and Zabratówka. It is estimated that to date only 500 graves remain, with the last known burial having taken place in 1940.
In 1942 the Nazis rounded up over 1,000 Jews from Kanczuga, marched them to the grounds of the cemetery and murdered them before tossing their bodies into a mass grave on the site.
Michael Freund at the recently recovered matzevah of a relative.
(Photos are courtesy of Michael Freund)
In his address at the ceremony, Michael Freund said that he could no longer stand by passively and watch the ongoing neglect of the Jewish cemetery and so he decided to fund its restoration. “It was sad for me to see that a number of the gravestones collapsed or were broken and that the cemetery was overgrown by trees and bushes and essentially looked like a forest. It was also evident that many gravestones were taken from the cemetery over the years to pave local streets, or were looted by local persons.” Freund added that, “today when I look over the result of the restoration work, I am very hopeful that the cemetery is now safe from plunder and that it will continue to serve as a monument to the thousands of Jews who lived in this area before the Germans arrived and destroyed everything.”
About the town of Kanczuga:
The first recorded Jewish presence in the town dates back to 1638. According to the 1921 census, the Jewish population was 967 people, but by the start of World War II, it had grown to over 1,000, and Jews made up more than 80 percent of the town’s population. Among the Israelis who originated in Kanczuga were former Knesset Member and Mapam party founder Meir Yaari and Binyamin Siegel, a former senior officer in the Israel Police Department.