Last week, Mr. Sigmund Rolat visited his birthplace in Poland, the city of Czestochowa. As he does on every trip, he took time out to pay his respects to the local Jewish cemetery. On this last trip, he made the horrible discovery that approximately 100 matzevot (gravestones) had been marked with anti-Semitic phrases and Nazi symbols. The markings included the letters SS, swastikas and the slogan “Jude Raus” (“Jews Out” written in German).
Mr. Rolat was particularly upset because he has been working tirelessly for the past number of years to build an understanding between the Poles and the Jews. He has sponsored many events that enabled the local population to better understand, not just the Jewish experience, but also to realize that Jews were an important part of Polish society before the Shoah. Jews contributed in every way. They were involved in the arts, politics, agriculture, economics and commerce.
One project of which Mr. Rolat is especially proud is connected with the local art school, where they created art through different mediums, inspired by Jewish themes.
But the newest act of vandalism shows that there is still a lot of work to be done.
Along with the work that Mr. Rolat has done with the townspeople, he also has done much to restore and maintain the cemetery in which the desecration took place. Just recently, at the beginning of the summer – as reported in this column – Mr. Rolat presided over a dedication of a new Jewish Community Center in the town.
The day after the vandalism was discovered, 20 students from the local art school joined the chief rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, and the mayor of Czestochowa, Tadeusz Wrona, in attempting to clean the heavy black paint from the tombstones. Using caustic chemicals and heavy gloves they made some progress but decided to stop and call in professionals, at the city’s expense, so as not to damage the stones.
Schudrich praised the mayor and the students’ efforts as a show of support for Poland’s Jewish community, and for tolerance.
Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and Czestochowa Mayor Tadeusz Wrona cleaning one of the 100 tombstones desecrated by vandals in Czestochowa.
“The fact is, there is anti-Semitism everywhere. But what is also important is the reaction of the rest of society,” Schudrich said. “Too often the rest of society tolerates these things. But in this case, the mayor and the young people didn’t sit at home and wait for someone else to come clean it up. They came out and made a physical, not just verbal, reaction.”
Poland’s president also decried the recent desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa.
“This act of aggression is unusually shocking, especially because the Czestochowa graveyard belongs to one of the most impressive Jewish cemeteries in Poland,” Lech Kaczynski wrote in a letter to the head of the Jewish Cultural and Social Association of Czestochowa, Halina Wasilewicz.
Kaczynski went on to say that the “. . . act of hate serves not only as an act of aggression against the place and respect for the dead, but against the heritage of Czestochowa, against the common history of its Polish and Jewish residents.”
Local police are investigating the incident as a criminal act. “We have visited the crime scene and documented the damage. A tracker dog was used too. An investigation led by our criminal section is under way, so far unfortunately, with no results,” Officer Stanislawa Gruszczynska from the Czestochowa City Police Headquarters said.
“It should also be noted,” Mr. Rolat said in a telephone interview that “The local Catholic cemetery was also desecrated about three weeks ago. In Czestochowa, which is an especially holy city for Catholic Poles, it was a very shocking event. We don’t know exactly when the desecration in the Jewish cemetery took place but both desecrations could have taken place at the same time and are only an act of hooliganism and not anti-Semitism.”
But the use of Nazi words and symbols make the desecration especially disturbing.