During my trip to Poland last year, I witnessed the restoration project underway in the city of Poznan. There was no outward sign of where the old Jewish cemetery had been, but records showed that it had been situated in an area covered by an apartment complex. The only part of the cemetery that was at all recoverable was now part of the backyard parking lot.
The most important of the many Jewish personalities that lived and were buried in Poznan was Rabbi Akiva Eiger. It was recently discovered that the area of his gravesite was in the locale that had not been drastically changed; it had simply been paved over as part of the parking lot.
The community had taken it upon themselves to build an ohel over the site of Rabbi Eiger’s grave, and return the area to a respectful and dignified resting place for the thousands that had been entered there.
My friend and guide to Jewish communities around Poznan, Czeslaw Pardela of Wrzesnia, sent me a report on the Poznan ceremony at the rededication of the cemetery and ohel.
On June 3, a double ceremony took place in Poznan. The long-neglected cemetery had been cleaned up and set in order. The unmarked grave of Poznan’s greatest rabbi now has an ohel, with many people coming to honor him as part of the ancient Jewish heritage of the city. Local officials, national Jewish leaders, and even church leaders came to pay tribute at the cemetery.
“He was for us all a father, and a great, great man. Please remember that today is a happy day,” Great Britain’s Rabbi Moses Stone said emotionally. “I would number him as one of the 10 most prominent rabbis of the last few hundred years,” explained Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland.
The cemetery at Gogowskiej and Åšniadeckich Streets was destroyed by Germans during World War II, and subsequently almost entirely forgotten during the communist era. The grounds of International Poznan, markets and tenement buildings were built in its place.
Using old photographs, it was discovered that the site of Rabbi Eiger’s grave was in a place little disturbed by the construction. It turned out that there was a small yard pressed between tenements and the building of one of Poznan’s current universities. This paved-over yard was used as a parking lot.
Alicia Kobus, president of the local Jewish community of Poznan, said that when work on the site began, neighboring occupants asked, “We have to live on the cemetery? I answered, ‘The cemetery is already here and can’t be moved.’ “
Work on the cemetery took several years. The Jewish community gained the support of the London-based Committee for the Reconstruction of Jewish Cemeteries. They had to purchase several garages standing in the cemetery. Negotiations with the occupants of the estate relating to prices and other sale conditions took several months. Thus construction only began in the spring of last year.
The neglected graveyard was beautified after several months of work. The green square appeared with several matzevot. Plaques in several languages tell the history of the site, and a special water tap for hand washing was also installed in the gate leading to the courtyard. The terrain was also surrounded by a wall for the site’s protection.
“Today in Poznan, something happened that several years ago seemed impossible. It is so important for our nation that the great sages’ remains were sanctified in a suitable way – at last,” Rabbi Schudrich said during the ceremony. “This is not just a Jewish matter, that we Jews are proud of Rabbi Eiger. All the citizens of Poznan and all Poles should be proud that he lived here in this city.”
From the cemetery, the guests and dignitaries gathered in the square before the former synagogue. The square’s name was officially renamed for Rabbi Akiva Eiger. Samuel and Joshua Halpern, descendants of Rabbi Eiger, unveiled the plaque in his honor. “This is an unusual day for the history of our family and the whole Jewish community,” Samuel Halpern said. “There had been no place [like this] until now where one could come and pray in his memory. Such a place is in Poznan now.”