Last week I wrote about the Bilgoraj group that traveled to Poland last year and had a somewhat good experience. I was shocked that on the day my column went to press there was a major development regarding the Jewish cemetery in Belgoraj that was first reported by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. I immediately brought the report to the attention of Harold Baum, president of the United Bilgoraj Society based in N.Y. and it generated a spate of letters back and forth between N.Y. and Poland.
Mr. Baum first asked Rabbi Michael Schudrich to confirm the report. Rabbi Schudrich sent one of his assistants to check the situation and true enough; it was as bad as could be imagined.
From Rabbi Schudrich: “What has happened in Biljgora is a tragedy and unacceptable. No cemetery, Jewish or not, should ever be disturbed. On this past Thursday, Alex Schwarc of our Rabbinic Commission for Cemeteries visited Bilgoraj on my behalf to see what the actual situation is. Alex reported the following:
” ‘In the 1980s, the current wall was built around this cemetery. Recently, a Polish company gained rights to the plot of land next to the cemetery. They began to clean the plot of overgrowth and rubbish that had collected over many years. While cleaning the site, hundreds of bones were uncovered. It is now clear that the fence built in the 1980s included only a limited part of the actual Jewish cemetery and that the plot next to the cemetery was, in fact, in the cemetery itself.’
“Alex buried the hundreds of bones in the place where he found them (as per my instructions). I am now working on a contact to this company and am hopeful that within the week will meet with them and to help them understand that this plot of land will be protected forever as part of the Jewish cemetery.”
Can someone let me know who built the fence in the 1980s? Also, please let me know about any other cemetery or mass grave issues in Bilgoraj.
Mr. Baum is, of course, very upset about the situation and there have been a number of angry letters sent to Poland over the issue. While the answer he received from the local authorities seemed sufficient from the Polish side, it further upset Mr. Baum who took it as an insult that the city would not stop everything and deal with the issue of the Jewish community.
After reading the letters I saw that much of the problem was in the difference in language and culture. On the one hand, Mr. Baum feels that the situation is of utmost importance and he cannot understand why the world does not stand still to correct the wrong done to his cemetery. The Polish officials, on the other hand, see that the problem is much greater. It is a problem that happens on a regular basis throughout Poland. When he said in the letter that Mr. Baum was “fortunate,” it wasn’t because the situation happened but that he was aware of the problem and had the possibility to correct it. In many towns and villages, where there are similar situations, often the problems never get reported and, therefore, not fixed.
Last week we saw the good relations between the Jewish survivor group and the local officials. I hope that the situation in Bilgoraj cemetery can be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction, and the good relations will be restored.
One thing that we can learn from this latest chapter in the preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland is that when work is done all possible safeguards should be taken that the work be done properly. The cemetery in Bilgoraj is not the first place in which the exact boundaries are questionable. The Rabbinic Commission for Cemeteries and the Foundation for the preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, were specifically set up to resolve these kinds of problems.
Any time any group goes to Poland to work in a cemetery they should work through these two groups. They have much experience in working with the local governments and dealing with the red tape involved. They are also very knowledgeable in the many halachic issues involved in cemetery work and should be consulted every step of the way.Shmuel Ben Eliezer