The name Zapomniane means “Forgotten” in Polish, but as Agnieszka Nieradko, co-founder of the Warsaw-based foundation by that name which is dedicated to finding the unmarked graves of countless Jewish Holocaust victims and securing them told the Associated Press on Monday, “forgotten doesn’t really capture the full truth of the unmarked graves.”
According to Nieradko, the Jewish victims who never received a proper burial have remained on the margins of the Polish psyche, prevailed in local history, and have never been forgotten. “When we go to those places, we don’t discover anything new for these people,” she said. “Everyone knows about Jews buried in the forest or Jews buried somewhere on the meadow. It is an oral history that is transmitted from generation to generation.”
“There are hundreds or even thousands of forgotten, not commemorated graves of the Holocaust victims in Polish cities and villages,” says the Zapomniane website. “These are the resting places of Polish Jews whose fates and names are often forgotten. Our mission is to find, locate and explore these places and eventually commemorate them in accordance with Jewish law and in cooperation with representatives of the local community.”
The group warns that “the passing time works to our disadvantage, the last witnesses of the Holocaust pass away, whose testimony is crucial for the success of the search conducted by the Foundation.”
The website offers the context to its mission: “The term Holocaust or the near-total annihilation of the European Jewry between 1939 and 1945 immediately evokes the image of extermination camps, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. Meanwhile, the region of Central and Eastern Europe, including the entire territory of this country, is heavily dotted with the forgotten graves of Jews murdered in what came to be known as the Holocaust by bullets. Its victims rest in unmarked graves scattered around forests, roadside ditches, and fields. In most cases, the exact locations of these nameless graves and the number of victims resting in them remain unknown to both researchers and the descendants of local Jewish communities, while they are still preserved in the memory of the local communities.”
The Zapomniane mission is, therefore “to search for, locate, study and commemorate the forgotten graves of the Holocaust victims. We support local communities in coming to terms with the past and dealing with the difficult heritage of World War II. We are committed to passing on the stories we discover to future generations, in order to build awareness of the former inhabitants of Poland and to restore the memory of their lives.”
According to Nieradko, the person who inspired her is Zbigniew Nizinski, a Protestant who regularly rode on his bike to small communities around Polans asking the locals to direct him to the unmarked wartime graves. He reported his findings to the Rabbinical Commission for Jewish Cemeteries in Poland and even created a foundation to dedicate the burial sites. When the mission proved too much for one man to carry, Nieradko and Aleksander Schwarz co-founded Zapomniane in 2014, under the auspices of the rabbinical commission.
The website provides a map and a long list of burial sites that have been commemorated and ones that are yet to be commemorated. On its front page online, Zapomniane cites the Yerushalmi Talmud’s Moed Katan 2:4: “It is forbidden to move the dead and their bones from their resting place.”
These are Zapomniane’s statutory objectives:
- Searching for, locating, and commemorating forgotten graves of Holocaust victims.
- Reconstructing the fate of the victims, the course of executions, and gathering as many details as possible about individual people.
- Preserving the memory of each of the victims of Nazi crimes.
- Gathering documentation, collecting and archiving eyewitness accounts of Nazi genocide.
- Dissemination of knowledge about the Holocaust as well as about the Jewish history and traditions, and its transmission to the future generations who will no longer have direct contact with the generation that experienced the Holocaust.
- Engagement of local communities in the recovery of knowledge about the Jewish past of their towns and villages, and assisting them in the process of discovery and preservation of their local heritage.
- Raising awareness about the local historical and cultural heritage among the inhabitants of Polish towns and villages.
- Undertaking educational initiatives aimed at the transmission of local Jewish history and heritage to new generations and at counteracting any manifestations of intolerance, discrimination, xenophobia, and, in particular, antisemitism.
- Promoting tolerance and respect for human rights.
- Protection of the national heritage and culture, including Jewish culture-related places.
- Supporting local Polish communities in coming to terms with the past and overcoming the trauma caused by the tragic end of the Polish-Jewish coexistence.
- Involving local authorities and social partners and leaders in taking responsibility for the local Polish-Jewish heritage.