The Jewish Cemetery of Tomaszow Mazowiecki
On behalf of all those who worked in the Jewish cemetery in Tomaszow this year, and those who worked on the writing and editing if this book, I ask for pardon and forgiveness if, God forbid, the memory or honor of the deceased or their families were blemished during the field work or the recording of the headstones. All was done in an attempt to preserve the memory and honor of the men and women of the Jews of the community of Tomaszow-Mazowiecki.
During the summer of 1994, I visited ,my home town of Tomaszow-Mazowiecki for two days. I roamed the streets, stopping near the houses where my family, my school friends and friends from the youth movement used to live. I recalled memories and silently spoke to the walls of the houses; although they did not answer back, I felt peace. during the afternoon of the second day, I went to the Jewish cemetery. I was told that my grandmother's headstone was there.
The gate of the Jewish cemetery was closed and so I passed through the Catholic cemetery. I looked at the gleaming white headstones, noting the plenitude of flowers and visitors, diligently gardening and keeping the area clean. Upon entering the Jewish cemetery, I was stunned: the place looked like a jungle. The headstones were thick with weeds, fungus, layers of dust and black rot. Weeds and bushes prevented free access to the headstones. I tried to discover the names written on the headstones, with no success. The embarrassing situation was very depressing and I decided to seek ways to change it.
Upon returning home, I reported on the status of the cemetery to my friends, members of the Israeli Organization of Ex Tomaszow Mazowiecki Residents in Israel. I filed ideas and work plans to treat the headstones. At the general Assembly of the Tomaszow Organization in November 1994, the operational scheme was worked out and approved and at the end of that year I presented it before the Organizational committee in new York. the plan was received with enthusiasm. We went to work. At the end of January 1995, we sent a letter to the Tomaszow-Mazowiecki municipality, stating our intention to send a team to restore the Jewish cemetery in their town. We asked the municipality for a map of the cemetery and to arrange for a water supply to be available at the site. At the same time, we looked for ways to perform the job. We were assisted with knowledge from the museum in Jerusalem, form chemical engineers, and from excavators experienced in working at ancient sites and in old cemeteries. After four months, during which no reply had been received from the Tomaszow municipality, we approached the Embassy of Poland in Tel Aviv to ask for their help. The First secretary of the embassy of Poland sent a letter on our behalf and soon after he received a reply from the mayor.
At that time, the Town Secretary mailed me an encouraging letter, supporting our idea of restoring the Jewish cemetery. Enclosed with the letter was a map of the immediate vicinity. As for our request regarding a water supply, the reply was that there was no water pipeline to the Jewish cemetery. The municipality did not have funds in the budget to cover laying such a pipe. We tried to make contact with the Catholic Church in Tomaszow, knowing that their cemetery was in close proximity to ours and had running water. Through Father Nicholas Angernard of the Dormitian Monastery in Jerusalem, we managed to contact Mr. Andrzej Krafft, a Catholic priest and a Pole living in Wurzburg, Germany, who had personal contacts in Tomaszow. Mr Krafft presented our case before the Church in Tomaszow and informed us of their positive response.
Upon our arrival in Tomaszow, we contacted the dean, Father Grad. I was welcomed with greetings and directed to Mr. Kowlinski, the priest in charge of the Catholic cemetery in Tomaszow. We set out for a meeting with Mr. Kowlinski in the Catholic cemetery where we were presented before the local management and assured of their generous help with every request we would make for assistance, especially in receiving a water supply. We purchased 90 meters of plastic [pipe and the water flowed.
During the second week of our stay in Tomaszow, we met the Town Secretary. We stayed in touch with him throughout our visit, and his response was encouraging. On his initiative, the municipality sent workers with materials to close up a large hole in the cemetery wall. The municipality fixed a sign on the cemetery's main gate, explaining the entrance arrangements. the Secretary also informed us of actions taken in the two schools next to the cemetery to teach the children to be respectful of the cemetery and to prevent them from using the cemetery for unsuitable activities such as football.
On September 15. 1995, we, Shlomo Birenstock and I set out for Poland. We took work plans, cleaning chemicals including the substance used to clean the Western Wall in Jerusalem, tools, measuring instruments, and photographic equipment with us.
That afternoon, we went directly from the Warsaw airport to Tomaszow. we were guests of the Trocha family who received us warmly and with friendship. The ties with the Trocha family begun by Beate Kosmala, who had stayed there occasionally over the last three years. Mrs. Kosmala, a historian from Berlin, studies the relationship among the Polish, German and Jewish populations in Tomaszow between the First and Second World Wars. In order to learn about Jewish leg of this triangle (and since there are no Jews remaining in Tomaszow), Mrs. Kosmala came to Israel three years ago and met with Jewish Israeli citizens who are former residents of Tomaszow. When Mrs. Beate heard of our plans to go to Tomaszow and restore the Jewish cemetery there, she became interested in participating in the project. And so it was that on September 15, 1995, upon our arrival from israel, Mrs. Kosmala came in from Berlin and joined us in the restoration. We were fortunate to hire diligent workers who assisted us in our efforts to uncover headstones which were buried in the ground. After a few days of work, they became true partners in our search, making a serious effort to try and find headstones hidden in the ground. In the plan presented to the general assembly of the Organization in Israel, in November of 1994, we spoke of about 250 headstones remaining in the Jewish cemetery in Tomaszow. The aim was to decode and record details of as many of them as possible. after a month's work, we had discovered more than 2,000 headstones, and we succeeded in recording the family names of half of them (which was the prerequisite for recording), as well as other personal details. In addition to names and dates, we were able to copy epitaphs, and prayers, which were inscribed on the headstones. We were deeply moved by the inscribed symbols, such as candle holders, animals and birds which ornamented most of the headstones.
From time to time, Shlomo shouted, which meant he had discovered a familiar name on a headstone. There were many emotional moments in this work. In the first couple of weeks, Mr. Yerzy Wonilowicz, a local teacher, worked in the cemetery too.
Mr Wonilowicz studies the German occupation in Tomaszow and has corresponded for several years with our friend Moshe Weisberg.
On the second day of work, a young man named Michal Rzeznik accompanied him. He is a student who is learning Yiddish and Hebrew from a dictionary. Both worked with us during these two weeks (until September 1st when they returned to school), with interest and dedication.
We split into two teams. Mr. Birenstock headed a group which cut free access, with saws and axes, to the headstones, and lifted them out from the ground with iron bars. The second team included Mrs. Kosmala, the historian, Mr. Wolinowicz, the teacher, Michal, and Benjamin. This group worked in cleaning the headstones and copying their inscriptions. we discovered marvelous things, in both beauty and content.
We were interviewed by a local newspaper in Tomaszow, which printed the interview under the heading :The Tomaszowians from Israel". The article told the story of the Jews who came from Israel to restore their cemetery in Tomaszow, and about the activities of the world-wide ex-Tomaszow Jewish Organization. A few people interested in the subject came to visit us, as a result of the article.
At the end of our stay in Tomaszow, we gathered in the lounge of the Hotel Mazowsze on Antogonigo St. Present were the workers and supporters of the project, including the Town Secretary, two priests, the manager of the Catholic cemetery and journalists from two local newspapers. There were greetings from both groups, including warm words by the Town Secretary and questions from the press.
"Why did you come to take care of the cemetery 53 years after the Jewish community was wiped out?" one reporter asked us. Our reply was that during the first few years after leaving Poland the Holocaust refugees busied themselves with rehabilitation, self-healing, getting accustomed to a new place, learning professions, establishing themselves economically, making families and having children. We in Israel were also busy defending our existence and consolidating our old-new motherland. Only lately, upon retirement, do we have the time for a project such as the once we carried out in the cemetery on Tomaszow. Our aim is to preserve the past and hand it over to the next generation, reinstating the honor of the community forefathers. We went our separate ways with wishes of peace and serenity in a spirit of continued cooperation.
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