Remember the Zdunska Wola Jewish Cemetery!

An Old Jewish Cemetery Whispers to Polish Youth

By John Crust 

ZDUŃSKA WOLA, Poland―A Jewish cemetery in Poland . . . It can be terribly sad, and yet a distinct beauty prevails. There’s this clash of the senses—the vandalism that beckons a scream, the old Hebrew engravings that soothe the soul. There’s a whisper, a whisper of what was, and what is.

It says so much.

On one unforgettable Tuesday, hundreds of people converged at a Catholic cemetery in Zduńska Wola, looking, staring, eyes brimming with tears.

The sight―heartrending, horrible. Headstones were left cracked, smashed, pushed over. In a bizarre drunken spree, young Polish hooligans destroyed a hundred and seventeen gravestones the night before. Four youths, ranging in age from seventeen to twentyfour, were arrested and charged. Many people of this town in central Poland will tell you they have never seen such vandalism, such utter disregard, out­right sacrilege that choked the heart.

Taka tragedia. Szok. Shock . . .

 It was a mere fragment of a headstone, but the old Hebrew lettering revealed a few words about a Jewish life. “She gave birth and died,” Daniel Wagner read out loud, his Polish colleague Kamila Klauzińska rubbing white chalk into the weathered letters for a better photograph of the engraving. “Bluma bat[1] Zalman. No date. It’s broken.”  

His laptop computer in hand, a laptop containing some fifteen thousand pictures of beautifully-crafted headstones, an archive of magnificent stone art, he began to type amid a foliage of forest green that shades the Jewish cemetery in Zduńska Wola. “This Bluma. I’ll try to find the family name . . .” Daniel Wagner was the president of the Organization of Former Residents of Zduńska Wola in Israel, and, in recent years, has found a sense of belonging, a passion and a purpose, in this town of forty thousand where part of his family came from.

This Israeli, an amiable, soft-spoken professor of materials science, winces if addressed as Professor Wagner. “Please, just Daniel.” And as he looked over his notes and a map of the grounds, he eagerly explained there is so much one can learn in a Jewish cemetery. “I always say from a Jewish tombstone you can learn ninety percent of the Jewish culture. The tribes, the symbols, the Hebrew, the holidays, the Holy Books. It’s endless. It’s true.” Through his efforts, and his flair for the scientific, he has helped share this knowledge with the people of Zduńska Wola.

View of the Jewish Cemetery by AH 1997

“It’s become a major project for me, emotionally.” His work at the Weizmann Institute of Science often brings him to
 Berlin, and, of course, a side trip to Zduńska Wola. “We have three thousand four hundred and ninetyfive tombstones. That’s the last count. We were originally told there were eight hundred.” A knapsack slung over his shoulder, Daniel moved systematically from site to site in the cemetery, wading through thickets of growth, confirming and correcting data. “Rivka . . .” and he tapped at his computer. “She’s not the same. One gen
eration before. This is a cousin. Died in 1906. It’s not the right generation. And Noah . . .”

Praca, praca, praca . . .” Elżbieta Gostyńska, a local business­woman active in this project, called out to him. Work, work, work . . . “Where’s the pleasure?” someone translated.

“In the work,” Daniel answered, smiling warmly.

 Ulica Getta Żydowskiego. Jewish Ghetto Street. For many people, there’s nothing particularly distinguishable about this side street. For many others, it reverberates with a hard load of history. You pass it on the way to the Jewish cemetery from the town center.

Ulica Kacza is the small street you want, on the left, just past the roundabout. Kacza becomes a gravel road, then something more rustic, just sand and dirt, in what appears to be the outskirts of town.

It’s tranquil, calm, and beautifully green. A gray wall, cracked and peeling, marked here and there with faded graffiti, stretches along the roadside. The scrawls include a green swastika with red scribbled over it and CHWDP, a curse directed at the police, a phrase commonly abbreviated as such. Above the wall, majestic shapes of gray headstones―matzevot[2]―peek through a dark cluster of trees and tall wild grass. A subtle melody of chirping birds breaks the stillness. At each end of the wall stands a black iron gate, with Stars of David shaped into place. Two cows graze near one of the gates.

This two-hectare cemetery, established in 1828, is “an eternal memorial to the Jewish presence in Zduńska Wola,” a set of silver-colored plaques in Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and English somberly announces. “The Jews of Zduńska Wola were detained in a ghetto, and then deported by the Nazis in October 1942, to perish in the flames of the Holocaust. Many of those innocent victims lie buried here.”

Red and white paint is smeared across one of the memorial plaques. A crude, faint Star of David is scrawled just to the side on the wall.   


 Great bulks of elaborately-carved headstones lean every which way. Many are toppled over, scattered about, broken. Many are partly buried under a carpet of wooded growth. Sculptured gray images―a candle­holder, a bookcase, a pair of hands capture the eye. All over, nature’s hues and grace delicately highlight pearls of Hebrew, seemingly so precious and pure, draped in an Old Country mystery, in an Old Country charm.

“The artwork is unbelievable,” Daniel said. “There’s one beautiful quotation from the Bible. Very tiny. ‘Yameinu ketzel ovehr’― Our days pass like a shadow. It’s in the corner of the tombstone.” He added, “There’s another tombstone about time―a symbol of the lion that holds an hourglass. It’s beautiful.” As well, the engravings reveal other thoughts and feelings: “The lovers were together in their days and stay together in death.” And one memorable epitaph that certainly reflected a unique personality: “Don’t write any compliments about me.”

Of particular interest, numerous headstones display vivid painted colors, colors that further enhance these brilliant works of stone art. In what is referred to as “polychromatic tombstones,” Daniel and his colleague, Kamila, have been researching this old Jewish tradition in Poland. “Jewish art was codified in part at least by biblical lore,” they wrote in a scientific paper published in Israel. Key colors blue, white, red, yellow carry a great deal of symbolism.

The Broken tombstone of Henich

“This place could be completely forgotten,” Daniel commented. Fate, however, didn’t allow that to happen. Daniel, a father of three, had heard tales about his great-grandparents who performed on the Yiddish stage, traveling far and wide, to China and beyond. A yearning to learn more about his family background eventually led to Zduńska Wola, his grandmother’s hometown. Visitors seeking some Jewish something usually end up at the old Jewish cemetery. 

“When I came, I just fell in love with the place. It was more of a jungle. There was no path. There was nothing. Just a cemetery. As soon as I came here, I thought: It can’t stay like this. It just can’t.” There were an estimated ten thousand Jewish people out of some twenty-five thousand in pre-war Zduńska Wola. This cemetery, naturally, is their remaining mark, their testimonial. Daniel soon found himself involved in a whole new realm of fieldwork. “I feel compelled to do it. A lot of people think I’m crazy. I feel I have to do it.”

Seven years later, and after countless return trips, Daniel and his Polish colleagues and, actually, they’re very close friends now are well on their way to saving the cemetery. “They were struggling with the world,” he said of his Polish friends and their earlier attempts in trying to take care of the graveyard. “Then people took it seriously. The trick is simple. You do a good job and it works. There’s a Chinese proverb: ‘You can move mountains.’ It works. And in Poland the mountains are really heavy.”

Now, trekking through the wooded growth on this overcast Sunday afternoon, culminating four years of painstaking documentation, Daniel motioned to what looked like nothing more than a good-size, heavy-set rock, sticking up from a thicket of grass and wild flowers. “They were poor people,” he said. “There are twenty to thirty of them.” Hebrew lettering can often be found painted on the bottom of such a rock.

“Here was a text with a marble piece. Gone.”

“Stolen?” I asked.

“Of course. And stolen means not the Nazis.”

As two eighteen-year-olds, Joanna Jeżyk and Jakub “Kuba” Pawelec, cleared dirt and debris from several headstones that lay flat on the ground, Daniel searched his computer database. Something seemed wrong.

“Moshe Avraham ben[3] Yosef . . .” and he typed. “It’s not 187.” Each grave­stone has a designated number in a marked-off section. “We might have taken a stone and assigned two numbers. It’s probably the same stone.” He compared a photograph on his computer screen to the chunk of a headstone at his feet. “They’re far away from each other, but they’re the same stone, broken in half. 1909 it’s a hundred years. A lot can happen in a hundred years.” This slab of rock was lugged over and set next to the other piece. 

But would they actually know where a century-old headstone should be?

“This is really amazing,” Daniel said, grinning, anxious to share the detective ingenuity. “We have old pictures of people in the cemetery.” With seven hundred families involved in his organization, in Israel and abroad, a vast amount of material is available. Those tattered black-and-white snapshots have provided valuable information. “I’ve been able to assign numbers to the tomb­stones and they’re very close to where they were originally positioned.”

Even more amazing is how their cemetery detective work is identifying headstones that have no family names. Two thirds of the gravestones do not have last names, something that was common practice generations ago. “The merging of data with the years is unprecedented,” Daniel said.

“Avram Yacov ben Daniel. You don’t have the surname. We have data. I have the year and exact date of death. I have that available. I go through my lists. I have the metrical data. It’s manual. Mrs. Goldberg in Hawaii calls me: ‘My grandfather was buried in your cemetery. Where is my grandfather buried?’ Assuming I have the last name, I know exact locations. We have maps. If the tombstone has no surname, before our work, nobody could tell where it is. Yes, we can say, yes, we have the tombstone.”

“Are there many inquiries?” I asked. 

“Plenty. I get two a week.”

The tombstone of Awigdor Klein

 Kamila Klauzińska’s T-shirt declared, “I Don’t Iron. I can’t Cook.” It was the kind of shirt that is perhaps best not to ask about. What she can do, however, is well known, and recognized by the Israeli ambassador. She can, and will, fight hard for a Jewish cemetery, their Jewish cemetery.

“This year, the first time in four years, we had vandalism at the cemetery,” she said, hurt. Kamila, at thirty-three, is the local expert on the Jewish cemetery in Zduńska Wola. She wrote her university graduation thesis project on the cemetery. Now, she is very attached to this place. She has a key to the premises. It’s a part of her. 

“When we started our work, people stopped vandalizing the cemetery. This year we had thirty matzevot pushed over and fourteen matzevot broken, especially matzevot with color. It’s very sad. It’s very stupid.” She added, “We had two devastations at the Catholic cemetery. Over a hundred headstones the first time. And last night there was a second devastation―fifty headstones. Two devastations in one month.”  

"The tombstone of Abraham Cwi SZAK from the town of Działoszyce identified accoding to the Sidur (Jewish prayer book) found on him"

Talk of vandalism got her fuming. Kamila hesitated, searching for the right words in English. She is selfconscious over what she calls her lack of English, but when she is angry, the words pour out. “If someone is anti-Semitic, he is stupid. When someone goes to devastate a Jewish or Catholic cemetery, he is very stupid in general.”

Kamila, who just began a doctoral program in Jewish studies in Kraków, grew up near the Jewish cemetery. This mysterious place, with its strange writing, always seemed abandoned, forgotten. But there was something about the site that got her curiosity up. As a student, she ended up specializing in ethnology at the University of Łódź, and, in 1999, her attention was drawn to the cemetery. As it turned out, this was unexplored  .

Her hunt for threads of information―anything―eventually led to Elżbieta Bartsch, who was often referred to as “the crazy woman” that took care of the Jewish cemetery, or at least tried to. “She was very nice,” Kamila said. “She helped me with everything.” Most especially, the now retired school teacher helped Kamila understand this cemetery was part of their town’s heritage, intricately linked to their history and culture.

“Kamila is like my child,” Elżbieta said through an interpreter. Coincidentally, as a student, Elżbieta also developed an interest in Jewish culture. Her mother had shared tales of growing up with Jewish neighbors―“good people.” In 1984, Elżbieta wrote her university graduation project on the Jewish school in Zduńska Wola. Her advisor urged her to find some Jewish people who were familiar with the school.

She met a former resident, Aron Schwartsbart, who lives in Germany; he then introduced her to his sister, Rivka Regina Levy, now in Israel.

“Rivka described everything about the school, method of teaching, students, teachers, everything,” Elżbieta said. Little did she know that this university project would ultimately lead to a lifelong commitment she would embrace deep in her heart. “Aron asked if I would like to act as a go-between to do work with the cemetery, to go to the town government to get the grass cut. I agreed.” 

The municipal government, and people in general, however, were not as agreeable as she was. “The cemetery was quite a mess,” she recalled. “The wall was broken in places. Most of the tombstones were under grass. I got a lock. Before, the cemetery wasn’t locked.” Sometimes the town authorities helped, but often she was ignored, even ridiculed. “People in the town hall would avoid me. They told me if I want to cut the grass, then it’s my business, not theirs.”

So she did what any strongwilled woman would do. She put her husband, Renek, and son, Cyprian, to work in the cemetery. As the vice principal of an elementary school, she also recruited staff and the kids to help on occasion. The wall was repaired. Another gate was built. In one year, the gate was vandalized and repaired sixteen times. Her efforts―all voluntary, she said―perplexed people. Whispers circulated. Was she a closet Jew? What kind of Jewish money was she getting?

“Many people kept telling me: ‘Why are you doing it? Give it up.’” Elżbieta shook her head. “I couldn’t.” Aron and Rivka helped her with her university project. She made a commitment to help them. As a thank you, the Organization of Former Residents of Zduńska Wola honored her with an invitation to Israel.

Over the decades, unexpected strangers from distant lands regularly showed up at her door. Often, they were former Jewish residents. In many cases, they were the children and grandchildren of people that came from here, this mysterious place that shaped and colored a family’s pre-war past. In what can be a difficult and emotional trip to the unknown in Poland, written on a piece of paper would be the name Elżbieta Bartsch. Today, that piece of paper typically has the name Kamila Klauzińska. It’s a responsibility Kamila shares, and carries on.

“I feel something special about this place,” said Kamila, her husband, Tomasz Polkowski, by her side, ready to help with this or that. “When I come to the cemetery I feel I’m in my home. I’m very comfortable here. People ask: ‘Why do you work in the cemetery? You are young and you go to where there are dead people.’ The most interesting and nicest people I ever met I met at the cemetery.”

The last burial was in 1964, but guest books bulge with pictures and stories: the Israeli, who returned to his hometown with well over a hundred teenagers; the woman from Brazil, who is a relative of a former chief rabbi of Poland; the evangelical minister in Zduńska Wola, whose great-grandfather was a rabbi; the man who lugged bulks of building material from Israel, and spent two days fixing up his grandmother’s headstone.

“Avi Halperin―he came with all his material. I thought it would be easier to buy it here.” Kamila flashed the smile warm memories give off. “Then we looked at the archives. I said: ‘Avi, I think I have a little surprise for you.’ I ordered three books. I’m sure documents are in these books. We found the application for an identity card for the grandmother―with a photo. Avi’s father was born here. The father didn’t see a photo of his mother in seventy years. For the first time, Avi could see his grandmother. We made a copy of this photo.”

In one memorable encounter, a Jewish man from Las Vegas, David Kubiak, showed up in town with some old documents. “He found our uncle, my mother’s brother,” said Kasia Gostyńska, twenty-one, who helps out at the cemetery. “They found out we’re relatives, cousins.” A Polish woman from Zduńska Wola had married into a Jewish family. “My mother’s great-grandmother and David’s grand­mother are sisters.”

“We have a bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah in our family!” Kasia’s mother, Elżbieta Gostyńska, declared in Polish, beaming proudly.

“We have a lot of amazing stories here,” Kamila noted. And perhaps the most amazing story began with a letter that arrived one day. “Elżbieta Bartsch said: ‘Some professor wrote me from Israel. He writes in English. I don’t know what he wants.’” That professor, of course, was Daniel Wagner.

Daniel slipped a chip from a headstone into a plastic tube. The sample rock will undergo an X-ray analysis in an effort to determine what might be done to help preserve some of the gravestones. “The colors are disappearing,” he said. “There was quite a high density of color. In two or three years it’ll be gone if we don’t do anything about it.”

A shout rang out. “A new one! A new one!” Jakub “Kuba” Pawelec is known for creating more work for everyone. He keeps finding new headstones. “It’s now three thousand five hundred and one matzevot,” he announced.

The headstone rested in a bed of green overgrowth laced with brown leaves. “We take a picture as it is,” Daniel explained. “Then we clean it. Then take a picture. Then with a number. Then pictures of the decorations.” Daniel studied the Hebrew. “This is Yakov ben Avraham. Erlich. Great, we have a family name. 1937.” The headstone was decorated with two hands, the symbol of a kohen, a descendent of the ancient Hebrew high priests. Adjacent to each hand, the image of a book, the spines painted in black and white.

A sense of pride and accomplishment shined on Kuba’s face. It is the involvement of young volunteers like Kuba that has made this cemetery project possible. In recent years, a kind of youth club took shape and surrounds the cleaning, documentation, and overall care of the cemetery grounds―“the cemetery club,” Kuba quipped. Last year, the group took on more of an organized status. They now call themselves Yachad, which is Hebrew for “together.” A local business has since donated office space.

Kids say there isn’t much to do in Zduńska Wola. For Kuba, the Jewish cemetery has become a favorite pastime. “Some people like to work in a garden,” he said. “This is my big garden.” It’s also turned out to be a classroom of sorts. Among other things, he learned how to read Hebrew. He still has another year left of high school, but future plans are starting to bounce about in his head. He has thought about becoming an archeologist. “Maybe it’s a possibility,” he grinned.

“I love this place,” he exclaimed. “When I speak to my friends and I ask if they want to come with me they say I’m crazy. They say: ‘I must clean my house and then I must clean a Jewish cemetery?’”

Joanna Jeżyk, who has just finished high school, laughed. “Some teenagers are very lazy.” For much of the day, the two of them worked diligently together, clean­ing and photographing headstones. “This is a hobby,” she said. “My teacher sometimes works here, too.”

“All the time I hear: ‘Are you Jewish?’” Kuba smiled, shaking his head. “No, I don’t have a Jewish past. I don’t know. Maybe I have. You don’t know. Sometimes a family doesn’t want to talk about it.” It’s believed there are at least a few families in town with Jewish backgrounds, but they keep it pretty well hidden. Kuba is very open about his interest in Jewish culture, an interest that isn’t always welcome. “Older people. You ask: ‘Do you remember something about the Jews?’ ‘No, and I don’t want to speak about it.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘No, no. I know nothing. I don’t want to speak about it.’”

Obviously, these young people are stirring up something and going against some prevailing forces. When Kamila took on a greater interest in the cemetery, she was appalled at what some locals had been doing. “People would throw dead animals―dogs, cats, rabbits―into the cemetery,” she recalled. “People came to take matzevot and took parts of the wall to build their houses.” As she pushed to save this place, rumors grew that she is on the receiving end of big money. Her mail, she said, is regularly opened. 

“How is this possible?” she asked. “People can be stupid.” Kamila’s thoughts kicked back to what happened at the Catholic cemetery. “All day the Catholic cemetery was closed. Nobody could visit. There was the police. Blah, blah, blah ―someone devastated the cemetery. When I go to the police and say someone devastated the Jewish cemetery, the police say they don’t know what to do. I wrote a long letter to the police: fourteen matzevot broken, thirty matzevot pushed over. I never received an answer.”

For the longest time, Jewish cemeteries have been targets of vandalism, which, in many cases, was largely ignored. “Do you think this might have emboldened some people to start vandalizing Catholic cemeteries?” I asked.

“It’s an interesting theory,” she said, contemplating. “If someone doesn’t want to preserve and take care of other cultures, they don’t want to preserve and take care of their culture. I say to Polish students: ‘The Jewish cemetery is your culture, your history. The Jews were also in the Polish army.’”

In the early days of Kamila’s activism, the authorities didn’t exactly embrace this new “crazy woman” obsessed with that Jewish cemetery. Once, when she asked the town to at least haul away the garbage after her volunteers had labored away in a major clean-up, the mayor answered: “We have no money. It’s not our cemetery.” With Kamila, the two Elżbietas, and Daniel at the helm, "Yachad", as a non-profit entity, is pushing a dialogue. Lessons are organized in the schools. Tours are given at the cemetery. People are listening and responding.

“A new gate was just built,” Kamila said proudly. “The town council gave money. There was international money given, also money from residents and businesses in Zduńska Wola. Yachad collected the money.”

This new gate, framed in a towering red brick, replaced a dilapidated old wooden structure. Later, I gave it a long look. A force could be felt. In the back­ground, a subtle cast of shadows drifted.


 Many residents―“everyone around” it often seems―do not like Jews, a teenager named Michalina Brodalka told me. High school English teacher Zbyszek Chwialkowski, who recruits kids to help out at the cemetery, stood with me, listening. A certain sadness permeated his face. “People think they’re strange,” she continued. “They don’t like them.”

It was Monday morning. Michalina, sixteen, and a friend, Kalina Gibert, won first prize in the annual school competition that Yachad coordinates. The two girls had put together a film project about Jewish Zduńska Wola. In a school gym, with Daniel and Mayor Zenon Rzeźniczak at her side, Kamila led a ceremony that honored the young winners of this fourth annual contest that focuses on the town’s Jewish heritage. Cash prizes, packets of candy, and certificates were handed out.

Michalina understood the toxins that can spew out from stereotyping people and understood the need to change such views. “We can’t have bad opinions from stereotypes,” she said. “We have to learn. We always think we’re the best and everybody else is worse. We don’t like Jews, blacks . . .” Such views―this is not good, she said.

No, I agreed, it’s not good.

[1] Hebrew: daughter; here it means “daughter of.” On older Jewish headstones, the de­ceased is typ­i­cally identified only by a first name and his or her father’s first name. A Hebrew name may or may not have been the everyday name of the deceased.  

[2] Hebrew: headstones. The Hebrew word is typically used in English.

[3] Hebrew: son; in this context it means “son of.”

..."אב רחום הלך מאתנו" "Merciful Father Left Us"...
(acronim of the deceased name: ABRAHM)

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Last updated 2nd, March, 2012


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