Sinking in the Sand

In the towns south of Warsaw some traces of the former Jewish presence are still visible. In Falenica is a former synagogue. In Otwock, Karczew and Radość Jewish cemeteries are preserved. But the future of these monuments is uncertain.

I was out for an excursion with my friend Krzysztof Bielawski today. Krzysztof is an editor for the Virtual Shtetl website and database, one of the most important resources for Poland’s Jewish heritage. There is no better guide than Krzysztof!

Yet, our day began with a disappointment. In Warsaw’s southern suburb of Falenica, Krzysztof wanted to show me a mikvah – a Jewish ritual bath. While we walked down the street, Krzysztof wondered where the building is. Finally, we found only an empty plot. The neighbors confirmed, the mikvah was demolished last year. Krzysztof was angry. ‘Every year we lose several monuments’, he said. Falenica’s former synagogue is an apartment building since a long time. It’s appearance has change to an extent, nobody would identify the building as a synagogue.

The Jewish cemetery in Karczew is one of the strangest places I have ever been to. We found the gate to the cemetery open. Behind is a sandy hill, on which the cemetery is located. Masovia’s lands have sandy soils. The weight of the tombstones makes them slowly disappear in the ground. Some stones are sinking in the sand, others are toppled. There are also signs of vandalism and many stones have been removed. A new ohel for a tzadik has recently been inaugurated. A local group of activists tries to maintain the cemetery and to raise public awareness for this unique place. But their successes are limited.

Otwock was a well known Spa at the gates of Warsaw. Beautiful old wooden villas remind visitors of Otwock’s golden age. Some of the sanatoriums had Jewish owners and doctors; Otwock attracted Jewish customers from all over Poland. But not every illness could be cured; the local Jewish cemetery is larger than one may expect. It is located in a pine tree forest and is a mess of broken, toppled and still standing tombstones. A glade for electricity pylons cuts through the cemetery. Volunteers have been here for a clean-up; they also marked the territory of the cemetery with heavy stone blocks. Nevertheless, the sight of the place is disastrous.

On the way back to the center of Warsaw we made a stop in Radość – already one of Warsaw’s suburbs. Krzysztof wanted to check the situation at the local Jewish cemetery. We did not feel very encouraged afterwards. Only a very small number of tombstones are still visible; more might be hidden in the ground. I wondered about the grave lights, placed on some of the stones. ‘Probably put up by some neighbors’, Krzysztof said. The territory is densely overgrown. Another place is sinking in the sand and is vanishing. Help is needed.

Thank you, Krzysztof, for this day!

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4 thoughts on “Sinking in the Sand

  1. Your work is amazing and I wish to thank you and encourage you in your work with vanished Jewish communities and Jewish life that was there for many many generation’s and all their contributions

  2. Like most of the 1200 surviving Jewish cemeteries in Poland, there is no one and no funds to care and maintain the sites. Many dozens are cared for by locals, and there are local initiatives usually involving students and the local gov’t administration that are doing life-saving projects (or trying) at cemetery and synagogue sites. But, without funding and without interest by the Jewish diaspora, most are doomed to the fate Christian has witnessed. The few synagogues stand vacant and falling down, the cemeteries impenetrable and disappearing. For 2 years, these are issues I faced while working at FODZ in Warsaw. How to motivate the Jewish community abroad to step-up and actively take an interest in the heritage? I do not have an answer. It seems that in rare exceptions, an individual or family will come forth and spearhead an organized intervention. This is what it takes.

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