By Symi Rom-Rymer
Across Poland, a new form of Jewish remembrance is taking place. Inmates from 10 different prisons are contributing their manpower to a country-wide effort to clean and maintain abandoned Jewish cemeteries. Participation in the project—which is sponsored by the prison service and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland—is, however, about more than coming up with creative ways to keep prisoners occupied. Beyond the actual labor, the men are also introduced to Jewish culture and religious traditions.
For many of prisoners who came of age under communism, talking about anything Jewish was taboo. But through this program, and with the aid of Poland’s chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, that is beginning to change. Before the prisoners set foot in the cemeteries Rabbi Schudrich visits each of the prisons and talks to inmates about everything from Jewish marriage laws to how to put on tefillin. By educating the men, the project leaders hope to break through the anti-Semitic outlook that remains present in Polish society and change the way the inmates were taught to view Jews.
So far, the response has been positive. One of the men involved in the project, Artur Blinski, says “the scheme has broadened his outlook towards his country’s past. ‘Until now I wasn’t that interested. This program has changed my attitude towards Jewish culture and I’ve started to get interested in it. I had no idea about this culture and the more I learn the more interesting it becomes.
That it has taken so many decades for Poles to be able to confront not only their own attitudes towards Jews as well as the importance and influence of pre-war Jewish life in Poland is distressing. However, this effort–as well as others aimed at opening up the discussion and breaking societal taboos–is heartening. It takes strength and courage to challenge the status quo. In a recent blog post, I pointed out important steps taken within Poland to confront its past. I hope this latest project represents not the end of such forward movement, but rather just the beginning.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.