WARSAW (AFP) – Wielding axes, rakes and shears, young European volunteers with sweat on their brows have been sprucing up the continent’s largest Jewish cemetery, a Warsaw site largely neglected since the Holocaust.
“At the cemetery’s entrance, the pathways are rather well kept and the graves well preserved, but the rest of it, like this spot here, is more of a jungle,” says volunteer Stanislaw Knapowski.
“There’s a lot of wild vegetation and trees that have been growing since the end of the Second World War,” explains this Boy Scout from Poznan, a city in western Poland.
Over nine days last month, he cleared the cemetery grounds with around 60 other volunteers from a dozen countries, among them Belarusians, Danes, Finns, Germans and Spaniards.
They were recruited by Civil Service International, a global nonprofit organisation, and its Polish branch, One World Association, to get involved in the cemetery project which was launched three years ago by the Cultural Heritage Foundation, a Polish nonprofit.
A witness to the pre-war greatness of Warsaw’s Jewish community, the cemetery dates back to 1806 and spans 33.5 hectares (83 acres). It is the resting place for about 250,000 people, mostly Warsaw elites, according to its director Przemyslaw Szpilman.
In 1939, Jews made up more than 30 percent of Warsaw’s population of around 1.2 million people, and numbered 3.5 million in Poland as a whole, or 10 percent of the country’s population.
Only 200,000 to 300,000 of them survived the Holocaust masterminded by Nazi Germany.
After the war, most of the Jewish survivors emigrated, with the last wave of departures taking place after an anti-Semitic campaign organised by the communist regime in 1968.
– ‘Magical place’ –
Today, there are around 30 Jewish organisations in Poland, which count some 7,000 members. Poles of Jewish origin number several tens of thousands.
The Warsaw cemetery suffered the same fate as the community.
The site was partially destroyed during World War II, as it was located in the Jewish ghetto where the Nazis conducted mass executions and blew up all the buildings.
“It wasn’t until the fall of communism in 1989 and the start of the revival of Warsaw’s Jewish community that the cemetery really began to be looked after,” Szpilman told AFP.
Today the cemetery is still in operation, with about 20 burials each year.
“The Jewish community was an important part of Warsaw and had a huge influence on everyday life,” says 18-year-old Zofia Dziekan, a Warsaw high-school student for whom the cemetery is “a magical place”.
“It’s our job to take care of these sites, especially since the community today has neither the financial means nor the people to do it.”
Wearing work gloves, she uses pruning shears to cut down young maple trees and shrubs and to remove the ivy that has taken over — and sometimes entirely obscured — the tombstones, known to the Jewish community as “matzevot”.
– ‘Will take decades’ –
“The vegetation makes it difficult to access a lot of the cemetery’s square footage. This year, thanks to the volunteers, we managed to clear up nearly three hectares,” said Aleksandra Waszak, 24, who is coordinating the project.
“The trees do damage to the tombstones. The roots cause them to overturn for example. On top of that, the vegetation makes the cemetery humid, which is really bad for stone.”
Another project on Facebook calls for volunteers every month or so to come help clean the cemetery grounds.
“Between 10 and 30 people come each time. Some are just interested in Jewish culture, others have ancestors buried here,” said Jacek Dehnel, a writer and group co-organiser.
“There’s so much left to do,” he told AFP.
Szpilman says only about a quarter of the cemetery has been tidied up and restored so far, despite the volunteer work and interest from several organisations.
“It’s a really long process that will take decades. I hope I’ll be around to see it through.”