The above URL will link you to a fascinating article from my friends at Krakow Post. It tells of how Polish prisoners are being encouraged to rehabilitate by helping in the massive task of preserving Jewish remains in Poland. Only one prisoner has ever refused the work. Many find their prejudices against Jews exploded as they learn more about the faith.
One of the main tasks of the prisoners is to clean Jewish cemeteries and repair broken headstones. This chimes with me for two reasons: I visited many such cemeteries some years ago, and they are eerie and melancholy places – not only as resting places of the dead – but because, unlike the leafy, well-groomed graveyards of English parish churches that I grew up knowing, they were mostly in a state of disarray.
But secondly – and bringing us more up to date – we visited just such a cemetery on our trip to Krakow at the end of last month. The circumstances were a little incongruous: we’d decided to visit the large shopping centre “Galeria Kazimierz”, adjacent to the old Jewish quarter of the same name. I’d noticed on the map that next to the centre was the “New” (usually means old) Jewish cemetery whose footprint was as large as the shopping complex. Though I’d likely visited the cemetery years earlier when I took a field-trip around sites of Jewish heritage in Poland, I couldn’t quite remember doing so, and in later years we’d tended to visit the more well-known Remuh synagogue cemetery in the heart of Kazimierz. So we determined at least to pass by.
Post-shopping, we skirted round a long metal picket fence with signage on it indicating some security firm or other was monitoring the cemetery. Inside we observed the usual scene: decaying gravestones amongst overgrown foliage – and over a vast area. The size of a park. When we got round the front, we entered, to be met by a surprise: several long rows of fully renovated headstones, their yellowey stone almost gleaming in the late summer rays.
I sidled up to one of the half-dozen or so young workers, chatted them up, and learnt that they were conservationists – students from one of Krakow’s many academies – and that the work was being sponsored by a Jewish foundation and the local authority. I found this fact, and the progress being made on the headstones, heartwarming – as I do the article about the prisoners that triggered these thoughts.
It’s all too easy to stereotype things: the Poles about the Jews; indeed, the Jews about the Poles. No-one should excuse past atrocities, but in Polska Dotty I try to give some historical perspective to this most thorny of subjects. What these contemporary initiatives show is that efforts are ongoing to improve Polish-Jewish relations, which is laudable. The prisoner project, something I knew nothing about until the Krakow Post article, amazes me. If I’m honest – and I suppose we’re all battling our own prejudices – I might have imagined Polish prisoners to be an element in society likely to harbour anti-Semitic feelings. How impressive then to read about the stunning success rate of this project. Long may it and others like it continue.