The government will support renovation works at the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. On 19 December 2017, the law was signed by the President of the Republic of Poland.

The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage will donate 100 million złotys to supplement the perpetual capital of the Cultural Heritage Foundation. Revenue obtained from interest and investment of these funds – estimated at approximately 2.5 million złotys annually – will be used to finance conservation works at the Jewish cemetery at 49/51 Okopowa Street in Warsaw.

The project was conceived by the Cultural Heritage Foundation, founded at the initiative of Dr Michał Laszczkowski and Paweł Wilski in 2012. The Foundation has supported various projects related to the protection of monuments, including conservation work at the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, restoration of the collegiate church in Olyka, maintenance of Polish graves in Volhynia and the Tatar cemetery in Studzianka, cataloguing of tombstones in several cemeteries in Latvia and Ukraine. In 2016, at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, the Foundation renovated 24 tombstones designed by a well-known sculptor Abraham Ostrzega.

The authors of the bill substantiated it as follows: “The law is to help ensure constant, professional maintenance of the cemetery and the preserved tombstones. Thanks to the financial commitment, the Republic of Poland will save a material memento of the exterminated Jewish community and will confirm its current policy of protecting the memory of the victims of World War II.” MPs emphasised the historical importance of the cemetery and the artistic importance of its tombstones.

On 6 December 2017, the law was adopted by the Sejm. It was supported by 416 deputies, four voted against, and six abstained. A week later, the law was accepted in the Senate. On 19 December President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda signed it.

“The establishment of a perpetual fund for the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street in Warsaw is the most important recent gesture of the Polish state aimed at providing continuous care and protection of the material heritage of Warsaw Jews. In financial and organisational terms, this is a venture on a European scale,” said Anna Chipczyńska, chairwoman of the Jewish Religious Community in Warsaw.

Michał Laszczkowski of the Cultural Heritage Foundation explained that the profits gained from investments will be used for the first time in 2019. The revenue will be treated as a ministerial subsidy to finance conservation works commissioned in accordance with the Public Procurement Act. Up to 15% of revenue can be allocated for administrative costs. Reports on the course of the project will be published on the Foundation's website.

Michał Laszczkowski believes that the first stage of the project will encompass tidying up the cemetery’s greenery, repairing the wall around the cemetery and the retaining walls, as well as carrying out conservation works of selected gravestones. The activities will be coordinated with the Jewish Community.

Cemetery – a silent witness to history

The cemetery at Okopowa Street has existed since 1806. It has an area of 33.5 ha and is one of the world's largest Jewish cemeteries. It is also a valuable historical monument – a material testimony to the history and culture of Warsaw Jews. Apart from simple matzevot, it boasts dozens of tombstones of high artistic value. The remains of persons who played an important role in the life of the Jewish Community and the entire country were buried in this cemetery: rabbis and tzaddikim, entrepreneurs, artists, intellectuals, participants in the struggles for Poland’s independence.

All burial records were destroyed during World War II. It is assumed, however, that ca. 130,000–150,000 deceased had been buried in the cemetery before 1939. During World War II, the bodies of the murdered and those who died in the ghetto were buried in mass graves. Their number is unknown. Together with those buried in the nearby Skra football ground, it may have reached 100,000 people. The cemetery is still in use. In recent years, ca. 10 funerals took place in the cemetery each year.

The cemetery was partially devastated during World War II. On 15 May 1943, the Germans blew up the synagogue and pre-burial house located at the entrance. Many tombstones were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising, when armed combat took place at the cemetery. After 1945, the cemetery was gradually falling into ruin. It was overgrown, tombstones were being stolen. The Congregation of the Mosaic Faith in Warsaw was not able to take effective care of the cemetery.

In the years 1960–1983, the caretaker of the cemetery was Pinkus Szenicer, whose responsibilities were taken over by his son, Bolesław, in 2002. From the 1980s, various works were carried out at the cemetery, including those carried out by the Social Committee for the Care of Cemeteries and Monuments of Jewish Culture. In 2001, the cemetery became the property of the Jewish Religious Community in Warsaw. The few people employed at the cemetery deal with maintenance and administrative work, attend to funerals, provide information to people visiting graves and tourists.

Looking after a cemetery with an area of 33.5 ha is a huge challenge. Out of the 130,000-150,000 matzevot originally located at the graveyard, around 80,000 have been preserved, many of them are overturned or damaged. Gravestones –  including numerous architectural tombs – require expensive conservation works. Some parts of the surrounding wall and retaining walls supporting the burial mounds are in a very bad state. The fight against lush vegetation seems to be a Sisyphean task. At the end of June, strong wind knocked down dozens of trees, blocking walkways and crashing many matzevot. The wind-fallen trees are still being removed.

Private donors and various organizations have offered their support to the Jewish Community, among them the J. Rajnfeld Volunteer Detachment for Cleaning the Jewish Cemetery. The involvement of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the Cultural Heritage Foundation will significantly help in the difficult task of protecting the cemetery.

In other countries

Similar initiatives are also undertaken in other countries, although they certainly do not cover all costs related to the protection of Jewish cemeteries. Ruth Ellen Gruber, columnist and researcher of Jewish heritage in Europe, cites the example of Germany, which donated 1.3 million euros to erect fences around cemeteries in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as a part of the European Initiative for Jewish Cemeteries. In 2010, the Austrian National Council – the lower chamber of the parliament – established the Fund for the Restoration of Jewish Cemeteries, with an annual budget of 1 million euros.

Krzysztof Bielawski