Over 10,000 volunteers joined campaigns to restore nearly 100 Jewish cemeteries across Poland as part of a concerted push last year. The activities were coordinated by the newly founded Coalition of Guardians of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland, a network of organisations and activists caring for such sites.
Before the Holocaust, Poland was home to the largest Jewish community in Europe of over three million people. Around 90% were killed under the German occupation, while many others fled during and after the war.
That has left a rich Jewish cultural heritage – including hundreds of cemeteries – with very few Jews today to care for it. As a result, the maintenance of many Jewish sites relies on local communities and volunteers.
“The guardians see their activity as working…for their own identity and for the sake of building a broader awareness of the multicultural history of Poland,” said the Coalition of Guardians in a statement to Notes from Poland.
The Coalition has helped to coordinate many small-scale events across Poland, with the largest number taking place in the province of Silesia.
The coalition also helps caregivers obtain grants and donations, which came to a total of 300,000 zloty (€65,000) last year, including funds from the interior, culture and foreign ministries.
The newly established coalition is coordinated by the Cultural Heritage Foundation, an NGO that last year launched a mobile app allowing people to document abandoned cemeteries they encounter in order to build a database of forgotten burial grounds.
According to the organisation’s figures, there are some 800 surviving Jewish cemeteries in Poland today. Before the Second World War there were reportedly 1,200 such sites in Poland’s modern-day territory, but many were devastated during the war or liquidated by the subsequent communist authorities.
Other organisations have also been working in Poland to unearth the Jewish heritage at such sites. A database of Jewish cemeteries in Poland has been founded to catalogue all inscriptions on tombstones.