When meadow flowers bloom among the graves and soft summer moss carpets the memorial stones, it is Boleslaw Szenicer’s favorite time of year. From his office in a converted shed at the entrance of Warsaw’s Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, Szenicer, the cemetery’s director and only full-time employee, often sees pheasants and hares moving among the 300,000 burial plots. “In here,” says Szenicer, with a wave at the cemetery’s 75 acres, “the birds and animals are at home, because few people ever come and disturb them.” Sometimes on Tuesdays, when a weekly flight from Israel arrives, as many as 50 people visit family graves. But for the rest of the week, says the 37-year-old Szenicer: “Often, from the time I arrive in the morning until I lock up at night, I am alone.” That is a familiar experience among Polish Jews, for whom death and solitude have been familiar
compamons. Slaughter: Fifty years after Germany's invasion of Poland set off the Second World War and led to the Holocaust, the country’s five-centuryold Jewish community is almost extinct. Despite some gestures by the Polish government to atone for past anti-Semitism, few Jews are optimistic about their future. They say that fewer than 7,000 of them remain from a community that, before the war—and the slaughter of roughly three million Polish Jews in the Holocaust—numbered about 3.5 million. Most are past retirement age and grimly aware that the community’s survival is threat-
ened. Said Szymon Leczycki, a 67-year-old member of Warsaw’s only synagogue: “There is a very strong possibility that Poland will become a country without Jews.”
The dimensions of Polish Jewry’s decline are staggering. The city of Lublin, once renowned for the intellectual vigor of its 40,000 prewar
Jewish residents, now lacks the 10 adult Jewish men required to form a prayer circle, a minyan. In Warsaw, where 393,950 Jews lived on the eve of the war—one-third of the capital’s population—fewer than four dozen people, mostly men in their 60s and 70s, regularly attend Sabbath services at the Nozyk Syna-
gogue. Kieja Wieczorek, a 27-year-old member of a Jewish cultural circle that meets weekly, said that members know of only 25 people under 40 in Warsaw—a city of 1.7 million— who “are willing to be known as Jews.” The group has found others with Jewish roots, but, she said, “They either do not care about God or
are afraid to face trouble because of Him.” That trepidation reflects Poland’s history of public anti-Semitism. A bitter argument persists over allegations that the Polish underground did little to assist Jews during a 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. And for many postwar years, the Communist government allowed and even appeared to encourage anti-Semitism. In 1968, after incidents of antiJewish vandalism, a wave of beatings and the dismissal of Jews from government jobs, at least 20,000 Jews fled to Israel and other countries, including Canada. Some Poles maintain that worldwide attention focused on Jewish suffering in their country obscures the fact that the entire population suffered—and that about three million gentile Poles were slaughtered during the occupation. A current dispute centres on the breakdown of a 1987 agreement between Jewish leaders and the Roman Catholic Church to replace a five-yearold convent with a centre for Jewish-Christian dialogue at Auschwitz, where four million people, most of them Jews, were exterminated.
Brutality: In recent years, Warsaw Jews say, the government has tried to repair relations. A key step was the restoration and reopening in 1983 of the Nozyk Synagogue, which had been used by the Nazis as a stable. The Warsaw Ghetto now largely consists of decrepit postwar apartment buildings. But, as part of an educational program, busloads of schoolchildren regularly visit a marble monument in a park on Zamenhofa Street, the centre of the old ghetto. Elsewhere, the government maintains six
notorious wartime death camps as horrifying reminders of brutalities committed there. At Majdanek camp, 200 km southeast of Warsaw, the most poignant exhibits are three sheds filled with 800,000 prisoners’ hats and shoes taken from their bodies. Some who escaped the massacres say that decades passed before they would acknowledge their Jewishness publicly. Elderly men at the Nozyk Synagogue sometimes angrily bicker among themselves over such matters. One man in his 70s, who says that he survived by posing as a Roman Catholic, is reviled by other Jews. For his part, he denounces those who fled to the Soviet Union during the war, saying, “They were not here, so they have no right to speak.” Culture: The arguments over wartime experiences provoke occasional exasperation among younger Jews. Some of them say that debate over the community’s wartime treatment should be set aside and more attention should be paid to the future.
Those youths, themselves often assimilated by marrying outside their community, express doubts about the survival of Jewish institutions in Poland. Citing divisions among synagogue elders, one man in his 20s observed, “Sometimes I think that the worst enemy of the Jews here today is ourselves.” But others work actively to foster the Jewish culture and a legacy of contributions in such fields as health, science and literature. Noted Kieja Wieczorek, who said that she seldom misses a session of her cultural discussion group: “Some day, I will want my children to understand the pride they should have in being a Polish Jew. We are a part of history that should remain alive.”
That sense of history is perhaps most alive at
the Okopowa Street cemetery, a 200-year-old monument to accomplishments that is one of the few Jewish landmarks left unharmed by the Nazis. Among those it honors are Edward Flatau, a founder of neurology, and Henryk Goldszmit, a writer of children’s books under the pen name Janusz Korczak who, in 1942, rejected efforts by others to help him escape and chose to go to the gas chamber alongside the condemned children from an orphanage that he had founded. To the man who tends the cemetery—and who arranges a final resting place for about a dozen deceased expatriates
sent home each year—every grave represents an irreplaceable symbol of the community’s strength. Boleslaw Szenicer, who inherited the care of the cemetery from his father and grandfather, has rejected the possibility of joining an emigrant brother in Israel. “I cannot leave here,” he says. “Who, then, would bury the rest of the Jews?” To a withered community anxiously confronting its future, the gravekeeper’s words raise an even more solemn question over its very capacity to endure.
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