The quest: Uncovering hundreds of Jewish cemeteries
Schools, sports fields, parking lots and public parks are just some of the uses today for hundreds of former Jewish cemeteries in Poland. One man has made it his life’s work to find them, with the help of historians, lawyers, drones and good old Israeli chutzpah.
When Meir Bulka came this month to the Polish village of Konskowola, near Lublin, he was dumbfounded by what he saw: The area where the old Jewish cemetery was located had been annexed to the yard of a private home; the gravestones had been uprooted and access was blocked. Bulka, whose friends call him a “Jewish James Bond,” was led to this place by his extensive archival research.
The mission he had taken on was to locate the grave of Rabbi Itamar Wohlgelernter — a student of the “Seer of Lublin,” Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak HaLevi Horowitz — who was buried there in 1831. The rabbi’s disciples wanted to be able to visit it, but were unable to find it. As a last resort, they hired Bulka, 52 and a resident of the West Bank settlement of Sha’arei Tikva.
Maps, drones and local historians
For six months, Bulka conducted research using old maps and aerial photos, land ownership records, local historians, eyewitnesses and even drones. After compiling a thick file, Bulka knocked on the door of a local elder. “His father, who was the mayor, annexed the area of the cemetery to his backyard,” Bulka learned. A neighbor who accompanied Bulka pointed to the yard and said, “When I was a boy, I played here next to the gravestones.”
When he met with the former mayor’s son, Bulka offered to pay him to allow him to scan the yard with ground-penetrating radar to locate the graves whose headstones had been removed. The man refused, and Bulka is now planning to sue him in order to return the cemetery to Jewish hands. He hopes to find the precise location of the famous rabbi’s grave, enabling his disciples to mark the spot so they can pray there.
About 1,200 Jewish cemeteries are scattered throughout Poland, which was home to some 3.5 million Jews prior to World War II. Most of these cemeteries are now inaccessible and in a state of neglect. The German and Russian occupations of Poland are mainly responsible for this. But even now the lack of a central body in charge of this issue is contributing to the ongoing tragedy. Ownership of the Jewish cemeteries is divided among various small and impoverished Jewish communities, private individuals and organizations, local authorities and more.
Bulka is focusing his efforts on locating the toughest cases: cemeteries that were totally wiped off the map, the ones there is no chance now of preserving, since hardly a trace of them remains.
“I’m searching for the cemeteries that have been turned into sports fields, parking lots, parks and swimming pools. Those where everything has been done to eliminate the memory of these places as cemeteries,” he says.
Bulka, descended from a Hasidic family, was born in Bnei Brak and until a few years ago worked in the culinary field. Before he became a grandfather, he never found the time or interest to travel to Poland, where his forebears came from. In 2015, during his first visit to Poland, he found a new calling. It happened when he learned of the fate of the Jewish cemetery in Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski, where 150 of his relatives are buried.
When touring the area, he was stunned to discover that the site of the cemetery had been turned into a dog park. To his great disappointment, among the broken gravestones he couldn’t find a single one with his family name. Only later did he understand why: Some of the headstones had been uprooted and used to build a wall surrounding the local Christian cemetery.
Business card opens doors
“I asked to meet with the mayor, to find out how this happened, but he refused to talk to me, saying I didn’t represent anyone,” Burka relates. But Bulka wasn’t about to give up that easily. He came back to Israel, founded a nonprofit called J-nerations and then returned to Poland, this time with a business card with the organization’s name. Now the mayor was willing to meet with him, but ended up telling Bulka he would have to obtain the funding himself to restore the cemetery (500,000 zloty, around $132,000). Bulka refused and sued the city. When the court ordered the city to find an appropriate solution, Bulka had won his first victory.
Bulka is awaiting the local authority’s response to the court as to how the synagogue will be restored. Meanwhile, he found, among the broken headstones, that of Rabbi Meir Jechiel ha-Lewi Halsztok, an eminent Hasidic rabbi who died in 1921, and for whom Bulka was named. That gravestone has since been restored and surrounded by a fence, to serve as a pilgrimage site for the rabbi’s disciples.
In wake of this success, Bulka began receiving inquiries from various Hassidic communities and their leading rabbis, who wished to search for the lost graves of their rabbis in Poland, so they could also visit them. This was what brought Bulka to the beautiful tourist town of Kazimierz Dolny (also known by the Jewish name of Kuzmir), on behalf of Modzitz Hassidim who wished to find the grave of Rebbe Yechezkel of Kuzmir, who died in the mid-19th century.
There he found that the cemetery had been turned into a sports field for the local school. Here, too, his attempt to speak with the mayor went nowhere. Which led Bulka to hone his methods further. “After the mayor refused to discuss the matter, I posed as a television reporter coming to film a tourism program,” Bulka says. After asking the mayor for tips for Israeli tourists visiting the city, he “dropped the bombshell,” says Bulka. “How can you let local children play on top of a Jewish cemetery?” he asked the mayor. The next step Bulka took was to lead a social media campaign against the mayor. Whether or not this had anything to do with it, the mayor lost his reelection bid last year.
Now there is discussion going on with the new mayor, but meanwhile, next month, the first hearing will be held in Bulka’s lawsuit against the municipality. A similar thing happened regarding the cemetery in Klimontów, where work was done last year to build a track and basketball court for a local school. Bulka found out that the cemetery had been buried underneath the school building and adjacent sports field.
“We are at the beginning of a discussion with the municipality, which understands that it will be very hard to explain how it can be that children are playing ball atop a Jewish cemetery,” Bulka says.
The Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, which holds 250,000 graves, including those of some important and famous figures, is currently undergoing a restoration with funding from the Polish government of the equivalent of 100 million shekels ($28.35 million), an unprecedented amount.
Another organizations involved in preserving cemeteries in Poland is FODZ – the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage, which is active at hundreds of sites throughout the country. Yet, despite all the goodwill, this is still just a drop in the ocean. Anyone who has been on a Jewish heritage tour of Poland knows you are much more likely to come across a completely derelict Jewish cemetery than one that is well-maintained.
Bulka realized that, in addition to the effort to preserve existing graves, resources must also be devoted to locating missing graves. This is how he describes his modus operandi: “I’m playing on my opponent’s home turf, using his rules and his language.” With the aid of a Polish lawyer, he cites the Polish constitution and Polish laws from the time prior to World War II recognizing the Jews as equal citizens and that still protect freedom of religion in Poland. But Bulka has gone further. “I learned Polish so I could understand the small talk and the nuances at the meetings and discussions that I have,” he says.
However, Polish manners and niceties are not something he has adopted. On social media, he has gained quite a number of adversaries, including both Poles and Jews, who accuse him of hostility toward Poles and Poland and dislike his sometimes blunt style.
“I speak directly and present everything clearly, supported with documents and proof. I don’t add polite phrases. Look, sometimes the facts are harsh,” he says in his defense. “There are people there who are engaged in whitewashing [the past], and it would never occur to them that one day the Jews will come back to search for their gravestones,” he says.
By Ofer Aderet (Haaretz)