For these students, restoring Jewish cemeteries in Poland means history is alive

By Tamar Rotem

Twelfth grader Eliana Kessler has gotten used to the surprised reactions she gets when she tells people that her pre-army service trip will be a visit to Jewish cemeteries in Poland. It will be the second time that Kessler will be restoring old gravestones, and the names of the Polish towns she has already visited roll off her tongue.

Kessler is a student at the Reut School in Jerusalem, which describes itself as a "religious pluralistic community" and where trips to restore Jewish cemeteries in Poland have become something of a tradition.

A photography exhibit featuring a first glimpse of these trips opened in the Jerusalem Theater on Friday. The photos, taken by Reut graduates and teachers, capture the contrast between the physical labor needed to restore the gravestones and the spiritual atmosphere that the students say they feel while doing the work. They show the effort of lifting the gravestones, the weeds growing rampant, the attention to each Hebrew letter on the stones and the prayers between the graves.

"It gives us the feeling that we know the people who lived there once, in those Jewish towns, and that we're connected to them," Kessler said about the restoration trips, which Reut conducts in addition to the usual trip to Poland in 11th or 12th grade. Although the restoration revolves around dead people, Kessler said the "uplifting" physical labor in the cemeteries is what makes history come alive.

"Suddenly it's not dead history for us," she said. "It's something living."

Over the last few years, Jewish cemeteries have become a popular attraction for individuals, schools and other groups visiting Poland. Kessler views it as a break from the death camps that are the usual destinations in such trips.

"We cried and ached the whole time and thought about genocide during the trip to Poland. But when we arrived at the cemeteries, we actually connected to the life that preceded the Holocaust," she said. "It felt great to provide a refreshed memory for families seeking their relatives who died."

The volunteer project has its roots in 2003, when the family of Holocaust survivor Nahum Manor decided to put up a refurbished gravestone for his grandfather, who was buried in a cemetery between Auschwitz and Cracow. Nahum - along with his wife Genia, who in recent years accompanied the Reut students on trips to Poland to tell them about her experiences during the Holocaust - were among the more than 1,000 Polish Jews saved from death by businessman Oskar Schindler, whose actions were memorialized in the 1993 movie "Schindler's List."

When Reut principal Aryeh Geiger heard about the gravestone, he decided to add two days to the school's Poland trip and take the students to help restore other gravestones in the cemetery. But the cemetery was large, and there was a lot of work to be done.

When the students returned to Israel, they were determined to go back to the cemetery to finish what they had started. They saved money during the year and returned to the cemetery during the summer, joining Reut graduates. Later on, other student groups traveled to Jewish cemeteries in southern Polish towns like Josefov and Krasnik with a mission to restore gravestones there.

"It was very exciting," said Genia Manor about the first trip. "We came to a distant Jewish town. In the forest we saw a hill covered with plants, which they told us was the cemetery. After they cleaned it, you could see that there were rows upon rows of gravestones with wonderful embossment."

"Everyone asks me, 'Why do you return to Poland? Are you a masochist?'" said Manor. "But I think you have to build a bridge. It's an educational activity. There is hope for peace through the youth."

This summer, Matan Levy is planning his eleventh trip to Poland. Levy, 22, is in his first year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is studying philosophy. He first began visiting Jewish cemeteries in Poland in 2001.

"It puts everything else in perspective," said Levy. "I still remember the moment we raised a gravestone that was sunk in the ground, after we dug about a meter deep. It was raining and gray. It took us half an hour to lift it in place. There is, of course, the matter of memory, but that is the most trivial. Working there is special. I like the physical labor of lifting gravestones. It speaks to me. They say it's like being born again." Levy is considering applying the idea to a Muslim cemetery in central Jerusalem, which he says is in terrible condition. But in Jerusalem, it will likely be much harder to convince people that the dignity afforded the dead transcends politics.