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One Berkeley man’s quest to save Poland’s Jewish cemeteries

Maya Mirsky

Aug 26, 2020

Bill Brostoff spent his working life navigating bureaucracy in the Army Corps of Engineers. Now the 70-year-old is using that expertise for a new purpose: helping descendants of Polish Jews work with officials in Poland to restore abandoned, often decrepit Jewish cemeteries.

“Based on the enormity of the task, we need to have a big picture,” he said. “So we can get stuff done before it disappears.”

Brostoff co-organized an online conference last week that drew a range of speakers, from the head rabbi of Poland and government officials to representatives of U.S. groups interested in cemetery restoration. It’s a follow-up to a “best practices” guide for Polish cemetery restoration he released in March, based on his experiences working on the Jewish cemetery in Trzcianne. He hopes the conference and the guide will galvanize both Poles and the descendants of Jews from Poland to tackle the issue together.

“It’s a shared cultural heritage,” he said. “It’s not just our heritage there. It’s their heritage, too.”

The state of cemetery restoration in Poland is mixed, according to Brostoff. While cemeteries in large cities visited by tourists tend to be in better shape, there are countless tiny rural cemeteries that are abandoned, at risk of being forgotten or, even worse, paved over and developed.

“We’ve lost maybe 20 to 25 percent of the Jewish cemeteries in Poland,” he estimated.

Even those not at risk usually are not well tended by the cash-strapped towns in charge of them.

Consequently, “a lot of it, because of time and money, is really up to the descendants themselves,” he said.

Part of the difficulty in restoring cemeteries, even for Americans who have raised enough money, is that so many agencies are involved — from mayors of villages who may be resistant to what they see as property claims, to the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland (Fodż), to the Ministry of Culture.

“There’s lots of what might be construed as ‘competing entities,’” he said.

That’s exactly the kind of thing Brostoff dealt with in the Army Corps of Engineers — though not in Polish, he admits. Working through those problems helped him to understand the challenges, which he first learned about when he tried to facilitate a cemetery restoration himself.

He got involved in 2017 after visiting Trzcianne, where his family had come from. In 1897 the town was 98 percent Jewish. Today 600 people live there, none of whom are Jewish. Finding the cemetery was easy, he said; although the land was thickly forested and unmarked, everyone in the town knew it was there. But there was little more than a few flat gravestones with inscriptions. Brostoff was inspired to raise money to mark and restore the site, but it quickly became clear that it wasn’t just a question of cash.

While some town officials and residents of Trzcianne were happy to meet with him, others were not. “They had concerns about the project and dealing with Jews particularly, and Jews coming from the outside,” he said.

One schoolteacher refused to meet with him because “All the Jews wanted was to come back and steal the land, property and farms from the local Poles,” Brostoff was told.

According to Fodż, which runs a program called “adopt a cemetery,” there are around 1,200 Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Most are overgrown and neglected, lacking fences, signs and sometimes gravestones, which often were reused for building materials. The difficulties involved in restoration include delineating property lines, dealing with possible construction on the site, and figuring out how to clear the space without disturbing remains, made more difficult where there’s a lot of vegetation. Brostoff estimates it takes an average of $125,000 to restore a cemetery, but numerous factors make it hard to calculate costs accurately.

Working through these tangles inspired him to write the guide in order to help others in the U.S. move through the process more efficiently. He advises Americans to respect and involve the Polish residents who live near the cemeteries. Some are open to remembering the Jews that once lived there, he said, and some are resistant.

“They may be at the same point we are here with Native American sacred sites,” he said.

Brostoff is hopeful that the conference will be the first of a regular working group to get Polish and U.S. organizations on the same page and that more cross-country cooperation will become the norm. But he’s encouraged by the first steps being taken, including the building of an online database of cemeteries.

“I hope that there will be more than that,” he said. “I hope some seeds were planted in folks’ minds.”

He stresses the importance of addressing the issue now. While those who remember the war and its aftermath are dying out, a new generation of Poles is open to recognizing a history in which Jews were a part of common, everyday life, regular people who needed shops, schools and, of course, cemeteries.

“That’s something else that’s really important to get across,” Brostoff said. “There’s a great window of opportunity.”


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