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Protecting the Past, Protecting the Future

Dan Oren

Jun 1, 2021

When Soviet domination of Poland ended 30 years ago and it became possible for ordinary westerners to travel there, I convinced my mother to take me on a "roots" trip back to her land of birth.

My Polish-born distant cousin, Kaja Finkler, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, the youngest survivor of Bergen-Belsen, has recalled in her memoir of how, as a child during the horror years and beyond, she felt she survived because of the merit (z'chut) of her ancestors. While such a rationale did not protect her rabbi-father from perishing at the hands of the German menace, it genuinely reflected the traditional Jewish connection to our ancestry.

When Soviet domination of Poland ended 30 years ago and it became possible for ordinary westerners to travel there, I convinced my mother to take me on a "roots" trip back to her land of birth.

Nearing her hometown of Lublin, we asked our guide to stop in Markuszów, the shtetl where my mother's maternal grandfather was born. The only surviving trace of Jewish life in a town that was once half-Jewish was the devastated Jewish cemetery.

A jungle-forest had made the grounds near-impenetrable in the 40 years since the Shoah. Only a few headstones were still standing. In the southeast corner the sun shined brightly on one of the few surviving headstones as it almost called out to us, "read me." The candlestick carved atop the stone quickly indicated the deceased below was a woman. We were stunned to read from the Hebrew text that her name was Chana Sarah. We fantasized. My mother's mother had been Chana Sarah. This was the town where her father had been born. Could this stone have been that of a relative? As was customary on headstones from that time and place, there was no surname.

Our distant family genealogy having been erased by the Shoah, it would take almost 20 years for me to establish that, in fact, that stone and the grave below it belonged to my great-great-grandmother Chana Sarah Rozenberg.

Subsequently working to clear that forest, remove the trash and detritus of decades of apathy and neglect on the part of world Jewry and local Poles, and today, still working towards erecting a wall to separate that cemetery from the neighbors' farmland, I sought to engage others not only in this task, but in the task of protecting the 1200 or so other abandoned Jewish cemeteries of Poland.

To that end, I founded the Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland,, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization of which I am the volunteer president. With more than half of American Jewry having ancestry in Poland, we seek to engage American Jewry in the profoundly meaningful and productive work of protecting the burial places of our ancestors. Even if so many of the tombstones and cemeteries were destroyed, miraculous stories of discovery like mine are not so unusual. Think about it. Each of us generally has 16 great-great-grandparents and 32 great-great-great-grandparents. Even if more than half of their tombstones were destroyed by German soldiers or postwar by local thieves, most of us likely have a number of our ancestors' tombstones still standing, awaiting our discovery, and more importantly, our protection.

We all have good reasons for the charitable projects we support and for those we shy away from. In the Jewish world, so many say we must only fund the work in the centers of Jewish life today, be they in our home country or in Israel. So many say that Poland, which saw 90% of its Jews murdered during World War II, is a corner of Hell that we should do our best to forget about. So many say that Poland is full of anti-Jewish hatred that we should not concern ourselves about it at all.

My chief reply to these challenges is to emphasize that even if there had never been a Shoah, it would be our generation's duty to protect the burial places of our ancestors. Just because one of the darkest events in human history also devastated their burial places does not exempt us from our obligation to protect the dignity of those holy spaces. Indeed, the attention that the Torah pays to Abraham's purchase of a burial plot for his wife Sarah, and the devotion millennia of Jews have paid towards procuring and preserving Jewish cemeteries mirrors that scriptural precedent. Judaism is not a cult of death worship and our rather vague concepts of the afterlife do not posit that the soul resides in the buried body, but what is generally unquestioned is the obligation for respect for the remains that once housed our ancestors.

This respect translates into appropriately dignified dress and personal behavior in a cemetery, protecting cemetery land from repurposing, and erection of physical barriers to mark such land as sacred space.

For those who see only the dark side of the Polish past, and occasional current examples of Polish anti-Jewish hatred, I don't minimize that past or present, but counter with two facts that a critical thinker must consider. Why did Jewish life thrive in Poland and why were there more Jews in Poland than anywhere else in the world for centuries before the Shoah? All things considered, Jews in Poland were treated better than anywhere else in Europe until the Shoah. One will surely find "anti-Jews" in Poland today, but such people exist in virtually every nation. The infamous 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia "Jews Will Not Replace Us" march reminded that even in our own comparatively tolerant country, intolerance still exists in powerful ways. In Poland today one finds thousands of non-Jews, young and old, who spend their volunteer time and money cleaning and protecting the Jewish cemeteries that they recognize are part of their national heritage. Jews are far from alone in this task today.

Responding to the argument that Jewish charitable money must only fund the work in our centers of Jewish life today, I recount taking my daughters five years ago to that cemetery where my great-great-grandmother's tomb still stands. After spending a couple days physically cleaning its grounds (along with other Jewish and Christian volunteers), we held a dedication ceremony for a marker we placed for the entire Jewish community of Markuszów buried there. During that ceremony, my daughters were assigned the traditional task of placing a small stone on top of the marker as a sign of memory and respect. I have no doubt that their memory of that day will last them a lifetime and be passed on to future generations. I have no doubt that those few days spent connecting them physically and intimately to their own ancient Jewish past will be as powerful and meaningful as any other Jewish educational experience in their lives.

Protection of our ancestors' resting places and creation of such memories is within the grasp of each us.

Dan Oren is President of the Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland and Associate Professor of Psychiatry (Adjunct) at Yale. He has written about genealogical and other explorations in The Wedding Photo.Dan can be reached at


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