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Correcting the Record on Wroclaw’s Jewish Cemetery

A letter from Poland’s Chief Rabbi

Michael Schudrich
March 15, 2018
Courtesy Rabbi Michael Schudrich
The Gwarna CemeteryCourtesy Rabbi Michael Schudrich
Courtesy Rabbi Michael Schudrich
The Gwarna CemeteryCourtesy Rabbi Michael Schudrich

Earlier this month, Tablet ran a piece, “Digging Up the Past in the Jewish Cemetery,” about the fate of an old Jewish graveyard in Wroclaw. Following the publication, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s Chief Rabbi, wrote to us with a few important corrections. Below is his letter in full:

I recently read your article entitled “Digging Up the Past in the Jewish Cemetery,” written by Agnieszka Jablonska and published on March 5, 2018. I write to you today to correct the record. As Chief Rabbi of Poland since 2004, I have been very active with saving Jewish cemeteries all over Poland.

First, the photo is of another Jewish cemetery located in Wroclaw. The cemetery in question has not had any visible gravestones for decades. Secondly, let me provide some background on the land that is the topic of this article, the Gwarna cemetery. In 2017, I contacted both the city of Wroclaw and the owner of the cemetery to find out why a building was being constructed in a Jewish cemetery. In response, I met with the representatives to study the maps of the prewar cemetery. These plans revealed that roughly one third of the plot contained a prewar apartment building, one third contained a bunker built either during or after the war, which has since been removed, and one third was empty.

The portion of the plot where the apartment building once stood could not have been used as a cemetery because it predated the time when the land was used to bury the dead. The area where the bunker once stood may have had graves at one time but there could not be any remaining graves in tact today and the original use of the middle third of the land remained in question which is why we had my representative there during all works coordinated directly with the archeologist – who also happens to be a member of the Jewish community.

When it comes to addressing graves in the Jewish faith, we have historically dealt with two situations: Finding a place of burial where someone was laid to rest on the day of his or her funeral, or finding bones that were moved from their original place of burial, which we consider a disturbed grave. If we find a grave that fits the first situation, we are obligated to stop work on the land and do everything we can to save the grave. However, if we find bones in a desecrated grave, we must collect the bones (isuf atzamot) and rebury them in a respectful way in a new location.

Here at the Gwarna cemetery, for the first time we encountered a third situation: In 1937, the Nazi Germans exhumed bodies from one portion of the cemetery to another portion of the same cemetery ( the middle portion of today’s plot in question). Therefore, we began collecting the bones as we would from a desecrated grave. The bones will be buried in a dignified manner by the Jewish Community of Wroclaw together with the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the Rabbinic Commission for Cemeteries.

Agnieszka Jablonska responds (added June 13, 2018):

In his letter, Rabbi Schudrich took issue with certain facts raised in my piece. As a part of the continuing debates about the fate of pre-war Jewish cemeteries in Poland, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to specific points raised by Rabbi Schudrich.

The first point raised by Rabbi Schudrich concerns the lead photo published with my article. According to Rabbi Schudrich, the photo does not represent Gwarna cemetery, but was taken at one of the other two existing Jewish cemeteries in Wroclaw.

In researching this piece I consulted with scholars and practitioners in Wroclaw and around the world to try to uncover material evidence regarding Gwarna. While the photo of matzevot is not dated, the photo is believed to come from a dispersed collection of the pre-war Breslau Jewish Museum and was provided by Marcin Wodzinski, an important Polish scholar in Jewish studies. An archivist’s note on the back of the photo, note reads: “Bresl. Friedhof Claassenstr.” (Breslau Cemetery on Claassenstrasse), indicates this is a photo of the Gwarna cemetery. While we of course cannot be certain that an error was made, I consulted with scholars in Wroclaw to New York after the publication of Rabbi Schudrich’s letter, and they expressed their opinion that based on the description on the back of the photo, they believe it does indeed show a section of the Gwarna cemetery in Breslau.

Further, Rabbi Schudrich claims that photo could not be accurate, as the cemetery has not contained gravestones for decades. The narrative in my article clearly states the same–I quote: “In the final months of WWII, the cemetery was destroyed during the siege of the city. Few people remembered the cemetery, which survived only in archival documents and maps. Apartments, tennis courts, a sports hall, and garages were built on the land in the decades following WWII.” Given that it was printed on Agfa-Lupex paper, a particular German trade sign used in pre-WWII and during the war until 1945, it is estimated to have been taken and printed in the first half of 20th century.

In his letter, Rabbi Schudrich overlooks the transfers of ownership at the site of the Gwarna cemetery and the issue of falsified archeological findings from 2013. It was knowable that a historic Jewish cemetery had existed at the site, as is evident on pre-war maps and in the in-depth research carried out by Jerzy Kichler, a member of the Board of the Wroclaw Jewish Community and a representative, appointed by Rabbi Schudrich himself, of the Rabbinic Commission for Jewish Cemeteries to supervise the 2017 archeological works on Gwarna. What remains unclear, and Rabbi Schudrich fails to address this issue, is why the Jewish community of Poland only decided to safeguard any remains after 2017.

The point of covering the Gwarna story is to demonstrate the complexity of this case and not to undermine the work and efforts of the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich. The current struggle around the cemetery area goes beyond its lost material representation and concerns place-based ethics of care in Wroclaw. It also points to bigger issues tied to the similar fate of many other Jewish cemeteries across Poland. Practitioners and scholars in Poland have been working for many years on mapping and documenting Jewish cemeteries across the country. Thanks to their work over one thousand burial places were identified and the inventory is still in progress. Among the 1,172 listed Jewish burial sites in Poland only 247 are recognized and protected under the national heritage law. The question remains: what legal and procedural improvements could be made in order to protect the Gwarna cemetery in Wroclaw and other Jewish burial sites in Poland and elsewhere in Europe from becoming investment lots in the future?

Rabbi Michael Schudrich is the Chief Rabbi of Poland.