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Reut School

This summer I returned to Poland for the third time. Each time I go to Poland I leave Israel with ambivalent feelings. It is never easy to leave one’s family (with small children) during summer vacation and this time we left during a war. We are all connected to soldiers they are our brothers and children. We prayed for their safety and hoped that the merit of our work in Poland would stand with them now. It was especially hard for us to leave for Poland without our principal Aryeh Geiger. His presence has been an integral part of our experience in Poland.

Honestly, I had never even wanted to go to Poland. Four years ago he put my name on the list of teachers who were to take the Yad Veshem course for teacher escorts to Poland. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go but I went to the course. In October 2003, I left my children (including an 18 month old) with my supportive husband and with trepidation accompanied a school trip to Poland with Aryeh. The experience was very powerful and the connection that developed there between Aryeh, the teachers and the students changed me forever. We worked at the cemetery in Chzranow for a day and a half during the trip. Little did I know that the direction of my life would change. We did not finish the work; Chzranow has thousands of tombstones, but we left feeling that were now committed to this community. When the students came to us and asked to return the next summer to continue the work I thought it was nice but not realistic. Who would push off going into the army, who would pay so much money for the privelaage of working in a cemetery. I’ve learned at Reut that our kids believe they can do anything and they have taught the “grownups” including me, that they’re right. That summer July 2004, the first Gidonim trip returned to Chzranow to continue the work and they added work at Chelm and Krashnik. Sadly, I did not go back with them. I had already “abandoned “ my family that year and the trip needed strong men who could lift tombstones. They returned after having found a previously unknown mass grave at Chelm. Aryeh asked me to put a hobby to use and create a presentation that would document the trip. I have since created countless presentations and I now spend two days a week working on the project. My entire family became a commited part of the project. They copied discs and edited Hebrew. My 7 year old now thinks that it is totally normal to talk about tombstones and he knows all the presentations by heart. The next summer, I returned to Poland with my eldest son as part of Gidonim II. We had now added a new piece to the project. I had taken upon myself to document in writing and pictures every tombstone in each of the cemeteries we would work in. We returned with thousands of pictures and notebooks of names and dates. A dedicated team of volunteers, under my supervision, began to input data to build the database while I processed thousands of pictures and a gifted 11th grader who had not even been to Poland yet began to build the Gidonim project website. It took a year to finish all of the work from the summer of 2005 and it was already time to go back again.

Some of the students who were going with us had been my students but others I hardly knew. They ranged in age from 16 to 23. Some older graduates brought along friends that had not learned at the school. I left Israel wondering whether we would become “a group.” This would be the first year of the Gidonim project that the original students who had begun the project would not be going with us. Many were in the army already or about to go in. While I knew that it is important to enter each experience with a clean slate and allow it to develop without expectations, I was struggling. When we arrived at school at one in the morning on Saturday night graduates and students came to see us off. Among them were some of the original participants of the first Gidonim trips who came to “pass the torch” to this group. I realized that I not only had made a commitment to the Jews of the communities we were returning to restore but also to the students who had begun Gidonim and to Aryeh.

We arrived in Poland and after buying equipment we drove to Chelm for the opening ceremony of the trip. The older graduates took responsibility for the opening ceremony. They wanted to set a tone for the younger students. They wanted to “pass the torch” to the younger students who were working on Gidonim for the first time. For some of the older graduates this was their third or fourth or even fifth time in Poland. They spoke of their experience on the program, on how it had affected their lives and how important it was for them that a new group of young students will continue the tradition. We did some routine maintenance work at Chelm and then proceeded to Zamosc which would serve as our home base for the first week. One of our student’s family came from Zamosc. We saw her family’s house on the main square, We walked to the synagogue building and we looked for their names in the tombstone fragments that make up the memorial that stands in the corner of a public park which is situated on what was once the Jewish cemetery.

We spent Monday and Tuesday working at Josefow. In the summer of 2005 we marked the mass grave in the woods outside of Josefow and in October the group who had gone on the regular trip of remembrance to Poland, which focuses on the concentration camps and the relics of the major Jewish communities of Poland, worked for two days at the cemetery in Josefow.   The cemetery is located on a steep hill outside of town. The entrance is on the left side of the front wall and it opens immediately to the cemetrery. The tombstones face right and begin in neat rows at the left front corner.   They continue all the way up the steep hill. A path up the hill cuts through the rowed area on the left. This is the area that the group worked on in October. When there the group also found in this area the base of what was once the “Ohel Tzadikim” where the Rabbis of the community were buried. The building no longer exists. We proceeded to work on the center and right hand areas where many of the tombstones had fallen and were in disarray. We found the fragments of the oldest tombstones in the lower center area, apparently the more modern tombstones were erected around them. We immediately noticed that Josefow is different than all of the other cemeteries we worked in, in that all of the tombstones are the same. They are the made of the same material and are the same height. The date appears on the top and all of the community members are introduced with the same descriptions. The equality between members was striking. On the bottom of a few tombstones appeared the title of those who served the community: the Gabai, the Shamash, the teacher of children, the member of the Chevra Kaddisha, the doctor. This community chose to honor those who served it and not express any difference based on economic status.   Late on the first day Elyashiv, a Jewish Law teacher, and I were working on documenting the tombstones in the top center area. Thankfully both Elyashiv and I have a background in reading manuscripts. He specializes mostly in Medieval transcripts while I have worked on Dead Sea Scroll fragments. These skills were put to good use during our work on the Gidonim project. Elyashiv began to work on an unusual tombstone in area 6. The tombstone looked different from the others. There was no date on top. It had a lot of words and it was written in poetry. He began to dramatically read the poem out loud and we realized that this tombstone was truly unique. In the early 1800’s the synagogue burnt down and this tombstone marked the spot where the community buried what remained of the torah scrolls and other synagogue articles.

The greatest challenge working at this cemetery was the steepness of the hill but the disarray and the size also contributed. We worked tirelessly for two long days finishing at eight o’clock at night but we finished. We stood at the top of the hill for the memorial ceremony at nightfall on Tuesday and we could really see what we had done. At the ceremony, run by a group of boys who have just graduated Reut, we recalled the Josefow community at its height but we also recalled how they were savagely murdered in the woods outside of town by the 101st battalion made up of regular German soldiers who were not trained to kill but were willing to listen to the morning’s orders to kill the elderly, women and children of Josefow. Their commander allowed soldiers not to participate but most did. The lesson of this event about human nature is frightening. The students who prepared the ceremony were helped to prepare by the son of a survivor of Josefow. His mother had returned to Josefow many times with groups as a Yad Vashem witness. She had been searching for her father’s grave for fifty years. This past year she returned and found the tombstone which we had lifted and restored to its place.

On Wednesday and Thursday we worked at the cemetery in Shebreshin. The cemetery is very large and is a heavily wooded area situated within the current town. It is situated between local houses. The locals clearly treat the cemetery as a local park and many locals strolled or biked through while we were working. There is a partial fence around the front and right side of the cemetery where it borders the street. The other sides are surrounded by steep drops that border on private land. I had been to this cemetery the year before to see if I thought we could work there. I was doubtful that we could finish this cemetery due to its size and the density of the foliage. Shebreshin is a “jungle.”   In fact, many of our students were stung while working. The foliage also obscured the organization of the tombstones. Last summer I could not see any organizing principal to the cemetery and in most areas I could not see any rows. It appeared that tombstones formed circles in small clearings in the woods and individual tombstones stood alone randomly throughout the cemetery. The cemetery is famous because near the entrance there is a fenced in area with the graves of the communities Rabbi’s and their wives. One of these tombstones is now incorporated into a tree that grew around it.  In the center of the cemetery there is a monument to the community that was killed during the Holocaust. Only at the end of our work did we realize that the monument marked the site of a mass grave. This summer we were pleasantly surprised. Upon arriving we saw that another group had worked here before us. The mayor came to visit us and told us that a German group had come to work here. They had done an impressive job of cleaning out the two areas where there were clear rows. The first area was at the entrance to the cemetery behind the “Rabbis’ area” and only men were buried here. The second area was to the right in back and it was the parallel women’s area. On the first day we documented these two large areas while working on clearing out the rest of the cemetery. The most challenging task at Shebreshin was to clear out enough of the trees and foliage to see the tombstones and begin to understand the layout of the cemetery. By the second day we were able to draw a map of the cemetery and divide it into areas. I was surprised that there in fact was an organizing principal. The rest of the cemetery in addition to the “men’s” and “women’s” areas is built around a circular path with the areas facing toward the path. Interestingly there is no clear pattern regarding date of burial. During our work we were visited by a Polish couple who lives in Los Angeles. They run a Polish language internet site that teaches about Judaism and the Holocuast. They were so moved by our work that they donated three hundred zloty to us on the spot. Within days a wonderful description of our project appeared on their site. A second group of Polish young women visited, they are gathering eyewitness local Polish accounts from the time of the Holocaust. Upon returning to the hotel on Wednesday night we were greeted with a surprise. Matan Levi one of our graduates had come by train from Prague where he was traveling to join us for the rest of our trip. This was Matan’s seventh time in Poland. He has even been sent by the school to Poland to meet student groups from America to teach them how to restore a cemetery. Matan’s energy and enthusiasm gave us a needed shot of energy and helped us continue to work our hardest. On the second day of work at Shebreshin, we took a break in the afternoon and we walked a few blocks to the Synagogue which now holds a community center and art gallery. Here we found some information about the community written in Poland. Our Polish guide translated the little material that existed for the eleventh grade girls who were preparing the memorial ceremony. We continued to work until late in the evening, refusing to stop until we finished the cemetery. At the ceremony we heard about the history of the community of Shebreshin before and during the Holocaust. Gabi Gabai the teacher who ran the group told the moving famous story “The Fable of the Goat” by S. Y. Agnon which takes place in Shebreshin and expresses the yearnings the Jews felt for Eretz Yisrael” and their lost opportunity to realize the dream of making Aliyah. The story tells of a lost tunnel between Shebreshin and Safed. Coincidentally, the students who planned the ceremony had asked my son Tzvi to fillow Gabi’s story by playing a song written by a friend in Safed. The song is “Vehasneh Bo’er,” puts music to the biblical passage from Exodus 3 “And the bush burns but is not consumed.” Tzvi offered the song as an analogy to the Jewish people who were not consumed in the Holocaust and continue to survive.

On Friday we traveled to Kaziermerz Dolny a quaint town on the Wisle River, known now for its annual summer film festival. On the way there we stopped off at the tiny town of Ulanov. A friend of Gabi’s, Robby Berman had asked us to stop here and take care of his grandparent’s community. The Jewish community of Ulanov was more worldly than the communities we had been to so far as they were businessmen who specialized in forestry. They arranged for Local Poles to cut down trees and ship them up the river. The small fenced in cemetery was situated in the woods outside of town. The numerous pine trees in the area had kept other foliage from growing and the isolated cemetery was in good repair. Within a few hours we had cleaned away foliage and garbage and we had lifted fallen tombstones and we had painted, documented and photographed all of the tombstones. We could begin Shabbat with the wonderful feeling of accomplishment of a job completed. On the way Gabi treated us all to a surprise. We stopped at a local lake for a fast swim and some well deserved relaxation. When we arrived at the quaint and beautiful Inn on the hill above Kaziermerz Dolny there was another surprise waiting for us. Aryeh had come to join us for Shabbat. We all prepared for Shabbat and met for a moving Kabbalat Shabbat. We believe that we have stirred long dormant souls during our work here and that they were with us now for Shabbat. We prayed and ate together. We sang and danced late into the night. In the morning we prayed and ate and learned together. This Shabbat was the Shabbat immedietly preceding Tisha b’av and so we dedicated our learning to the message of the Churban to us today. We focused was on the need for social justice and our ability to make a difference in the world. We continued to sing at lunch. Guests from Israel joined us for lunch. Yosi Bernstein of Rechovot came to Poland with some associates. After lunch he told us about his battle to restore the honor to the cemetery of Shtikochin, where his father comes from. He told of returning to the town with his father on a family trip only to find public bathrooms and a private house where one cemetery had once stood and a factory where the second had been. He told of finding the remnants of tombstones in private gardens. He had battled the mayor of the town to remove the bathrooms and allow him to erect a monument on the spot. His efforts had braught him all the way to the president of Poland who agreed to help him. On Sunday we would join him at Shtikochin and we would see what we could do to help him. Afterwards, we all walked down to the town square. Legend has it that the king of Poland built this town and its fortress on the hill to protect his Jewish wife “Esther.”   We were able to see the Synagogue and the entrance to the Mikve directly off of the main square. Some of us used the free time that followed to sit quietly by the beautiful Wisle River and watch the boats. We gathered again for Seudat Shlishit and we sang and danced until after dark when Shabbat ended, which is quite late in Poland. Shabbat gave us an opportunity to rest from our work but also express our love for one another.

We traveled at night to Western Poland where so that we could get an early start at Shtikochin in the morning. We arrived at Shtikochin and Yosi showed us the Synagogue and the cemeteries. We helped him gather tombstones from courtyards with the cooperation of the local homeowners. We cut the grass where the cemetery once stood. The bathrooms had been removed but there was little left of what was once there. We reburied some bones that we found in the area and lit a candle. We then went to the house of a wonderful woman in the town who has housed all of the tombstone fragments that Yosi has found over the past few years. We laid out all of the fragments and were even able to piece some of them back together. When we finished we continued on to our next site. We were considering whether to work in Bendine or Tzebin, but then we had a flat tire right outside of Bendine so we decided to work there. Bendine was famous as a Partisan stronghold near the western border with Germany during the war. We were able to see one of the underground bunkers and synagogue. Aryeh told us two stories connected to the Jewish partisans in Bendine. We worked at the older cemetery which is located behind the town’s fortress and is part of a public park. The locals use the cemetery for walks and bike-riding up and down the hill. . Here also, the presence of pine trees has kept the foliage at bay. We spent the rest of Sunday cutting down the foliage and cleaning Most of the tombstones have fallen from the top of the hill to the bottom. There are only rows of tombstones in the upper left hand area of the cemetery where the tombstones are relatively small. The rest of the cemetery is in total disarray. We divided the cemetery into six large areas and we marked trees so that we would know where the borders were between them. We numbered tombstones only by area but do to the disarray were able to document only one relatively empty upper area by the end of Sunday. We spent our last night in the beautiful very European city of Krakov. We all walked to the old city and many of us sat and talked late into the night. In the morning we returned to Bendine but stopped for a few minutes at Chzranow the town where the project began. Aryeh lit a candle at the grave of our friend Nachum Manor’s father and I quickly photographed a row of tombstones which had accidentally been erased from last summer’s documentation. We were relieved to see that our work form last summer had been preserved. The areas and the numbering were clear. The tombstones had not fallen and were orderly and arranged. It gave us all the feeling that our work will make a difference even after we leave. We proceeded to Bendine and worked until the late afternoon when we had to leave to prepare for our flight home. We finished to the best of our abilities despite our exhaustion and at the end we held a ceremony in memory of the community of Bendine. We packed up the equipment until next year and turned towards home.