A defining question of my study is turning out to be: How do you remember Jewish lives in Poland when nothing remains? Or when there are only scattered traces?
I certainly started with next to nothing when I began the search for my own family story. Since then, I have found so much—most extraordinarily many living relatives. I’m gathering up the fragments of the past—a half remembered story, a photograph, a birth record. And pieced together, something fuller is emerging. It’s still impossibly far from the rich lives that have passed, but it nevertheless gives me a much better sense of where I come from.
All this resonates with an article I read in the Atlantic, which although it is about the tension between science and belief in God, makes the point that the more knowledge we gain the more we become aware of how much we still do not understand (“Why God Will Not Die” by Jack Miles, December 2014, pp. 96-107). Miles explains, “Scientific progress is like mountain climbing: the higher you climb, the more you know, but the wider the vistas of ignorance that extends on all sides” (p. 100). Maybe this is what my search is destined to be like. Every relative I find points to many more ancestors and descendants who remain to be discovered. Every historical artifact hints at another vast realm of Jewish culture that remains hidden.
So how do you remember Jewish lives when nothing remains? When I met pani Alicja Kobus, the head of the Gmina Żydowska (Jewish Community) in Poznań, she told me about numerous ways in which the Gmina has fought to commemorate Jewish heritage throughout the region. Pani Alicja calls herself a bulldozer; she keeps at it no matter what obstacles she faces. She doesn’t give up. She also attributes her success to cudy (miracles), and to the material and spiritual support provided by numerous allies. Among the projects she described to me, one stands out—the reclaiming of a section of the Jewish cemetery. The story is pretty extraordinary.
The Jewish cemetery on Głogowska Street was established in the early 1800s, in what at the time was the outskirts of the city. The Poznan city leaders liquidated a number of cemeteries in the city center, including the old Jewish cemetery near what is now Plac Wolności, so the city would have room to expand. A photo taken in 1927 (on the webpage of the Poznańska Filia Związku Gmin Wyznaniowych Żydowskich w RP/ Polish Branch of the Union of Jewish Communities in the Republic of Poland) shows the Trade Center in the foreground and the Głogowska Street cemetery in the background.The cemetery was devastated by the Nazis during World War II, and the tombstones were either destroyed or carted off for construction projects. During the communist period, the adjoining Targi Poznańskie (Poznan Trade Center) was expanded into the former cemetery site.
Pani Alicja says it took something like eight years to create a memorial at the cemetery site. She focused her energies on a strip of land between some apartment buildings and the Trade Center, where a row of mismatched, ramshackle garages stood. Reclaiming the space for a cemetery memorial required the support of city officials, local residents, and international interest groups, including the descendants of Rabbi Akiva Eger, a highly regarded Talmudic scholar who was buried in the cemetery in 1837.
As pani Alicja tells it, opponents to the project were slowly persuaded, or they met with misfortune. One elderly woman refused to sell her garage, saying “I don’t want Jews in my courtyard.” Alicja responded, “You already do have Jews in your courtyard” (pointing out that the whole space was within the cemetery grounds). Not long after, the elderly woman passed away. A member of the city government who opposed the project got caught up in a scandal and resigned. Other residents were swayed by the promise that the neglected space would be renovated, with new gates and building facades. Finally, in 2007, the commemorative site was completed.
The memorial site is hard to spot from the street. The best clue is the Stars of David that ornament the new metal gates closing off the courtyard from the busy street. Inside the gate, granite plaques mounted on the archway wall outline the history of the cemetery, the rabbis who were buried there, and the international sponsors of the project (Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the British descendants of Rabbi Eger). The text is repeated in Polish, Hebrew, and English. In a narrow strip of grass sloping up to a plaster-covered brick wall (where the garages used to be) stand six tombstones commemorating Eger, his wife, and other descendants who were also rabbis. The black stones are inscribed with Hebrew writing. White gravel fills a rectangle in front of each stone, the foot marked by a metal roofed glass enclosure for candles. Old stone tombstones lean against the wall, while a few stones with large, rough writing are scattered on the grass. These grave markers were found around the city, many dug out of roadways and other wartime construction projects.
The site is closed to the public because it is in a private, locked courtyard. The first time I visited was when rabbis and others came from Zurich and England to say the kaddish on the anniversary of Eger’s death. They gathered around the grave and sang and prayed for about an hour, nodding as they read in unison. The visitors were all male; they wore black hats and long coats, their payot curled in front of their ears. Observers from the Poznan Jewish Community watched at a respectful distance, except for a few key members including Pani Alicja who stood with the visitors.
It struck me that throughout the kaddish, I didn’t see a single resident of the surrounding buildings. As it got dark, I could see the lights in many apartments. Didn’t they hear the singing? Weren’t they interested in what was happening right outside their windows?