On September 28, I returned to Żychlin so I could visit the Jewish cemetery. I was eager to see the area that had been cleared earlier in the year as part of the “In the Footsteps of Żychlin Jews” program spearheaded by Bożena Gajewska and funded by the Forum for Dialogue.
The first challenge was finding the cemetery. Even though I have been there several times and I had checked the location on Google Maps, I passed it the first time. I recognized the houses along the road from Google street view and guessed that the cemetery must be mismarked on the map. I backtracked to #55 Łukasińskiego Street and spied the cemetery gate at the end of a narrow gravel and grass-covered driveway. I parked on the shoulder of the road, careful not to block the driveway which leads to a farmhouse on the right-hand side. A plowed agricultural field is on the left side of the drive. The homeowners and their ducks and chickens watched me as I walked by their yard to the cemetery gate.
The cemetery gate needs repainting, though it remains sold. A padlock hangs from the latch but the gate is unlocked. The area that was cleared around the monuments remains accessible. I took a closer look at the three irregular monuments made from matzevot fragments held together with concrete. Some of the tombstones have come loose and lie on the ground. Others appear to be missing. Red graffiti scars the front of one.
Rabbi Shmuel Abba‘s grave marker has fallen into disrepair. The curved stone over the site seems to have lost its top layer, and the vertical section of the marker has collapsed. The black stone with the inscription that used to be mounted on this vertical section has broken in half; part sits half-hidden in a groove and half lies flat on the broken surface of the monument. Notes left by visitors poke out of the cracks, and the remains of an Israeli candle sits on the ground near the grave. Photos show that this grave has deteriorated over the past few years.
The rest of the cemetery ground is overgrown with 9-foot blackthorn shrubs that make an impenetrable thicket. The sharp thorns on this plant pose a particular problem for cemetery maintenance. Bożena told me that it took a crew of four to clear a narrow pathway through the overgrowth to the memorial monument and a fourth concrete-and-matzevah obelisk. I had to watch my step to avoid the stumps of the blackthorn bushes that were cut six inches from the surface of the ground. I didn’t see signs that the bushes were growing back, but I have been warned that they will unless everything is trimmed back again before next spring.
Old candle lanterns sit below the monuments—a testament that someone remembers this place.
I inspected the fence from the outside of the cemetery, walking from the gate to the southwest corner. Only a small section of fence around the gate is constructed of solid iron spikes; the rest is made of rusty chain-link. The fence continues along the west side as far as I could see, which wasn’t far because of the small trees along the fence line. Stone curbs below the fence seem to mark the cemetery boundary.
The Żychlin Jewish cemetery needs help. Fortunately, the ADJCP has good allies in Bożena Gajewska, Żychlin mayor Grzegorz Ambroziak, regional organizations TMHŻ (Association of Żychlin History Enthusiasts) and TPŻK (Association of Friends of the Kutno Region), Steven Reece and the Matzevah Foundation, and Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis and the Jewish Community of Warsaw. Together, I’m hopeful we can make lasting improvements on the cemetery and maintain it as a testament to the Jewish community that called Żychlin home for centuries.
I ended the evening with the Association of Żychlin History Enthusiasts. My intention was to record some of the members’ recollections about wartime in Żychin. Serendipitously, my visit coincided with that of a guest of honor, Marianna Rybicka, who was a child during WWII; her memoir was published by the TMHŻ. She arrived from Płock with her daughter Iwona who brought a table full of food. Here, Marianna is telling her story:
Can you help us restore the Żychlin Jewish Cemetery?
Since September, Bożena has done more research about cleaning up the cemetery. The biggest challenge is the the blackthorn that grows over most of the terrain. Jewish law restricts any disturbance of the ground which means the blackthorn can’t be dug out by the roots or treated with herbicide. A professional landscaping firm told Bożena that the charge for cutting it all down by hand will be 80,000-100,000 zloties ($19,000-$24,000). Without additional treatment, it will grow right back.
Steven Reece of the Matzevah Foundation has some experience with blackthorn and he is confident a dedicated group of volunteers can use loppers to remove it. He hopes to join us in May to inspect the cemetery and suggest a course of action. A lot depends on how much territory needs to be cleared and the size of the bushes that need to be cut.
Can you help us? What do you suggest for removing a thicket of thorny bushes? Would you like to join a clean-up project and help restore the Żychlin Jewish cemetery? Let me know!