Uncovering the Past - Literally

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June 17th 2006
Published: June 17th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

OK, I finally have a few moments to write the answer to the question you may (or may not) have been wondering about -- just what the heck brought me to Poland in the first place? The truth is, I was in Vilnius, Lithuania last year...I was so close to Poland and thought to myself (and out loud, to others when I got back) that Poland was next on my list. Well, I have found that if you tell enough people something, then it kinda makes you want to follow through with your plans.

Having volunteered teaching English for three weeks last year (in Estonia), I know that volunteering is a great way to get an introduction to the country, while meeting "real" people and conquering the whole "I am a tourist" trap that I hate falling into. I knew, though, that 3 weeks would be way too long for me to volunteer this summer, and also that I didn't want to teach English again. So, what to do?

I scoured the internet for volunteer opportunites, and came across one that caught my eye. There is an organization in Germany called "Action Reconciliation Service for Peace" (Aktion Suhnezeichen Friedensdienste), and they are committed to reaching out to victims of Nazi crimes. It is one of many human relations groups promoting opportunities for young Germans to interact with Jews and increasingly is the last chance for young Germans to meet those who lived through the war and Holocaust. In this case, ASF was holding a "senior" summer camp in Sz, for older people who wanted to be involved. The timing and the project really appealed to me...so a few e-mails later, I was signed up. Was I concerned that I would be the only American? Yeah. The only Jew? Sort of. The youngest one there? A little. But what the hell -- it was only a week.

So after my few days in Berlin with Ute (see previous blog), I found myself headed on a train to Warsaw, then Zamosc with 5 Germans and a Pole, all bound for working in Szczebrzeszyn. The trip took about 12 hours altogether...

So, what did we do?
In short, cleaned up the place. Imagine a jungle. Like, a real jungle. Then imagine that the trees have been cut down and the plants and weeds have been pulled from the earth. And then imagine that standing where that jungle used to be are now gravestones. That's the work I was a part of. Clearing the jungle. Of course, it wasn't an actual jungle, but a lonely, forgotten Jewish cemetery with about 300 (?) headstones, some sarcophagi, and a monument marking the mass grave where hundreds of its town's citizen were murdered and buried in a mass grave. The oldest gravestone there bears a date from the 1500s. The last ones to have been placed there are from the 1930s. You can check out a map here. It's a pretty amazing place.

There were about 30 of us, doing all sorts of different jobs. There was the shovel and saw crew, who removed all of the trees. There were the weeders and rakers, who removed all of the little stuff (tons of it, really). There were the photographers, who documented it all. There were the transcribers/decipherers who figured just who was buried there, and when they died (these tombstones were written all in Hebrew -- no Polish -- and only first names and "son of" or "daughter of" were given -- no last names or family names). There was a surveyor/mapmaker who made a layout of the place. There were the brushers, who cleaned off the stones so that
Local students getting a lesson...Local students getting a lesson...Local students getting a lesson...

This is Evalina with a group of 4th graders from the town. The hope is that if they know what this place is, they will treat it with respect when they are older.
the photographers and decipherers could do their work.

I know, you are thinking, "What did Sara do? She is not into working with her hands -- she prefers to work with her mind." (Or, at least, that's a nice way to put it...) Well, I did a little bit of everything. I brushed stones, I pulled weeds, I helped survey, I helped decipher, I helped schlep and rake. I was no "she-woman", but I think it is fair to say that held my own, and that I contributed the best way I knew how. We worked from 8:30-12:00 every day, took a break for lunch, and then worked until 2:30. Altogether, we put in 5 days of work. We made a significant difference. The hope is that, if ASZ gets this started, that the town of Sz will feel compelled to continue the work and take care of the cemetery.

Another part of the work was the Education portion. Clearly, that would have been most up my alley, but alas, I speak no Polish. Two groups of fourth-grade students from the local school came to the cemetery for some "Jewish Education". Clearly, these kids are not Jewish, but the aim was to have these young people be aware of what the place "was" and "is", and why it is important to respect it and to respect the history and tradition behind it. Hellika, one of the women from Germany, put together a wonderful (by any standards) lesson connecting the gravestones of the cemetery with the Haggadah, specifically the Passover song, "Who Knows One?". The kids did gravestone rubbings, learned what an "aleph" looked like and searched for symbols like the Ten Commandments, Shabbat candlesticks, and books around the cemetery. It was awesome to watch, and to be a part of (I sang the song for them IN HEBREW at the beginning of the lesson).

I will tell you briefly about some of the people, but before I do, I want to share with you something about "The Sisters", as they came to be known. The Sisters are 4 women (3 from Israel via Belgium, 1 from Belgium) whose father was born and lived in Sz until the time just before the war. I am not certain how many generations are traced back to Sz, but the fact is that The Sisters have roots there. Their father never talked about
The "After" PhotoThe "After" PhotoThe "After" Photo

This looked like a real jungle before..now it is almost ready to have real grass planted one day. Hopefully soon.
his childhood. He never could be open about things he saw or did, or about the history of the place. He left them a legacy of mystery, but scattered with enough clues that they knew that they needed to come back and fill in some gaps. Only together, and only after his death, and only with the support of this group, were they able to dig into their family's past in Sz. They came with a videographer to document the experience and so that they could take back their discoveries to their children and their children's children. They came with no expectations -- but with a lot of emotion and a lot of questions...and even though they kind of did their own thing and had their own, very personal, experience, the whole energy of the group was affected by them just being there -- as if they the work that they (we) were doing had a name and a face and a real history behind it.

As far as the other people who were there, everyone had their own reasons -- academic, personal, religious, social. But the running theme was that they were doing this for a reason --
The "After" PartyThe "After" PartyThe "After" Party

The Mayor and city workers of Sz hosted us with a campfire and sausages on our last night. Of course, we had already eaten dinner, but we ate some anyway. She is pouring beer on the sausages.
that somehow, the responsibility of maintaining this cemetery somehow falls on German shoulders. If the Jewish community was around, they would be doing it themselves. But they're not. So they can't. And so they must. Pretty powerful reasoning. One woman's grandfather was in charge of proaganda for the Nazi party. One man was born as a result of a Nazi experiment to create "the perfect Aryan". One man had been in jail for almost 2 years for refusing to join the German Army in his youth. Like I said in my blog about Shabbat, I think (and was told, also) that having me there was a positive addition to the group...that I added a different, positive energy to the group's work. I felt every bit a part of the group, despite the cultural, linguisitic, historical, religious, and chronological differences between us. :) Of course, I couldn't help but asking "Why aren't Jewish people doing this?", but that's a question for another blog altogether.

The town of Sz was actually very supportive of the project. On the first day, they welcomed us with a cake and coffee ceremony before we started working. They joined us on our Sunday excursion to
This oneThis oneThis one

Especially Crazy Aunt Laura...:)MMMMM...Polish sausage and Polish beer...just what a girl with Crohn's needs to eat...don't worry, I only had 1/2 of each.
Sobibor. And on the last day, they threw us a goodbye party, complete with Polish sausage, Polish beer, and Polish hospitality -- which means "more food than you could ever possibly eat". Check out the picture of the fire and the "bbq" pit -- it's an adjustable metal plate that sits on top of the fire and can be adjusted with the turn of a crank. Cool. On the last night, I was surprised to be presented with a gift from the group -- a puzzle of a bridge in Dresden, symbolizing the bridge that communites and people make when they come together to work for a good cause. Each member of the group and the city council of Sz had signed the back of a puzzle piece. Needless to say, I was touched.

The accomodations were fine -- I shared a room on the top floor of the hotel with Ute and Ulrike. We shared a bathroom with 3 other women in our group. Meals were good. Of course, there was cheese and bread for breakfast -- but it was delicious -- like 5 different kinds of cheese on one plate. Lunch was, well, not that great --
My home for the weekMy home for the weekMy home for the week

I'm on the top floor. I think it looks like a ski lodge, although there are no mountains around. :)
2 cheese sandwiches and a whole tomato (to be eaten like an apple, if you can do it neatly). But dinner was usually awesome -- always hot soup (yeah! hot food!) and a hot meal like schnitzel, meatballs, or something like that with mashed potatoes and a salad. I was so psyched to eat something cooked, I ate every morsel every night!

It was a great experience, and maybe you are wondering, "Will Sara go back next year?". Well, it's a possibility. I will definitely have to come back some time, regardless. I am now connected with that place for good. Meanwhile, I am enjoying Warsaw (especially the cheap cheap internet) and am going to go to Krakow tomorrow. More from me later.



17th June 2006

You are quite inspiring. can't wait to hear more when you get back to austin. thanks for sharing your great bolgs.
17th June 2006

you rock
sara, I am so inspired. it seems amazing and you are inspiring for figuring this out and doing it. plus the sausage looks yummy. danielle
18th June 2006

you're fabulous!
that's a big sausage in your mouth, darling...... seriously, looks like you did good work - amazing that the stones are all in Hebrew and not in Polish.
21st June 2006

I am impressed
What an amazing trip! I can't wait to see you and hear all about it.
7th October 2006

Wow, what a fascinating story
I am a tour-guide/translator from Lublin, Poland. I was fascinated by your account of your stay in Szczebrzeszyn and visit to Lublin. It's very uplifting to see that people from abroad are so enthusiastic about Poland and that visiting various places was so meaningful to them. People like you help me believe that Poland is not such a miserable country after all and that's it's worth staying here (aw shucks! we have so many things happening here that make you wanna leave this 'vale of tears'). Keep up the good work!

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