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The History

Jews had been living in Poland for a thousand years before the violence of World War II and Nazi Germany. At the beginning of the 20th Century, 3.5 million Jews inhabited Poland, with every tenth Polish citizen of Jewish descent. Over time, the appearances of many cities and villages have changed across the country, whilst the War changed the identities of those who lived there. Prior to the War, up to half of the residents of such cities belonged to the Jewish community, and only 300,000 of the 3.5 million Jews actually survived past 1945. Then, during the Communist period, most Jews fled Poland in several waves of migration. Today, there are only a few thousand Jews that live in Poland. There are a few synagogues, mikvahs, tenements, private houses, and various buildings that survived the war times. However, one of the most notable tragedies was the fate of the Jewish cemeteries.

Cemeteries and their material culture (The connection between artifacts and social relations) have always played an important role in collective remembrance of any nation or social group. Material culture plays an especially important role in the politics of memory, hegemonic narratives, and the formation of local, regional, national and international identities. Destruction of cemeteries by an aggressor is often an attempt to crush the cultural spine of the victims and to erase the last remnants of their existence. This was the case with Jewish cemeteries in occupied Poland.

Throughout Poland, Nazis destroyed the cemeteries, whilst the matzevas were taken and used as building materials. After the war and under Communist rule, further matzevas were used to build roads, pavements, airports, reinforce river banks, and to build monuments in parks. Privately, matzevas were also used instead of bricks to build houses, or as tools for everyday use such as a grinding wheel or a knife sharpener. Therefore, the fate of the Jewish cemeteries was doomed, and together with the matzevas, the names and identities of the deceased were brutally taken away from them. In one such cemetery – Brudo, in the Praga district of Poland’s Capital Warsaw, out of over 350,000 pre-war gravestones, otherwise known as matzevas, only approximately 3,000 have survived intact until this day.

The main aims and objectives of the project

“When the past has not been elaborated, thus it has not been understood, it has not been turned into experience, it weighs as a silent legacy, which threatens the future”.
(Paolo Jedlowski)

“The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend to remember”.
(Harold Pinter, quoted by Adler)

The aim of this project is to re-create memories of Jewish history and culture in Poland whilst restoring matzevas in their rightful places, i.e. at existing Jewish cemeteries, or at other carefully selected places in cases where cemeteries do not exist any longer. Through this project, we wish to return the names, stories and identities, of the deceased and enable Jewish families across the world to be able to find matzevas of their relatives and friends. The project will counteract the main motives of Nazi perpetrators who not only wished to exterminate European Jews, but to delete all remnants of their existence, including cemeteries and graves.

The project aims to heal the painful wounds that have been made in Poland, by directly involving people and social groups. The project also has a didactic function, which helps the discovery and acknowledgement of this part of traumatic national history. The objective of the project is to go beyond the trauma, through building common ground of collective memory and understanding on a large scale. However, this project goes beyond an ordinary commemoration. Instead of creating bronze, granite or marble monuments, and perpetuating pain and suffering, we aim to include as many participants as possible to inspire positive actions of re-calling and re-enacting Jewish matzevas in Poland.

The project will uncover matzevas and find Jewish stories often hidden in structures of towns and villages, to be brought to light and presented to those who may be culturally aware and also to those who may not be, due to age, origin or other reasons.

Realisation and scientific methods

The objectives of the project will be realised by building a strong connection between human reflection, humanistic approach and science. Scientific methods will combine the function of historical research, alongside the potential provided by modern documentation and conservation technology, as well as innovative use of various types of modern media channels.

Planned actions

1. Collecting information regarding stolen matzevas throughout Poland, documenting their locations and state of preservation by photo, GIS measurements, laser scanning, etc. depending on type and category of particular site.

2. Creating a unique web-database, using state of the art technology.

3. Identifying, reading, and translating inscriptions on matzevas, in cooperation with world-class experts. In many cases this action will require a careful cleaning of surfaces and inscriptions on the matzevas.

4. Creating a virtual platform, which will enable families and friends to find their matzevas, adopt these, and contribute to their conservation/restoration.

5. Selecting and preparing rightful places for relocation of the matzevas that were used for improper purposes, which can be moved to existing Jewish cemeteries, or to other proper locations.

6. In situ commemoration of, and information on, matzevas existing in their secondary contexts, by information boards and/or other means of information to the general public (relevant for sites with numerous matzevas that cannot be moved or where relocation must wait for a longer period of time).

7. Designing (via an open international call for architects and artists) and erecting a unique post-modernistic memorial structure in homage to the destroyed cemeteries and plundered matzevas, bearing testimony of the long-term Jewish history in Poland.

8. Educational activities – Showing the importance of Matzevas in Jewish culture and religion to the general public in Poland; create a TV production, receive write ups in popular publications, school materials, and a create a web-based ‘game’ based on typology and inscriptions of Matzevas.

9. Elaboration of the Guidelines for Best Practices regarding historical Jewish cemeteries and matzevas for national and local authorities, museums professionals and tourist companies in Eastern Europe.

We need your help. For more information – contact us.

Matzeva Project
tel. +48 501 183 871
e-mail. info@matzeva.org

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