Poland donates large sum to preserve Warsaw Jewish cemetery

This photo shows gravestones at the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw, Poland, Friday Dec. 22, 2017. The Polish government is donating 100 million zlotys (US$ 28 million) to preserve the cemetery. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The Polish government has donated 100 million zlotys ($28 million) to preserve a major Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, a vast space in the capital that is overgrown with vegetation and where tombstones are in disrepair

WARSAW, Poland — The Polish government has donated 100 million zlotys ($28 million) to restore and protect a major Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, one of the country's largest public contributions toward preserving the Jewish culture nearly wiped out in the Holocaust.

The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, established in 1806, is the resting spot of 250,000 Polish Jews — Yiddish writers, rabbis, philanthropists, scholars, bankers and regular citizens who once belonged to a vibrant community that made up one-third of Warsaw's population before World War II.

Among the notable people buried at the Okopowa Street cemetery are Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of the Esperanto language (1859-1917), and Samuel Orgelbrand, publisher of Poland's first modern encyclopedia (1810-1868).

Today, decades after Germany uprooted and destroyed that community, many sections of the cemetery are a desolate sight. Some tombstones are broken or disappearing below decades of decomposing vegetation, and others bear inscriptions rendered unreadable by erosion.

"It's a disaster. It's a large territory in the middle of the city which looks like a jungle," said Michal Laszczkowski, the head of the Cultural Heritage Foundation, a private organization that preserves Polish heritage sites. "That's why we decided to do something."

The foundation will oversee the preservation work at the Jewish cemetery. Catholic churches, monuments and cemeteries have been among the organization's focus.

In Warsaw on Friday, Polish Culture Minister Piotr Glinski signed a contract with Laszczkowski that formalized the government donation. The money established an endowment, returns from which are supposed to go to cleaning the cemetery, preserving its tombstones and monuments and reinforcing an outer wall.

Anna Chipczynska, the head of the Warsaw Jewish community, and Michael Schudrich, an American who is the country's chief rabbi, attended the signing.

While many Poles see Jews as a foreign nation or separate people despite centuries of co-existence, Glinski described the cemetery as an element of "Poland's cultural and national heritage."

"It's the duty of the Polish state to care for our heritage," the culture minister said.

Schudrich called Glinski's words "honey to my heart" and added: "It's obvious, but sometimes it needs to be said."

Poland's Jewish population numbered nearly 3.5 million on the eve of World War II. Most were murdered in ghettos or death camps set up by Nazi Germany during its wartime occupation of Poland.

A Jewish community that numbers in the thousands now struggles to maintain hundreds of cemeteries and depends on local communities, volunteers and foreign donations for help.

Tad Taube, an American philanthropist who fled Poland on the eve of war and who has contributed in past years to Poland's Jewish revival, welcomed the government's endowment. The California resident said it follows years of efforts to restore "one of the most significant Jewish historical sites in Europe."

"It is truly a milestone that the Polish government has committed the needed funds to protect the cemetery and the rich heritage it represents," Taube said.

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