There are over 1,400 Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Many, both in and out of this country, have pursued the cause of safeguarding these places, so meaningful to us all. We continue in our commitment to the preservation and maintenance of the unique protected areas these Jewish cemeteries constitute, an enormous challenge we seek to address by engaging local authorities, central administration, tour guides, teachers, local residents and donors.
The local Jewish communities, the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland are the institutions which provide for the maintenance and protection of Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
The status of Jewish cemeteries
The first mention of a Jewish burial is to be found in the Book of Bereishit (Genesis), when after the death of his wife Sarai, Abraham bought a piece of land in which to bury her (Bereishit 23:2-20). In the Jewish tradition, the cemetery is created at the moment of purchase of a lot of land for burial purposes; that land obtains its special status even before the first burial.
In Judaism both the spiritual and the physical are deemed holy. The soul is the source of holiness, while the body is a vessel of that holiness. According to the Jewish tradition and law, human body remains holy even after death and remains so until the Judgment Day. Therefore the bones of the departed remain inviolable. The tradition holds that the soul and body remain connected even after death; therefore, if the bones here on Earth are violated, the peace of the soul in Heaven is also violated. Bodies of the deceased must be buried in the ground (which excludes their cremation and leaving above ground) and remain there undisturbed. This is the reason why Judaism strictly forbids disinterment of remains, except in special and extraordinary cases.
Only non-invasive research methods are compatible with the Jewish tradition. The tools available in recreating the historical borders of cemeteries or identifying the burial zones include: synchronisation of pre-war maps, synchronisation of Second World War aerial photographs, and 3-D ground-penetrating radar surveying. On-site inspections are still the basic research tool; it involves checking the area for any remains of pre-war surrounding walls or other cemetery facilities. Archaeological excavations are allowed only in exceptional circumstances.
The Rabbinical Commission for Jewish Cemeteries in Poland performs its functions alongside the local Jewish community structures. Its mission is that of preservation of the cemeteries within their historical (i.e. pre-war) borders. From the halakhic perspective, a cemetery is defined by the presence of human remains, irrespective of the fact whether the external signs of a Jewish burial ground had been destroyed, its boundaries blurred or it had been built over. That is why the Commission pays so much attention to ensuring that these cemeteries are once again fenced within their original boundaries, and that no grave is overlooked. In addition to the traditional cemeteries, the Commission’s mandate encompasses individual Jewish burials outside the cemeteries, the death camps and mass graves.
We demand that the integrity of Jewish cemeteries be respected, and specifically that the following works not be undertaken within their borders:
Digging in the ground;
Heavy equipment entry (unless at the Commission’s specific consent);
Removal of tree and shrub roots;
Excavation of buried tombstones;
Arbitrarily bone burial;
Excavation under cemetery walls or fences;
Opening of graves.
According to the Jewish tradition, matzevot belong to the deceased and therefore, if found removed elsewhere, should be returned to the cemetery of origin. There is no endorsement for the resetting of such displaced matzevot in a way that would mimic their original setting, i.e. suggestive of them being back in the original place of a burial. Moreover, no overturned, overgrown or sunken tombstones within the confines of a cemetery are to be dug up, raised or reset. In short, all actions that may disturb the human bones resting under the soil surface are forbidden. Tombstone renovation, maintenance and care must comply with the architectural conservation standards and consulted with the Commission whenever any doubt arises.