Polish Art Project Marks Sites of Vanished Jewish Cemeteries

An ethnologist and photographer are trying to recover a lost chapter of Poland’s past by marking the sites of now vanished Jewish cemeteries with transparent ‘headstones’ and taking photographs of them.The plexiglass installations bear laser-etched epitaphs in Hebrew to those believed to have been buried at the site.Poland was home to more than three million Jews before World War Two, one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, but the vast majority were killed by Nazi German occupiers who set up death camps such as Auschwitz on Polish soil.Next Monday world leaders including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will join some of the dwindling number of survivors at Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.Ethnologist Katarzyna Kopecka and photographer Piotr Pawlak travel around Poland searching for the sites of former Jewish cemeteries in their ‘Currently Absent’ project.“This is a bit like bringing back roots that have been destroyed, but life is stronger than the entire attempt at destruction,” said Pawlak. “We can bring some memory back.”The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw says on its website there are 1,164 Jewish cemeteries in Poland, but more than half of them have no tombstones left.Kopecka said they got the idea for the project after they discovered they were unwittingly sitting in an area that was actually a cemetery.“Whether it’s a field, or something else, these places are usually neglected,” said Kopecka, who plans to visit some 200 such sites with Pawlak for their project.DESCENDANTS’ INTERESTKopecka said they often work with local authorities to determine the site of a former cemetery, but even they sometimes cannot locate it, forcing her and Pawlak to rely on guesswork.The plexiglass installations are removed after they have been photographed.The pictures have been displayed in Poland’s parliament and in cultural centers around the country.“We have people contacting us whose ancestors were buried in these cemeteries and they ask when we’ll be going to a particular location,” Kopecka said.“They tell us the name of the place, they would like to obtain a photo because they’ve never been to Poland, and here rest their grandfathers, great-grandfathers, aunts and uncles.”The duo plan to publish a book of their photos and to make a documentary on the cemeteries which would also feature descendants of those buried there.