MATZEVOT: DOORS TO THE PAST; PORTALS TO THE FUTURE

The importance of guarding and keeping heritage, no matter in what form, is a communal responsibility. Yesterday reminded me that it is also a personal one that is not mitigated over time.
Reflection by Helise Lieberman, Taube Center's Director

Yesterday, as a great-grandchild of Shmuel and Jetty Glasner, residents of Bielsko-Biala (then the twin towns of Bielitz and Biala divided by a common river in Austro-Hungary), a myriad of emotions swept over me as I took part in an interfaith ceremony in the city’s Jewish Cemetery. 

On Shabbat morning (June 26), three youths (aged 12 and 13) vandalized 65 gravestones.  I have seen many pictures of purposely destroyed matzevot, been horrified and angry, concerned and perplexed. But, never had I actually seen the toppled and broken stones, with the names of those they memorialized, scratched, and defiled.

As the director of the Jewish community of Bielsko-Biala introduced us to each of those interred, the magnitude of the desecration became more real and more personal. Many of these people were contemporaries of my family members, part of the Jewish community, parents and professionals, citizens of the city.

I wondered what motivated the three children, who have since confessed, to carry out such a scheme, which required physical strength and  a lot of determination. But, as I walked through the cemetery, guided by the caretaker, to visit the matzevah of Shmuel Yehuda Glasner, my overwhelming thought was about how this carefully maintained cemetery – a beit chaim, a house of life – could be subjected to such vile and senseless acts.

Through an arch in the cemetery wall, I emerged into a small area with beautiful matzevot, which had evaded the desecration. Each was neatly numbered as they marked the graves of Jews buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Biala, which had closed in 1966 and the land unfortuntely repurposed. Less than two hundred of the engraved markers survived, and were re-erected in the Bielsko Cemetery.  One of them was that of my great grandfather.  

In my work as the director of the Taube Center, I often make such encounters possible for others visiting their ancestors and family towns during a tour of Jewish Poland. But, yesterday, I wasn't an enabler. I was the enabled one.  I learned from the epitaph that Shmuel was a quiet and honorable man, a good father, and a good provider who lived his faith.  I am lucky to have inherited  some of the paintings and portraits by his talented artist son, Jakub, who was murdered during the Holocaust.  Like the matzevah, they are a lasting memorial.

The prayers recited by Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and local clerics in solidarity were a most welcome way to start the healing process. Now is the time to find out what was the intention of the three who defiled the sacred space. Now is the time to engage those responsible and their peers in repairing the damage and taking care of sections of the cemetery on an ongoing basis. Tikkun (repair) is not limited only to addressing the physical damage. It is about changing attitudes and behavior. It is now time to work with the city and its schools, churches, and community centers. Not because it is a “crisis moment”, but because it is an ongoing obligation to foster respect and to focus on transmitting the values of lives lived and the sanctity of a Jewish cemetery. 

As significant steps in the right direction, we applaud and support the actions of the Jewish community board and crowdfunding efforts now underway by local artists and residents. 

After the formal ceremony, two friends, Rabbi Schudrich and Jakub Lysiak, the Taube Center's general manager, accompanied me as I visited my great grandfather's gravestone. Michael recited El Male Rachamim and Jakub handed me a stone to put on the matzevah.

It was not a moment of closure, but rather an opening. 

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