Remains from a Jewish cemetery in the Polish town of Siemiatycze were unearthed and dumped in a pile by a private company doing construction on the site. Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich labeled the incident “the worst and most blatant case of desecration” in his 17 years in Poland.
Last week, Rabbi Schudrich was alerted to the construction by a local resident who lives near the site where the dirt, laden with bones, was being dumped, nearly two miles from the construction site. The next day, a representative of the organization responsible for Poland’s many Jewish cemeteries arrived at the site and confirmed the report.
Most troublesome, Rabbi Schudrich told Hamodia, is the fact that local officials had been warned not to permit building in the area.
“I came here three or four years ago when they were planning to put up a cell phone tower here and told the mayor, ‘If you dig here, you’re going to find bones and what you are going to have is a scandal and a tragedy.’ At that point, they moved the project somewhere else,” he said. “This is the first time that we warned a town to be careful and they completely ignored us … It’s particularly frustrating since it’s still the same mayor we’re dealing with.”
Police and local prosecutors were contacted immediately and an investigation is ongoing.
An official with the local authorities, Bogumila Kazimierczak, insisted that the building work did not take place on the grounds of the Jewish cemetery, but on already-developed land that is managed by an automobile association.
The mayor’s office had no information indicating that construction there should be prohibited, Mr. Kazimierczak said.
As with many cemeteries in Poland, Siemiatycze’s was stripped of its headstones at some point during Communist rule. A Polish law regarding communal property that belonged to Jewish communities before the Holocaust mandated the transfer of part of the cemetery to the Jewish community. Most of Siemiatycze’s burial ground was fenced off, but the small portion that has now been dug up remained in private hands.
According to reports, the construction had been ongoing for three weeks prior to its being revealed to Jewish communal authorities. Bricks have been laid on the spot as part of a planned parking lot. The piles of dirt, filled with easily identifiable remains, were placed at a location two miles away.
“It’s absolutely horrible,” said Rabbi Schudrich. “It’s impossible they did not see what they were digging up. I can’t imagine any good explanation for what they did here.”
Rabbi Schudrich has met with higher level municipal and federal authorities and hopes the dirt can be returned to the original spot where it lay.
“The federal government is very upset about what happened and understands that we have to find a way to fix this terrible tragedy,” he said. “In general, they have been very supportive on these types of issues and have only become more so as more awareness spreads.”
On eve of the Second World War, Siemiatycze had a community of some 7,000 Jews. Only 70 were believed to have survived the war and today none remain.
Rabbi Schudrich said that upkeep of Poland’s many Jewish cemeteries is a continuous challenge.
“The fundamental problem is there were 1,400 cemeteries in Poland in 1939, but then there were Jews in all these towns to care for them. Now, there are no fewer cemeteries than then, but for the small community that still remains here, to care for all of them properly is very difficult,” he said.
With reporting by Associated Press
Updated Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 5:24 pm