(2) Working in Cemeteries in D.C. and Poland

The recently partially-restored Jewish cemetery in Tarnow, Poland

Cemeteries can be very introspective places. They are often very quiet; separated from the outside world, with birds chirping and only the occasional sound of cars driving by or muted conversations. Cemeteries are also full of symbolism and emotion; family histories that cover decades and multiple generations. With every grave photographed and documented, I, along with others doing similar work, am able to preserve a bit of that history. 

The eight fellows along with our group leaders from JewishGen, Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and The Matzevah Foundation, standing inside the cleared section of the Przysucha Jewish Cemetery beside the oldest standing matzevah in the cemetery, which is from 1771.

In a brief pause from my internship, two weeks ago I flew to Warsaw, Poland, as part of a fellowship of 8 participants at various points in our academic and professional careers. The fellowship, a collaboration between JewishGen, Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and The Matzevah Foundation, was an opportunity to learn about the long history of Jewish communities in Poland and to explore current efforts to preserve said communities’ stories. A central focus of the fellowship was the role of Jewish cemeteries in Poland as essential proof of the existence of Jewish life in areas now lacking any Jewish presence. As a climax of the trip, our group was joined by additional volunteers from The Matzevah Foundation to clean up a 250-year-old cemetery in Przysucha, Poland.

The gate to the Jewish cemetery in Przysucha, Poland. Most of the fence was not visible from a distance, with a similar level of plant life having grown on the outside perimeter as within the gate.

When we first arrived at the cemetery, it seemed like an impossible job. The area was so overgrown that it looked like a fenced-in forest, and we had little-to-no expectations of finding any matzevot (gravestones). Yet, the more we chopped and dragged, the more we uncovered. Inside the entrance to the cemetery was the first surprise, a pile of matzevah fragments; broken pieces of gravestones. Some had writing on them or showed imagery such as candlesticks or lions (often used on the graves of people whose names translate to “lion” in English, including Arye or Leyb).  As we continued into the cemetery, we found several fully-preserved stones, a small insight into what the cemetery may have looked like in its prime before the war. 

Before this trip, I had an idea in my head of what a cemetery was. Even cemeteries in the US that are less cared-for have a certain look to them: rows and rows of stones, sometimes shoved together with little space in between; sometimes so worn by weather for so many years that they are unreadable, but still there as proof of what has been. The Przysucha cemetery once looked like that, but now there is little left, and what remains is a selection of puzzles with the pieces missing, most likely never to be recovered. Having experienced what can become of such a cemetery, once full of beautifully carved matzevot, the work I am doing to document graves in historic cemeteries in Washington D.C. feels all the more inspiring. As I return to my internship at the Capital Jewish Museum, I am renewed in my enthusiasm to preserve not only Jewish history abroad but also here at home. 

The fact that I was able to attend this fellowship says everything to me about the work environment at my internship this summer. During my very first interview for the position, I mentioned to my now-supervisor that I had applied for this fellowship (at the time I had not yet been accepted). His response: That sounds like a wonderful opportunity! He explained to me that not only did he think it was an excellent program, but that the museum values additional learning opportunities, and he encouraged me to take time away not only for the fellowship, but also for speakers, walking tours, or anything else that came up. This intention for learning, which I value greatly, makes a lot of sense in a museum workspace, where so much of the work is around creating a learning environment for others. In many ways, this internship is helping me figure out what kind of work environment I am looking for and what kind of work I would like to be doing.