Rescuing Their Memory

Asked about how to get to Wińsko, Natala sends me a detailed railway timetable. She offers to pick me up at the station in Ścinawa, and gives me a ride to the cemetery. She says not to worry about anything, as she will also take me back to the station at the end of my visit.

Natala, who is 24, looks modest, but confident. The driver is her husband, Marcin. We first head for the cemetery in Ścinawa. I’m impressed: small cemeteries are rarely so well-tended in Poland. Wait until you see mine, she says.

I sit in the back of their car, and listen.

She points to a clump of trees, saying: There’s another cemetery over there. I went there with my mom once, and I immediately felt an affinity to it. My mom asked me to promise her

I wouldn’t clear this one, too. I love cemeteries. I’m not sure why, but seeing a piece of an old wall gives me a major adrenaline rush. I need to see it, touch it.

We finally arrive at the cemetery in Wińsko.

Beautifully located on a small hill, it is surrounded by diggers, cars and workmen busy clearing the forest. The intense green of the mown grass dazzles my eyes. There’s an informational plaque at the gate in Polish and Hebrew. Who did this? I ask. Natala smiles but doesn’t answer.

I’ve been coming here as long as I can remember, she says.

One day, when the fourteen-year-old Natala and her mom had to force their way through the thickets, she took it on herself to look after the cemetery.

Just like that?

Just like that.

A teenager comes to a cemetery with her mother, and says that from now on she’s going to take care of it?

That’s how I am.

What did your mom say about all this?

I don’t remember, but I suppose she didn’t believe I would pull it off. Maybe that’s also why she wasn’t really against it. Although she’s never been involved in what we do for the cemetery, I’ve always had her support. She never disagreed with me, or forbid me to work here. Ten years ago, there were only thick bushes and weeds growing here. It was difficult for me to be here on my own, so my mom came with me. She just sat here and kept me company. I owe her a lot. That’s why, knowing the great amount of time and labor I dedicated to this place, she wanted me to promise that I wouldn’t take another cemetery under my care.

And so she visited the cemetery with her mother or alone. She underwent an appendectomy during the first summer at the cemetery and was unable to do any hard work. In fact, the place was so overgrown with bushes that lighter work, such as raking up leaves, was impossible, anyway. Though she knew it would be very time-consuming, Natala started off by writing down the names and compiling a partial inventory of the cemetery. It was an uphill struggle.

Natala told her mom she was saving up to have some of the bushes removed so that she could get to the headstones. It just so happened that the manager of the public utility company responsible for the cemetery was her mom’s school friend. He said he deeply cared about the spot and that if her daughter was willing to do something about it, she could count on his help. He kept his promise and organized a group of unemployed locals to assist with the heavier work. They soon disposed of a huge tree trunk that had fallen over long ago and removed heaps of bushes.

In the end, she didn’t have to spend her pocket money, but that’s irrelevant now. She’s never tried to acquire any funding or labor for the cemetery. She says these things have always worked out all by themselves. Soon after the tree falling,

a radio journalist came to interview her, and now she’s talking to “Chidusz”.

She did everything here: raked the leaves, pulled up weeds, removed wild bushes. Two years of hard work finally paid off and she managed to grow beautiful green grass. Since they became a couple, Marcin has been helping her with all the work. It is usually enough to come by once every two weeks, although there’s much more work in the summer, when the grass needs to be mowed more often. They bought and planted the grass by themselves.

They don’t brag about it. I need to get everything out of them. There was no mower available for the cemetery work, so they bought one.

We’ve put this place in such good shape that we’re now able to come here once in a while and tidy it up in a few hours.

He: We’ve been married for two years, and I have been supporting her all this time.

She, smiling broadly: it was much cheaper to get married than to hire a team to work here. Before Marcin and I decided to be together, three quarters of all the matzevot were on the ground, face-down.

Take Richard Schlesinger, for example. He must weigh at least half a ton, she remarks, pointing to a massive stone. We get closer. A moment’s inattention and Marcin finds himself standing on the grave. Natala kindly asks him to get off.

I like Richard very much, Marcin picked him up.

Once, gazing intently at this matzevah, I told Marcin this surely was something special, that it was a wonderful headstone and that we had to put it up again. I was attached to my family name (Negler – which is Jewish, by the way) so much so that I had serious doubts if I wanted to take Marcin’s last name after we got married. We made a deal: if he managed to put this matzevah up, I would take the name Bartczak.

Marcin asked his brother and cousin for help and they managed to put Richard upright.

So she owes her last name to Richard Schlesinger, who is standing up again, thanks to her husband.

He brings a piece of a matzevah he’s just found. She recognizes it immediately; it’s on her inventory list. Natala takes the piece, turns it around and tries to fit it in. Gets a bit dirty in the process. She always gets dirty here.

Someone has just got a piece of their matzevah back.

The cemetery is full of gravestones they’ve put together, some of them consisting of as many as several dozen pieces. She says she has a gift that allows her to see what goes where. After all, she’s an archaeologist.

This really was a garbage tip, she says; lots of jars, plastic, glass, bottles, cans, building material of all sorts. Everything. This quasi-sarcophagus was lying on its side. Marcin and his friends put it upright and it’s standing on top of its foundation again. It no longer lies on the ground face-down.

We take a stroll around the cemetery. Natala has a lot to say about each and every stone here. This matzevah consists of fifteen pieces that we’ve put together. We found some of them at the bottom of an open grave. Marcin got inside and took the matzevah out, she says, pointing to a colossal gravestone that weighs well over half a ton.

It does weigh a lot, but they just had to take it out.

They pried it off the ground using a lever, a three-meter pipe. He lifted the stone up and she put bricks under it. They got the matzevah higher and higher off the ground until they were finally able to put it upright.

Everything they do seems so obvious and natural. You get the impression that bringing old Jewish cemeteries to their former glory is an everyday thing for Natala and Marcin.

When something required more hands, they got their friends to help and did maintenance work together.

And that’s Max Schlesinger. Actually, it’s Moshe. They used a digger to take his gigantic matzevah, in the shape of a cut-down tree, off the ground. The machine couldn’t do it. Even the monuments in the big Jewish cemeteries – on Ślężna Street in Wrocław and on Okopowa Street in Warsaw – are dwarfed by this immense matzevah-tree.

It was Natala’s dream to get it standing again. She found a slab that could be fixed to a tree in a grave; she found all the pieces and put them all together. It’s over here, she says, pointing to an elaborately arranged mosaic.

Thanks to Marcin’s work, the impressive headstones are no longer rotting in the earth.

This stone over here was also lying face down. I was still in junior high, she recounts, when we managed to lift it off the ground – four teenage girls and a boy. But it was Marcin who eventually managed to put it upright. Its condition was really getting worse and worse because of the rain.

My passion infects other people. I once took my University friends to the cemetery on Okopowa Street. Jewish cemeteries attract Poles.

Later we’re joined by Stanisława Borodacz, the headmistress of a school in nearby Wołów. She managed to assemble a group of children and local residents from Wołów and Wińsko that were ready to get involved. She found sponsors to pay for gas for string trimmers, work gloves and mineral water. And she did all this in three days.

They gathered a 130-strong team of children, police officers and medical personnel. Everyone did their job. Men cleared the thickets with mowers, saws and axes. Children packed the cut-off twigs into plastic bags and helped remove them.

Given how well they did, the forester said, they could certainly do much more than that. He promised to create an ecological and historical route.

But it was Natala who ignited that flame. Full of admiration for Ms. Borodacz’s work, Natala has made it a point of honor to put the forest in such good shape that people will be able to enjoy this special place while strolling down the path that was once the route for funeral processions.

They finally succeeded. They threw away well over 300 bags of garbage. The forester promised to plow up the entire area and plant grass there by the end of the following March. The work had to be done quickly as no one is allowed to enter the forest from April until fall because of the incubation period for birds. More and more people are flocking here already. But the work is far from finished. The cemetery is only one of the few monuments that survived in Wińsko. You can’t forget, she says, that this area was inhabited by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews before the war. There’s a huge potential in people, you just need to reach out to them.

When she launched this campaign, Natala felt as if she was born again. We did similar things when we were children, but the cemetery was different then: it was completely fenced off so we only could get inside by jumping over the wall. We didn’t do it often but we did clean up the surrounding forest.

Together, we are strong and have great potential, but we’d fallen asleep. This young woman woke us up, and continues to motivate us to do more and more.

A civic group has been established to get a road built here to make it safer for the visitors. Hundreds of people have already gotten involved, and it all started with Natala. Since we cleaned up the forest, people have no longer been dumping their garbage here.

Rather than a large development project, they’d decided to plant grass or anything natural, as long as it doesn’t overgrow. So that people don’t forget again.

The cover was inside the well, Natala says. They thought they’d find more gravestones there, so Marcin got inside and took everything out; this huge original concrete cover, for instance. He also found some pieces of the blue matzevah they’re now putting together by the fence.

The most exciting part is unearthing new headstone fragments. She adores Bernard. You can also see the meticulously carved fingernails of the Kohen’s hands as he makes the blessing that is typical of the headstones put up for descendants of Aaron.

I approach Natala as she’s trying to put some stone pieces together. She turns around and points to three pieces of a matzevah that was originally placed on the foundation beside her. This is my latest discovery, she says, bursting with pride.

I now understand that this is, indeed, her cemetery.

Natala admits she’s been deeply attached to it for the last 10 years and that she loves it, as awkward as this may sound. She’s spent many long hours of her life tending this place. When she was very tired, she could find a moment of rest relaxing on the meadow nearby. Hard work has helped to bring out the best in her character. Equipped with a hoe, Natala still strolls round the cemetery uncovering new pieces and finding the strength to put them together – after all, she’s an archaeologist, and this is something that runs in her blood.  ■


» first published in April 2014

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