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On a Mission in Poland
Written by Jennifer Frieze, Correspondent
2019-08-07

            August marks an infamous event in history that many of us have forgotten. In 1943, Bialystok Poland, and uprising occurred against Nazi occupation. During 

Iva Gardner restoring a reset gravestone.  The markers

are ornate and hold symbolic meanings.  It is a deeply

emotinal experience for all the volunteers that part-

icipate in the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Project

this period, a sacred resting place of the Jewish people was destroyed.

            Iva Gardner of East Greenville was deeply moved when she became aware of a non-profit organization doing their part to right a wrong that played out decades ago.

            The Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Project began in 2015 as a personal quest by one couple, Amy and Josh Degen. Their mission is to salvage and restore desecrated headstones in Bagnowka Cemetery in Bialystok, Poland. Their vision has grown into an international commitment to reestablish the remnants of a once thriving Jewish community. This cemetery was the final resting place for members of the largest Jewish community in Europe. Approximately 35,000 Jewish people were buried in the hallow ground from 1892-1941.

            This writer was kindly invited into the home of Iva Gardner and had the pleasure of speaking with Iva about her personal story and family history. Iva was born in Brooklyn, New York and later moved to Long Island when she was eight-years-old. She received her Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Boston University and then a Masters degree in alternative models of education from Lowell University.

            Iva married and worked her dream job as a teacher in Groton, Massachusetts. She has three children and five grandchildren. After divorcing her first husband, she married her high school sweetheart Perrin Wechsler and moved to the Upper Perkiomen Valley two years ago. Perrin has lived in the area for 20 years.  

            To honor her parents, Iva practiced the Jewish faith and taught it to her children. She didn't know much about her ancestors, but she knew they were from Poland. Her grandmother arrived in America in 1910 and in 1920 her great grandparents arrived. Jagodnik is the Polish spelling of her paternal grandfather's name. It was changed to Yagodnick when he entered port of entry to America. Siemiatyezia is the name of Iva's maternal grandmother. It was changed to Smith when she arrived from Poland.

It is painstaking work lifting and resetting the gravestones.  Locals of Bialystok offer

assistance by providing heavy machinery to move the grave markers.  There is no wat-

er available in the cemetery and it must be brought in to clean the stones.

 

            Iva was watching a video about the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Project when she noticed the name Siemiatyezia written in Hebrew, on a headstone in the cemetery. The stone is hidden in the forest that has now claimed part of the cemetery. When Iva read her family name on the stone, she was compelled to journey to Poland.

            In order to tell Iva's story in completion, historical events must also be told.

            The Jewish people played integral roles throughout history. They assimilated into various societies and still maintained their cultural identity. They were intellectuals, merchants, bankers and farmers. A resourceful and proud people, the Jews often became instrumental to the societies in which they lived. Unfortunately, the Jewish people were not always appreciated for their contribution and have been chased all over the world in an attempt to escape ethnic persecution.

            In 1939, global politics were in turmoil. Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Bialystok, a city in northeastern Poland, was assigned as a Soviet zone of occupation. In September of 1939, Soviet forces entered Bialystok, and held it until the German army occupied the city in 1941, which followed the Nazi German occupation of the Soviet Union.

            During German Occupation, the Einsatzgruppe detachments and Order Police battalions began to round up and kill thousands of Jews living in Bialystok. Before the Nazis invaded, Jewish people were an integral part of life in Bialystok and made up almost 70% of the population. Today, only one Jewish person lives in the city.

            In August 1941, the Nazis ordered and established a ghetto for the Jews living in the city of Bialystok. Approximately 50,000 Jews were forced into this small area of the city. Most of the Jews were forced to work in textile factories within this designated area. Some were used by the Germans in forced labor outside the barbwire fences of the ghetto.

            In February 1943, the German Nazis deported close to 10,000 Jewish people to the Treblinka killing center. Those that were deemed too weak to work were killed immediately. 

            In Bialystok Poland, August 1943, a massive deportation of Jewish people was still underway. The Nazi regime was in full force to eradicate anyone that did not fit their profile of a perfect Aryan. There was a force of Jewish uprising and the Nazis sensed it. The Nazis began to plan the systematic eradication of the Bialystok ghetto. German forces and local police auxiliaries began to round up Jews to be sent to Treblinka killing center. From there, thousands of Jewish people were sent to Maydanek, Poniatowa, Blizyn, or Auschwitz death camps.

            Over 1,000 Jewish children were taken from their parents and sent to a Theresienstadt ghetto in Bohemia. These children were then sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.

            During the August 1943 deportations, the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people persisted. The Bialystok ghetto underground staged an uprising against their German oppressors. Fighting in the northeastern section of the ghetto lasted five days. Many Jews died in the fight. About 100 Jews lived through the event and joined forces with partisan groups in Bialystok.

            In 1944, the Soviet army liberated the city of Bialystok, but the damage had already been done. During the height of Nazi occupation of Poland, acts of destruction played out in an attempt to eradicate any indication that the Jewish people ever existed. In the process of the Nazis claiming Bialystok, they destroyed the Bialystok Cemetery. Sending a strong message, the Nazi regime drove their tanks over the resting place of thousands of Jewish souls.  

            Fast forward to 2015, and the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Project was born.  Dedicated volunteers spend a week in Bialystok cleaning and erecting fallen ornate tombstones. During this time, there is an annual Uprising Ceremony commemorating the brave Jews that fought against the Nazis. Visitors of the ceremony take a walk through the cemetery as volunteers from the project rehabilitate the sacred space. Often they look for their ancestors names.

            The project is rewarding on many levels. Iva explained, "Spiritually it feels like a sacred task to restore the resting place and memorial of a lost soul. Last summer when three different visitors to the cemetery found the graves of their lost family members, it was a deeply emotional experience for them. It was also deeply emotional for me and for everyone who had worked to find that gravestone, scrub, restore and reset it, and witness the "reunion". To know that I am doing my small part to right a wrong, to undo the effort to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth makes me feel like I am honoring my own family".

            Last year, as Iva was working on a headstone, a woman passed by and touched her shoulder and thanked her for her work. Iva couldn't understand why the woman was thanking her. Iva felt it was an honor. "I felt so privileged to be cleaning the stone of a woman's life cut short", she said.

            As we move through our daily activities, we can take a moment to reflect on the beauty and freedom we are able to enjoy. We should never forget or turn a blind eye to any atrocity that has taken place or is still in motion. Thousands of sentient beings suffer because they simply exist. We should practice gratitude and send loving thoughts to any wandering soul that may have lost their way home.

            If you would like to get involved, donate or desire more information on the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Project visit http://bialystokcemeteryrestoration.org


 

 

 

 

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