Valley man guides effort to restore Polish cemetery

Cows no longer graze in the Jewish cemetery in Lomza, Poland.

The dead who occupy the cemetery can rest in peace again, in part through the efforts of Phoenix resident George Puchall.

Since a 1978 trip to his birthplace – his first visit in 43 years – Puchall has wanted to clean up the town’s Jewish cemetery. He was shocked at conditions in the graveyard. Cows wandered through it, grazing on overgrown weeds. Tombstones with almost illegible engravings had been knocked over or sunk into the earth.

Before World War II, 11,000 Jews lived in Lomza. The community had a yeshiva, several synagogues and a Yiddish newspaper, Puchall says. Although a few Jewish residents fled the Nazis, most were killed in the town or perished in the death camps.

The cemetery is all that remains of the Jews of Lomza.

For years, Puchall was haunted by what he had seen.

Before a 1991 return trip, he sought help from Jewish organizations in finding contacts in Poland who might be able to help clean up the cemetery. From one of these contacts, he learned that relatives of Chaim Herzog, then president of Israel, were buried in the cemetery. He wrote letters to Herzog, and with Herzog’s influence, successfully arranged an initial cleanup in 1992.

Puchall paid unemployed Poles $1,300 to do the work.

In 1994, Puchall’s wife, Rose, was stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He quit his job as a management consultant to care for her until her death in 1996, and during that time he put the cemetery restoration “on a back burner.” He learned, through correspondence from acquaintances who visited Lomza, that the cemetery was slowly becoming neglected again.

Then in February 1998, Puchall received a letter from Gerald Bender, a Jewish judge in Chicago, who had come across Puchall’s name while researching the Lomza cemetery. In his letter, Bender explained that his father had been born in Lomza, and that some of his ancestors were buried in the town’s Jewish cemetery.

Puchall learned that Bender had formed a friendship with Marek Kaminski, a Polish Catholic physician in Wisconsin he had met coincidentally through mutual business contacts.

According to Puchall, Kaminski had grown up in Lomza and moved to the United States in 1979. He visits family in Lomza every year and retains his residency there. An article in a 1999 Polish newspaper article states that Kaminski had no idea that the Jewish cemetery existed even though he was born and brought up in the town.

The article reported Kaminski’s words: “I was devastated and ashamed, not only because I was born there, but as a human being.”

Bender and Kaminski agreed to start a foundation to raise funds to renovate the cemetery, Puchall says. During a visit there in February 1999, Kaminski hired workers to cut down tall bushes that had grown on the site. As bushes were removed, hundreds of tombstones became visible. Last year, the Lomza Jewish Cemetery Foundation was officially registered as a nonprofit foundation with the Internal Revenue Service.

In July 1999, Puchall, Bender and Kaminski met in Lomza. In a visit with Vice-Mayor Janusz Nowakowski, they learned that the town had posted signs declaring the Jewish cemetery to be an historical site and warning that any damage there would be punishable under the Historical Site Preservation Law. The town also replaced the roof and installed the doors on one of the original cemetery’s buildings.

The cemetery has approximately 500 graves with headstones and numerous unmarked graves, according to foundation literature. Most of the headstones are damaged and need to be lifted back into position.

So far, the cemetery has undergone a thorough and intensive cleaning. The next goal is to raise and repair 100 headstones, if there is sufficient funding, Puchall says.

The foundation has contracted with a family that lives in the original funeral home building to maintain the cemetery. Kaminski’s brother-in-law resides in Lomza and monitors the restoration process, which will resume in the spring once the weather is warm, says Puchall.

Puchall plans to meet Bender and Kaminski in Lomza in July to check the progress of the renovation.

Puchall says that the Poles currently living in Lomza have shown respect for the renovation. “The newer generation is tremendously interested in what went on and in the remnants of the Jewish culture. People respect it.” There has been no vandalism, he says.

The primary goal of the foundation, according to Puchall, is “to restore the cemetery and show respect for the final resting place of the deceased,” but it also is a way “to bring about better relations between Poles and Jews.”

This article first appeared in the March 3, 2000 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. 

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