It’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Warsaw to Przerośl, Poland, but native Philadelphian Brian Wartell didn’t mind making the trek to the town, where a small Jewish community once thrived.
“I’ve been doing genealogy work as a hobby for about 10 years,” said Wartell, who’s seeking an environmental engineering Ph.D. at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “I know my great-great-grandfather and his father were born in Przerośl.”
A couple of years ago, Wartell started looking for Jewish cemeteries in the area. Many had been destroyed, but there was one in Przerośl that was still in existence, though in very rough shape. Wartell decided to make that cemetery’s restoration his goal.
Last month, Wartell, Cantor Bernard Lowe of Adath Israel in Merion Station and six others made the trip to Przerośl to begin the restoration process. The cemetery grounds had essentially become a forest, with trees and high grass covering the few barely visible headstones. And that wasn’t all.
“We thought it was one of the few cemeteries left intact from the war,” said Wartell. “We found out the third day cleaning up [that] the Nazis had looted the cemetery. A man told us he had found 30 headstones in a house he bought and planted them back in the ground in the ’90s. They’re the ones in the clearing where we were working. We found 23 of them, in addition to five to 10 sunken ones.”
But Wartell knew there had been hundreds of people buried there. “Of the graves we uncovered, a lot of them weren’t legible and none have last names.”
For four days, the eight volunteers and two local workers pruned trees, whacked weeds and cut down grass that was a foot-and-a-half tall, as well as general cleanup. Wartell, 32, said the experience was bittersweet.
“I never thought I’d have a chance to be able go back where my family used to live,” Wartell said. “But it was a little bit of a disappointment not to find any stones pertaining to my ancestors and less stones than I thought overall.
“What was amazing, though, was to learn the history and connect with so many individuals and know there’s going to be continuous work on the cemetery. They want me to come back next year. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it. Maybe I’ll come back in five years and see the progress they’ve made. But it was an incredible experience, which is going to be a huge part of me.”
The trip was led by Hatte Blejer, who organized the initial effort to collect money to help defray costs for the repairs. They left June 26, and began the trip against the backdrop of the famed Warsaw Ghetto. Aside from the work at Przerośl, they toured the Polish Jewish community and celebrated Shabbat in Warsaw.
“I got to see a lot,” said Wartell, who had never been to Poland. “We were able to go to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which was an amazing experience. We saw the markings on the sidewalks where it says ‘ghetto wall.’ It was an experience I’ll never forget.”
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