How I found life in a graveyard
Visiting Poland gave me a poignant link to my roots - and hope for the future
Bundists, Communists, Zionists, Orthodox, Reform. All are represented in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe with 250,000 graves spread across 33 acres of what has become tangled woodland in the centre of Poland’s capital. I visited the cemetery last week when I took time out from my official programme of meetings and speeches for a private visit into my own past.
The size is not the only remarkable aspect of the cemetery. I visited it in bright, hot sunlight but underfoot it was predominantly a mulch of leaves and branches piled on a cross-hatching of gravestones, broken up by a number of paved rows.
A quarter of the graves have been documented over the past seven years by the single, indefatigable curator, Przemyslaw Israel Szpilman, who showed me round. He is determined to have all 250,000 names registered in the next few years. There are writers and teachers, doctors and dentists, artists and musicians, businesspeople and trade unionists, and of course rabbis, all speaking to a remarkable tapestry of Jewish life in Poland.
One of the most poignant parts of the cemetery is that containing the mass graves of those who died in the ghetto. And of course the dates on all the gravestones stop in 1942. A thousand years of history brought to a crashing halt with the mass deportation of Warsaw’s Jews to their deaths.
By 1945, only 250,000 of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews had survived the Holocaust. One of them was my mother. She was born in Czestochowa. My father’s parents were also born in Poland but left for Belgium after the First World War. Many of their relatives are buried in the Warsaw cemetery. Sixteen Milibands, Milebands, and Milenbands have been found so far, going back to the early part of the 19th century.
This was my first visit to Poland. There must have been a deep ambivalence at the heart of this delay. Poland is my roots. But Poland is the scene of terrible tragedy — mass murder on an unimaginable scale. This counterpoint — normality and tragedy, centuries of construction and a decade of destruction, heroism alongside sadism — is at the heart of the new Museum of Polish Jews that begins construction on June 30, on a site in the heart of the former Warsaw Ghetto (www.shtetl.org.pl ).
The haunting void where once was the ghetto seems permanently wrestling with present and past —when I visited, dog walkers were to be found alongside an Israeli art group.
The museum, with the construction costs met by the Polish government, seeks to tell the story of Polish Jewry and, in the process, contribute to the building of a modern, truthful and confident Polish identity. So the exhibition will have one eighth of its space devoted to the Holocaust and it will tell an inseparable story of Poland and its Jews.
I met the representatives of Poland’s now small Jewish community, scholars from Poland and the US advising on the museum, and Holocaust survivors, all working to ensure that reliable memory contributes to safer future.
The conditions are more propitious than for many years. Five years after its entry into the EU, Poland seems at ease with itself and at ease with its modern role in Europe. The Europeanisation of Poland has proceeded alongside the renewal and rebalancing of the European project so that, for example, it is more hard-headed in its relationships with Russia.
Thirty-nine years ago, Willy Brandt knelt in front of the imposing memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. He set off a chain of events whose ultimate outcome was Poland’s entry into the EU as a democratic, sovereign country. But his act of atonement also set off another process: Poland coming to terms with its own history.
The Milibands are not a big part of that story. But, like so many Britons of Polish Jewish origin, it is an important and unforgettable part of us.
David Miliband is the Foreign Secretary