When renovation work began on the market square of the sleepy town of Lezajsk, in south-east Poland, there was a surprise waiting beneath the builders’ rubble – 150 tombstones, the last record of the Jews of Lezajsk.
Lezajsk is the site of the grave of an 18th century rabbi, Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk, who attracted similar annual pilgrimages from Chasidim every year – until this year’s pandemic when the Polish authorities asked them not to visit.
But the absence of Jewish visitors was deeply felt and so there was wide excitement when the first of the gravestones was uncovered on 8 July.
Before the war, 4,500 Jews lived in Lezajsk, about 90 percent of the entire population. When the Nazis occupied the town, those Jewish residents who had not fled were confined to a ghetto, murdered in 1942, and the Nazis used the rubble of Jewish homes and of the synagogue for construction. When that material was used up, they went to the Jewish cemetery and raided gravestones. This is why the gravestones were found in the market square, where they had been used to pave roads and build pavements.
The mayor, Ireneusz Stefanski, is insistent: “These gravestones need to find their appropriate place, and it certainly is not underground.”
Now discussion is taking place between the municipality, the national government and Jewish organisations as to what will be the last resting place of the gravestones.