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Polish Prisoners on Front Lines in Fight Against Anti-Semitism

Like many countries in Eastern Europe, Poland is dotted with hundreds of Jewish cemeteries left behind when the country's Jewish population was decimated during World War II. But Poland's Jewish community and its Prison Service are teaming up to care for the grave sites and combat anti-Semitism at the same time.

It may not be normal work for prison inmates, but the Polish Prison Service has come up with an unusual task for their prisoners, cleaning and restoring abandoned Jewish cemeteries.

But as prison spokesman Nikodem Banas explains, the program is about more than just pulling weeds and polishing headstones.

He says before prisoners are sent out to work, they are given a series of seminars by members of the Jewish community to teach them how to behave respectfully in a Jewish cemetery – to cover their heads, for example. But Banas says the lectures are also meant to give the prisoners a broader understanding of Jewish culture, and of the important role Jews have played in Polish society.

Before the Second World War, Poland was home to around 3.5-million Jews – the largest Jewish population in Europe. But millions were murdered during the Holocaust, and communist-era purges drove thousands more into exile. Today only a tiny fraction of Poland's Jewish community is left. With no family members to care for them, hundreds of Jewish cemeteries across the country have fallen into disrepair.

One recent morning, around a dozen prisoners came to cut grass, pull weeds and scrub headstones in a small Jewish cemetery outside Warsaw. No one has been buried here since the 1960s. Today, tall grass blankets the pathways and many headstones lie shattered on the ground.

One of the prisoners cleaning the cemetery is 25-year-old Artur Bilinski.

He says that there are a lot of stereotypes in Poland about Jews, but before participating in the program he did not know much about Jewish culture. Now, he says he has a better understanding of how closely the Jewish and Polish cultures are linked together.

Another prisoner adds that since there is still anti-Semitism in Poland, it is necessary to have programs like this that challenge the way people think.

Poland's Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich, helped found the program and gives prison seminars himself. He says that for the most part, prisoners have been very receptive to the talks.

"Sometimes the best questions I have ever heard have come from prisoners," Schudrich said. "They were sensitive, insightful and thoughtful. They have time to think."

Schudrich adds that because prisoners tend to come from a less-educated part of society that feeds on stereotypes, targeting them is particularly important.

"Number one, there are more Jewish cemeteries that are getting cleaned," Schudrich added. "It is very practical. Number two, a forgotten part of society – prisoners – now have an opportunity to learn about something they never had to learn about before. It opens their eyes to other parts of the world. It can really begin to help them to change stereotypes that they may have. There is hope. If every lecture changed one person, that is a tremendous thing."

So, says Schudrich, the prison program can be of great value for the Jewish community and the whole of Poland.