This week, a special delegation from Israel with participants from around the world traveled to Poland and Serbia to preserve their Jewish roots and heritage. Volunteers focused on restoring Jewish cemeteries, as part of special efforts by WeKibbutz and the Shalom Corps Organization, in the Netaim Program that acts to strengthen the relationship with small Jewish communities in Europe.
In Poland, the group met the Olympic Games athlete Dariusz Popiela, who has devoted his life to restoring and preserving the memory of Jews in Poland after learning about the Holocaust. Their preservation work in the cemeteries included painting, gardening, fencing, and setting up paths for people to visit the graves, some of which remained neglected for a long time.
The volunteers visited the Pancevo cemetery in Serbia which had been desecrated many times throughout its history. It contains the grave of the first Jewish victim of the Nazis in the Balkans, Alexander Hacker.
The delegation also met present-day Jews in the cities and visited the small Jewish communities still living there. In Poland, they met the Olympic Games athlete Dariusz Popiela, who devoted his life to restoring and preserving the memory of Jews, after learning about the Holocaust. They held cultural and educational activities with local Jewish youth and learned about the lifestyle of local Jews. In Serbia, the delegation participated in the Maccabiah Games, the annual Jewish sporting event in the Balkans, where some of the group, competed in running, soccer, basketball, and chess.
The delegation was the first of its kind: Its participants include family members from different generations. “As a third generation of Holocaust survivors, preserving the Jewish identity and acting on behalf of the Jewish people will always be important for me," Lahav Efrat, 38, from Kibbutz HaOgen who was traveling with his mother, Shira, said. "I'm happy I've been given the opportunity to pause for a moment and to give from myself to others, thanks to the delegation. Thinking I'll experience this journey with my mother only makes my sense of purpose and Jewish courage stronger. We're here to remember and preserve our past and our future," he added.
“The Jewish past in Europe never ceases to surprise. After we set up Netaim, understanding there are many Jewish communities that need help, we discovered a group of communities in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe that are crying out for a Jewish connection and educational and cultural activities," Shiri Madar, CEO of WeKibbutz and the Habonim Dror Movement, said. "These projects symbolize the heart of Zionist and Jewish activism for us – preserving the heritage and rescuing Jewish cultural and religious assets in places where nobody has seen or visited for many years," she said thanking her partners in the Shalom Corps for answering the call.
“My life’s work is to preserve the community's Judaism in Serbia," Davor Shalom, head of the Jewish community in Belgrade said. "I'm so happy that a program like Netaim was established, giving an opportunity to local youth to participate in Jewish memory, not just through the shadow of the Holocaust but throughout history."
“We are proud to take part in this important heritage project, which has taken shape under the Shalom Corps platform, in Mosaic United – a joint project of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the fight against antisemitism," the organization said in a statement. "We see this project as having a great impact both on the volunteers and on the local community, combining a connection to the participants’ Jewish identity with volunteering for these communities."
"Maria Yossim, Shalom Corps' manger, and Sharona Shir Zevlodovski, the initiative's manager, congratulate and support Habonim Dror for this important project."