WARSAW -- A pale winter afternoon sun glinted through the thick ranks of trees stretching to the cemetery wall. Gripping a paper notebook and pen in one hand, a young man picked his way across a tangle of fallen branches and damp leaves and crouched before a massive stone tablet, its face etched with Hebrew lettering.
This was one of those rare January days when Boleslaw Szenicer could venture into the outer quarters of the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, where thousands of gray headstones stand in eerie beauty amid overgrown forest. Painstakingly moving along the old, crammed rows, skipping the tablets already cracked, toppled over or sunk into the ground, Szenicer filled his notebook pages with names that have all but disappeared from Polish consciousness: names like Epsztejn, Edelsztein, Szpekman, Cukierman.
The registry of the gravestones is an almost quixotic task. All records about this 182-year-old cemetery were destroyed during World War II, and the vibrant Warsaw community of 1 million Jews that cared for its 150,000 graves in 1939 has been all but extinguished. Only a few parts of the 75-acre cemetery have been rescued from the forest.
Szenicer, however, long ago accepted the odds of his rearguard struggle against trees and time. Seven years ago, when his mother died, he agreed to join the work here of his father, who discovered the cemetery in 1960, decrepit and abandoned, and volunteered to become its caretaker. Five years ago, when Pinkus Szenicer died, Boleslaw, then 31, gave up his profession as a chef and his occasional thoughts of emigration and committed himself to finishing what his father had started.
Each weekday now, Szenicer opens the iron gates in the high red brick wall that isolates the cemetery from the busy downtown neighborhood around it. In a shed-like office, he waits for the trickle of visitors, mostly foreign, who come to seek relatives or history in his immense domain. With a small allocation of state and private funds, he supervises small restoration projects. And when the weather is nice, he adds to the register of graves that, begun by his father, now covers perhaps 30 percent of those buried in the cemetery.
Ten or 12 times a year, Szenicer is called on to prepare a new gravesite for one of the handful of practicing Jews left here. As one of the few young people in a dwindling community of the very old, he is painfully aware that it may fall to him to bury the end of a society whose centuries-long presence and immense impact in Poland are more palpable in this cemetery than anywhere in the world outside.
"It's a very sad job," said Szenicer, a slender man whose boyish face, wide glasses and curly dark hair underline his relative youth. "I meet Jews from Warsaw and they say they hope I will stay so I can bury them here. It's like they expect me to be the last Jew, or one of the last. But I have my heart in this work. I feel I have made a moral commitment to this."
The solitude of Szenicer's work is striking in view of the fact that the Jewish cemetery is one of the largest and richest historical monuments remaining in a city largely reduced to rubble during World War II. Although the walled Jewish ghetto alongside it was razed by occupying German forces, the cemetery, which was founded in 1806, survived the war largely intact.
A prominent stop on Szenicer's informal tours of the grounds are two abrupt dips in the earth in the center of a crowded quarter of 20th-century graves. These, he explains, are the mass graves where Nazi guards buried thousands of Jews shot during the ghetto uprising of 1943.
This grassy ground is surrounded by thousands of handsome marbled tombs of prewar Jewish society: rabbis, bankers and intellectuals who played a major role in the independent Polish republic. Forty years after the Holocaust, with no counterparts in modern Poland and few other than Szenicer to tend them, their monuments seem lost in a cultural no man's land.
"This is what really pains me," said Szenicer, gesturing at a restored area of rich mausoleums and columns at the cemetery's front end. "There are the greats not only of Jewish history, but of Polish history. But they are not appreciated here. They have been forgotten by most Poles."
For decades after the war, the cemetery was forgotten by Polish authorities. Vandals slipped into the grounds and stole headstones and plaques for their marble, while a few decorative trees grew into an unruly forest covering most of the grounds. For Warsaw's remaining Jews, Okopowa Street became all but unacceptable as a burial site.
Then in 1960, Boleslaw Szenicer's brother died, changing the course of his father's life. When he saw the state of the site where he had come to bury the boy, Pinkus Szenicer, a bricklayer specializing in wall construction, went to the Warsaw Jewish Council and asked to be allowed to maintain the property.
His wish was granted, and Pinkus Szenicer spent the next 27 years working in the cemetery, mostly on his own. "The place was a total mess. People were afraid to come into it, but Dad said to the local council, 'I'll take care of it, I want to take care of it,' " Boleslaw Szenicer said. "After that, this cemetery was what he lived for."
Slightly stooped from a wartime battle injury and characteristically dressed in a yarmulka and chain bearing a large Star of David, the elder Szenicer eventually managed to clear a rolling, grassy area along one wall of the cemetery for new burials. One section, in front of an unfinished prewar brick pavilion, was dedicated to the most devout Jews who remained in Warsaw. There, in 1961, Szenicer buried Dub Perkovic, Warsaw's last rabbi.
In 1973, the cemetery was finally registered by Polish authorities as a historical monument, but not until 1979 did the first formal, officially funded efforts at restoration begin.
In 1981, a group of mostly young Jews in Warsaw founded the Citizens' Committee for the Protection of Jewish Cemeteries and Cultural Monuments in Poland, which has sponsored the repair and restoration of some of the most notable mausoleums on the site.
Still, outside the eight cemetery quarters that have been restored since 1979 is an unintended symbol of the extinction of Jewish culture in Poland: 72 quarters of mausoleums, columns, monuments and gravestones overrun by forest and literally lost to memory. Inscribed in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish or even Russian, only a fraction of these tens of thousands of graves have been registered by the Szenicers.
Few people other than Szenicer wander into these woods, although they stand only a few hundred yards from a bustling neighborhood of wide avenues and high apartment blocks. Crammed together in tight rows and pitched angles, the gravestones are perpetually shaded by the high-growing trees and cushioned by huge, soft beds of leaves. A few dirt trails run through the old sectors, but most of the passages between graves are blocked with fallen branches and underbrush.
Only in the early spring and late fall, when the trees are clear of leaves and the ground of snow, is Szenicer able to make regular progress in recording names from the stones. Much of the rest of his time is devoted to poring over the notebooks of gravestone listings already compiled in an effort to help families find burial sites. Few graves are easy to locate; Szenicer recently found a site sought by one family for more than 30 years.
Szenicer knows that he probably will never be able to complete a record of the graves or answer all of the family requests that stand in a thick pile on his desk. He doesn't really expect money for restoration to much exceed the $10,000 annually that now trickles in.
Still, as he flips through a notebook half-filled since the new year with names rescued from the forest, or points to a distant gravestone located after years of searching, he can allow himself a grin of private satisfaction.
"When I came here my father said to me, 'You don't have to stay. I'll never leave but if you want, you should leave,' " Szenicer said. "But . . . as long as they let me, I will stay. Because it's here that I feel that I'm needed."