Żydowska Warszawa

Jan Jagielski

Path of Death – Path of Life


Jan Jagielski’s knowledge of the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa St. (it faces the former Gęsia St. now Anielewicza St.) is second to none and no one is better than him at recounting stories about the Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw buried here. It is to him that people looking for archival photographs come first. Since 1991 he has been an employee of the Jewish Historical Institute, where he created from scratch a department for documenting material traces of Jewish presence in Poland. As of now, he is in charge of that department and the walls of his room are lined with shelves swaying under the weight of photographs and databases.

There was a time in the past when he documented remnants of Jewish culture and history in Poland as a hobby. At present, he takes an active part in preserving places and monuments related to such culture and history. He also initiated a project aimed at renovating Jewish cemeteries in small towns and he manages it in collaboration with young Polish and Israeli people.

It is remarkable that the cemetery survived, even though the Jewish people of Warsaw – over three hundred thousand of them, i.e. one-third of all inhabitants of the city – were all murdered, their houses and their entire district destroyed. Today, the cemetery is the right place to pass on their story. The cemetery Okopowa St. is the third burial place Warsaw Jews have had. The first one, dating back to the fourteenth century, was created when Jewish people inhabited the area of the contemporary Old Town. It was located outside of the city walls, probably on Krakowskie Przedmieście St., in the vicinity of the area where Bednarska St. is now. After the year 1527, Jews were no longer allowed to live in Warsaw or in the Masovia region. After that situation changed in the second half of the 18th century, Jews started moving into the Praga district and Szmul Zbytkower founded a new cemetery there - this time in the Bródno district. It still exists, even though it sustained considerable damage during the German occupation and directly after the war. The third cemetery was created in 1806. Warsaw Jews called it “the Gęsia Street Cemetery”, deriving the name from the name of the street leading to the cemetery’s main gate.

When I give visitors a tour of the place, I have to explain a lot to them. Every conversation is different. Sometimes they are difficult. On the one hand, people are willing enough to learn about Jewish religion, customs, and languages and, on the other hand, they still harbour many negative stereotypes about Jewish people. I often find myself wondering: where did those come from, where did they find such information? I am glad that they come here – showing them the truth is the essence of my work, after all.

Originally, the entrance to the cemetery was located on its southern boundary because access from the side of Okopowa St. was hindered by an actual trench. It was a part of the fortifications created around the city at the request of Stanisław Lubomirski, Grand Marshal of the Crown. The first entrance was located on the side facing Gibalskiego St. The existing entrance, located on the Okopowa St. side, was opened in 1876, after the embankments had been removed. Jewish people of Warsaw, when going to visit the cemetery, would say that they were going to “Beys Oylum” at “Gensia Gas”. The place was never referred to as a “kirkut”. “Kirkut” [the name used to refer to a Jewish cemetery] is an abbreviation formed from two German words: “Kirch” and “Hof” (church courtyard). Jews use two names for their cemeteries: Beyt Chaim (House of Life) or Beyt Olam (House of Eternity). Today’s entry gateway was used by hearses in the past. The original one has survived and it is now in the courtyard as a memorial. The only surviving parts of the Funeral House are its foundations and the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments which used to be on top of its roof.

I myself first came to this cemetery around 60 years ago. My adoptive grandmother brought me here to visit the grave of her father. Ever since that time, I have been learning more and more details about the place, especially from people close to me who took me with them to visit the graves of their relatives and friends. At one point in my life, I started working for the Jewish Historical Institute. Before that time, in 1981, I co-created Społeczny Komitet Opieki nad Cmentarzami i Zabytkami Kultury Żydowskiej w Polsce [Social Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries and Monuments of Jewish Culture in Poland]. Monika Krajewska, who took exceedingly good photographs, was another founder of the Committee and its first president was Eryk Lipiński. Just like Jerzy Waldorff looked after Powązki Cemetery as a symbol of nineteenth-century Warsaw, we – acting on the level of the whole country – looked for expressions of Jewish culture, searching for cemeteries, checking out what was left of them, and coming up with ideas for preserving them. Experts specialising in monuments came here – tombstones are, after all, also examples of Jewish art. I have also given presidents of Israel a tour of the place. Every year, we held a collection of money and we focused our efforts mostly on trying to save sinking tombstones.

I found it difficult to choose only ten places at the cemetery I considered the most important – the graveyard spans 33.5 hectares and sports over 200 000 graves (not always with a matzevah over them!). I chose places which are important historically speaking and those with which some story of a person I know is connected.

1.The grave of Antoni Eisenbaum (1791–1852)

One of the first tombstones to have the Committee’s care extended over it was a cast-iron column, which had been shattered during the war, commemorating Antoni Eisenbaum, the director of the Rabbinical School in Warsaw. 

The column’s renovation was no simple matter – its plinth had been ruined and we had to look for a craftsman who could prepare a new cast outside of Warsaw. This was also the first tombstone in the cemetery for which approval had been given to an inscription in a language other than Hebrew – in Polish. You can imagine just how much arguing there had been before that decision was made! Hevra Kadishah (the funerary association) would not yield an inch for three years. It was only in 1858, as a result of efforts made by Rabbi Ber Meisels, that it agreed to allow tombstones to have the first inscription in Hebrew and another one in Polish, German, or Russian. As you stroll through the cemetery, you can easily notice that the second language used is usually Polish and Yiddish is used very rarely. During the period of the Kingdom of Poland, Jews assimilated into Polish culture, not Russian.

The monuments where Warsaw rabbis rest are located close to Eisenbaum’s tombstone. On seeing those high “houses”, people ask me what sort of chapels they are. I explain to them that they are ohels (that word means “tent” in Hebrew). They are a reference to Biblical times – the Ark of the Covenant was stored in such places during travels. Inside, prominent figures are buried. In the case of Jews, such people are most often Rabbis or tzaddiks. Antoni Eisenbaum was himself an erudite graduate of the Warsaw Lyceum, and a supporter of Haskalah (that is: Jewish Enlightenment). He wrote for Polish magazines and, for almost a year, published the first Polish-Jewish newspaper with a circulation of 150 copies – Obserwator nadwiślański – Der Beobachter an der Weisel [The Vistula Observer]. At the Rabbinical School there was an extensive selection of secular subjects available to students, so all of them learned Polish and other languages and then continued their education at universities. In the end, they usually became doctors or lawyers.

2.The ohel of Ber Sonnenberg

The most beautiful tombstone in all Warsaw, perhaps even in all of Poland, is the ohel of Ber Sonnenberg, son of Szmul Zbytkower, the wealthiest Warsaw Jew who owned property in the Praga district of Warsaw which is still known as Szmulowizna. The tombstone was probably created by Dawid Friedlander, the builder of numerous synagogues in Poland. Ber Sonnenberg also funded a synagogue at ul. Jagiellońska in the Praga district which has not survived until today. “Bergson” means “son of Ber”. This is why his sons assumed such a surname. It was passed on to many prominent people from the family, including Henri Bergson, a French Nobel-prize-winning philosopher. There are two large bas-reliefs on the sides of the ohel. It is usually assumed that one of them depicts Szmulcowizna, the father’s estate in the Targówek area. But could this not be just Warsaw on the left bank of the Vistula? That dispute has been going on for 200 years. The other bas-relief presents a passage from Psalm 137: “There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy”. The Tower of Babel, instruments, and city buildings are depicted there.

The ohel is in the quarter of the graveyard assigned to men, among matzevahs of masculine symbolism.

Men, women, and children were buried separately at traditional Jewish cemeteries. Matzevahs have acquired their semi-circular finishings as late as during the Renaissance period. The Hebrew inscriptions on matzevahs indicated the name of the deceased, as well as their father’s name and the place of their birth. Surnames were introduced by Prussian authorities and they were initially recorded on the reverse side of tombstones. On one of the neighbouring graves there is a gate leading to eternity depicted on the reverse side of the matzevah. Quite prudently, it is secured with a padlock lest foul spirits, dybbuks, should come in!

3.Zapadła łąka – a mass grave

This is one of the saddest places of the cemetery. There are white marble stones with black stripes set along its borders, marking a mass grave of Jews who died of starvation in the Warsaw ghetto. Ironically, we have many photographs of that place. They were taken by Heinz Jost, a German officer, in September 1941 on the occasion of his birthday. He got a pass from his military quarters and went to visit the Jewish cemetery. The earth continues to sink even today. We have not counted the bodies. People paying a visit to this horrible circle place stones as tokens of remembrance and light candles. The inscription, in Polish and in Hebrew, reads: “Here lie victims from the Warsaw ghetto who dies from 1941 to 1943. May their souls partake of eternal life”.

Leaving the area where the mass grave is and heading towards quarter 2 of the cemetery, where more recent graves are, you can see a strange unfinished structure on your left. This is the Cemetery of Heroes which was to be built according to a concept of Adam Czerniakow. He himself wrote about it in Głos Gminy Żydowskiej, issue 9 of 1938:


... In the course of their bloody struggle for freedom against the three invaders, they have earned immortality for themselves. They are not the ones who need this. It is for us so that our spirits would be bolstered and so that we could soldier on through difficult times, as a vile plague of hatred, coming from the west this time, reaches our homes.

The mausoleum was designed by Marcin Weinfeld, an architect and the builder of Prudential – a tower block located close to today’s Plac Powstańców Warszawy [a square named in honour of people who fought in the Warsaw Uprising]. Unfortunately, construction work was interrupted by the Second World War and the structure looks quite ghastly now, even though we managed to place beautiful tombstones there, dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century, which were excavated during pre-war works.

4.Contemporary quarter

And thus we reach quarter 2 where a contemporary place of burial was created after 2 metres of earth were added, just like in the case of quarter 8. It is a place where you can see the graves of prominent people who lived in Poland after the Holocaust. The epitaphs on most tombstones are in Polish. I have chosen this place to show you that the Okopowa cemetery is still functioning and burials still take place here. Apart from writers who lived long ago, there are also contemporary people buried here, including Julian Stryjkowski, Professor Michał Friedman, an excellent translator from Yiddish and Hebrew, Bogdan Wojdowski, a writer, the author of a novel entitled Chleb rzucony umarłym [Bread Tossed to the Dead], one of the most important books about the Warsaw Ghetto, Professor Chone Szmeruk, a historian from the Hebrew Institute in Jerusalem, and two directors of the Jewish Historical Institute: Professor Maurycy Horn and Professor Feliks Tych.

5.Michał Landy

Beyond quarter 20, there is a small, inconspicuous monument. At its sandstone front, an inscription can barely be read: “Tu spoczywają zwłoki młodzieńca Michała Landego” [Here lies the body of the young Michał Landy]. It was already slightly leaning in the 1970s. It was here, close to that monument that our Committee first started cleaning the cemetery up. We managed to find the descendants of M. Landy and, together with them, we placed a memorial plaque on the monument.

That grave is the most moving symbol of a period when Poles and Jews were brought closer together before the January Uprising of 1863. During a patriotic manifestation of Warsaw people which ended in a massacre at the hands of Russian soldiers, Michał Landy, aged sixteen at the time, took up a cross from the hands of a priest who had been killed moments before – only to share his fate after a couple of heartbeats. His family took a post mortem photograph of him which became a symbol of Polish-Jewish fraternity.

6.The tomb of three Jewish writers, and Abraham Ostrzega

Next to the Main Alley of the cemetery, Isaac Leib Peretz (Icchok Lejbusz Perec) is buried together with Szymon An-ski and Jakub Dinezon. The monumental tomb of these three Jewish writers, sometimes referred to as “Peretz's ohel”, was sculpted by Abraham Ostrzega, one of the greatest pre-war sculptors, who was, at the time, looking for an innovative and interesting form for Jewish tombstones. He nigh-on infringed the rules of Jewish tradition. He more and more often, and with increasing boldness, sculpted the figures on his tombstones with their faces only partially covered. He depicted human beings in a manner slightly reminiscent of Cubism but their faces were not clearly distinguishable - the Jewish community might not have accepted that. Ostrzega became famous after he sculpted the tombstone for the three writers. His sculptures became very popular and several dozens of them are preserved in the cemetery. During the war, he found himself in the Ghetto where he had a workshop close to the cemetery, manufacturing whetstones from leftover stones. He died at Treblinka.

7.Esther Rachel Kamińska

I have chosen the tombstone of Ester Rachel Kamińska, the “mother of Yiddish theatre”, located in quarter 39 because it is one of the few tombstones bearing an inscription in Yiddish and not in Hebrew. In this case: “Mame”. She was born in Morozovo near Volkovysko, in Belarus. Her father was a cantor. When she was nineteen, she joined the theatrical group of Abraham Kamiński. She soon became a star and married Kamiński. Salomon Belis-Legis wrote about her:

She prepared the foundations for realist theatre at a time when all Jewish theatre was concerned about was farces and melodrama.

The monument on her grave was sculpted by Fiszl Rubinlicht (who died in 1939 during the German bombing of Warsaw). Other actors are buried close to her grave.

8.Marek Edelman (1919?–2009)

Continuing along the Main Alley, we reach quarter 12 above which a bas-relief depicting a fighter from Bund looms – it was designed by Natan Rapaport, the creator of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.

Marek Edelman is one of the Bund activists buried here - he was one of the leaders of the uprising in the ghetto. The grave of Adina Szwajgier (1917–1993), a doctor, is located next to his resting place. In the ghetto, she treated children. She described her experiences in her shocking memoirs entitled I więcej nic nie pamiętam [And I recall no more]. It was her who told Marek Edelman of one time when, at the hospital, after she saved the life of a little boy, the child’s mother gave her a flower she had found in the ghetto – a yellow dandelion – to thank her. Ever since that time, people coming with Marek Edelman to Anielewicz Mound, on anniversaries of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, bring yellow daffodils with them. Those flowers have become a symbol of remembrance for the people of Warsaw. After oondering this over for a while, we move on.

We reach the elevated quarter 10. Let us briefly visit the grave of Ludwik Zamenhof (1859–1917), the creator of Esperanto, and, further along among other graves, Adam Czerniakow (1880–1942), the leader of the Jewish religious community in the Warsaw ghetto. He committed suicide on 23 July 1942, the day after the transportation of Jews from the ghetto to the death camp in Treblinka had started. Janusz Korczak attended his funeral - his own monument is located on the other side of the cemetery’s Main Alley.

Janusz Korczak, the founder of the Orphanage, did not abandon his charges after they were moved to the ghetto. Their last place of residence in the ghetto was at 16 Sienna St. It was from there that, on 6 August 1942, he, his closest associate Stefania Wilczyńska, his fellow educators, and children under their care went to Umschlagplatz. They were transported to Treblinka in cattle cars. Marek Rudnicki recalls this as follows:

Korczak walked along, dragging his feet, seeming somehow shrunken, muttering something under his breath from time to time.

On 28 October, 1982, a plastic monument created by Mirosław Smorczewski was unveiled here. It was made of plastic so it was often destroyed during fires. A bronze cast was only prepared in 1995. Next to it, there is a statue to Young Victims of the Holocaust, erected at the initiative of Jacek Eisner who smuggled food into the ghetto as a child. The monument may not be beautiful but Jacek Eisner placed memorable words on it:

Granny Masha had twenty grandchildren and Granny Hana had eleven of them. Only I survived.

Jacek Eisner. 

9.Water fountain

It is located next to a street which people used to enter and leave the cemetery. An inscription on it has survived until present: Water fountain built to commemorate Paulina née Mendelssohn Maurycowa Frydman in 1907. Unfortunately, it is not possible today to draw water from it. Maybe the municipality authorities will fix it someday.

The other inscription on it is more important to us as our journey comes to an end:

He who leaves a cemetery or who touched a body or who entered a place where bodies are kept or who performed last rites for a deceased man should wash his hands with water. Megen Abraham art. IV.




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