The Jewish cemetery in the Słubice of today (Frankfurt (Oder) – Dammvorstadt in German) is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Central Europe. It has been 609 years (2008) since the first mention about it in 1399, although the experts on this subject think that another 100 years should be added to its age. In the mid-70s of the 20th century it seemed that the cemetery had been irretrievably destroyed. Today perhaps it is not so much about restoring its splendor but evoking memory so as to pay tribute through proper maintenance to those who were buried here.
Every newly established commune in the first place was trying to set up a cemetery. The source confirmed Jews in 1294 in Frankfurt were not exceptional in this case. [see the history] They set up their cemetery on the eastern embankment of the Oder River on the private land belonging to the Hokemann family. In some unidentified circumstances the land owned by the Hokemann's was taken by the town so the change of the owner of the land where the cemetery was situated required another legal regulation. There is a copy of that new agreement with the Jews which states as follows: We, the town counselors of Frankfurt [...] with the consent of the counselors from our common council acknowledge publicly in the letter addressed to all who can see, hear and read it that Jews are allowed to bury their deceased on the Jewish hill situated opposite the cow mountain and that they will pay us, appointed by the town, six good Chech groszen for each buried Jew and this is to be respected as it was done in the times of the Hokemann. Apart from that we reserve the right to other resolutions. The document is stamped with our seal enclosed in the letter dated Anno Domini thirteen ninety-nine in the day of Saint Pressia and Martin.
The cemetery lies to the east of the center of Słubice at the crossroads leading to Krosno, Odrzańskie and Rzepin. There is a chain of hills there which are 60 meters high and up to 1945 they were called “Judenberge” that is Jewish mountains. On one of them there is a medieval cemetery situated. [see the plan of Frankfurt (O) no 1 and 3, illustration no 12 ] The Jewish cemetery consisted of three parts where the dead were buried. [see illustrations no 13 and 14] According to the official records the first part of the cemetery was used from 1399 (presumably also much earlier) up to 1867, hence for more than 468 years. That part is relatively small when compared with the size of the whole cemetery and the time when the dead were buried there. The reason could have been frequent banishments of Jews from the town. The cemetery was not used then. This first part shows us the initial size of the cemetery. It was surrounded by the low wall made of 60 cm high fieldstones so that according to the Jewish laws of purity you could see all the gravestones from the outside without entering the cemetery. From around 1677 the cemetery was in use more intensively. There are death registers from that period. The cemetery register of Frankfurt Jewish commune translated from Hebrew in Berlin in 1940 covers the period from 1677 to 1866 and includes 1100 entries.
These and other documents, including the censuses of the Jewish population in Frankfurt, were analyzed by Eckhard Reiß, the researcher of the history of Frankfurt Jewish cemetery and the author of the study devoted to this subject. According to Reiß the oldest gravestones documented in 1862 came from the second half of the 17th century. Up to now nine gravestones which belonged to rabbis have been located in the first part of the cemetery.
- 1693, rabbi Aron Levi Heller,
- 1702, rabbi Moses Levi,
- between 25.07 and 23.08.1721, rabbi Aron,
- 17.11.1766, rabbi Löb,
- 05.04.1777, rabbi David,
- 20.12.1791, rabbi Mendel Podheiz from Podheiz in Galicia,
- 02.05.1792, rabbi Joseph b. Meyer (Theomim), from Lviv,
- 14.06.1811, rabbi Jechiel Löb Margolis,
- 26.11.1838, vice rabbi Zwi Hirsch.
Especially important gravestones are that of the well-known and outstanding Frankfurt rabbis: Theomin, Mendel from Podheiz and Jechiel Margolis. Until now the location of place of their burials has evoked controversies and debates among the interested parties. Finally in 2004 after topographic research, rabbi Schmidl (from Israel) and rabbi Polatsek (from USA) established a new ultimate place where these remarkable men had been buried.
According to the preserved sources the majority of matzevas from the first part of the cemetery were executed from sandstone 15 cm thick. The gravestones were turned to the west and gravestone inscriptions were often framed with baroque ornaments. Only a few of them were photographed and their inscriptions due to partial effacing are difficult to read. [see illustrations 15, 16, 17 and 18]
From 1868 the second part of the cemetery was in use. The area of the new burial land was 10,907 square meters. [see illustration no 14] On the border with the old Jewish cemetery a house for Christian cemetery gardener was built. From the year 1870 to 1945 for three generations without a break this position was held by the Billerbeck family. In 1866 a new cemetery wall was erected which measured 2.5 meters and was built in the base course made of fieldstones. The long fragments of the base course are still visible till these days (2008). The wall ran across Crossener Chaussee (today Transportowa Street) and in the northwest part it was joined with the lower fieldstone wall from the first part of the cemetery. The difference in heights between the old and the new wall deserves attention and it can be explained by the progressing liberalization in the commune. The possibility of viewing the cemetery from the outside was no longer as important as it had been earlier.
In the new part of the cemetery a new neo-Romanesque pre-funeral parlor was built. The building inlaid with yellow clinkers had a dome with a diameter of 8.12 meters. [see illustration no 19] A gold-plated star of David fixed on top of the roof at the height of 13 meters glistened in the sun and was visible from a distance. For travelers coming from the direction of Krosno Odrzańskie it was the first visual impression of Frankfurt (Oder) .
The gravestones in the second part of the cemetery differed fundamentally from those in the older part. Executed mostly from granite and marble they were close in their shape to those ones in Christian cemeteries. Apart from typically Hebrew signs, symbols of universal character from the 19th and 20th century sepulchral art were dominating.
The third part of the cemetery was bought at the beginning of the 20th century, at that time it was a garden land. In this new vacant part of the cemetery in the designated area people who died as impure were buried from then on. In the air photo from 1945 in the third part of the cemetery the developed land reminding a garden was easily distinguished. [see illustration no 14]
In 1936 the Association of Jewish Front Soldiers funded a monument to 17 Jewish Frankfurt soldiers who died during World War I. The monument unveiled in the summer of 1937 was erected in the third part of the cemetery. It was well discernible from the side of the road leading to Krosno, which was an intended effect of propaganda, unnoticed by the Nazis, though.
In 1940 the third part of the cemetery was put in use. It was very modest, surrounded by the wire net on the low concrete foundations noticeable until now. The war and antisemitism caused many graves to have lost their gravestones. Jewish prisoners from the nearby labor camps were also buried here. In 1941 over 100 Jewish victims from the Finkenheerd camp were buried in the cemetery. Jewish prisoners from the labor camps in Świeck and Kreuzsee suffered a similar fate. The burials lasted till the end of 1944. A Frankfurt doctor, internist, Dr. Hermann Marcus, who died on December 11, 1944, was the last Jew who was officially buried in the third part of the cemetery. As one of the few he received a gravestone. Gardener Otto Billerbeck who looked after the cemetery wrote about it: The last burial which we executed was the funeral of Dr. Marcus. I could not take part in it officially. There were people from the town who had been ordered to bury him anywhere, on the road. I managed to prevent it.
On February 15, 1944 during a bombing raid over Frankfurt (Oder) bombs also dropped in the cemetery. Billerbeck wrote about it: On the 15th of February 1944 we were attacked by the English air forces. Two bombs dropped in the cemetery and one right behind it. The graves of Dr. Baswitz and his parents were turned into dust and in the upper part the grave of Martin Heydemann, his parents and all the neighboring ones. In general, the graves suffered huge damage, the northern side of the pre-funeral parlor collapsed as well. The pre-funeral parlor had suffered damage much earlier though. The Nazis removed the whole tinplate but we did not receive any tar paper. Damages in the cemetery got worse as the area of the cemetery and the neighboring “Jewish mountains” coincided with the German line of fortifications built on the outskirts of Frankfurt. After the end of the war during the period from May to September 1945 at least 82 German soldiers and the members of volkssturm were buried directly on the way leading to the pre-funeral parlor.
In the new post-war border division the eastern part of Frankfurt lying on the right embankment of the Oder River and at the same time the Jewish cemetery fell to Poland. For a long time no one took interest in the cemetery officially. Eckard Reiß who was visiting Słubice in November 1965 described it in this way: The cemetery made an impression of being inviolate. We entered the cemetery through the main entrance. It looked completely neglected but it was not intentionally destroyed. I took photographs of the few gravestones, clearly coming from the nearest past, including the grave of Dr. Max Graf situated directly at the main entrance. I could hardly notice among the thickets the road leading from the main entrance to the ruins of the pre-funeral parlor.
Cemetery landscaping existed in its wild form until the 1970s. In order to prevent the theft of the gravestones and the digging up of the graves the authorities ordered to brick up all the entrances to the cemetery, which did not put an end to these illegal practices. These terrifying practices, also ubiquitous in all post-German cemeteries, became the cause of the very unfavorable comments to Poles, especially after the introduction of free movement of foreign exchange between The People’s Republic of Poland and East Germany in 1970. The authorities acknowledged that the best solution would be closing down these cemeteries. The decision concerning the closing down of the Jewish cemetery in Słubice was made on June 20, 1972,[see illustration no 20] and its execution took place in the autumn of 1975. After planting the land, “Zajazd Staropolski” was built there, which was called “the Deadman’s Inn” among the town people. At the end of the 1990s the building became privatized.
The turning point in the post-war history of the cemetery came in 1988. The Nissenbaum Foundation fenced the bigger part of the destroyed cemetery. In 1999 the 600th anniversary of the first mention of the cemetery in documents was celebrated. The town of Słubice founded a memorial plaque for this occasion. [see illustration no 21] On the plaque made from polished granite there are inscriptions in three languages: Hewbrew, Polish and German: „Respect the final resting place. The Jewish cemetery was founded in the 14th century. The inhabitants of Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice 1999”. [see illustration no 22]
In 2001 a crisis appeared again. The then ”Zajazd Staropolski” was converted into a night club “Eden”. It provoked shock on the Jewish side and questions to the Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller during his visit in New York in 2002. The night club was closed. In January 2004 at the order of the Polish state, the town of Słubice bought the last part of the cemetery, the hotel and the parking lot for one million zloty. The plot of land was given to the Jewish commune in Szczecin. There was now nothing to prevent honoring three of the most well-known rabbis buried in the cemetery. In the most probable place where these graves could have been located, a fenced in mausoleum was built. [see illustration no 23 and 24]. For the reconstruction of the gravestones two original photos and preserved texts of epitaphs were used. The historical inscriptions are real then. The stone commemorated to rabbi von Podheiz stands on the left side, the stone of rabbi Margolis on the right side and in the middle there is a matzeva of the most outstanding one – rabbi Theomin. On May 4, 2004 there was an official ceremony which was attended, apart from the rabbis gathered in great numbers, by: Gerald C. Anderson – a consul from the American Embassy in Warsaw, Marek Lewandowski as a replacement for the governor of Lubusz Province, Ryszard Bodziacki – the mayor of Słubice and Katja Wolle – the mayor of Frankfurt (Oder). Rabbi Polatsek who had been working for the good of the cemetery for 15 years, thanked everyone who contributed to the success of the undertaking and at the end he made such a statement: This is more than just a cemetery. It is a relationship between Jews, Poles and Germans.
The erection of the mausoleum played an important role in reviving the old tradition of making a pilgrimage to the grave of rabbi Theomin. In the 19th century, in the month of his death, ijar, that is at the end of April and at the beginning of May in Gregorian calendar, hundreds of pious Jews gathered everyday before the cemetery wall to see his grave and worship him. [see biographies] On May 4, 2004, still before the official ceremony connected with the blessing of the place of memory, during the morning graves’ inspection they found there burning candles and about 15 small sheets of paper with prayers in Hebrew. A week later behind the wall there were around 40 other small sheets of paper.
Also this year, on May 15, 2008 (10 ijar) the grave of Theomin was visited by the Chassidim from the whole of Europe and also from the USA. The ceremony was conducted by the rabbi of Przeworsk, Raw Leibisch Leiser from Antwerp. [see illustration no 25] All indicates that the old tradition has been reborn and Słubice situated on the western border of Poland has become a place of pilgrimage compared to those best-known situated in the south-east of Poland.