The Jewish cemetery in Warsaw at 49/51 Okopowa Street (Polish: ul. Okopowa 49/51), known before the war as the Gęsia Street Cemetery, was established on the initiative of the Warsaw Jewish community in 1806. Chronologically, it is the third Jewish necropolis in Warsaw (after the cemetery established near the Old Town in the 15th century and the so-called Praga Jewish cemetery established in Bródno in 1780).
In 1806, a burial brotherhood, the Chevra Kadisha, was established to manage the cemetery grounds. The first burial did not take place here until late 1806. Nachum, son of Nachum of Siemiatycze, who died on the 25th month of Kislev 5567 / 6 December 1806, was then buried. His tombstone has not survived to the present day. In contrast, the oldest gravestone we can now see belongs to Sarah, Eliezer's daughter, who died on 8 September 1807.
From the beginning, the cemetery at Gęsia Street (Polish: ul. Gęsia), due to high fees, was the place of burial of wealthier people, while the poor buried their dead in the Prague cemetery. Nevertheless, quite quickly, the cemetery area became too small. Its area was successively enlarged by the purchase of nearby land (1824, 1840, 1848). In 1885, it was officially established that free burials were to take place in Warsaw Praga. Despite this regulation, the cemetery was already overcrowded after the First World War. At that time, the system of embankments, i.e. meter layers of soil fertilised to old, min. 50-year-old graves began to be used.
In 1826, construction of the first pre-burial house began on the cemetery grounds. This facility was destroyed during the November Uprising in 1831. It was rebuilt in 1832 and underwent an extension in 1854. In 1877–1878, a magnificent building was erected according to Adolf Schimmelpfennig, in the central part of which a synagogue was placed, and in the side – separate funeral homes for men and women. A manhole was installed in front of the building.
From the mid-19th century, trees were planted in the cemetery. There was even a special horticultural nursery that grew plants specifically for the cemetery. The entire area of the necropolis in the second half of the 19th century was surrounded by a wooden fence, which was replaced by a brick wall in the interwar period. The burial area was divided into male and female quarters and Orthodox and Reform sections.
During the Second World War, the cemetery became the burial place for thousands of people who died or were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto. Special teams were taking corpses from the streets and houses. The bodies were then transported to the cemetery and buried in a vast mass grave. The Germans sometimes carried out executions in the cemetery. At the same time, the necropolis served the ghetto inhabitants as a transfer point for food smuggled in from the so-called Aryan side. The cemetery was also a place where Jews hid. A shelter dug into the grave, where one Jewish family survived the war, has been preserved to the present day.
Unlike other cemeteries, the Wola necropolis was not destroyed by the occupier. The Germans blew up only the pre-funeral house with the synagogue. Further devastation occurred in August 1944, when fighting between insurgents and German troops occurred in the cemetery.
After the liberation of Warsaw in 1945, the cemetery was overgrown with vegetation for many years, and the tombstones deteriorated. It was a meeting place for marginalised people. In the 1960s, the city authorities planned to lead a wide street through the oldest part of the cemetery. However, these plans were not realised. Over time, the cemetery began to be cleaned up by caretakers, among others: Pinkus Szenicer and his son Bolesław, the Nissenbaum Foundation, the Jewish Community and the Social Committee for the Care of Cemeteries and Monuments of Jewish Culture. Since 2010, the Jozef Rajnfeld Volunteer Jewish Cemetery Cleaning Group (Polish: Ochotniczy Hufiec Porządkowania Cmentarza Żydowskiego im. Józefa Rajnfelda) has also been involved in the clean-up work.
As a result of the restitution process, the cemetery has belonged to the Jewish Community of Warsaw since 05 February 2001 and is still used for burial purposes. It covers an area of approximately 33.5 hectares and is among the largest in the world. It is estimated that about 250,000 people were buried there, including about 100,000 who died and were murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. In recent years, inventory work has been carried out, as a result of which over 80 thousand matzevot have been identified.
Since 1 December 1973, the cemetery has been listed in the register of historical monuments under No. 874. In 2014, by virtue of the Regulation of the President of the Republic of Poland, the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street was recognised as a monument of history, "Warsaw – a complex of historic religious cemeteries in Powązki".
The Jewish necropolis in Wola is a vibrant gallery of funerary art. In addition to traditional matzevot and ohels that are simple in their architecture, tombs of elaborate form and high artistic value began to be erected over the graves of wealthy business people, merchants, political and social activists and artists. Alongside sandstone tombstones came obelisks, sarcophagi and mausoleums in granite or marble, made by masters such as Abraham Ostrzega (e.g. tombstones of Esther Pave, Jan Orphan, Hersz Dawid Nomberg or the Mausoleum of the Three Writers), Szymon Kratka (e.g. tombstone of Jozef Jankielewicz), Feliks Rubinlicht (tombstone of Ester Rachel Kamińska) or Henryk Kuna.
The entrance to the cemetery is located at Okopowa Street, in front of the exit of Anielewicza Street (formerly Gęsia Street (Polish: ul. Gęsia)). Behind the gate, to the left, is the cemetery administration building and a small pre-burial house. Just behind the building is a gate set on brick pillars. This is the original cemetery gate, made before the war, which was restored in 1998 by the Goose Jewish Cemetery Foundation with the financial support of Arick and Laura Karwasser. The pillar bears a photograph of the gate taken during the Holocaust.
The Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street is the burial place of many prominent people who have been permanently recorded in the history of Warsaw and even in the history of Poland. We will find there the mausoleums and tombs of Warsaw industrialists (Lesser, Bergson, Levy, Wawelberg, Fajans families), booksellers and publishers (Orgelbrand, Glücksberg, Merzbach families, Gabriel Centnerszwer, Jakub Mortkowicz and others), writers (Icchak Leib Peretz, Sz. An-ski, Jakub Dinezon (q. 44, row 1), Izaak Meir Weissenberg (q. 31, row 2), Hersz Dawid Nomberg (q. 31, row 2), Leib Najdus (symbolic gravestone, q. 31, row 1), doctors and scientists (Chaim Zelig Słonimski (q. 71, row 11), Zygmunt Kramsztyk (q. 52, row 10), Edward Flatau (q. 10, row 3), Ludwik Zamenhof (q. 10, row 2), Samuel Dickstein (q. 20, row 9), Adina Blady-Szwajger (q. 12a, row 2) and others), prominent rabbis (including Izaak Cylkow (q.v. 33, row 1), Izaak Kramsztyk (q. 26, row 10), Dow Ber Meisels (q. 1, row 6), Abram Hirsh Perelmuter (q. 1, row 5), Samuel Poznański (q. 10, row 3f)), tzaddikim (e.g. from Zwoleń, Warka, Mogielnica, Mszczonów, Radzymin), historians (Szymon Askenazy (q. 10, row 6), Majer Balaban (q. 10, row 2), Szymon Datner (q. 10, row 5), Bernard Mark (q. 64, row 1), Marian Małowist (q. 2a, row 1) and others), social and political activists (Ludwik Bergson (q. 1, row 3), Adam Czerniaków (q. 10, row 2), Marek Edelman (q. 12a, row 2), Leon Feiner (q. 12a, row 4) and others), artists (Aleksander Lesser (q. 20, row 9), Józef Seidenbeutl (q. 71, row 2), Ester Rachel Kamińska (q. 39, row. 1), Chewel Buzgan (qtd. 39, row. 1), Abraham Morewski (sq. 64, row 1) and others).
The cemetery on Okopowa Street also houses the quarters of Polish Army soldiers who died during the defence of Warsaw in 1939. Participants in the 1943 ghetto uprising (the Błones siblings, Pola Elster, Hersh Berlinski, Elijah Erlich) were also buried there. The monument commemorates all Jews who fought on the frontlines of the Second World War to Jewish Soldiers and Officers Fallen in the Second World War. A Memorial to Children - Victims of the Holocaust and a Monument to Janusz Korczak have been erected near the entrance to the cemetery.
A selection of the 100 most important (in our opinion) tombstones and monuments from the cemetery on ul. Okopowa can be found in the Virtual Shtetl's tab: Memory in Stone.
An inventory of matzevot from the Jewish cemetery in Wola is available on the website of the Foundation for the Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries https://cemetery.jewish.org.pl/list/c_1 [accessed: 05/08/2022].
The cemetery can be visited from Monday to Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (in the autumn and winter months until dusk), on Fridays from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., on Sundays from 9: 00 a.m. to 4: 00 p.m. The cemetery is closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.
- Kroszczor H., Zimler H., Cmentarz żydowski w Warszawie/Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, Warsaw 1983.
- Przysuskier L., Cmentarze żydowskie w Warszawie. Przewodnik ilustrowany, Warsaw 1936.
- Schiper I., Cmentarze żydowskie w Warszawie, Warsaw 1938.