The name most commonly used for a Jewish cemetery in Poland is kirkut (sometimes kierkow, kierchol); the word derives from German kirchhof, meaning “church yard,” a place where the dead used to be buried. Jews usually referred to cemetery as beys oylem, which is Yiddish for the Hebrew phrase beit olam (“house of the [eternal] world”). Other Hebrew names for a cemetery are: beit moed ke-kol hay, beit haiym (“house of [eternal] life”), beit kvarot (“house of graves”).

One of the major tasks of a newly established Jewish community was to acquire a plot to establish a cemetery. Establishment of a cemetery completed the process of organising a new community, which then became self-reliant and independent from its parent community. The parent community, which collected fees for burials at its own cemetery, was reluctant to allow a new community to break away. It often took many years for new communities to gain independence.

Many towns were granted the de non tolerandis Judaeis privilege, for example: Piotrków Trybunalski, Radom, Kielce, Bochnia, Krosno, Jasło, as well as entire regions: Pomerania, Mazovia and Silesia. Jews expelled from Silesia returned there only in the 18th century. Jewish people were expelled from Mazovia in 1527 and returned there as late as 1768.

Despite the ban, Jews resided in the above towns illegally and dealt in trade there. Official communities and cemeteries were established in nearby towns, for example Jews from Piotrków based their community in Rozprza, Jews from Radom in Przytyk, Jews of Krosno in Rymanów, Jews of Częstochowa in Janów, Jews of Bochnia in Wiśnicz. The location of Jewish cemeteries depended not only on Jewish religious regulations but also on the conditions on which they had been invited to a given locality. Cemeteries were located within the town boundaries, sometimes in the vicinity of synagogues, and sometimes, due to lack of space, outside the town walls. Already in the Middle Ages church authorities ordered for cemeteries to be located far from churches, so that the noise of Jewish funerals would not interfere with church services. Jewish cemeteries were therefore most often located at the opposite end of town to the parish church.

Cemeteries were protected by the local ruler. In the so-called Statute of Kalisz from 1264, which defined privileges granted to the Jews of Greater Poland by Duke Bolesław Pobożny (in 1334 Kazimierz Wielki extended those privileges to the entire territory of Poland), one of the provisions was as follows: “…If Jews, according to their tradition, were to transport their dead from one town to the other, or from one province to the other, or from one country to the other, we decide that our custom officers should not charge them…”. The following provision stated: “If a Christian were to loot or in any way invade their cemetery, we decree that he should be severely punished according to the custom and law of our country, and all his possessions, whatever they would be, were confiscated by our Treasury”. All settlement bans on Jews, as well as the ban on establishing cemeteries, were lifted as late as the 19th century (under Russian partition as late as 1862).

Cemetery remains inviolable until the Judgement Day, when all dead shall rise from their graves. Cemetery is also an impure place, and as such should be surrounded by a wall or a fence, and should this be deemed impossible, its boundary should be marked with a ditch or an earth bank (hence one of the Polish names for a Jewish cemetery: okopisko [entrenched area]). It is stated in the Talmud that a cemetery should be located at a distance of minimum 50 cubits (ca. 25 metres) from the nearest houses.

There was a burial society (Aramaic: Chevra Kadisha, lit. “Holy Brotherhood”) in each Jewish community. Being a member of the society was considered a great honour and fulfillment of a mitzvah (good deed, commandment). The duties of the society members encompassed spending time at the home of a dying person, reciting prayers together with him or her and, after he or she had passed away, organising the ritual of tahara (ritual purification of the body), building a coffin, sowing the shroud, accompanying the deceased person to the grave, and the burial. The burial society assessed the deceased’s piety and decided on the burial spot, which often caused conflicts and complaints.

The dead body should be buried within 24 hours of death. This period may be extended if it falls on Shabbat or if the family awaits the arrival of the deceased’s son. After the dead body was carried out of a house and placed on a bier or a hearse, the funeral procession set off towards the cemetery. Upon entering the cemetery the body was placed in a special room of the Funeral Home in which members of the Chevra Kadisha performed the ritual cleansing of a dead body, dressed it in a shroud, put back on the bier and escorted it to the grave. The grave had to be dug on the day of the funeral and could not have any masonry lining, according to the Book of Genesis 3:19: “thou [shall] return to the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return” . The body was to be put directly in the soil or put in a coffin and lowered into the grave. After the casket had been closed, it was covered with soil. People present at the funeral recited Kaddish and, having washed their hands, returned to the deceased home, where the family began its mourning.

Graves at Jewish cemeteries were visited on each anniversary of the death and in the month of Elul, which precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as well as on the holiday of Yom Kippur. Prayers were recited, candles (called yahrzeit – “the anniversary of death” in Yiddish) were lit, and small pebbles were put on the grave, in accordance with the ancient tradition. Flowers appeared relatively late, and were placed mostly on the graves of the assimilated community members.

Jewish cemeteries in Poland had separate sections for women, men and children. Within the women’s section, married women were buried separately from the unmarried ones. A pious person should not be buried next to a malefactor. Suicide victims were buried next to the cemetery wall, renegades were buried outside the wall. Within traditional circles these customs were observed until World War II. When there was no more space at a cemetery and new burials could not take place there without violating the existing graves, old plots were covered with two metres of soil and new bodies were buried in there. There are some sections at the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery where bodies are buried in two layers.

Erecting gravestones on a grave goes back to antiquity. It says in the Book of Genesis 35:20: “And Ya’aqov set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rahel’s grave to this day”. Gravestones served not only as a defense against animals, but also indicated an area impure for the kohanim. Kohanim (Hebrew: priests), direct descendants of Biblical Aaron, were priests at the Jerusalem Temple. On Yom Kippur only kohanim could enter the Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. They were subject to the commandment of ritual purity, as defined in the Book of Leviticus 21:1: “There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people”. The graves of the next of kin of kohanim were placed at the very entrance, so that they did not have to walk around other graves. Even in the Talmudic era the graves were lime-washed once a year, on the 15th day of the month Adar. In the Middle Ages it was decided that a tombstone is a sign of respect towards the dead and thus setting a tombstone on the first anniversary of the death was considered a religious obligation.

The shapes and forms of gravestones vary depending on time and place. Among the Ashkenazi Jews tombstones are most often vertical slabs called matzevot, made of stone, wood, and from the 19th century also of cast iron, crowned with a rectangular, triangular or semicircular coping. An epitaph in Hebrew was placed on the eastern side of the slab. The dead were buried with their faces turned towards Jerusalem, hence the graves were always lined on the East-West axis. The gravestone was often supported from the back with a rectangular or semicircular block of stone, rarely adorned. Erratic blocks often placed on graves in Jewish cemeteries in north-eastern Poland refer to the form of a matzevah.

From the 16th century the coping of the gravestone usually featured a symbolical depiction of the dead person’s name, profession, and merits, or symbols of death, sorrow and mourning. The number and size of symbols on the gravestones from the 18th century often leaves no space for an epitaph and makes it difficult to determine whether these are ornaments or symbolical imagery. Painting the gravestones (rarely preserved until now) gave them an eerie, unreal character.

It is stated in the Book of Deuteronomy 5:8: “Thou shalt not make for thyself any carved idol, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath”; it is therefore forbidden to depict people on a gravestone. Stonecutters would get round it by carving human figures with a face of a bird, or face covered with a hand or a hat. They often retorted to the “pars pro toto” (part for the whole) technique – a sculpted hand would hold a jug, a feather or a candle.

Since the antiquity a number of symbols was used on gravestones in order to emphasize the Jewish origin of a deceased: a menorah – a seven-branched candle holder from the Jerusalem Temple, the symbol of Judaism; grapevine – the symbol of the people of Israel; lion – the symbol of the Judah tribe, which became the symbol of Israel after 10 northern tribes had disappeared; the Star of David started to appear on tombstones in the 19th century, due to the rise of the Zionist movement, and served as a symbol of the Promised Land. The most common symbols on women’s tombstones are candle holders, since women are guardians of the household and they light candles during Shabbat meals.

Only gravestones of deceased men carry symbols which might indicate their origin from the Levi tribe: hands performing the blessing gesture suggest that the deceased was a priest, i.e. he belonged to the family of Aaron, whose descendants used to be priests at the Jerusalem Temple. In the diaspora they still observed the ritual purity and delivered blessing to the congregation on chosen holidays.

A bowl and a jug indicated descendants of Levi, who during their service at the Temple used to, among other things, wash hands of the kohanim before they delivered their blessing. Some of the names were depicted in the form of an animal: lion – Arye, Leyb, Judah; deer – Zvi, Hirsh, Naftali; bear – Dov, Ber; wolf – Wolf, Ze’ev, Beniamin; bird – Tzipora, Fayga; pidgeon – Yonah, etc. Reliefs representing various animals may refer to the sentence from Pirke Avot 5:23: “Be strong as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, mighty as a lion, to do your duty to Thy Father in heaven”. Books are not only a symbol of a bookseller’s profession, but also of learning and fulfilling religious duty to study Torah and the Talmud. The crown is mounted on the Torah, and thus it is a symbol of piety and erudition, and the fact that the deceased deserves, through his good deeds, the crown of good name (Hebrew: keter shem tov). Crooked crown indicates that the deceased was the head of a family or a community and refers to the words from the Book of Lamentations 5:15: “The crown is fallen from our head”. The deceased’s charity is indicated by a Tzedakah box, often with a hand putting a coin inside. The profession of the deceased was symbolised by: a quill – a sofer copying texts from the Torah, lancet – a mohel performing brit milah; mortar – a pharmacist; Aesculapian snake – a medical doctor. Plant motifs, which are also rather common – trees, bouquets of flowers, grapevine – might be purely decorative or serve as symbolical depiction of the tree of life. Broken tree, flowers, candles are symbols of sudden death, sudden end to one’s life. Jewish gravestones sometimes featured symbols borrowed from other cultures, for example: urn, broken column, smouldering torch, hourglass through which the seeds of life are running.

At the beginning of the 19th century Jews were ordered to use surnames, which traditionalists used to place on the western, rough side of the gravestone. In the areas influenced by the German culture, the gravestones started to feature epitaphs in Hebrew on the eastern side and in German on the western side as early as the beginning of the 19th century.

Another type of gravestones are pseudo-sarcophagi which appeared at Polish cemeteries in the 17th century. They were erected at cemeteries belonging to large communities. The only remaining ones can be found at the Remu cemetery in Kraków.

The Hasidic movement was founded in Podolia in the 18th century, but its followers swiftly spread across all of Ukraine and Belarus. Towards the end of the 18th century it finally arrived to central Poland. The role of tzaddikim (righteous ones) was gradually growing, and it was believed that Divine influence was channeled through them even after their deaths. Graves of tzaddikim were cherished; it is still a common practice for Hasidim to leave kvitlekh (little notes) with requests and wishes on the grave of of a tzaddik in a belief that the soul of the deceased will pray for them in heaven. Wooden or brick buildings called ohalim (Hebrew: ohel – tent) were erected over the graves of the tzaddikim. Many ohalim, as well as towns in which they are located, continue to be the destinations of Hasidic pilgrimages. There are ohalim in 35 localities in Poland [as of 2017, fully or partially preserved ohalim can be found in 77 localities – ed.]:

  • Aleksandrów Łódzki – Henokh (d. 1870), Yekhiel Danziger (d. 1894) and his descendants;
  • Bobowa – Salomon Halberstam (d. 1906);
  • Bochnia – Asher Meir Halberstam (d. 1932);
  • Brzesko – Arye Leybush (d. 1946) and his descendants;
  • Chrzanów – Salomon Buchner (d. 1828), David Halberstam (d. 1894) and his descentants;
  • Cieszanów – Simcha Issachar Halberstam (d. 1914); Dąbrowa Tarnowska – Mordechai David (d. 1843) and his descendants;
  • Dynów – Tzvi Elimelekh (d. 1841) and his descendants;
  • Gorlice – Barukh Halberstam (d. 1906);
  • Góra Kalwaria – Icchak Meir Alter (d. 1866) and his grandson, Judah Arye Leyb (d. 1905);
  • Kock – Menachem Mendl Morgenstern (d. 1859) and his descendants;
  • Kozienice – Israel Hepstein known as Maggid (d. 1814);
  • Kraków – Samuel Teitelbaum (d. 1888), Kalman Epstein (d. 1823) and his son, Aron (d. 1881);
  • Kromołów – Israel Leyb;
  • Lelów – David Biderman (d. 1814);
  • Leżajsk – Elimelekh (d. 1787) and his descendants;
  • Lublin – Yaakov Yitzchak known as the “Chozeh” (Hebrew: “Seer”) (d. 1815), Judah Leyb Eiger (d. 1888) and his descendants;
  • Łańcut – Naftali Horovitz of Ropczyce (d.1827), Eleazer (d. 1865);
  • Mszczonów – Aron, son-in-law of Menachem Mendl of Warka (d. 1873);
  • Nowy Sącz – Haim Halberstam (d. 1876) and his descendants;
  • Pilica – Pinchas Eliah Rotenberg (d. 1903);
  • Przysucha – Yaakov Yitzchak known as Ha-yehudi ha-kadosh, “The Holy Jew” (d. 1813) and his descendants, Simcha Bunam (d. 1827);
  • Radomsko – Salomon Rabinovich (d. 1866) and his descendants;
  • Rymanów – Menachem Mendl (d. 1815), Tzvi Hirsch (d. 1846);
  • Rzeszów – Tzvi Elimelekh of Błażowa (d. 1924) and his son Joshua, Abraham Chaim of Połaniec (d. 1919);
  • Sieniawa – Ezekhiel Shraga Halberstam (d. 1898); Skierniewice – Shimeon Kalish (d. 1925);
  • Sochaczew - Avraham Bornstein (d. 1910) and his descendants;
  • Tarnobrzeg (Dzików) – Eliezer Horovitz (d. 1860) and his descendants;
  • Tarnów – Arye Leybush Halberstam (d. 1930), Naftali Horovitz of Tarnów (d. 1931);
  • Tomaszów Lubelski – Yosef Grin of Jarczów (d.1839) and his descendants;
  • Trzebinia – Abraham of Trzebinia;
  • Warka – Yisrael Yitzhak Kalisz (d. 1848);
  • Warsaw – Joshua of Ostrowia (d. 1873), Menachem Mendl of Warka (d. 1868) and his descendants, Emanuel Waltfried of Przedborze (d. 1865), Yaakov Arye Guterman of Radzymin (d. 1874) and his descendants, Yisrael Taub of Modrzyce (d. 1920), Mordechai Yosef of Radzyń (d. 1929), Menachem Mendl of Mszczonów (d. 1917) and his descendants, Aaron Tzvi of Biała Rawska (d. 1910), Samuel Weinberg of Słonim (d. 1916), Alter Yisrael Shimeon of Mińsk Mazowiecki (d. 1932), Józef Rabinowicz of Radomsko (d. 1921), Yitzhak Morgenstern of Sokołów (d. 1939), Elimelekh Menachem Mendl of Stryków (d. 1936);
  • Żabno – Yisrael Elimelekh of Żabno (d. 1867).

In the 19th century, following assimilatory trends, new forms of gravestones were introduced in Jewish cemeteries in big cities of both the Russian and the Austrian partition, and in the Prussian partition even in smaller towns; they were  similar to the ones from Catholic and Protestant cemeteries: columns, obelisks, sarcophagi, monumental chapels. The epitaphs are written not only in Hebrew, but also in Polish, German, Russian, rarely in Yiddish.

In the 20th century sculptures appeared, but human figures were reduced to cubist forms (for example: A. Ostrzega). In the majority of cemeteries gravestones remained traditional in form and content.

What is the current condition of Jewish cemeteries?

We have only fragmentary data regarding cemeteries currently within the borders of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. The most interesting cemeteries in Ukraine are: Bolekhiv, Brody, Buchach, Busk, Delatyn, Halych, Yablonov, Kosiv, Kuty, Łysiec. They feature lime and sandstone grave slabs with beautiful decoration and imagery. In Belarus there are graves with field stones, and even with fragments of millwheels, with primitive lettering and no imagery. The best preserved cemeteries are: Indura, Kamionka, Mir, Wolpa and Dzyatlava (Pol.: Zdzięcioł).

Lviv (Pol.: Lwów, Ger.: Lemberg). The first mention of an old cemetery at Rapaport Street goes back to 1414, even though the Jewish community had already existed in Lviv in the 14th century. The cemetery was closed for burials in 1855. It was slowly sinking into oblivion even though several graves were frequently visited, for example: grave of Róża Nachmanowicz known as the Golden Rose (d. 1637); the Reices brothers, martyrs for faith burnt in Lviv on May 13, 1728; Rabbis – David Halevi (d. 1667), Joshua Falk (d. 1614), Yaakov Ornstein (1839), Abraham Kohn (d. 1848). Unfortunately inventory work was not conducted at the cemetery until 1914, when it took place under Mayer Balaban’s supervision. Circa 1,400 gravestones were lifted and the epitaphs were deciphered. The oldest gravestone found came from 1530. The cemetery was destroyed during World War II. Numerous courtyards in Lviv were paved with fragments of the gravestones, which have not been recovered until today.

Vilnius (Pol.: Wilno). It is believed that the cemetery on Snipiskes (Pol.: Śnipiszki), opposite the Castle Hill, was established in 1487, but the oldest gravestone found and noted (Rabbi Chajes’ grave) dates back to 1636. The graves at the cemetery had distinctive forms, reminiscent of small houses. They became the model for sepulchral monuments in Lithuania and Belarus. Gaon of Vilna (d. 1797) was buried in an ohel in a form of a grotto. Tradition has it that Walenty Potocki, known as the Ger Tzedek, who converted to Judaism in the mid-18th century and was consequently burnt at the stake in 1749, was to be buried next to the Gaon, under a nearby tree. In times difficult for Jews the tree was wilting, and during World War II died away completely. The cemetery was destroyed in the years 1949-50. The Palace of Sport is located on the spot. Ashes of Gaon and Potocki were transferred to the Szaszkinie cemetery, along with the ashes of Rabbi Grodzieński and victims from the Vilnius Ghetto.

According to the data from 31 December 1997, there are 1,056 Jewish cemeteries in Poland [as of 2017 the number has risen to 1,164]. Their condition varies substantially. Burials are performed at seven cemeteries only, in: Bielsko, Katowice, Kraków, Legnica, Łódź, Warsaw and Wrocław. In Żary, Szczecin and Poznań Jewish sections were demarcated at municipal cemeteries.

Many cemeteries were destroyed during the Nazi occupation. Gravestones were frequently used to pave streets, especially in smaller towns. Many of them have not yet been recovered, to name a few: Baligród, Kępno, Pułtusk, Sobienie. In many towns gravestones were returned to cemeteries and organised in a lapidarium, for example in: Maków Mazowiecki, Kazimierz, Opatów, Przasnysz, Hrubieszów, Ostrołęka, Chorzele, Łuków, Sandomierz. After the war, abandoned cemeteries became a source of stone for rebuilding destroyed towns. The authorities did not prevent such activities, in some cases it even encouraged the proceedings with befitting bylaws. It was not until 18 July 1991 that a decree on cemeteries ensured that cemeteries of all religious denominations were to remain inviolable.

Ca. 260 cemeteries were completely destroyed after the war. Residential buildings, offices (Kałuszyn, Mielec), bus stations (Przeworsk, Maków Mazowiecki, Międzyrzec Podlaski – old cemetery), swimming pools (Koło, Leszno), and – in best case scenarios – parks and playgrounds were built on the spots.

Ca. 400 cemeteries are currently empty spaces with no gravestones, in most cases overgrown with trees and bushes. In numerous districts – Chełm, Biała Podlaska, Bydgoszcz, Leszno, Toruń, Konin – there are hardly any gravestones at Jewish cemeteries. In Konin District, erratic boulders and bronze memorials were placed on the cemetery plots with information on their former purpose. At the remaining 400 cemeteries some gravestones have still been preserved, in varying numbers. At about 100 cemeteries the number of gravestones remaining exceeds one hundred.

Ca. 180 cemeteries are now listed in the Polish heritage register, which does not mean that they are properly protected and preserved. The register encompasses some cemeteries with no gravestones, while cemeteries with gravestones from the 18th century, such as Baligród, Lutowiska, Oleszyce, Przedbórz, Tomaszów Lubelski, Trzciel, or Wielowieś, have not yet been listed.

There are gravestones dating back to before 1800 at 60 cemeteries. The oldest ones are in Silesia (Wrocław, Świdnica); they were retrieved during construction works carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries. Gravestones from Wrocław, which date back to 1203, 1246, 1240, 1343 and 1345, were placed near the wall of the 19th century cemetery at Ślężna Street. Gravestones from Świdnica – from 1362 and 1382 – were moved to the local Commerce Museum.

Cemeteries with gravestones dating back to as early as the 16th century are in: Lublin (at Kalinowszczyzna Street, the oldest gravestone from 1541), Szczebrzeszyn (the oldest gravestone from 1545), Lesko (the oldest gravestone from 1548) and in Kraków (Remu, Szeroka Street, the oldest gravestone from 1553).

Gravestones from the 17th century can be found in: Leszno (from 1601, collection of stone fragments next to the Funeral Home Museum), Olkusz (from 1609, in maintenance), Biała Prudnicka (from 1622), Pińczów (from 1622, set in the wall next to the synagogue), Chęciny (from 1638), Wiśnicz (from 1667), Cieszyn (from 1686, old cemetery, Haźlaska Street), Sieniawa (from 1686).

Gravestones from the 18th century can be found in 38 cemeteries in the following localities: Opatów (1707, collection of stone fragments), Międzyrzec Podlaski (1708, set in the wall of a new cemetery), Tarnów (1708), Przedbórz (1708), Baligród (1716), Krotoszyn (1722, museum), Wielowieś (1722), Tomaszów Lubelski (1724), Lubaczów (1726), Mikołów (1726), Kromołów (1730), Pełczyce (1736), Tykocin (1739), Nowy Żmigród (1742), Skwierzyna (1746), Krynki (1750), Bytom (1750, collection of stone fragments at a new cemetery), Mirosławiec (1752), Szczecinek (1756, museum), Debrzno (1758), Dobrodzień (1759), Józefów, Biłgoraj (1762), Krzepice (1763), Oleszyce (1767), Miejsce (1768), Miłocice (1769), Przysucha (1771), Przytyk (1771), Biskupice (1772?), Mszczonów (1772), Głogów (1776, museum), Trzciel (1776), Człopa (1777), Cieszowa (1775), Poznań (1780, collection of stone fragments at the municipal cemetery), Gdańsk (1786), Trzemeszno Lubelskie (1786), Rusocice (1789), Węgrów (1789, collection of stone fragments), Janów n. Częstochowa (1791), Jeleniewo (1788), Biała Rawska (1791), Suraż (1792), Piotrków Trybunalski (1794), Lutowiska (1796), Wola Michowa (1796), Choroszcz (1797), Rzeszów (collection of stone fragments at a new cemetery).

Lublin. The cemetery is located on a hill known as “Grodzisko” on Sienna Street (currently the entrance to the cemetery is located on Kalinowszczyzna Street). In 1555 King Zygmunt August confirmed its assignation to the Jews. The cemetery survived, despite being devastated during consecutive wars. It was closed for burials at the beginning of the 20th century. Near the new entrance, on a hill, there is the oldest remaining gravestone of the prominent Talmudist Yaakov Kopelman (d. 1541). Next to it there is the grave of chazzan Abraham, son of Ushay (d. 1543). The gravestones of the head of the Lublin Yeshiva, Shalom Szachna (d. 1558), are located nearby. They are tall, limestone slabs with an epitaph in Hebrew, with no ornaments or imagery. The person buried next to him is Yaakov Yitzhak Horowitz, known as the Chozeh (“The Seer”), the most famous tzaddik of the turn of the 19th century. His grave is frequently visited by worshippers, who file their requests and light candles. Deeper into the cemetery there are gravestones from the beginning of the 19th century, with interesting ornaments and imagery. At the top of the hill, among the trees, there is a grave of Sholo Luria known as Maharshal (d. 1573), first head of the Lublin Yeshiva. Fragments of his gravestone were recently discovered. There are also several gravestones from the 17th century, reminiscent of similar gravestones at the Remu cemetery in Kraków, most likely made of local stone at the Pińczów workshop.

Kraków. The Remu cemetery in Kazimierz was established in 1551 next to the synagogue, where Moses Isserles, known as Remu, used to pray. It was closed for burials in 1800. The abandoned cemetery was slowly sinking into oblivion. Only about a dozen graves of prominent rabbis were looked after, in particular the grave of Remu (d. 1572), which has remained the destination of numerous pilgrimages until today. In 1959, during maintenance work, over 700 gravestones were discovered, hidden most probably as early as the 17th-18th centuries. Gravestones in the shape of matzevot and pseudo-sarcophagi were put in a row, and small fragments were set in the wall surrounding the cemetery. Next to the Remu’s grave his next-of-kin were buried: grandmother Gitla (d. 1552), father Yisrael (d. 1568), wife Golda (d. 1552, daughter of Lublin rabbi Shalom Szachna). At the back of the cemetery there are gravestones of Yitzhak Jakubowicz, merchant and sponsor of the Ajzyk Synagogue (d. 1653); Natan Spira (d. 1633), Kabbalist and head of a yeshiva; Mordechai Saba, known as Singer, (d. 1576), a Kabbalist; Eliezer Ashkenazy (d. 1585), medical doctor and learned rabbi in Cairo; Joel Sirkes known as Bach (d. 1640), Rabbi of Kraków; Yomtov Lipman Heller (d. 1654), rabbi in Vienna, Prague and Kraków; Samuel, son of Meshulam (d. 1552), medical doctor to King Zygmunt Stary; and Michael Calahora (d. 1663), martyr for faith, burnt at the stake for professed blasphemy against Christianity.

Warsaw. The emetery at Okopowa Street is considered a mausoleum of Polish Jews. It was established in 1806. Ca. 200,000 people are buried on the area of 33 ha. There are graves of rabbis such as: Shlomo Lipszyc (d. 1839), Ber Meisels (d. 1870), Abraham Perlmutter (d. 1930), as well as of prominent Jewish writers such as: Yitzhak Leyb Peretz (d. 1915), Shlomo An-sky (d. 1920), or actors: Esther Rahel Kamińska (d. 1925), Abraham Morewski (d. 1964). There are graves of: Samuel Orgelbrand (d. 1868), publisher; Hipolit Wawelberg (d. 1901), financier, founder of the Technical School; Haim Zelig Słonimski (d. 1904), mathematician and astronomer, grandfather of the poet Antoni Słonimski; Bernard Lessman (d. 1878), grandfather of writers and poets Bolesław Leśmian and Jan Brzechwa; Ludwik Zamenhof (d. 1917), creator of Esperanto; Shimon Ashkenazy (d. 1935), historian. There are also graves of Henryk Wohl (d. 1907), treasurer of the Polish National Government during the January Uprising; Feliks Perl (d. 1927), founder of the Polish Socialist Party; Baruch Szulman (d. 1906), member of the Combat Organisation of the Polish Socialist Party; leaders of the Bund Yosif Michalewicz (d. 1928) and Bronisław Grosser (d. 1912); Bronisław Mansperl (d. 1915), lieutenant of the 1st Brigade of the Polish Legions. The events of the war resulted in the creation of anonymous mass graves of the ghetto residents, as well as symbolic graves of the ghetto insurgents: Abrash Blum (d. 1943) and Michał Klepfisz (d. 1943) and graves of Professor Mayer Balaban (d. 1942) and head of the Judenrat Adam Czerniakow (d. 1942). In the contemporary section of the cemetery there are graves of writers: Julian Stryjkowski (d. 1996), Bogdan Wojdowski (d. 1994); historians: Marian Małowist (d. 1988), Khone Shmeruk (d. 1997); actor Michał Szwejlich (d. 1995). The monuments were produced by prominent sculptors, such as: Abraham Ostrzega, Henryk Kuna, Mieczysław Lubelski, Natan Rapaport.

Łódź. The city which within half a century became one of the most vital centres of the textile industry in Europe. Fast and high-flying careers of many of the residents of Łódź, including Jews were reflected not only in the splendour of the industrialists’ mansions, but also in the monuments at the local cemetery. The old, small cemetery on Wesoła Street, established in 1811, filled up with graves very fast and a new one was urgently needed. The 1892 epidemic of cholera forced the Russian administration to allow for its creation. The new cemetery was opened in the Bałuty quarter, on Bracka Street. Today its area encompasses the area of 40.5 ha and is the resting place for 180,000 Jews. Next to the so-called the “cholera section” (almost 700 graves with modest gravestones), a large Funeral Home was erected in 1896; it was designed by Adolf Zeligson and sponsored by the Konsztadt family. Having entered the cemetery via its impressive gate, one can spot the mausoleum of Israel Poznański, an industrialist – it is supposedly the largest Jewish cemetery monument in the world. It was designed by Adolf Zeligson and built in the years 1903-1905 of grey granite, marble and cast iron. The interior of the dome was decorated with a mosaic produced by A. Salviati from Venice. Inside there are red marble sarcophagi Israel Poznański (d. 1900) and his wife Leonia nee Hertz (d. 1914). Monuments of other factory owners are no less opulent: the Prussaks, the Barcińskis, the Jarocińskis, the Silbersteins. These are monuments made of the most precious construction stones from all over Europe, closer in form to those of Berlin or Wrocław than traditional gravestones from the area of former Russian and Austrian partitions. South of the main alley there is the so-called “Ghetto Field”. In the years 1940-1944 circa 43,000 people were buried here. During the war, their graves were marked with small poles. Close to the wall by the entrance gate one can see empty pits – prepared for the last 877 inmates of the ghetto who managed to survive until the liberation.

Wrocław (Ger.: Breslau). The cemetery located on Ślężna Street is closely associated with the German Jewish culture. Only several gravestones have been preserved in the oldest Jewish cemetery, located outside the Oławska Gate: one of David, son of Shar Shalom, deceased in 1203, and several gravestones from the 14th century (set in the wall of the cemetery on Ślężna Street). Jews were expelled from the city in 1345, and did not return until the 17th century. They obtained permission to establish a cemetery in 1760 (on Gwarna Street, next to the railway station, demolished in the 1950s). The cemetery on Ślężna Street was established in 1856, and its area covers 4.6 ha. The Jewish community of Wrocław was one of the largest in Germany. Jewish participation in political, cultural and social life of the 19th century Germany was rather significant, which is reflected in the graves of people buried at the cemetery: Ferdinand Lassalle (d. 1864), founder of the first Workers’ Party in Germany; Heinrich Graetz (d. 1891), historian; Leopold Auerbach (d. 1897), histology professor; Gustav Born (d. 1900), anatomy professor, father of the Nobel Prize laureate Max Born; Herman Cohn (d. 1906) ophthalmology professor, father of the writer Emil Ludwig; Siegfried Haber (d. 1920), merchant, father of the chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Fritz Haber; Friederike Kempner (d. 1904), writer; Clara Sachs (d. 1921), painter; parents of Edith Stein, saint of the Catholic Church (d. 1942 in Auschwitz), Henryk Toeplitz of Warsaw (d. 1891), merchant and patron of Stanisław Moniuszko. Large family tombstones adjacent to the wall were built in the neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and neo-Moorish styles fashionable at the time. There are also interesting examples of the Art Nouveau style. Aside from the stone from the Sudety Mountains,  gravestones were made of Italian marble, Scandinavian granite and labradorite from Volhynia.

There are also cemeteries which did not belong to major Jewish communities but are still worth visiting, if only to admire the artistry of Jewish sepulchral art. These are the cemeteries in: Cieszyn, Krzepice, Lesk, Łowicz, Mszczonów, Przytyk, Szczebrzeszyn, Szydłowiec and Tarnów.

Mass executions of Jews often took place at cemeteries, in the woods and in the ghettos. After the war, those who had survived erected modest memorials on the execution sites.

In the 1960s the government erected large monuments at the sites of Nazi death camps, but they often omitted the information about who had perished there by using a general term “victims of Nazism”. The inscriptions were only changed towards the end of the 1980s. The authors of the monument at the Bełżec camp are Stanisław Strzyżyński and Jarosław Olejnicki; in Birkenau – Pietro Cascella, Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz, Julian Pałka and Giorgio Simoncini; in Chełm on Ner – Jerzy Stasiński and Jerzy Buszkiewicz, in Majdanek – Wiktor Tołkin and Janusz Dembek; in Sobibor – Mieczysław Welter; in Treblinka – Franciszek Duszenka, Adam Haupt and Franciszek Strynkiewicz.

In the 1990s many towns erected monuments at Jewish cemeteries or at the former sites of synagogues in order to commemorate the Jews murdered during World War II. The monuments were erected on the initiative of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants living in Israel or the United States. 

Jan Jagielski

  • Cmentarze żydowskie, Studia z dziejów kultury żydowskiej w Polsce, ed. J. Worończak, Wrocław 1995, vol. 2.
  • Hońdo L., Stary żydowski cmentarz w Krakowie. Historia cmentarza. Analiza hebrajskich inskrypcji, Kraków 1999
  • Jagielski J., Przewodnik po cmentarzu żydowskim w Warszawie przy ul. Okopowej 49/51, book I, II, III, Warsaw 1995-1996.    

After: Tomaszewski J., Żbikowski A., Żydzi w Polsce. Dzieje i kultura. Leksykon, Warsaw 2001.