The Largest Jewish Cemetery in Europe
A conversation with Przemyslaw Isroel Szpilman, director of the cemetery on Okopowa Street in Warsaw.
What is this cemetery exactly?
That's simple: it is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. At least in terms of its number of graves. About 250,000 of them are on 33.5 hectares (approx. 82.8 acres) here. So that's probably about twenty times more than all Jews in Poland today. There are thirty ohels [structures built over the graves of tzaddikim - Ed.] alone here.
The cemetery in Lodz is spread over a greater area, but in terms of the number of graves, this one is still the largest. Before the war, there was also another smaller Jewish cemetery located on the other side of the Vistula River, but today not much of it remains.
Today only a small part is still functioning, where twenty to twenty-five burials a year take place. We are, however, preparing to expand that area, so that we can continue to bury Warsaw Jews who have died. Unfortunately fewer and fewer people want religious burials, and families often don't agree to allow the tahar (ritual bathing of the dead) to be carried out. Some of Jews are of course also buried in other Warsaw cemeteries, together with people of various other religions.
The vast majority of graves date back to before the war.
The cemetery was founded in 1807. The Polish Jews who are buried here were of various orientations, from ultra-Orthodox to maskilim-progressives, people who were not very religious. It's easy to tell the traditional gravestones of the Orthodox from the graves of the wealthy, businessmen and bankers. This variety is also apparent in the physical layout of the cemetery, there are various areas where people from the various orientations or milieux are concentrated.
Some very important people were also buried here, such as Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, Estera Rachel Kaminska, Isaac Leib Peretz, great rabbis from Slonim, Radomsko, Modrzyce (Deblin), Amszynow (Mszczonow) and others. There is also a symbolic grave for Janusz Korczak. In addition, collective graves for the Jewish soldiers and officers of the Polish Army from the September 1939 campaign and the victims of the Warsaw ghetto are also located here.
Main path, half-paved:
The newest part of the cemetery, still used for burials:
How can such a large area be maintained if so few burials now take place?
Above all, it is thanks to the visitors who come here and pay a donation at the gate. This cemetery attracts both Jews and non-Jews, and has thousands of visitors a year, many people from abroad and from schools-from Poland as well. People come who desire peace and quiet, people out on walks. Many Chasidim come to visit the graves of the tzaddikim.
Nevertheless, we still lack the means to fund the most important projects. The rusty gate should be changed, the paving of the main path should be completed, running water should be installed in the section where burials still take place. It takes a lot of effort to constantly deal with the trees and bushes, which grow over absolutely everything here. We also try to restore the ohels, fix the gravestones that have fallen over and the walls. Taking an inventory of the gravesites is a very important task. People come and ask about family graves, so we are trying to recreate the list that once existed, but which was lost as the result of simple human dishonesty.
Is this more a cemetery, or more a historical monument?
Well, that's hard to say. In part of it, people are still buried. The graves there are modern ones, different than the traditional ones, more similar to those in Christian cemeteries. But most of it is a peculiar place, with graves deep in the undergrowth that no one comes to see anymore. When I was trimming trees once, I even found several graves with my own last name on them; I don't know whether they were relatives or not. It is certainly someplace that best bears witness to that entire world that was destroyed. All these names, inscriptions, carvings, in Hebrew, Polish, in Cyrillic or Gothic script... It is a wonderful place for educational purposes. That's why whole classes from Poland and abroad come here. Teachers can always make arrangements with us beforehand-as much as possible, we try to tell them something about the cemetery, show them things and take them around. I dream that one day the educational function of this place will grow, but for now the resources are being channeled to the most important projects, so that the cemetery can continue to serve the Warsaw Jewish Community, and, more broadly-the Polish Jews.
Are there funds from abroad that help maintain the cemetery?
Practically nothing, though sometimes someone will ask, or promise something, most often for specific graves, often ohels... but real help is negligible. And that's too bad, because the need is great.
July 2003. Piotr M. A. Cywinski, interviewer and photographer.
Ohels of the tzaddikim:
Jewish Cemetery/Cmentarz Zydowski
ul. Okopowa 45/51
Tel: (+48 22) 838 26 22
In the autumn and winter months, the cemetery is open until dusk.
It is closed on Saturday and Jewish holidays.
Men are required to cover their heads.
Przemyslaw Isroel Szpilman:
Polish army officers and soldiers graves from 1939 (Warsaw defence):
Old part of the cymetery:
Symbolic grave of J. Korczak and his childrens:
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