Last Remnants: One Scholar’s Quest to Document the Destruction of Poland’s Jewish Cemeteries

poland jewish cemeteries

Poland was home to one of the world’s largest and most dynamic Jewish communities until it was abruptly snuffed out during the Holocaust. The Nazis exterminated most of Polish Jewry and destroyed thousands of villages and towns, shuls and yeshivos, and other markings of over a half century of its glorious past.

Little was left within Polish borders to show for centuries of history besides the graves of thousands of Jewish communities dotting the country. As the grip of communism loosened in Eastern Europe, and far more so since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jews from abroad have developed a keen interest in restoring and visiting the resting places of tzaddikim and in doing what is possible to preserve the dignity of batei kvaros.

However, even as thousands flock to Lizhensk and other locations, the vast majority of Jewish graves in Poland, as in most of Eastern Europe, remain in a state of decay and destruction, or have been totally erased. It is hardly uncommon to search for a town’s Jewish graveyard only to find a field, park, or building over the remains of generations of Jews.

Krzysztof Bielawski, a non-Jewish Polish researcher, has spent close to 20 years cataloguing his country’s Jewish burial sites. He has now published what is likely the first comprehensive work on the process of destruction spanning the Nazi-occupation and Communist eras that left Poland’s Jewish cemeteries in the sorry state they are in today.

Mr. Bielawski’s landmark new book The Destruction of Jewish Cemeteries draws on archival documents, previous research, and interviews to present a systematic record of the acts of thievery, vandalism, war, and government actions that largely obliterated what would have been a poignant reminder of Polish Jewry.

poland jewish cemeteries
Krzysztof Bielawski (T. Wrzesinski/Studio MTJ)

“I wanted to show clearly what actually happened to these cemeteries,” said Mr. Bielawski. “There is a common narrative here in Poland that they were destroyed by the Nazis. Once I began to look into the facts, I saw that that was not exactly what occurred. The Nazis definitely destroyed Jewish graves, but a lot was done in the years after the war by local Poles and by the Polish state. At the same time, there were cemeteries in Germany that were preserved and there were Poles here who worked to save Jewish cemeteries. I wanted to show the truth of what happened with all of its complications.”

At present, the book has only been published in Polish, though Mr. Bielawski is actively searching for an English-language publisher.

Spending years visiting sites, reading studies, and plumbing local and national files for records and correspondence, piecing together sources was not a simple task.

“State archives usually have no separate files for Jewish cemeteries so finding information is not easy. Even before the war, Jews themselves did not do wide research; no one thought this world would vanish in a few short years of war,” said Mr. Bielawski.

One chapter that has been translated into English deals with the war years and contains many horrifying episodes.

German soldiers routinely forced Jews and Polish locals to destroy matzeivos and use them for the construction of roads and buildings.

In Sochaczew (Sochatchov), the cemetery was used to build an army airfield and, in the process, the ohalim of the Avnei Nezer and Shem MiShmuel were destroyed. The book quotes Rabbi Shimon Huberband, Hy”d, a contributor to the Ringelblum Archive, which recorded conditions of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, as saying that human remains in Ciechanów were strewn around the area, but that sometime later German soldiers allowed for them to be reburied.

According to the testimony of two non-Jewish Poles from the city of Rybnik, in southeastern Poland, Jews and non-Jewish residents were forced by the Gestapo to remove matzeivos and then to exhume bodies in search of gold and other valuables.

There were several reports of deliberate acts of destruction of kevarim of tzaddikim, mostly in the early stages of the occupation.

“There were myths among Germans and Polish peasants that Jews are buried with gold; it could be that they thought Rabbis with more important-looking graves were richer and would have more,” said Mr. Bielawski.

poland jewish cemeteries
Blowing up a bais taharah in 1944, in the Plaszow camp in Cracow, which was built on top of the Jewish cemetery. (Institute of National Remembrance)

Two non-Jewish Poles reported that they were ordered by the Germans to dismantle the ohel of Harav Elimelech of Lizhensk, zy”a, and to unearth his remains.

Mr. Bielawski said that the testimony of what occurred in Lizhensk is only one of several versions and that while the ohel was destroyed during the war, it was unclear whether the key actors were the German military or the local population.

Such doubts are reflective of a common blurry area of the subject as much wartime vandalism was not necessarily the exclusive work of German occupiers, but Poles were eager to present it as such.

“I quoted the testimony as it exists and left it to readers to judge what to believe,” he said. “We have no way of knowing exactly how many cemeteries were destroyed by the Germans. If you look at the sources from the time, a lot of local records will say that the Nazis destroyed them, but in many cases the facts do not line up and these local books cannot be trusted.”

In addition to purposeful destruction, cemeteries suffered from bombings and peripheral damage, with some being caught on the front during the initial invasion in 1939, the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, the Warsaw uprising in 1944, and when Soviet troops beat back Nazi forces in 1944.

As much as the Nazis did to destroy Jewish cemeteries as part of their campaign of genocide, in the decades that followed, the destruction of Jewish burial places multiplied.

Most of the remnants of Polish Jewry that were left behind after the defeat of Nazi Germany emigrated shortly after the war. Thousands that had considered rebuilding their lives in Poland changed their minds after the 1946 Kielce Pogrom, when Polish soldiers, police, and civilians attacked Jewish refugees, killing 42 of them.

poland jewish cemeteries
Grinder made from a matzeivah in the town of Brok.

Even fewer guardians of the graves remained after the “anti-Zionist” campaign of 1968, when the anti-Semitic policies of the Communist government forced 13,000 of Poland’s estimated 25,000 Jews to leave the country.

The future of Poland’s Jewish cemeteries was made even more precarious by a law imposed by the postwar Communist government disallowing the Jewish communities that remained from reclaiming communal property. The situation left the cemeteries ownerless and deprived Polish Jews of assets that could have been used to protect them.

Mr. Bielawski cites documents showing a request from Jews living in the town of Krosno asking to sell debris from its destroyed shul in order to pay for a fence around the cemetery. The request was refused by the government, saying the materials were not theirs to sell.

With hundreds of cemeteries left ownerless and largely bereft of Jews to care for them, decay, vandalism, and theft ensued. Much was the work of local non-Jews who helped themselves to the stone matzeivos and brick walls, using them for a variety of projects that still dot the country.

In Parysów (Porisov), one can view a small barn constructed of matzeivos, with names and epitaphs still visible. In Przeworsk’s (Pshevorsk) Catholic cemetery, Jewish matzeivos were turned around and fresh engravings were made on the blank backs to mark non-Jewish graves. Until 2011, the courtyard of a school in Inowrocław was paved with fragments of matzeivos. Countless similar scenes can be found around Poland bearing testimony to the widespread nature of locals appropriating building materials from Jewish gravesites.

“There was a big wave of theft starting already during the war that went on for decades,” said Mr. Bielawski. “Jewish cemeteries were hit hardest, because there were so many of them, but it happened to Protestant cemeteries and ones that belonged to ethnic Germans who had been expelled after the war too. One academic wrote that there was an attitude that the commandment ‘thou shalt not steal’ did not apply to these groups.”

Mr. Bielawski’s work shows the gradual destruction during the postwar years in many locations around Poland. The town of Szydlow’s Jewish cemetery records claim that there were 1,100 headstones in 1946. Today there are none. In Blonie, as late as the 1960s, photographs still showed several dozen matzeivos, but as of 20 years ago, only 30 remained. And these last remaining headstones were completely smashed by vandals in 2013.

In addition to failing to stop destruction by local residents, the Communist-era Polish state played a direct role in it as well.

As the cemeteries had been rendered ownerless property, under law, they were formally taken over by the Ministry of Municipal Economy after 10 years. In 1958, a government survey showed that there were 5,941 such graveyards around Poland. Many belonged to other minority groups such as Protestants or members of Eastern Orthodox churches. An estimated 1,200 were Jewish. Following the study, the government decided to initiate a campaign to clean what was viewed as a network of eyesores around the countryside.

poland jewish cemeteries
Fragment of a matzeivah built into the wall of a barn in Parysów.

Yet few municipal authorities were interested in spending funds to maintain the cemeteries and in many cases they opted to convert them into parks, farmland, sites for schools and other public buildings. Throughout the 1960s a wave of “re-purposing” erased countless batei kevaros with little to no resistance from Communist authorities in Warsaw.

Debate exists among those who have documented and studied the phenomenon as to what extent those responsible were motivated by animus toward Jews or whether it was primarily an unethical way to procure free construction materials and building space.

“It’s a question that I was very interested in asking, but of course you can’t find the people and ask them, ‘So, why did you destroy the cemetery?’” said Mr. Bielawski. “Anti-Semitism might not have been the primary motivation, but I cannot accept that it was not an important part of the picture. There were Catholic cemeteries that they also could have stolen from, but they didn’t. I quote some surveys showing that, as late as 1977, up to 51% of Poles harbored anti-Jewish feelings. I am pretty confident that, for the most part, the people who destroyed these cemeteries were anti-Semitic.”

While it is impossible to determine exactly how widespread destruction of Jewish graves was, Mr. Bielawski said that if you apply the rough formula of 30 people stealing from some 1,200 cemeteries, thousands took part in the process.

“I don’t like to generalize, and some people did try to stop it, but there were many more that took part in it and even more that just didn’t care that it was happening,” he said.

In 1970, Edward Gierek’s ascendance to lead Poland’s Communist Party began a slow thawing of relations with the West. In an attempt to improve the country’s image and open it up to Jewish tourism, the government sponsored a campaign to clean and restore some of the cemeteries that remained.

Over the next two decades, the state, activists both from within Poland and from the international Jewish community, initiated campaigns and dialogue with the government to save the remainder of Jewish graves in the country. In 1983, in advance of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Polish government fenced and cleaned several Jewish cemeteries around the country. After the fall of Communism in 1989, efforts by groups from abroad to locate and restore kivrei tzaddkim and to build fences around abandoned cemeteries increasingly picked up steam. Some such initiatives were aided or started by Poles themselves who took an interest in protecting what they viewed as a forgotten part of Polish history.

“There was a growth in interest in the Jewish community after the Communist period,” said Mr. Bielawski. “Here in Poland, there were people who wanted to do something to preserve local Jewish heritage, but it was a drop in the bucket of what was needed.”

poland jewish cemeteries
Seen at the Przeworsk Catholic cemetery.

Post-Communist laws allowed Jewish communities in Poland to claim ownership of cemeteries, but they could not be taken over or purchased by individuals or organizations from abroad.

Mr. Bielawski’s interest in Jewish cemeteries began almost 20 years ago. While on a leave of absence from his job heading a travel agency, he linked his interests in history and photography and began a photo catalogue of Jewish cemeteries around Poland, eventually creating a website.

“People started sending in information and asking questions. I learned a little Hebrew so I could read the matzeivos and started doing research to add information on each of them,” said Mr. Bielawski.

The website grew to provide photos and information on hundreds of Jewish cemeteries around Poland.

As his interest continued to grow, Mr. Bielawski pursued a postgraduate degree in Jewish Studies and is presently employed by Warsaw’s POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews as an archivist.

In recent years, Poland’s nationalist ruling party has zealously worked to present a purely positive picture of the wartime actions of Poles and to paint its citizen’s attitudes toward Jews in a good light, celebrating stories of the righteous who risked their lives to save Jews, but leading pressure campaigns discouraging research on Polish-Nazi collaboration.

Despite the unflattering picture of Polish-Jewish relations that his book presents, Mr. Bielawski said that he had not encountered any official pushback to his work.

poland jewish cemeteries
Remnants of matzeivos in Chmielnik’s Jewish cemetery were turned into a monument in 2008.

“This book is another heavy stone on the story of Polish-Jewish relations, but so far most of the comments have been positive. Though there have been some nasty blog comments from people who see themselves as ‘true Polish patriots’ who have bad things to say, but clearly these people did not read the book,” he said.

More recently, Poland’s Deputy Minister of Culture, National Heritage and Sport, Mr. Jaroslaw Sellin, penned a response to an interview with Mr. Bielawski in the Times of Israel, emphasizing the present government’s funding and legal protection for cemeteries and pushing back against what he labeled the undocumented and “superfluous sensationalism” of placing significant blame for their destruction on local residents rather than solely on Nazi occupiers and the Communist regime.

Mr. Bielawski hopes that an English translation of his work will open the subject to scholars and those with interest in the topic in Jewish communities around the world. In addition to clarifying the facts of history, his ultimate goal is for the book to spur greater interest among both Jews and Poles to redouble their efforts to preserve what remains of Poland’s Jewish cemeteries.

“I hope it will help people realize the problem and do more to protect our common heritage,” he said. “Whether there is a Jewish community in a town or not, these are the graves of people and they deserve to be respected.”