“ City: Warsaw / Country: Poland / Region: Europe „
The Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Zydowski) on Okopowa Street should be on everyone's itinerary when they visit Warsaw. I am quite cross with myself because it has taken me five years to actually go and visit the cemetery. There are so many things to see and do in Warsaw that I keep missing this attraction and move on to something else. Last weekend I made up my mind I was going to take a walk on a crisp, sunny Sunday to take some pictures of the cemetery and to see just what was behind that metal door.
Okopowa is a very long street that will lead you to Arkadia Shopping Centre eventually. If you don't know the address of the cemetery you can easily miss it as it is surrounded by a brick wall and you can't see anything above it apart from trees. Usually you can spot a headstone or tomb rising above the wall but not here. The door blends into the wall as well and there isn't a glamorous sign inviting you in just a small plaque on the wall near the metal door, stating that it is indeed the Cmentarz Zydowski (Jewish Cemetery).
It was before 10am when I entered the main reception courtyard. There is an office where you are supposed to pay if you are a visitor but it was closed and I couldn't see anyone around. I decided to carry on with my visit and promised myself that I would go to the office on my way out to pay.
Two things that I noticed straight away were the large map of the cemetery placed on a free standing board and a lovely old water pump and metal bucket. This must have been the original pump where people visiting could fill up with water to water plants on the graves. A new roof had been attached but the pump was in its original form. The map was excellent and really informative. It showed where all the individual plots were situated, different types of tombstones, ohels (kind of shrine) , vaults, mass graves and there was a list on the right hand side in alphabetical order of all the families buried in the cemetery. The map was written in English and Polish.
At this point I had a bit of a problem; I couldn't make up my mind which route to take. It is a very large cemetery covering 33.6 hectares. Part of me wanted to wander off on the overgrown leafy avenues, the other part wanted to go and see the monument dedicated to Janusz Korczak, Polish doctor and children's writer. In the end I opted for the monument, it stands about a hundred metres from the entrance. I know quite a bit about Korczak and have seen several monuments of him throughout the city. He was a wonderful man who loved children, set up his own orphanage with his female assistant, Stefania Wilczynska to care for the Jewish children of Warsaw. In 1942 he was sent to the extermination camp at Treblinka with all the children, this monument was unveiled in the cemetery in 1982 to honour his dedication and bravery and also to remember the lost children.
The monument was a lot smaller than I expected. It shows Janusz leading forward, holding a small child in his arms. There is a sad look on his face and the child looks scared and is clinging on for life. Behind the doctor stand five other children, all of different heights. It's a beautifully crafted monument in black, made from epoxy resin which is a substance used in electronics usually to coat metal and also as an adhesive. Miroslaw Smorczewskiego and Lucian Kota were the sculptors. I liked the way the monument was set in a small area with benches and trees, an area for contemplation.
It is also very close to another monument dedicated to children. This one, I found very disturbing to look at. It is dedicated to the children who were victims of the holocaust and was donated by a man called Jack Eisner. He had a very large family who were killed by the Nazis. From a distance it looks like a bit of broken wall - that's what it is supposed to look like, it represents the ruined Ghetto Wall. A path leads to the wall which has been tiled in a way that it resembles a Menorah, a symbol of Judaism, a long, tall, seven branched lampstand. At the foot of the ruin lies a bed of broken concrete covered in small pebbles, small tins holding candles, photographs of children embedded into the stone. On the base of this monument there is an inscription that reads, 'In Memory of one million Jewish Children murdered by Nazi German Barbarians, 1939-1945.' The sponsor, Jack Eisner's name is also engraved underneath the inscription. The inscription is written in English, Polish and Hebrew. To the left of the wall there are three marble tablets attached, of a poem written by a child from the Ghetto, Henryka Lazowert. It's a sad poem written in 1941, titled the Little Smuggler. The subject is starvation, desperation but also courage. It tells the story of a child sneaking out of the Ghetto to find food for his mother and also about his worries of dying and leaving her alone. From his words I could see that the boy knew that death was unavoidable but he wasn't worried about himself, only his Mama. The poem has been inscribed in all three languages, English, Polish and Hebrew.
Feeling very thoughtful at this point I decided to walk away from these monuments and follow the main path which is cobbled. The small inside wall that envelopes most of the cemetery has been made up of bricks and broken headstones to form a mosaic. It looked very impressive. On the main stretch of the cemetery there are a lot of large tombstones, all black and very morbid looking. It was also very dark, like walking through a dense forest. There are so many ancient trees forming leafy canopies that block out the sun's rays. No wonder many of the gravestones are green and covered with moss and lichen.
I walked on this path for about 30 minutes and then decided to branch off and take one of the overgrown pathways which lead to the very back of the cemetery. I felt like an explorer because the way through to the back was dreadfully overgrown and the graves were so close together that there wasn't a lot of room for walking in between or on to other paths. All the signs were in Hebrew which of course was no use to me as I don't understand Hebrew. The only other signs I came across were white signs with a red edging in Polish. These told me where the water and rubbish points were situated.
I did find this part of the cemetery fascinating yet very sad. So many gravestones had been left to deteriorate; many were broken and covered with trailing ivy and other plants. The thing that really stood out was the lack of movement, there weren't any families clearing around graves and placing flowers and candles like there are in all the other cemeteries. Most of the people I saw in the cemetery were groups of Jewish people visiting from Israel or people like me, taking photographs. I would say that 80% of the graves had been left unattended. I think you can guess why.
I came across some fascinating tombstones. The one I really liked was square in shape with a carved picture of Jerusalem on one side and the Sea of Galilee on the other. The pictures were very simple like you would come across in a children's scripture book. There was also one vault that was open so I went inside. I felt a bit strange doing this, perhaps I shouldn't have but I was so curious. Inside there were three plain concrete tombs with semicircular head stones. On top of the tombs, candles, stones and letters had been left. The vault was a drab place to be buried; it was damp and full of cobwebs.
Leaving the graves behind me I went back into daylight and the main reception area. The path I came out on, led me to the original gate of the cemetery. This stands inside now. The gate was renovated in 1998 by the Gesia Jewish Cemetery Foundation, a body of people who set up a committee to keep Jewish cemeteries in good order. There is a plaque and a photo of the original gate when it was in use. The plaque honours Moises Karwasser and his family along with the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during the holocaust.
Before leaving the cemetery I did go to the office to pay but it was still closed and there wasn't anyone around to give any money to. I will return because I think the money goes to the upkeep of the cemetery and it certainly needs every penny.
I think I must have spent about 3 hours walking around. One grave I didn't find was that of Dr Zamenhoff, the man who created Esperanto and someone my husband has always been interested in as his great grandfather was a keen follower. I am a great fan of cemeteries and there are so many in Warsaw to see. Sometimes, I wonder if there are more dead people in the city than alive.
Usually, I feel very uplifted after a cemetery visit but not this time. Although I was fascinated by the Jewish Cemetery I thought there was something terribly sad about it. If you think at one time the city was buzzing with Jewish life, they were the movers and shakers of the city, active in trade, business, schools and universities. For years and years the Poles and Jews lived side by side. Now, when I look around the city I hardly notice any Jewish people, there is only a handful of restaurants and shops. Looking at the graveyard I wonder if they have been forgotten, surely not.
You can find the Jewish Cemetery on Ulica Okopowa 49/51.
Opening times: Sunday, 9am - 4pm, Monday to Thursday, 10 am until dusk, Friday 9am until 1pm.
Trams to catch are Number 1 and 22. Get off at the stop, CM Zydowski.
There used to be a rule about covering your head but this seems to have lapsed.
Remember to check if the office is open to pay the visitor's charge. If it isn't try to go back another day.
Before posting this review, I thought I'd let the dust settle following the recent tragic plane crash involving Polish political and military figures, so as not to make it look too much of a depressing country!
The fact is that a couple of weeks ago, in the first warm days of the year I decided to do a bit of exploring and head to two cemeteries I'd been long-meaning to check out. The first one was the city based Okopowa Jewish Cemetery, a mere 1km from my flat but a place I'd never actually been inside. I opened the iron door as it had just been closed by a large tour group and I looked at the entrance window, as I had recalled being told that entrance is about 8zl and also that skull caps were a requirement, I found evidence of neither as on this bright Sunday the window was shut.
Okopowa Jewish Cemetery is definitely a sad place, it's never nice to see neglected graves and this place is filled with them, broken and toppled headstones lie on top of each other in a disorderly fashion, wild plants grow everywhere and piles of the previous Autumn's leaves still lie around. The main drag that leads immediately in a northern direction from the entrance window is in fairly good shape, all the graves are named and influential or talented well known people can be found here amongst the dead, there's also a powerful memorial to all the Jewish children that died at the hands of the "barbaric Germans" as the memorial states.
It's definitely the smaller paths that lead off through to the back wall that have the strongest effect on a visitor though, the graveyard housed Warsaw's pre-war Jewish population but was then used as a dumping ground for dead Jews in WW2, in the aftermath, poor survivors were known to scour the bodies for golden teeth, all of this left the Cemetery looking worse for wear and it's the anonymity of all the graves there that leave the biggest mark on the visitor. Had there been any amount of surviving Jews in Poland, family members would not have let the disrepair occur but the fact the majority of them were all killed only really rings true when you see this place. A Jewish charity is slowly but surely fixing the place up with help from largely Israeli and US relatives of the dead.
Perhaps one of the surprising things is that this dramatic graveyard is so central in the city but generally unseen behind the large brick walls that hide a gloomy part of the past.