The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery
The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, and in the world. Located on Warsaw’s Okopowa street and abutting the Powązki Cemetery , the Jewish necropolis was established in 1806 and occupies 33 hectares (83 acres) of land. The cemetery contains over 200,000 marked graves, as well as mass graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Many of these graves and crypts are overgrown, having been abandoned after the German invasion of Poland and subsequent Holocaust. Although the cemetery was closed down during World War II, after the war it was reopened and a small portion of it remains active, serving Warsaw’s small existing Jewish population.
As the cemetery was established to replace many smaller cemeteries closer to the city centre, it was designed to serve all Jewish communities of Warsaw, regardless of their affiliation. Because of that it is subdivided into several districts dubbed quarters (kwatery), historically reserved for various groups. Among them are three Orthodox (for men, women and one for holy scriptures), Reform Judaism, children, military and Ghetto Uprising victims.
The jewish cemetery of warsaw, has become a dense forest in the post-war period, is filled with monuments to Jewish communists, orthodox rabbis, and everyone in between. Many of the markers are simple, others are elaborately carved with Art nouveau angels drooping mournfully over a tomb or with large, elaborate bas relief panoramas of a somewhat imaginary medieval Warsaw. Large mausoleums appear in styles ranging from Egyptian revival to Art deco.
In 1806, the Warsaw’s Jewish Commune petitioned the government to establish a new cemetery for Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw. The lot chosen was located right outside of the city limits in the borough of Wola, next to a new Catholic Powązki Cemetery established in 1790. The petition was accepted and in the following year the cemetery was established, together with Chevra kadisha. The earliest headstone was dated December 6, 1806 and belonged to certain Nachum son of Nachum of Siemiatycze, but it did not survive to our times. The first woman interred there was certain Elka Junghoff, daughter of Jehuda Leib Mulrat of Kalisz. Her tombstone is dated November 26, 1804, but the date is most likely wrong. Hence the oldest surviving headstone belongs to Sara, daughter of Eliezer (died September 8, 1807).
During the first decades of its existence, the new Okopowa Street cemetery was used mostly by the higher strata of Jewish society, with poorer Jews interred in the Praga Jewish Cemetery in the easternmost borough of Bródno, on the right bank of the Vistula. Despite that the cemetery quickly became overcrowded and already in 1824 it had to be expanded. Around that time the Tsarist authorities took over the administration of the cemetery from Chevra kadisha and by 1850 established a separate Funeral Administration. The first on-site funeral home was established in 1828, but already in 1831 it was destroyed by Russian Army in the course of the November Uprising. A new building was erected the following year and further expanded in 1854. In the meantime, the necropolis was extended twice: in 1840 and 1848. Around that time, it became the main Jewish cemetery of Warsaw, for rich and poor alike.
History of the jewish cemetery of warsaw
Historically the jewish cemetery of warsaw was separated from the city center and the quarter inhabited by Jews by a deep ditch, the so-called Lubomirski’s Rampart, created in 1777 to stop the spread of plague and as a tax measure. It was not until 1873 that both Jewish and Catholic communities were allowed to build a bridge across the ditch to facilitate access to both cemeteries. In 1860 and 1863 the cemetery was extended again and in 1869 reached its present form. However, it began to overcrowd and in 1885 all burials financed by the Jewish community (i.e. of the poor) were directed to the Bródno Jewish Cemetery. In 1877 several notable Jewish families of Warsaw financed a new late Neo-Classical building by Adolf Schimmelpfennig housing a synagogue and two burial houses (one for men and one for women). The second floor was reserved for rabbi’s flat.
As the cemetery was used by all groups of Warsaw’s Jewry, conflicts arose over control of the cemetery and various burial-related issues. In 1913, it was agreed to split it onto four parts: one for Orthodox Jews, one for Reformed, one for Children and one for military and state burials. After World War I the cemetery again became overcrowded. Because of that a mound or earthwork terrace was erected over a quarter previously reserved for children to allow for more burials. Between 1918 and 1936 fourteen such mounds were created. In the 1930s the entire cemetery was surrounded with a high wall and in 1939 a construction started on Mausoleum of Jews Fighting for Polish Independence. Works were stopped by the outbreak of World War II and German occupation of Poland.
During the World War II
During the war the cemetery had been partly demolished. German forces used it for mass executions and burial of victims of Warsaw Ghetto, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and other mass murders. Those burials included both Jews and non-Jews. Following the fall of the Ghetto Uprising, on May 15, 1943 the Germans blew up all buildings in the area of the cemetery, including the synagogue and burial houses. Only a small well survived to this day. Further damage was done to the cemetery during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the front line passed directly through the cemetery. After the war the cemetery was reopened. The Communist authorities of Poland planned a road directly through the middle of the jewish cemetery of warsaw, but the plans were never carried out.
In the 1990s the neglected jewish cemetery of warsaw started to be renovated for the first time since the 1930’s, mostly by the re-created Warsaw Jewish Commune and the Nissenbaum Family Foundation, as well as the City of Warsaw municipal government. The cemetery is still open, with 20 to 30 new burials every year.