In recent years, the recovery of headstones uprooted from Jewish cemeteries during and after World War II has become a common motif in Jewish heritage preservation.
In towns, cities, and villages, Jewish cemeteries were plundered and essentially used as quarries: gravestones were used as paving and construction material, millstones, and even as garden ornaments — including benches. Some matzevot were simply removed and kept hidden.
Photographer Lukasz Baksik’s project on Matzevot for Everyday Use documents this, and media attention has focused on some high profile instances where huge numbers of gravestones or fragments have been — or are being — discovered and returned to Jewish cemeteries.
What to do with the stones once they are returned can be a challenge: many lie piled up (but at least secure), awaiting funding to enable restoration or their use in construction of a memorial.
High-profile cases include, for example, the Bródno Jewish cemetery in Warsaw’s Praga district, the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, where hundreds of gravestones and fragments are being returned, and where work is ongoing to restore the huge site.
Another major case is in Brest, Belarus, where at least 1,500 Jewish gravestones and fragments have been discovered in recent years — in a scenario described in an article in Vice media as “a turn of events that wouldn’t seem out of place in a horror film.” Hundreds of matzevot are now piled up, awaiting funds to use them to create a Holocaust memorial park, spearheaded by the local Jewish community and The Together Plan, a British NGO dedicated to Jewish community development in Belarus.
In Vilnius, the vast Užupis Jewish cemetery was destroyed in the 1960s and many of its stones were used to construct a grand staircase and an electric transformer station. After the fall of communism the stairs were dismantled and some of the stones now form a memorial. And just this past June, work began to dismantle the transformer station.
But the discovery and return of matzevot, often by individuals, is taking place in many other sites — including small towns and villages far off the media radar. In Poland alone, stones have been returned in Międzyrzec Podlaski, Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Siedlce, Kock, Rybnik, Góra Kalwaria, Nadarzyn, Seroczyn, Sławatycze, and Szczebrzeszy, among many other places.
In Kock, for example, a local teacher encouraged his students to check their houses, barns and so on, Krzysztof Bielawski of Virtual Shtetl told JHE this past spring.
They found 20-30 matzevot (many used as grinders) and brought these stones to the cemetery. In 2007 in Nowogrod I found a house with matzevot in its foundation. I informed local media and after a few weeks the mayor transferred 18 matzevot to the cemetery (where only one matzevah had been standing).
Bielawski said that “very often people get in touch with the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Jewish communities, and others to get advice about what to do with the stones they turn up.”
More and more often young generations transfer matzevot back. For example they [inherit] their parents’ house and find matzevot. They do not want to live with tombstones, they feel this is not OK. And they transfer matzevot back to cemeteries.
In the small town of Rohatyn, Ukraine, scores of matzevot have been discovered and are being returned to the site of one of the town’s two destroyed Jewish cemeteries, thanks to the municipal authorities and local activists working with the descendants’ group Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, as part of the RJH’s Jewish Headstone Recovery Project. The aim is to use them to create a memorial.
Rohatyn Jewish Heritage prepared the map shown at the top of this page to pinpoint the sites in town where the stones or fragments were discovered, in many parts of the town — on the web site, the map is interactive. The stones were used for road work, sewers, and other construction.
[The map] shows the locations in Rohatyn where headstones have been recovered since the beginning of the project, in 2011 (green), 2012 (yellow), 2013 (blue), 2014 (red), 2015 (purple), and 2016 (white). As noted in the map description, in most cases more than one matzevah (often many) have been recovered at a single location in a single year. As the map indicates, three areas in town have been especially ‘fruitful’ in the past few years.
The project’s web page gives a detailed description of the process of recovery, and also of what needs still to be accomplished.
While we are pleased at the visible progress in headstone recovery and the positive impact our work has had in town, we are very concerned about the long-term significance of the project and the memorial value of each fragment we recover.
To date, it states, the project has:
— recovered and moved more than 400 headstone fragments from locations around town to the Rohatyn old Jewish cemetery
— coordinated several headstone recoveries with Rohatyn city management
— photographed a majority of the fragments and posted those images on a website for transcription, translation, and comment
— informally numbered the individual fragments for identity in research
— raised and transferred funds for ongoing headstone recovery, tracked expenses, and reported results