Ongoing restoration work at Warsaw’s vast Okopowa street Jewish cemetery saw the repair and renovation of dozens of headstones and monuments last year. On its web site devoted to the cemetery’s restoration, Poland’s Cultural Heritage Foundation listed a total of 51 tombs that had been restored in 2019.
Restoration work in the cemetery is being carried out by the Foundation, financed by Warsaw’s Department of Heritage Protection, the Jewish Community in Warsaw (the cemetery’s owner), the Mazovia Region, and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage — specifically from the profits of investments of the approx. €24 million granted by the Polish government in 2017 to an endowment fund for the cemetery.
The Foundation said the conservation works were carried out by a team including Damian Pisarski (stone tombstones), Magdalena Olszowska (stone tombstones), and a stonemasonry restoration firm called Katanga. The projects were supervised by prof. Janusz Smaza.
A statement on the Department of Heritage Protection web site highlighted 30 tombs that had been restored. It said the City Council had granted around PLN 370,000 (around €81,000) for renovation works at the cemetery last year, accounting for nearly 48 percent “of the eligible cost of works carried out in 2019.”
The Department provided details of the restoration process on two of the tombs — the sculptural monument of the Feinstein family and the tombstone of Markus Rosen. A photo gallery includes pictures that show the stages of the work on both tombs.
The Feinstein family tomb, dating from the late 19th century, is a sculptural arrangement depicting ruins — a partially collapsed wall and the base of a broken column.
Before starting work, the tomb was badly damaged – the sandstone setting was overgrown with mosses, lichens, algae and damaged due to atmospheric effects. The marble inscription plates were detached and partly hidden underground – due to which the conservators, when undertaking the tasks, were not sure whether and how many missing elements of the tombstone could be recovered and restored to their original place. In addition, the work was hampered by bushes and a tree growing directly in the vicinity of the tombstone, whose roots threatened the statics of the entire facility. Therefore, before starting conservation, it was necessary to remove the tree growing into the tombstone.
During the work, the conservators managed to find fragments of all the missing inscription plates and restore them to their place, gluing cracks, reading and recreating the missing fragments of lettering. Interestingly, all inscriptions are in Polish, which most likely meant that the tomb belonged to the family of progressive Jews. The entire structure of the setting was dismantled and set on a newly made, stable foundation. Individual elements were cleaned, and their missing fragments were precisely supplemented with stone pins and putty. In addition, it was discovered that the tombstone was surrounded by a stone band that hid under a thick layer of soil and leaves. The band surrounding the grave field was preserved and displayed, as it was originally. Unfortunately, the original metal fence that was placed on this band was not found.
The gravestone of Markus Rosen, who died in 1859, is a tall marble stone, ornamented in a neo-Gothic style that was popular “in the mid-nineteenth century, mainly among Reformed Jews.” Before restoration, the gravestone was in very poor condition, tilted over, and in danger of collapse. The marble was damaged in places, the inscription was almost illegible, and there was biological contamination.
During the restoration work, the web site said:
the tombstone had to be completely dismantled in order to make a new, stable foundation. Biological paralysis was removed from the setting and the whole gravestone was cleaned by means of micro-sanding and using chemicals. Then the whole structure was strengthened structurally, the cracks were glued with acrylic resin solution and the defects were supplemented with mineral mass and stone pins. The intricate lettering of the inscription was meticulously supplemented so that the tombstone regained its original beauty. The legible Hebrew inscription reads: “A noble and honorable man, his name came far (…) the famous Mordechai, son of Joel Zisman of Rawa, died on the 8th month of Elul of the year 5619 (…). Let his soul be bound in the knot of life. ” […]
After completion of conservation works, the building was made water repellent with a silane-based emulsion and additionally protected with a special wax.
The Okopowa st. Jewish cemetery comprises more than 33 hectares and includes scores of thousands of grave markers, which range from simple matzevot, to grand mausolea, to striking sculptural representations. Much of the site is overgrown, but more than 82,000 grave markers have been documented by the Foundation for the Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland and information about them put online in a searchable database. It is owned by the Jewish community of Warsaw and still used as an active Jewish burial place.