In recent months, Dr. Heidi M. Szpek and Frank J. Idzikowski (with the help of NARA private researcher, Dirk Burgdorf) acquired World War II Luftwaffe Aerial images from the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on behalf of the Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Fund. These images are part of more than 1.25 million German aerial photographic prints seized at the end of World War II. In an earlier report for Jewish Heritage Europe, Heidi explored the value of these aerials for the restoration, history and material culture of the Bagnówka Jewish Cemetery in Białystok. In this new report, she explores how aerial images that highlight the city of Bialystok itself provide valuable – and powerful — insights about the Jewish heritage in the city that did not survive: cemeteries, synagogues, other buildings, and entire streets that were, quite literally, wiped off the map.
She also correlates the images with mentions of destroyed Jewish heritage sites referenced on Jewish tombstones in Bagnówka.
How WW2 Luftwaffe Aerial Photos Reveal Lost Jewish Heritage in Białystok, Poland
By Heidi M. Szpek, PhD
April 7, 2020
When I look upon these aerials, I see — almost in 3D — rooftops, buildings, streets, cemeteries and parks. I am transported back to September 27, 1939, before Russia occupied Białystok; to June 23, 1941, just days before the burning of the Great Synagogue and the surrounding streets by the invading Nazi Army; and, finally, to December 14, 1944, where absent rooftops and wastelands are commonplace as street after street marks the scorched earth in the wake of the Russian conquest of the Nazis’ occupation of Bialystok. The dates of these aerials are significant for their comparative value but equally so for their visual record of Białystok’s lost Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and other no longer extant heritage sites.
In the aerial images from 1939 and 1941, the viewer can imagine a walk through the Jewish Quarter in Białystok. Just off the Rynek (main market square) (1), the Great Synagogue (2) with its exquisite dome is clearly visible. Steps away from the synagogue is Surazka Street (3), whose apartments housed Jewish anarchists who challenged Tsarist soldiers, resulting in the 1905 Massacre and the 1906 Pogrom. Oral tradition recalls that from this street these radical Bundists walked to the nearby Rabbinic Cemetery (4) at night, supposedly for evening prayer. The viewer can visually walk to and about this Old Rabbinic Cemetery.
Not far also is the smaller Bema Cemetery (5), established amidst an outbreak of cholera in 1831. Heading back and through the Rynek, just before turning onto Sienkiewicza Street is one of the homes (6) of the lumber magnate Izaak Zabludowsky. Travelling on to Sienkiewicza, the renowned Sholem Aleichem Library is at right (7). It once held a vast collection of more than 50,000 books. Continuing up this street, one finds (in 1906) the Zabludowsky sawmill and the adjoining home of Avraham Katz and family (8). Both structures figure in the narrative of the second day of the 1906 Pogrom where Tsarist soldiers sought out Jewish anarchists.
The inscription on Avraham Katz’s tombstone in the memorial complex in the Bagnówka Jewish Cemetery remembers the burning of his family home and his tragic death amidst this tumult.
East from Sienkiewicza, street after street hold shops and businesses that belong to the Jewish community. Somewhere within this maze of streets and structures (9), too, is that delicate arch preserved in a photograph in the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical-Warsaw collection. In this black-and-white photo, the viewer is encouraged to reminisce as a Reb and neighborhood dog pass under an arch and stroll on cobblestone streets past shop after shop with tall wooden doors.
The clarity of select aerials enables the viewer to continue this tour using, for example, the Jewish Heritage Trail, a project of the University of Białystok, as set forth in their brochure.
For me, these aerials are particularly significant for exploring the other non-extant Jewish cemeteries within the city of Białystok and for select synagogues as discussed in my book, Bagnowka: A Modern Jewish Cemetery on the Russian Pale (iUniverse, 2017).
Within Białystok, three Jewish cemeteries functioned during the time when these aerial images were captured. The Old Rabbinic Cemetery (c. 1781-c. 1892), as noted, is just off the Rynek; its boundaries clearly marked in this aerial. Pathways traverse this two-hectare cemetery with openings that suggest entrances, with the main entrance at its southern border. No caretaker’s cottage or burial house is visible on the cemetery; however, at the southern border just outside the cemetery wall, a small park-like setting may hold these structures.
A tiny checkerboard of tombstones marks burial sites. Prominent rows of what appear to be large monuments near the eastern and western walls may be the location of local Białystok historian Jan Glinka’s photograph and documentation (d. 1930) of prominent graves of rabbis and that of local lumber magnate, Isaak Zabludowsky.
Today, Białystok’s Central Park stands upon this cemetery, marked only by a historical placard.
As for the nearby Bema Cemetery, the caretaker’s cottage and surrounding walls, preserved in a rare postcard from 1916, are confirmed in the 1941 aerial.
To its left in this photo is a position, labelled #2, signifying a destroyed locomotive shed (Lokschuppen Zerst) according to an annotated list, perhaps explaining the eventual devastation of this cemetery.
Tiny dots indicate the numerous tombstones that once marked the burials sites of first cholera victims and then the less-well-to-do Jewish residents of the Chanajkes district, the poorest in Białystok .
Today, a memorial park is situated on this cemetery.
Finally, the Ghetto Cemetery on Zabia Street was established in 1941 in a vacant plot in the western corner of the Ghetto. It was used instead of Bagnówka from 1941-43. The pre-War 1939 aerial depicts this vacant plot of land just northeast of the St. Roch’s Cathedral.
The December 1944 aerial depicts this same plot with varied mounds that suggest the burial plots and mass graves of those who perished in the Białystok Ghetto.
Today, a memorial park and obelisk marks the Ghetto and its cemetery.
The record book (Pinkus Bialystok) by A.S. Herszberg describes 70 synagogues and shuls in the city. With the aerial photographs, for the first time, I gained a visual of select batei midrash recorded by Herszberg but also referenced in the Bagnowka corpus of tombstones.
Among those referenced is the Nejmark Beth Midrash located just off the Rynek at what was once Kupiecka 9 (today Doktor Ireny Bialowny Street), as recorded in the inscription of the merchant, Reb Nejmark (d. 1893).
His epitaph, one of the longest inscriptions extant in the Bagnowka cemetery, tells of his birth in Brest-Litovsk, his mercantile travels, including an accident with a trolley car in St. Petersburg.
The remuneration from this accident supplied the funds to posthumously build this beth-midrash, which bore his name. Until now, the only visuals of this beth midrash were building plans, preserved in the Grodno Archives.
Today, a Greek restaurant may mark the location where the Nejmark Beth Midrash once stood.
Another beth midrash referenced on a tombstone by image, not inscription, is that of the Szuster Beth Midrash.
Only the front façade of the building is depicted, with two six-paned windows and a domed roof; four layers of bricks beneath the building suggest the roadway.
The inscription remembers Chaim b. Avraham (Szuster), aged 67, killed in the 1905 Shabbath Nahamu Massacre.
Established in 1899 in the Suraz quarter just off the Rynek, a small wooden tavern was purchased by the Society of Shoemakers (szusters) for their use and then for the “poor and neglected of all trades” (Herszberg, vol. 1 (1949): 298).
Presumably Chaim was prominent among these ‘szusters’ thus taking his trade as surname and being remembered by both image and surname on his tombstone.
Today, select shops and a pub are situated on this street.
Readers are invited to seek out the sites significant to their memories of the lost world of Jewish Bialystok in these aerials.
In truth, these aerials are equally valuable for those wishing to explore places sacred to the Catholic, Evangelical and Eastern Orthodox traditions, as well as those significant for Polish and Esperanto culture in Bialystok. Further research on the contributions of these aerials will continue.
Local Bialystok experts and organizations have been invited to take up the next step in this research.
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Aerial photos credit: National Archives and Records Administration. Collection of Foreign Records Seized (Record Group 242). German Luftwaffe Aerial Reconnaissance Photos 1939-1945.
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Dr. Heidi M. Szpek is Emerita Professor of Religious Studies at Central Washington University and translator and historian of the Bagnowka Jewish cemetery. She edits the web site www.jewishepitaphs.org and is the author of the book Bagnówka: A Modern Jewish Cemetery on the Russian Pale.
- Ecuador: (European) Jewish Heritage in “an Unknown Country”
- Poland: Using WW2 Luftwaffe Aerial Photos to Document the History of the Bagnówka Jewish Cemetery in Białystok
- Report: 2017 Białystok Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project
- Report: Białystok Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project, 2019
- The Destruction of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland — Excerpts in English from a major new Polish book by Krzysztof Bielawski