Recently, the Bagnówka Cemetery Restoration Project (BCRP) was able to acquire World War II Luftwaffe Aerial Images of the Bagnówka Jewish Cemetery in Białystok, Poland from the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). These images are part of more than 1.25 million German aerial photographic prints seized at the end of World War II. To assist in locating the aerials, Dr. Heidi M. Szpek, translator and historian of the Bagnówka Jewish Cemetery, and Frank Idzikowski, retired senior adjudicator and military historian for the US Veterans Administration, provided GPS coordinates and structural features of Bagnowka to Dirk Burgdorf at AAA Research, a NARA private researcher and specialist in WWII archives. Burgdorf located 11 aerials, dating from 1939, 1941 and 1944, of which the BCRP purchased the seven with best resolution and visibility.
In this report, Dr. Szpek described how the images shed stark light on the history of Jewish Białystok during and immediately after World War II, and how analysis of them will play a significant role in ongoing cemetery research and in guiding the BCRP’s current efforts and future plans.
Using WW2 Luftwaffe Aerial Photos to Document the History of the Bagnówka Jewish Cemetery in Białystok, Poland
By Heidi M. Szpek, Ph.D.
March 12, 2020
Anyone involved in cemetery restoration work in Eastern Europe knows that hope is a constant while awaiting new evidence or documentation to assist in our efforts. The wartime aerial photos we recently obtained provide important new visual evidence that will be invaluable in tracing the history of the cemetery and in carrying out restoration work.
“They are dramatic depictions,” says Josh Degen, Chairman and co-founder of the BCRP. “They provide documentation of the cemetery sections and evidence of the many thousands of headstones hidden underneath the reforestation that has occurred at the rear of Bagnówka.”
Opportunity for Comparative Study
Dating from 1939-1944, the Bagnówka aerials are particularly significant because they permit comparative studies of Bialystok under Polish, German, and then Russian control.
One photo, for example, from July 27, 1939 shows the Bagnówka cemetery and other Jewish heritage sites in Białystok (including the Great Synagogue) under Jewish authority and Polish control. Photos from June 22-23, 1941 were taken just four to five days before the German capture of Bialystok and the June 27 1941 burning of the Great Synagogue. A photo from June 19, 1944 shows Białystok under German control, about five weeks before the Russians retook the city. And photos from September 17, October 14, and December 14, 1944 show Białystok under Russian control.
Aerials and Bagnówka Cemetery Features
Having spent nearly 15 years studying Bagnówka cemetery and its inscriptions, with nearly 10 years involvement in its restoration, I find the aerial photos, in conjunction with documentation, extremely revealing.
Founded c. 1892, the Bagnówka Jewish Cemetery functioned until 1969, aside from a cessation in burials during the German occupation when burial was restricted to the Ghetto Cemetery.
Originally it was located beyond the city limits to accord with Tsarist legislation, in what was then a rural open expanse that was part of the tiny village of Bagnówka. The Białystok Jewish community, under Chief Rabbi Shmuel Mohilewer, had acquired the land from the Catholic diocese, which had earlier established its own cemetery there (which is still adjacent to the Bagnówka cemetery today).
In general, the aerial photos confirm the known location of the cemetery’s walls and entrances. Sections used for burial can be seen, delineated with clear alleys. Within these sections the presence and absence of white geometric patterns mark the concrete vaults that covered many but not all gravesites and served as a base for tombstones. Some of the oldest sections have no vaults, with tombstones set deeply into the earth. This variation is also marked by the checkerboard pattern in sections especially near the main entrance and southern wall. The Orthodox Jewish practice of gender distinction, modified on Bagnówka to gender-specific rows, is also confirmed. For example, in later-developed sections, the aerials depict dramatically uneven rows, suggesting more of one gender died and were buried contiguous in individual rows.
At the same time, the photos provide new visual evidence of physical information that had been lost.
For example, while the site of the ohel (mausoleum) of Rabbi Chaim Hertz Halpern, Chief Rabbi (d. 1919), has long been known, another ohel was only suggested by foundation remnants and an inference in A.S. Herzberg’s Pinkos Białystok. The aerial photos now confirm its presence. Likewise, the caretaker’s hut and burial house are also clearly visible in the pictures; the 1944 image under Russian control show that its roof is absent. Today only a peculiar grassy knoll covers the collapsed bricks from these structures at the cemetery’s main entrance.
Until now, a 1937 map, in conjunction with a mid-1980s conservator’s map, provided the structure of this cemetery and contributed to determining its growth pattern as well. While earlier estimates suggested 25,000-35,000 potential burials, the aerials indicate reserve lands that were never used, as well as other undeveloped or partially utilized sections. This means that the estimate of burials must be reassessed to better acknowledge what percentage of tombstones remain.
Aerial images also may serve to negate an ongoing controversy. It has been suggested that post-WW2 houses adjoining the Cemetery were built on gravesites. The images, however, seem to confirm that this area was still reserve land, as indicated in the 1937 cemetery map. It also appears from the photos that the most intense devastation of Bagnówka cemetery did not occur under the Nazis – unlike the case of the Old Rabbinic Cemetery in the center of Białystok, whose destruction during the German occupation can clearly be seen in the photos.
Aerials and Military History
More, too, can be gleaned from these images related to the military history of Bialystok and the role of Bagnowka Cemetery. The City of Białystok lies directly on the road from Minsk, through Grodno and towards Warsaw — one of the main routes of the Red Army’s advance to Warsaw during the Summer/Fall of 1944. Tactically, the Red Army was attempting to encircle German Forces at this time, meaning that the main Red Army armored units would have attacked north and south of the city rather than directly into the city. Bagnówka was then in a rural area north of Białystok. Frank Idzikowski, also a former Imagery Analyst for the Department of Defense, reviewed, specifically, the aerial from 17 Sept 44. This aerial, taken about two months after the city had been retaken by the Red Army, suggests fighting in the immediate vicinity of Bagnówka Cemetery.
Immediately beyond the north wall of Bagnówka there appear to be the remnants of numerous defensive fighting positions dug into the earth by the German Army in preparation for Russian attacks. These positions appear as either a white circle or a white horseshoe. One fighting position is also dug adjacent to the main gate of the cemetery on the south wall. Numerous additional shell craters (most likely from artillery) run from immediately north of the cemetery towards the southeast. There are at least eight to nine shell craters directly adjacent to the north wall and an additional four to five craters inside of the cemetery adjacent to this same wall. Additional shell craters are found in the NE quadrant of the cemetery. There is also evidence of numerous smaller craters inside the cemetery along the eastern wall, possibly mortar shell craters. More shell craters and fighting positions are evident just south of the cemetery across the dirt road (present day Ul. Wschodnia).
Still, while the imagery reveals that there was fighting in the vicinity of the cemetery, there is no way of knowing from the imagery the extent of the fighting. The lack of detritus (destroyed or damaged tanks, troop carriers, towed weapons, trucks) can lead one to conclude that, while there was fighting in the area, it did not encompass the ferocity as evidenced in the City of Bialystok itself.
And there is more to be learned
Białystok, a city of nearly 43,000 Jewish residents, c. 43% of the entire population prior to WWII, was a city rich in textiles and lumber industries. Its distinctly Jewish district held a diverse Jewish population, the Great Synagogue and nearly 70 other shuls, and extensive educational, cultural, and political organizations and their buildings. Two Jewish cemeteries were located within Białystok, as well as the later Ghetto Cemetery. These heritage sites, like the city’s Jewish residents, were decimated by the Nazis.
The newly acquired aerial images extend beyond Bagnówka to the city. The grand cupola of the Great Synagogue is readily observable in the 22 June 1941 image; nearby is the Old Rabbinic Cemetery, pathways to its center and a roundabout clearly visible. If we fast forward to the June 1944 image, we find the synagogue gone, and the blocks surrounding it as well. The Rabbinic Cemetery is a wasteland.
Other Jewish heritage sites are also visible in the expanded aerials, before and after the German Occupation, including the ruins of the Ghetto.
For us involved in the restoration of the Bagnówka cemetery, the months of waiting for these aerial photos and the seconds awaiting file transfer, download, and opening bore fruit beyond our hopes.
But the aerials of the city itself were beyond shocking when faced with the implications from the visual devastation to the land and streets and, especially, the population that once walked and lived within.
Further study of these aerials will continue in order to best preserve the memory of what remains of Jewish Białystok.
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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.