Dr. Heidi M. Szpek has been involved with the restoration of the Jewish cemetery at Bagnówka in Białystok, Poland for the past decade and in the author of the book Bagnówka: A Modern Jewish Cemetery on the Russian Pale Feand maintains the web site www.jewishepitaphs.org. In February 2017, she wrote a Have Your Say op-ed describing how she was drawn to translate the epitaphs on the cemetery’s gravestones and reveal vivid portraits of Białystok’s Jews, their lives, and their community.
In this special report for JHE, she describes the work carried out in 2017 as part of the long-term restoration of the cemetery.
(NOTE: All photographs are copyright of Heidi M. Szpek or the Bialystok Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project.)
Report on the 2017 Białystok Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project
By Heidi M. Szpek
“Here lies Chaim Shlomo Gutman, a good man!” My explosive chuckle at, what could only be, an intentional, linguistic pun brought an unexpected immediate halt from crane operator, Josh Degen, on the next to final day of restoration this past August on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Białystok, Poland. Other Gutmans in this cemetery may have been good people but were not necessarily remembered as ‘good men’ or ‘good women.’ Repeating the double entendre to other volunteers broke the tension in one of the most challenging seasons on cemetery, where drastic weather systems brought record lows and then record high and humid temperatures, with chilling rains combating a draining heat.
One section of the cemetery designated for restoration offered a literal puzzle of tombstone bases and tops to be painstakingly sorted per this cemetery’s burial patterns. Another section, seemingly less puzzling, was overrun by stinging nettles that stung even the most conscientious of participants. Despite such challenges, along with the ever-present dynamics of local politics, restoration efforts this season exceeded the previous year and far exceeded efforts since restoration began in 2010, thanks to the introduction of light mechanized machinery in the restoration process.
From 2010 to 2015, Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (ASF) held six Summercamps on Bagnowka, devoted to restoration, coordinated by the Białystok-based Centrum Edukacja Obywatelskiej Polska-Izrael under the direction of local representative Lucy Lisowska. In 2016, a Summercamp organized by Amy Halpern Degen, who lost relatives in the burning of the Great Synagogue in Białystok (June 1941), and her husband Josh Degen, a stonemason, in conjunction with Centrum, engaged a new strategy of restoration, utilizing mechanized equipment to more quickly uplift and reset tombstones.
Collaborating again with Massachusetts residents Howie and Paula Flagler, and Alan Hoch, the Bagnowka Restoration Project was set in motion for the 2017 season. This year a small front-loader was also used to assist in the transport of sand-dust in order to stabilize tombstones. With rope secured to its basket and a tombstone, the front-loader could also gently uplift smaller tombstones, leaving the small Bobcat to restore tall and heavy monuments. Eighteen volunteers from the United States (Massachusetts, Oregon, New Mexico and Washington), Germany, and Poland were joined by a small cadre of Białystok’s young Socialists, contributing nearly 900 hours over the course of one week, and also participating in the Commemoration of the Białystok Ghetto Uprising on 16 August.
In past Summercamps, typically 40 to 80 tombstones were uplifted and reset by means of a tripod, pulley and chains, then cleaned and painted over a two-week season by about 15 volunteers. In 2016, the use of mechanized equipment permitted 301 tombstones to be uplifted and reset in a one-week project; with nearly one hundred fully-cleaned with inscriptions and, at times, symbols, painted in gold. This year, 349 tombstones were reset; and again nearly 100 were restored to near original state within one week. This year, work was focused on sections immediately within the main entrance, an area that held the burials of Białystok’s most prominent and affluent Jews. These sections, earlier began under Centrum and ASF, were completed while also expanding into sections previously untouched in eastern quadrants. Save wrought iron fences that once encircled many a burial site, this area has now been restored to its former dignity.
Efforts from the 2016 and 2017 Summercamps enabled nearly 100 previously forgotten surnames to be reclaimed for the historic record, with dates from 1893 to 1938. All records are contributed to the database of the Jewish Records Indexing – Poland and other organizations with interests.
Gallery of Reclaimed Bialystok Surnames 2016-1017
Aleksandrowicz, Berkman, Berman, Bialuska, Birstein, Biszkowicz, Bocer, Branroth, Bromer, Chwoles, Chwot, Ditkowsky, Felostein, Fidler, Furya, Geis, Gelper, Gelsky, Glozstein, Gobinsky, Goldstok, Gorewicz, Gowiensky, Grocki, Hochman, Hoffman, Iserzohn, Kliszowsky, Kolwarsky, Kopelansky, Koran, Koriansky, Kotorwicz, Koznicki, Krinsky, Krokowsky, Kurinsky, Lach, Landsberg, Letvinsky, Leviton, Lunsk, Luria, Manashewicz, Marinsky, Matis, Maylok, Meizner, Mendes, Nahimowsky, Newiazsky, Niemtsaw, Nowiensky, Ofenbach, Olkenitzky, Ostrahon, Pedya, Perl, Pertel, Pin, Pleben, Pogorelsky, Pokter, Pristin, Rapalsky, Reyskia, Riblin, Rabin, Rabinow, Robotnik, Robowsky, Rork, Roskes, Rozenfeld, Skonal, Samay, Sopotskowsky, Satem, Shpinim, Shpinman, Shtupek, Shtupler, Shturmak, Smagler, Sod, Stein, Stupler, Suransky, Tobalicky, Warshawicz, Warszawsky, Wayetsky, Wiedermahn, Zachilinsky, Zeben.
While restoration is about restoring dignity to this final place of rest, the only Jewish cemetery that now remains in Białystok, it also opens avenues for discovering the cultural dynamics reflected, intentionally or not, in the tombstones and their inscriptions.
For each participant, whether local or from halfway across the world, different motivations and personal interests provoke inquiry and, at times, discovery. For volunteers, Pete McDowell (Oregon) and the Gross Family (MA), as with project coordinator, Amy Degen (MA), restoration fosters a personal connection to the city of their ancestors. For the Gross Family, in particular, grandmother Sheila, daughter Suzanne, son Barrett, and grandson Seth, volunteering as part of a heritage tour – Sheila’s grandmother was from Białystok — saw Sheila as the oldest volunteer, at age 79, to work on cemetery, and grandson, Seth, age 18, as one of the youngest.
For rock enthusiast Alan Hoch, Białystok’s monuments provoked geologic intrigue. For example, the unparalleled efflorescent blue mica in two tree-style monuments brought query as to where these stones, indeed where any of these stones, were quarried. At present, localized response is simply that quarries are south of Białystok. For stonemason Josh Degen, this year’s restoration revealed incredible new manifestations in granite that tempered the stress of piecing back together the funerary architecture of this once grand community. Noteworthy, for example, were a lovely pyramidal-shaped cairn, so modest compared to the uplifting, last year, of the megalithic monument of Russian banker Dov Chwoles (d. 1906), and an ultra-modern obelisk with a simple diagonal inscription.
For Daniel Żamojduk (Germany), a volunteer of more than five years, with ancestral ties to the regional town of Sokolka, hours of physical labor each season give way to more contemplative hours spent peacefully repainting inscriptions. He painted the megalithic cairn monument of the Russian banker Dov Chwoles, the largest on this cemetery, which was restored in 2016.
For all volunteers, hours spent under the scorching sun, magnified by the stone itself, or shivering in the chilliest of summer storms, brought almost a personal relationship with the deceased through the last words of remembrance.
For myself, it is the love of language upon stone, and in particular the crafting of Hebrew or Yiddish into poetry of remembrance.
Thus, my delight in the ‘good man,’ Gutman!
Yet on return home, with time now to read his full inscription, I discovered that the epithet ‘good man’ may not have been a pun but a sincere epithet, given his fate: The remaining inscription reads: “On the 22nd of Adar 5680 [12 March 1920], in the 33rd year of his life, murderers fell upon him on the road and plucked up the days of his life. May his soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life.”
After noting that he was a ‘good man’, Gutman’s inscription remembers him as ‘an honorable merchant.’ Throughout Bagnowka’s history, the business of a merchant was just as often on the road as in the city, as noted in other inscriptions. The year 1920 was a time when Jewish merchants were returning to Białystok from Russia as manufacturing and trade improved in Białystok. While the exact details of his death have not yet been uncovered, Gutman’s demise may be connected with this mercantile movement.
Another telling inscription was the Hebrew and Russian epitaphs for Sophia (aka Sheyna Lea) Garfinkel Kuricki (d. 15 February 1919). The Hebrew abbreviation (ד’ר) and Russian word (доктор) for ‘doctor’ instantaneously revealed what an incredible young woman she must have been. She died at age 29. Daughter of a doctor (Yosef Garfinkel) per her inscription, there was no doubt to her medical designation. In the Bagnowka corpus, the terms doctor vs. healer vs. professor are not conflated, as I have written in my recent book, Bagnowka: A Modern Jewish Cemetery on the Russian Pale (iUniverse Press, 2017).
Dr. Sophia Kuricki’s inscription is the only extant inscription known on Bagnowka to specifically remember a woman in a professional capacity. Indeed, her tombstone stands in a woman’s row behind a row of men remembered, specifically, as a doctor, a professor and a merchant. Until this year it seemed that a fifth anniversary memorial stone for Bundist leader, Ester Riskind (d. 1905), who perished in a rally during the Sabbath Nahamu Massacre (1905), and an acrostic poem for the honorable merchant Rivke Zabludowsky (d. 1900), whose epitaphic poem emphasizes the hardship of her life as a motherless widow whose eyesight dimmed to blindness, followed by seizures and death, were the only women’s inscriptions to deviate even slightly from traditional words of remembrance.
The find of the season, however, was the discovery of the ‘Ali’ tombstone, named for the determination and persistence of its discoverer, volunteer Ali Flagler, who joined her parents this year in their second season of restoration.
Throughout the westernmost sections of Bagnowka, that is those at left of its main entrance, many a burial site is marked by a concrete foundational platform atop which any variety of monument was erected. Littered throughout a substantial number of these sites are also an approximately 50 cm square squat block with a slight incline that, in the past, was believed to be some sort of structural element.
On the second day of Summercamp, Ali was cleaning gravesites at the back of a section just completed. Beginning at the northern alley, she inspected a number of fragments of small matzevot. Ali inquired of other volunteers, including her mother, Paula, believing she saw Hebrew letters on their facades. In truth, as many a first-time volunteer sees Hebrew letters in every structure, she was encouraged to move on. Yet she was persistent and continued to turn over another small matzevah in search of writing. Bringing her search to my attention, she showed me questionable markings on a few fragments. Yet one small tombstone looked to me to preserve just traces of the word ‘the young (unmarried) man [הבחור].’ I recommended that she examine the overturned squat structures for the entire row. If no writing was present, then it was time to move on. I had seen both sides of these squat structures throughout this quadrant of the cemetery and was not hopeful.
Halfway through the row, the persistence of youth paid off! Ali turned over what affectionately is now known as the ‘Ali’, a simple hand-painted inscription in black unlike any on this cemetery in execution or orthographic style, resembling more so the wall inscriptions as found in the regional synagogues of Tykocin and Orla.
We have painted matzevot in this cemetery, the rounded and square Ashkenazi sandstone variety that exhibit varying traces of black and white, even blue, red and yellow paint, but none (except this one) whose inscription is painted solely in a black. The tombstone is now in the local conservator’s care. Notwithstanding the artistic value of this find, its discovery may also have an impact on the statistics for extant tombstones on this cemetery once each ‘Ali’ is noted and checked for any vestige of its inscription … But that is a task for next season.
“Wisdom is with the aged,” writes the young upstart, Elihu, in the Book of Job (12:12) … but persistence and unbridled enthusiasm is the stuff of youth. Indeed, Summercamp 2018 will see the return of the youthful cadre of ASF’s international students in collaboration with 2016-2017’s ‘wisdom of the aged.’
For more information on the Bialystok Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project, please visit:
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November 7, 2017
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Heidi M. Szpek, Ph.D. is Emerita Professor of Religious Studies at Central Washington University. She currently serves as a translator, epigrapher and consultant for Centrum Edukacji Obywatelskiej Polska-Izrael (Poland), assisting with restoration of the Jewish cemetery of Bagnowka in Bialystok, Poland. She has contributed articles on the Jewish epitaph, Jewish heritage and the Hebrew Bible to academic journals and to The Jewish Magazine online. Her most recent publication Bagnowka: A Modern Jewish Cemetery on the Russian Pale (iUniverse, 2017) tells the story of Bialystok’s last Jewish cemetery and its epitaphs. Her website www.jewishepitaphs.org also shares her research and information on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Bialystok.
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- 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