From August 5 to 19, 2019, nearly 30 volunteers from the US-based Bialystok Cemetery Restoration Project (BCRP) worked on the Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Białystok, Poland, joined by local Polish volunteers. The work coincided with that of the German-based Aktion Suchnezeichen Friedendienste with 15 volunteers from Germany, Poland and Israel, coordinated by Centrum Edukacji Obywatelskiej Bialymstoku Polska-Izrael.
In the following report, Dr. Heidi M. Szpek, a translator, epigrapher and historian of this cemetery and author of a book about it (in the center of the photo above), describes the restoration work accomplished during the 2019 Summercamp, including statistics of work completed, evaluation of best practices under scrutiny this season, highlights from the inscriptions that have reentered the historical record this season — and what she defines as THE 2019 Story…
(All photos © Heidi M. Szpek or BJCP)
“Only in Bialystok: A Restoration Report”
By Dr. Heidi M. Szpek (www.jewishepitaphs.org)
January 17, 2020
Over 400 stones were reset on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Bialystok, Poland, with work undertaken in 25 of the 98 sections that hold burials. In some sections, just a few stones needed tending; other sections were virtually untouched since suffering devastation during and post-World War II. Of the 400 stones reset, 280 held new vital details now returned to the historical record. The list of new records documented this season can be found at Jewish Epitaphs.org (www.jewishepitaphs.org), linked to the BCRP (www.bialystokcemeteryrestoration.org ), as well as shared with interested organizations. While most stones were cleaned and documented, only 15 stones were also repainted as this season a new, more durable paint was being tested.
Since the BJCP began in 2016, more than 1400 stones have now been reset, many have been cleaned and, when possible, documented! Sections 1-29 are nearly completed; Sections 32-58 are partially documented with the most eastern sections covered with a thick layer of grasses; the remaining sections (59-95) are covered by thick young growth forest. Current plans call for Summercamp 2020 to be devoted to resetting and documenting stones in the grassy sections.
Summercamp 2019 provided an excellent opportunity to examine best practices in cemetery restoration.
Of particular interest this season were best practices related to washing, painting and potentially sealing tombstones; best strategies for using mechanized equipment on a cemetery; and use of a USB Microscope to document traces of decorative paint and to potentially read inscriptions on rugged-style stones.
The strategies and/or materials used were informed by the recommendations of the US Materials Conservator along with related publications (https://www.ncptt.nps.gov/programs/materials-conservation/), as well as by the recommendations of Filip Szczepanski, Rabbinic Commission of Cemeteries, Warsaw, Poland. Details regarding each of these Best Practices are posted at: www.jewishepitaphs.org
The methodology and strategies used in the restoration of this cemetery were reviewed this season and sanctioned by representatives of the Chief Rabbi of Poland’s Office. Note the current sanction of mechanized equipment is restricted to the BJCP.
NOTE: Plans are underway to offer a best practice workshop on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery before the August 2020 restoration works begins as a means of properly disseminating these practices.
THE 2019 Story
This report is more than the mundane and technical aspects of this year’s restoration. It might have better been titled: From Suprasle to Israel to Bialystok or Four Orthodox Young Men from New Jersey meet the Pearlsons from Israel and discover Rabbi Paszkowski of Bialystok.
Midway through Summercamp 2019, a contingent of Pearlson family from Israel arrived on cemetery to restore family tombstones.
Three years ago, family inquiry about the existence of a Perej family tombstone still extant on Bagnowka revealed no stones yet reset; a stone was known from an earlier documentation project.
During Summercamp 2018, however, two stones were discovered near the main entrance. Both were lifted, reset and one repaired.
This spring, another member of the Pearlson family, Devorah, had once again contacted BCRP’s Amy Halpern Degen, learning that her grandmother Pearl Perej’s stone and that of her great-grandmother, Chana Lea Perej, were the very stones located and restored save repainting. The stones stood adjacent; both women had died in 1912.
On arrival that August morning, the Pearlsons began the laborious work of cleaning these two very large granite stones with extensive poetry before beginning the collaborative project of repainting the inscriptions. The plan, at some point, was to gather all the Jewish men on cemetery for a minyan to say Kaddish for these ancestors. Between the Pearlson family, BJCP volunteers and ASF Israeli volunteers, there should have been the 10 Jewish men required for minyan by religious law.
Meanwhile on the other side of the cemetery, the crew had just lifted a large boulder-style tombstone.
When they could not determine the gender of the deceased – burial is row-by-row by gender on Bagnowka, I was called in to assist.
The inscription began מסופרסלע “from Suprasle.” Suprasle was a small town that now sits on the northeast border of Bialystok. The rugged stone was for a young woman. While a woman’s row was nearly adjacent to the fallen stone, there was no available plot. The stone was stood upright where it had fallen. (Back home I would later discover that a new stone for this woman stood nearby; for some reason the old was left nearby. A similar situation occurs elsewhere on Bagnowka.)
Back at the Pearlson gravesites, Kaddish had been recited but only after much consternation!
The count for a minyan unbelievably revealed only six Jewish men in attendance that day!
Disappointment descended on those gathered … but just for a few minutes. For no sooner had this misfortune been vocalized, then four young Orthodox Jewish men from New Jersey, USA, appeared at the main entrance to the cemetery. (The Pearlson gravesite is within view of the entrance.) Kaddish was recited; joy at fulfilling this religious duty prevailed. The Pearlsons returned to their restoration work and the four Orthodox young men were brought to me for assistance.
These young Orthodox men were enroute to … Suprasle(!) to attempt to locate the burial site where one young man’s grandfather had been murdered during the Holocaust.
Nearing Bialystok, they heard of a large Jewish cemetery and thought they might learn some story related to the murder of this grandfather. After saying Kaddish, they asked if I had heard any stories of the fate of grandfather, which I had not. And they inquired if any stones on this cemetery mentioned Suprasle. Yes! I showed them the stone just lifted. The deceased’s name was not familiar but just the mention of this grandfather’s town, engraved in stone, brought some sense of connection. I invited them to walk about the cemetery. Suprasle did not have Jewish cemetery, so other stones, too, remembered Suprasle’s Jews buried here. And so we parted …
In what seemed just minutes later, a volunteer excitedly hailed me to follow, as the four young Orthodox Jewish men from New Jersey had located the gravesite of a rabbinic scholar whose books they still study today!
The tombstone that caught their attention was that of Rabbi Benjamin Isaiah Paszkowski (d. 1933).
The two large fragments of his stone had been discovered by volunteer photographer, Frank Idzikowski, in the alley not far from the ohel of Rabbi Halpern several years back and reset and repaired just this year. By chance, these young men’s self-guided tour had taken them in the sections near this same ohel.
In these sections, were gravesite after gravesite of Bialystok’s rabbis and rabbinic scholars. I had written about Rabbi Paszchowski’s inscription in my book, Bagnowka: A Modern Jewish Cemetery on the Russian Pale (pp. 252-254). I was well aware that it noted his scholarly work but not how relevant his book, Amuday Ha-Shulhan, a commentary on part one of Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried of Hungary’s Abbreviated Shulhan Arukh, still was for contemporary religious students. And they pointed out another stone, that of Rabbi Mordechai Elijahu Rabinowicz (d. 1921), which lay broken in four pieces in the alley near this year’s camp. Its inscription mentioned his four handwritten publications, as well as the towns in which he served as a Sammash. The visit from these unexpected Orthodox young men from New Jersey taught us that these stones not only remember Jewish Bialystok’s past; their books still inform today!
Such stories, such coincidences cannot be contrived; they happen each season on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery.
This season taught us that connections from Jewish Bialystok’s past to the present (and no doubt, the future) not only reside in the moving reunion with one’s ancestors, as for the Pearlson family, but also in the relevancy of Jewish Bialystok’s religious legacy as informed by the unexpected visit from the Orthodox young men from New Jersey.
These engagements also have an impact on how we restore.
As the descendants of Pearl and Chana Lea Perej, the Pearlsons chose to clean and repaint these granite stones, restoring them as close to the original as possible after 100-plus years.
But who should decide on how the tombstones of these still-relevant rabbinic scholars are restored? On this point, dialogue is open.
As a translator, epigrapher and historian of this cemetery, but especially of its inscriptions, I revel in each season’s Summercamp discoveries. This year was no different.
Onsite, I have limited time to fully read each inscription, focusing more on the vital details for documentation and to assist in proper replacement of a stone.
In the near solitude of my study back in the greater Seattle-area, I can take the time to study each inscription, both for content and unique epigraphic details.
Inevitably, there are always the unexpected, a missing year of death, a misspelled word, a paternal name tucked between the lines, suggesting the stonecutter had somehow missed that significant detail.
Most intriguing this season was the discovery of a stone palimpsest, that is, an inscription intentionally inscribed over another somewhat worn inscription. Sadly, in Eastern Europe palimpsest tombstones are not uncommon. These are more often stolen Jewish tombstones, repurposed for other purposes. The current case suggests that a Jewish stonecutter reused a Jewish stone. Why? The answer need not be nefarious. Perhaps a partially engraved rejected stone was all that another family could afford.
Onsite this season, we reset the tombstone of another soldier in the Polish army, Simha Cimerman, who was killed in Vilnius on 23 November 1933.
This is the second tombstone that remembers a Jewish soldier.
Some years back, the tombstone of Isaiah Halewi Lom from Grodno was also reset. His inscription records that he died on night watch in Bialystok on 10 September 1922.
Near Cimerman’s tombstone is the tombstone of the Jewish firefighter, Josyf Szczupak. Erected by the Bialystok Volunteer Fire Brigade (Białostocka Ochotnicza Straż Pożarna), it remembers that he perished in 1934 while on a rescue action. For decades it lay recumbent on the earth; only its Polish inscription with the plumed firefighter’s helmet was visible. And I wondered if, once overturned, a Hebrew inscription might offer more details of his life.
This tombstone was one of the first lifted this past season. With great anticipation I awaited my first view of its obverse. The obverse was blank. No Hebrew or Jewish funerary symbol. While disappointed, I recognized that the lack of any Jewish funerary marking offers significant commentary on the strength of modernity on this cemetery. A vernacular language did not simply co-exist with the traditional Hebrew, it supplanted it.
Another discovery, preserving only the vernacular language of Yiddish, was the tombstone of a leading actor in Bialystok’s Yiddish theatre. His inscription suggests he actually died while on stage!
Not far from these tombstones, another bilingual tombstone in Hebrew and Polish, offered another exciting first for women’s achievements in Bialystok beyond that of marriage and motherhood. Last year, we discovered the tombstone of Dr. Sophia Kuricki (d. 1919); this year that of Roza Garber, a dentist (d. 1934)!
Those familiar with this cemetery or the history of Jewish Bialystok know of the presence of the tall black Memorial Pillar at the center of this cemetery, remembering the victims of two massacres in 1905, as well as the 1906 Pogrom.
Restoration of this area in 2014 and 2015 uncovered the presence of memorial matzevoth surrounding this pillar, individually remembering many of these same victims.
Restoration in adjoining sections also revealed more memorial matzevoth for victims of these incidents but also those who were killed as the result of anti-Semitic violence in 1904 and other times in 1905. Restoration throughout the cemetery since then has also located matzevoth at individual burial plots from the 1906 Pogrom. This season, two stones were discovered in additional sections (15 and 66) remembering two other victims. These victims, however, perished in incidents in 1907 and 1908. Both at times nearing the first and second anniversary of the 1906 Pogrom.
The epitaph of the stone pictured at left reads: “Here lies a beloved man, an honorable merchant who was known by the upright deeds of his heart and by his truthfulness, a righteous man, and one who gives and takes with truthfulness. The martyr, it was said about him that he fell by the hands of lawless in the world, on the day when anger destroyed without justice. Our teacher, our rabbi, Rabbi Israel, son of R. Shalom Marejn[o]?. All who remember Israel will weep with a burning intensity. He died in a good name on Wednesday, 25 Sivan 5668 (24 June 1908)”
Further research is underway to understand these additional incidents not yet part of the historical record. As we near the 115th Anniversary of the 1906 Pogrom in Bialystok; 116th for the 1905 Massacres, perhaps it is time to complete restoration of the Memorial Complex begun in 2014, continued but then halted in 2015, and organize commemorative events much as we do so for the burning of the Great Synagogue and for the Bialystok Ghetto Uprising.
Each season, I encounter an inscription that particularly surprises me, awakening my complacency when reviewing hundreds of tombstones.
This season was no different. This discovery reminded me that the world of Bialystok held concerns that are universal to any parent or person, who resides in proximity to a river: Winter snows melt, heavy rains cause waters to swell beyond a river’s banks, or unseasonably warm waters beckon the unsuspecting inattentive or immature swimmer to cool waters.
Beneath a copse of trees in the same section where Dr. Roza Garber is buried stands a modest tree-style monument. This monument remembers the 18-year-old Yehoshua, son of Jakob Eliyahu, Emanuel, “who drowned in the waters of the Narew River on (the holiday) of Lag B’omer 5685.” In 5685 – 1925, the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer was on 12 May, a time when the rise of the Narew would be in keeping with melting winter snows yet amidst a rise in spring temperatures.
Each season, I am also intrigued by the language of remembrance, engraved on the Bagnowka tombstones. I am confident to encounter men remembered in varied vocabulary drawn from the biblical book of Job and women likened to the proverbial Eshet Hayil. Yet every now and then, I am startled by what is remembered and the manipulation of the biblical text.
The inscription of the drowning victim startled me especially because his fate was preceded by a provocative crafting of excerpts from the biblical text that no way suggested his fate: “Here lies a young man who was taken up, a skillful man (lit. owner of skill, success); and beautiful of substance.”
“Taken up” is a verb drawn from the imagery of the cloud of the Lord, which ascended from its rest over the ark of the covenant, signaling the Israelites that it was time to move on in their trek across the Sinai (e.g. Num. 9:21); “a skillful man”, perhaps is a play on Ecclesiastes 5:10: “What use is success/wealth to its owners”; and, finally, “beautiful of form” – the rare word “form” (מוג) suggests both substance and the dissolution of that substance. Perhaps this language was a poetic admonition: If such a skilled, strong young man could drown, how much more the average person.
Who wrote such an epitaph?
The identity of the composer for such literary craftings has long been on my mind.
This season a partial answer appeared with the unexpected … the Pearlsons from Israel. Amidst the restoration of the tombs of grandmother Pearl Perej, the Pearlsons translated her extensive acrostic poem.
It held references to the narrative of the matriarch Rachel, who died in childbirth: “Here lies the honorable woman, God-fearing in truth, kind-hearted, hurrying to do righteous, and charitable, Mrs. Pearl, daughter of Nehamyah Hacohen, Perej (d. 1912), age 27 … a beloved and only child to her parents, plucked up suddenly in the days of her youth. After giving birth in great travail to her first-born son, swiftly [came] death, taking her to the grave.”
Pearl Perej died in childbirth, giving life to her son Benyamin, who became the progeniture of the 100 Pearlsons today. Unprovoked, Devorah shared family lore: Pearl’s husband, a rabbi of about 24, composed her lengthy acrostic eulogy. What a painful and cathartic task from a young husband to his young wife, demonstrating the exquisite care given in the crafting of these final words of remembrance.
The past is reawakened each season in these engagements and discoveries, offering insights and hope for the future of this cemetery as well. They demonstrate what an incredible place Bialystok is today and possibly what the world of Jewish Bialystok once was. To the visitor, who chances upon this cemetery, just accept what transpires. To the intentional volunteer that experiences the mundane or complacency setting in, know that something will happen. When it does, respond – Only in Bialystok!
- Ecuador: (European) Jewish Heritage in “an Unknown Country”
- Poland: How WW2 Luftwaffe Aerial Photos Reveal Lost Jewish Heritage in Białystok
- Poland: Using WW2 Luftwaffe Aerial Photos to Document the History of the Bagnówka Jewish Cemetery in Białystok
- Report: 2017 Białystok Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project
- The Destruction of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland — Excerpts in English from a major new Polish book by Krzysztof Bielawski