Longtime Jewish cemetery researcher Krzysztof Bielawski has published an important new book on the destruction of Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
Focusing on the territory of today’s Poland, the book, Zagłada cmentarzy żydowskich, details the devastation of Jewish cemeteries before, during, and after World War II — up until the present day: the majority of the 280-page book deals with the devastation after WW2.
It is the first publication to deal with this subject is such a comprehensive, documented way.
So far it has only been published in Polish, but parts of the section on the destruction of Jewish cemeteries under Nazi rule between 1933 and 1945 (when parts of today’s Poland constituted part of Germany) have been translated into English, by Richard Bialy. They provide detailed description and background information as well as case studies, detailing how the Jewish cemeteries were targeted for wanton violence and were used as quarries, how they were damaged during military action, and how they were damaged by the digging of mass graves for mass executions.
“This is a historic book, based on my own experience, research in archives, and other sources,” Krzysztof says. “It includes many quotations from those who destroyed the cemeteries and witnesses of the process.”
Krzysztof is the founder of the Polish Jewish Cemeteries web site — www.cmentarze-zydowskie.pl
Jewish cemeteries became a good starting point to discover the local history. I took photos, wrote essays about the cemeteries and published on my website. From the beginning I realized all these cemeteries have been devastated. I wanted to find out who and how did it.
Fully footnoted, Krzysztof’s research disproves some myths, including that of the mass destruction of Jewish cemeteries during Kristallnacht and that “cemeteries were totally destroyed by Germans.” In fact, he writes, even if a cemetery was devastated by Nazis during the war, it was also destroyed by the local population — and very often by the postwar state. After the fall of communism the situation changed, but, he says, “Jewish cemeteries are still in danger.”
We are pleased to be able to publish a few excerpts of the English translation (minus the footnotes). It makes for grim — but important — reading. We hope that this book can soon find an English-language publisher!
In addition to some images from the book, illustrating the text here are photographs from the “Currently Absent” project, which creates temporary installations of transparent matzevot at the sites of destroyed Jewish cemeteries. (See its Facebook page HERE.) The cover picture shows the site of the Jewish cemetery in Łuków, now a park and playground.
The destruction of Jewish cemeteries in the years 1933-1945
Devastation, desecration and administration of property in areas conquered by the Third Reich
In the case of Jewish cemeteries in territory occupied by Germany in 1939, the fate awaiting them was much worse than that of cemeteries located in the Third Reich. Cemeteries in the General Gouvernement (the so-called General Government created on that part of Poland under Nazi German rule) were afforded practically no protection – the Germans destroyed them ruthlessly. In contrast to cemeteries in Germany [itself], cemetery plots in the General Gouvernement were not subject to sale, but there are known cases of gravestones being sold.
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It can be assumed that the devastation of cemeteries in the early years of the war and occupation was random, part of a series of repressions committed against Jews by soldiers of the victorious German army brought up on anti-Semitic ideology. The smashing of matzevahs and profanation of graves, along with other things such as physical violence, desecration of synagogues, the burning of religious books, the shearing of men’s sidelocks and beards, and forcing them to clean the streets – was above all one of many actions aimed at humiliating the Jewish population.
In time, this destruction began to be a more planned process connected to the Nazi “management” of cemetery property in the form of stone and other materials (for example, in 1942 the Governor of the Lublin District, in connection with plans to build and repair roads, demanded an inventory of cemeteries and an estimate of the number of gravestones).
The Germans used Jewish forced labourers, prisoners of war of various nationalities and local populations to carry out the actual work of devastating cemeteries. For Jews, this was an additional, extremely painful form of repression.
The Germans not only used their labour, but at the same time severely humiliated them, ordering them to dig up graves, destroy the gravestones of family and community members, and to use matzevahs for various construction works.
In the light of findings by Tomasz Wiśniewski, researching the history of Jews in Podlasie, work was carried out by, among others, Polish peasants, forced to provide horse-drawn carts and transport the “spoils” (in some cases being rewarded with permission to themselves take a number of gravestones).
In Bydgoszcz, teenagers from the German Bromberg Erziehungslager prison camp for juveniles removed matzevahs from the cemetery on Dąbrowski Hill. Gravestones from Lublin cemeteries were broken up by Jewish prisoners of war from the camp at No. 7 Lipowa Street and “Polish tearaways”, probably from one of the forced Construction Service (German: Baudienst) camps.
The Germans used Jewish gravestones on a massive scale to harden roads and pavements, as curbs and as building material.
Gravestones from cemeteries in Poznań, including the Jewish graveyard on Głogowska Street and the parish graveyard on Bukowska Street, were used on such construction sites as the motorway to Berlin, the Rusałka artificial lake, and new villas built in the city. The work was performed by prisoners from such camps as those in Żabików, Krzyżowniki and Junikowo.
Gravestones were torn from the ground and cut up into smaller pieces. Forced labourers were ordered to dig up graves, open coffins and search through the human remains. According to the “Information Bulletin” of the Government Delegation for Poland, “the Germans carrying out the work got the Jews drunk and then forced them to rob the dead of all valuables, including the gold from their teeth.”
In 1940, the matzevahs from the Sochaczew cemetery were used to build military facilities, including those at the Bielice airport. During this work, the ohels of tzadik Awraham Bornsztajn and rabbi Eliezer ha-Kohen were damaged. In Skierniewice, gravestones were used to strengthen a dam built on the river to create a bathing area.
In mid-1940, the Germans dug up the graves in the Drobin cemetery, gravestones were torn out, and a sports field was laid out on the site. As Rabbi Szymon Huberband reported, as a result of this devastation “the bones and skeletons of the dead were strewn all over the streets of the town”. Only some time later did the Germans allow the bones to be collected and reinterred.
In Bydgoszcz, work on the demolition of the cemetery began in February 1940 and lasted until March. The Germans ordered the matzevahs to be broken down into smaller, cobble-sized pieces, which were used to harden the paths leading to the city’s water tower.
In Rajgród too, the Germans ordered Jews to smash gravestones and use them to harden the roads. Some of the stones were used as rubble filling for the foundations of a house erected next to the water mill on the Wojda estate. In some places – including Biłgoraj, Łosice, Mogielnica, Sobienie-Jeziory, Wieruszów, and Wyszków – matzevahs were used to pave the forecourts of German gendarme posts. Gravestones from the Mława cemetery were used by the Germans to erect monumental pillars at the entrance to the Truppenübungsplatz Mielau military training ground, commonly known as “New Berlin”, established in 1940.
Matzevahs from Jordanów and Nowy Targ were used in the construction of the Security Police and Security Service Officer Training School in Rabka, including the wide stairs leading to the roll-call square. On the orders of the school’s commander, Wilhelm Rosenbaum, the Jewish forced labourers placed these stones with the epitaphs face up, and those made of black marble were arranged in the shape of the eagle featured in the coat of arms of the Third Reich.
Zdzisław Olszewski, who witnessed the construction and use of those stairs, in 1997 wrote: “The Hebrew inscriptions carved on the paving stones of ‘Rosenbaum’s Staircase’ were viewed with appreciation and laughter by various dignitaries of the SS, SA and SD, invited by Rosenbaum to enjoy these sacrilegious, Nazi freak shows.”
In Izbica, gravestones were used to tile the walls of the local jail. In the opinion of a local journalist, the Gestapo commander Kurt Engels “wanted them [the Jews] to understand that their last living act was the erection of their own tomb.”
Matzevahs from Końskie were also treated as building materials, used in the construction of a fattening pen for pigs and an observation tower at the manor house in Modliszewice, then occupied by the district administrator Eduard Fitting.
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Devastation as a result of military operations
Probably the first Jewish cemetery to suffer damage during World War II was the cemetery in Krzepice – a town some 5 kilometres from the then Polish-German border. According to materials collected by local historian Romuald Cieśla, around 5.00–6.00 a.m. on September 1st 1939, several tanks of the German 4th Armoured Division entered the cemetery, knocking down its perimeter wall.
Due to their walls and gravestones providing protection against missiles, and sometimes also in view of their elevation, some cemeteries became strategic points during hostilities. During the September campaign, at least several cemeteries – including those in Bolszewo, Warsaw and Seroczyn – became defence points established for the Polish Army. In Zakroczym, the construction of fortifications led to conflict between Jewish community representatives and the army. A delegation led by a rabbi, demanding an end to the excavation of the graves, was repelled by soldiers throwing stones. Following negotiations, the unit’s commander modified the plan “so that not so many dead would have to be disturbed”. In 1939, the wall of the cemetery in Warsaw’s Bródno district was damaged “as a result of hostilities”.
During the occupation, German soldiers tested their rifles by firing at the cemetery wall in Pruszków and destroyed it. According to regional historian Marian Skwara, damage to some gravestones was probably caused by their bullets. In Żabno too, Wehrmacht soldiers smashed part of the cemetery’s wall during exercises using anti-tank guns. In Brzeziny, members of the Volkssturm and gendarmes used matzevahs for target practice, and in 1945 were to use them again, to build barricades. The cemetery in Konin was transformed into a training ground for German soldiers.
In 1939–1945, three cemeteries in Wrocław (then called Breslau) were damaged. Willy Cohn wrote about one such event in his diary: “February 24th 1940. Breslau, Saturday. A strange event occurred at our cemetery in Cosel. One of the planes flew too low and collided with the dome of the chapel, which caught fire and burned down. The plane crashed and the entire crew was killed.” The cemetery’s administration building was handed over to the Wehrmacht to be used as a warehouse. Another Jewish cemetery, located on today’s Gwarna Street, opposite the railway station, became of interest to railway officials, who intended to requisition the site and build an air-raid shelter for about 3,000 passengers. Ultimately, due to the complications concerning purchase of the cemetery from the Jewish Association in Germany, Wrocław’s city authorities agreed to build a smaller shelter. It is not known whether this construction work was ever completed. During archaeological digs conducted in 2013 and 2017, a reinforced concrete beam measuring 2 x 7 x 16 metres was unearthed, but it has not been possible to establish whether or not this was an element of the bunker’s structure.
During the war, the cemetery on today’s Ślężna Street in Wrocław also suffered damage. In 1945, German and Soviet units clashed on its grounds. Evidence of this can be seen in the bullet marks still visible on some of the gravestones and tombs. Colonel Mikhail Machow took part in that battle: “Our battalions had already occupied part of the cemetery between Sztabowa, Ślężna and Komandorska streets. […] On February 26th, the Germans launched a strong counterattack from Ślężna Street. We found ourselves surrounded. The companies fighting in the cemetery retreated in the face of overwhelming enemy forces.”
On February 15th 1944, two bombs fell on the cemetery in Słubice during an RAF air raid on Frankfurt on the other side of the Oder River. As a result of these explosions, a number of graves were destroyed, and a wall of the pre-funeral building collapsed.
In 1944, the Sarnaki cemetery was used as an observation post for an SS unit participating in V2 rocket testing. In a trench dug on the site, soldiers took cover at the signal of an incoming missile.
According to the findings of Jan Paweł Woronczak, the smashing of some matzevahs and the creation of a crater in the corner of the Kromołów cemetery could have been the result of an explosion of ammunition and pyrotechnic materials stored in box plate tombstones. The author did not say whether this ammunition was stored by German soldiers or members of the Polish resistance movement.
Due to its strategic location, the cemetery in Nowogród, located on the high banks of the Narew River, right next to a bridge, was transformed into a defensive redoubt in the years 1944-1945. One of Nowogród’s residents said of it: “It was here that the front line was held up from October to January, and the Soviet troops were lined up here, and on the other side of the Narew there is an island, [indistinct], there they made a bridgehead and sent punishment battalions there [ …]. Here [in the cemetery] there were gun emplacement trenches, some quite large and even bigger, in fact they were proper dugouts. And there the soldiers slept, spent the night and so on. […] Here, like this house on the left, was a German “Tiger” tank, four others were burnt out [indistinct]. That’s where their… trenches were, down there, and the trenches were lined with boards, that’s where people were [buried]”. The depressions in the cemetery’s grounds left by the gun trenches are still visible today.
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December 23, 2020
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