When I was younger, I remember hearing the phrase ‘Poland is one big Jewish cemetery’. This was a way of relating the fact that 90% of Polish Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Usually it was stated by someone who was explaining why they would never visit Poland. Of course, when I was younger it was quite difficult to visit Poland, being that it was behind the Iron Curtain. I first visited Poland, less than two years after the fall of the Soviet Union, as part of the March of the Living in 1993. We visited a couple of cemeteries during that trip, including the Okopowa St. synagogue in Warsaw. The Okopowa St. cemetery has more than 80,000 gravestones still in existence, and has had money contributed to it from the local government to help preserve it. One wonders if the interest in preserving this particular cemetery is due to an interest in preserving the past, or perhaps an interest in encouraging more Jewish tourism. The lack of funds for other cemeteries in the country would tend to support the tourism theory.
So how many Jewish cemeteries are there in Poland? I would say it’s impossible to know for sure how many there were, but we know of about roughly 1200 cemeteries. I say roughly, because it’s certain that we don’t know about all of them, and on the flip side, some of those we do know existed, we no longer know their exact locations. Many of those we do know the locations of no longer have any gravestones present, and are simple fields, or worse, built over with homes and businesses.
Some of the most common questions I get asked are about cemeteries. Does a cemetery in such and such community still exist? Is there a database of the graves there? Can I find a photograph of my relatives’ grave? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are usually no. So many Jewish cemeteries in Poland were destroyed, either by the Germans during WWII, or by the Polish after the war, that it’s much more common to find one ancestor’s gravestones have been repurposed in roadworks or other such desecrations, than it to find that they still exist.
In the B&F Compendium of Jewish Genealogy, I’ve added a number of resources for Polish cemeteries. I’m not sure what it says that there are, in fact, so many sites with information on Jewish cemeteries in Poland, but indeed there are. Here’s an example of the resources available for Jewish cemeteries in Piotrków Trybunalski:
Piotrków Trybunalski is an example of a cemetery which still has a number of graves present, and is well documented on several sites. There are links from seven different sites above.
The top link to the Foundation for Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland links to a database with information on 1620 graves.
The Gidonim Project similarly has a database of information on the graves, including photographs. This project is run by the Reut School in Jerusalem, that sends graduates and teachers to Poland to help renovate and document Jewish cemeteries every year.
The IAJGS International Jewish Cemetery Project is an attempt to document every Jewish cemetery worldwide, and usually has quite useful information about the cemetery and its current condition.
Lo Tishkach is a catalog of European Jewish cemeteries, and has less information on each cemetery, but usually mass grave sites as well. Unfortunately, Lo Tishkach is currently experiencing problems and doesn’t show information. I’ve been told they’re working on it, so hopefully that will be fixed soon.
cmentarze-zydowskie.pl is Krzysztof Bielawski’s excellent site documenting the current condition of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Note that although there is a ‘New’ icon next to that listing, it’s not really new, just updated. I recently updated the links to match the new name of the site. Krzysztof has a book on the destruction of Jewish cemeteries in Poland called Zaglada cmentarzy zydowskich which was published last year in Polish, and will hopefully be published in English and Hebrew soon.
Before writing this post I added links to the Virtual Shtetl site operated by the Polin Museum. While I already had links to town information in the History section, I added the direct links to each cemetery in the Cemetery section. You’ll also notice the ‘New’ icon next to those links, as they were actually just added today. Adding these links required me to review a lot of the cemetery pages, and thinking back to the phrase about Poland being one big Jewish cemetery, it seems wrong to say that, considering how many of Jewish burial places no longer exist. It’s like they were thrown down the memory hole, along with any lingering guilt over what happened to the other half of some the towns where these cemeteries existed. A third of Warsaw was Jewish before the war, a quarter of Krakow, and more than half of many smaller towns. Perhaps the fact that Polish people have a huge amount of respect for their own cemeteries, makes their lack of respect for Jewish burial grounds so much more disappointing.
Lastly, the Zapomniane cmentarze web site, which is a kind of one-man mission to document cemeteries in Poland. This was actually one of the first sites I added to the Compendium when I first decided to add Polish town-level data, back when it was called Złe miejsca dla ślimaków.
To access these resources, start by finding the Polish town among the 1400+ in my Polish towns list, and then scroll down to the Cemeteries section. Most won’t have quite as many resources as Piotrków Trybunalski, but most will have some resources, enough to at least know the status of the cemetery in that town.
If I wanted to find out the current condition of a cemetery, I’d probably start with IAJGS and Virtual Shtetl. With Virtual Shtetl keep in mind that while I provide a link in English, the Polish link will in most cases have more information. I would definitely check the page in Polish run it through Google Translate if you want the most information.
Do you use other sites for information on Jewish cemeteries in Poland? Post a comment about them below.