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.Continue reading Jewish cemeteries in Poland
My 2011 article on Jewish gravestone symbols has long been one of the most popular posts on this web site. In that article, I discuss the symbols found on Jewish gravestones, but not the text. I wrote in the first paragraph that I will likely write about the text at some point in the future. Unfortunately, I waited nine years to do so, but here’s a look at some of the Hebrew text you might find on a Jewish gravestone, and how to decipher it.
We should get some terminology out the way. We’re talking about Hebrew inscriptions on gravestones. In Hebrew we call the grave a קבר kever, and the gravestone itself a מצבה matseva (lit. monument). There isn’t a particularly good Hebrew word for epitaph (the inscription), it’s just הכתובת על המצבה the writing on the gravestone. We do use the word הספד hesped for eulogy, and you can think of some of the inscription to be a eulogy. As this is intended as an introduction to this topic, I’ll simply use the English terms most of the time.
For those who want to print this out, I’ve created a parallel version that will print nicely, and you can download it as a PDF.
As this is a long article with lots of sections, I’ve added a table of contents below that will let you jump to a particular section if you want. The sections generally follow the order that these items would show up in the inscription.Continue reading Deciphering Jewish Gravestones
I’ve had a lot to write since visiting the Okopowa St. Jewish Cemetery a few weeks ago, but have too busy to put it all together. After my first visit hours after arriving in Poland that Sunday, I wrote my initial thoughts in Practical suggestions when photographing cemeteries. I visited a second time a few days later on Wednesday and I wanted to share my thoughts on that visit, and what I’ve had time to think about since returning from Poland.
The first thing I wanted to discuss is the idea of using GPS to help map the sections of a cemetery. While the Okopowa St. Cemetery has several maps, once you’re on site, they’re only useful in a general sense. It would be amazing if there could be an app that would show you which section you were in on a moving map. In my earlier post I showed an overlap on a satellite image of where I walked on the first day, which was densely packed in Section 1, and then a walkabout around the cemetery.
On the second visit, I photographed more of Section 1, which you can see in this new map:
The original path from Sunday is shown in dark blue, and the second path from Wednesday is in light blue. This is a close up showing just the part of Section 1 I visited. There is overlap, and you can see I photographed gravestones to the right of the original area, as well as to the left. All of this is still Section 1 in the cemetery. Continue reading Learning from Okopawa St.
Yesterday I arrived in Warsaw for the 2018 IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy. After dropping off my bags at the hotel, I headed straight to the Okopowa St. Cemetery to start photographing the gravestones (as part of the Okopowa St. Project). This was the first time I had visited this cemetery in 25 years (you can see some of the photographs I took then in my article on Jewish Gravestone Symbols).
I wanted to share my experience going to photograph this cemetery, and offer advice that will be useful for other participants in the Okopowa St. Project, but also anyone looking to document cemeteries (and indeed the point of the Okopowa St. Project is to develop best-practices to use for other cemetery documentation projects).
My first advice is simply to dress appropriately for trudging through a cemetery. When I mentioned this to someone yesterday, they asked if I meant for purposes of modesty (tziut in Hebrew). That’s not what I mean. It’s possible, particularly in some cemeteries in Israel, that you may be required to dress modestly when entering a cemetery. My primary concern, however, particularly in an old cemetery like the one in Warsaw, where gravestones are falling over and there is a lot of vegetation growing around, and sometimes on, the graves, is that you need good shoes and long pants, as you will be walking on uneven ground and stepping over branches and other obstructions, possible dealing with mud, etc. Wear a hat and use sunscreen. Some good bug spray with DEET is also recommended.
Before going to the cemetery, do some research on what is known about it. Are there maps of the cemetery that will help you navigate the grounds? In the case of the Okopowa St. Cemetery, there are several somewhat-conflicting maps (as shown in my earlier article Okopowa St. Cemetery Maps and Statistics). Bring a map with you if you can. If there is no map, then think about tracking where you go to help create a map. It’s worth showing this image of the cemetery overlaid with the path I walked in the cemetery:
The important thing to notice in this map is the dense area on the bottom right. That shows me walking back and forth along the rows in the first half or so of section 1 in the cemetery. After doing that for some time, I then took a walk around other sections of the cemetery and back to the entrance.
Note that when walking in that section, the lines overlap a lot. That’s because there is no walking in a straight line in that section. Besides trees, some graves are surrounding by fences that block one from walking in some areas, and you end up needing to go back, walk around to the other side, take pictures, then go back around to where you started.
One of the main reasons I elected to use BillionGraves is its ability to link multiple photographs of the same grave. Looking at gravestone photos, I frequently want photos from different angles, or close up photos of the text, etc. Unless the text is very clear and takes up most of the gravestone surface, I like to take at least two photos of each grave – one of the entire gravestone showing the surrounding area, and one close up photo of the text. Here’s a video showing how I do this using the BillionGraves app:
There’s another reason to have multiple photos of a single gravestone, and that’s when the gravestone has text on different surfaces. Let me give an example. It’s not uncommon with Jewish gravestones to have both Hebrew and another language on the stone. Sometimes those texts are on opposite sides of the same stone. In that case you might find a photograph of a gravestone, and not realize there is more text on the opposite side. Here’s an example in the Okopowa St. Cemetery. Below is a photograph of a gravestone on the existing database of burials in the cemetery:
Now let me start with saying that the FDJCP has done an amazing job building their databases. They take the effort to extract the data from gravestones in the field, instead of doing so from photographs, which is many times difficult. They don’t, however, transcribe the entire text on gravestones, which can sometimes be useful, and certainly gives people a more personal look at their relatives than just the extracted names and dates. Note that in the FDJCP photograph, that there are two sides with text. They took a picture at an angle that allows you to see both sides. Now look at four photos I took of the same gravestone yesterday:
On the left you’ll see a photo of the entire stone. Next you’ll see the close-up photos of the two sides shown in the FDJCP photograph. I think anyone would agree that it is easier to read the text in these photos. The last photo on the right is actually a third side that has text. Considering the FDJCP’s goal is not to do transcriptions, but only to extract the important genealogical details, the fact that they don’t show a side of the gravestone with text may not matter to them, but it could matter to a relative looking for every detail possible.
I don’t fault FDJCP, quite the contrary. They’re doing amazing work with limited resources. This is, however, a good example of how we can all contribute to improving what is available.
I hope people find this useful, both for the Okopowa St. Project and for other cemetery documentation projects. If you’re photographing cemeteries this week, whether this one or others, share what you’ve learned in the comments.
As the Okopowa St. Project is about to begin, I wanted a way to help coordinate efforts and share experiences. While each section has a discussion group within Flickr, until now I didn’t have a single group that was easy for people to discuss the project. I’ve now set up a Facebook group for that purpose. If you are participating in the project, or even just thinking about it, please join the group and the discussion.
Also, I’m happy to announce that after discussing things with BillionGraves, we’re going to be able to extract the images from BillionGraves and make them available, even if you don’t separately upload them. This means that even if you only photograph using the BillionGraves app, and don’t manually upload the photos to Flickr, we’ll still be able to get them and make them available.
There’s a catch, however, and that’s the reason we did this, which is that BillionGraves doesn’t embed the geocoding in the images, either the ones they upload or the ones they save to the camera roll. The images are also shrunk when uploaded, so those images won’t be full quality. Therefore we still need you to register on the project on the Google Sheet, so we can figure out which sections each photograph goes to. If you can save the images to your camera roll on iPhone (or use the Android Widget feature which allows you to both upload to BillionGraves and save the photo to your camera), and then upload them to Flickr, we will still end up with better quality images for everyone, and it will make the process much easier on the backend.
We’ve also set up a registration page with BillionGraves, that lets them know you’ve come in through this project. If you haven’t signed up with BillionGraves yet, then please do so through this link. If you’ve already registered on BillionGraves, then just go to the page and sign-in through the ‘Login’ link at the bottom.
Just to be clear, I am very grateful for the assistance BillionGraves is providing us, and their accommodating our needs for this project. We have no financial relationship. I only started speaking to them after the project was announced, when someone assumed I had coordinated this with them and was somehow benefitting from it. I thought to myself that while I have no interest in benefiting from this project, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to coordinate with BillionGraves since we were going to be using their software. They really couldn’t have been any nicer, and I am hopeful we can build on this relationship in the future as we use the knowledge gained in photographing this first cemetery, into starting more projects to do the same in other cemeteries.