Tag Archives: poland

About those 10,000 Polish resources

When you enter the B&F Compendium of Jewish Genealogy, you are presented with a list of 207 countries. Among them, I’ve seeded those countries and their provinces with over 1,200 resources. Collecting those resources was time-consuming to say the least. At some point I decided, however, to go a step further and look into adding resources at the city level. I knew I couldn’t add resources for every city, town and village in the world, but I thought maybe I could do so for one country. I decided on Poland because I knew there were a number of unique city-level resources available. In general, I didn’t add one resource at a time, but rather hundreds at a time. Otherwise there would be no way to get to the 10,000 resources I added. I wanted to take a look at some of the sources I tapped in putting together the collection on this site.

One detail – I’m not making a distinction between cities, towns and villages – for the most part I use those terms interchangeable. Certainly most of the ‘cities’ for Poland are not more than towns, and in many cases tiny villages.

One of the hardest things in putting together the city-level resources for Poland was making sure all the records matched the correct cities. When trying to connect resources from many different sources, it was sometimes hard to make sure that the towns referenced were the same ones. Many towns in Poland use the same, or very similar names. At first, I thought I could use the Province/County information to identify each town, before I realized there was no place that had a good reference of all of them. JewishGen and Virtual Shtetl had the data for the pre-WWI period and/or the interwar period, but not the modern period. I felt it was important to anchor everything based on the modern province/county information, just as I felt it was important to only collect information on towns currently in Poland. There has to be a frame of reference for collecting all this information, and I wanted it to be the current country/province/county data. After I put together a list of towns I intended on collecting information on, I then did something a bit crazy. I found the Wikipedia pages for every town, in both the English and Polish versions. By finding the Wikipedia pages, I was able to add not only the Province (Voivodeship) and County (Powiat) to my database, but the latitude/longitude coordinates as well. Armed with the administrative divisions and the map coordinates, I had enough information to, in almost every case, match up the records I collected to the correct towns.

The top of the city record for Kańczuga, Poland
The top of the city topic for Kańczuga, Poland

The Wikipedia entries, in addition to the official government sites for those towns, were added to a new section unique to cities, called General. Unlike almost all resources in the compendium, records in the General section are not specifically Jewish. Rather, they are intended as a kind of anchor point for the rest of the records, to insure we’re talking about the correct town. If you find a resource in the rest of the town section that doesn’t seem to match the town in the General section, then let me know. There are bound to be some mistakes. The General records are there, therefore, to help correct those mistakes.

One thing to note about the official town web sites. In addition to Poland having a province (voivodeship) and a county (powiat), there is also a third smaller district called a Gmina in Polish, sometimes translated as a Municipality or a Commune. In some cases the city itself doesn’t have a web site, rather the city web site is part of the Gmina web site. In cases where the Gmina has the same name as the town (very common), and no specific town site could be found, I linked to the Gmina web site. I did something similar with the Coat of Arms for towns in Poland. When I couldn’t find one for the town, if the town was in a Gmina of the same name, I used the Coat of Arms of the Gmina.

JewishGen provided four major groups of resources to Polish cities – the Community Database, the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF), the Yikzor Book Project, and KehilaLinks. The other major resource groups included links from Virtual Shtetl, the IAJGS Jewish Cemetery Project, JRI-Poland, the Routes to Roots Foundation, Gesher Galicia, Geni, and two large Polish sites documenting Jewish cemeteries in Poland – Kirkuty.xip.pl and Złe miejsca dla ślimaków.

In addition to these major groups, each of which contributed hundreds of resources, there were hundreds of other individual resources collected from a variety of sites including landsmanshaft sites, individual cemetery sites, contemporary Jewish community sites, etc. While I tried not to stray off-course too much in collecting these individual records (I hoped rather that these kinds of records would be contributed by users after launch) I found it hard not to add uniques sites that I found.

Let’s a take a look at the major resource groups to help those who are unfamiliar with some or all of them (in alphabetical order):

Geni – While perhaps better known for their World Family Tree trying to connect everyone on the planet, Geni also offers user-created research projects. These projects can cover anything, but many of them cover specific communities that people want to research. Many research projects have been set up to research former Jewish communities, and those projects are what I’ve linked to in the compendium.

Gesher Galicia – Galicia was a region of the former Austrian Empire, which is now split between Poland and Ukraine. Gesher Galicia is a very active group researching Jewish families from that region, and collecting original records from archives in Poland and Ukraine and making them available in its All Galicia Database. Their town listing is automatically generated from information on each town including the pre-war administrative districts and map coordinates, and lists how many Gesher Galicia members have indicated they are researching each town (in their Gesher Galicia Family Finder).

IAJGS Jewish Cemetery Project – Often overlooked, the IAJGS Jewish Cemetery Project is a massive database trying to list every known Jewish cemetery on the planet. There is a huge amount of information contained in the database, although nothing about specific burials (that’s left to the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, although there’s no way to link to information in JOWBR for a specific town). If you want to find out if a cemetery exists in your ancestral town and what condition it’s in, this is a good place to start.

JewishGen Communities Database – This is a database of towns worldwide with confirmed Jewish communities. Unlike the much larger JewishGen Gazetteer which has over a million localities in over 54 countries based on the U.S. Board on Geographic Names database, the JewishGen Communities Database is a curated list of roughly 6,000 towns where there is known to be, or have been, a Jewish community. For each town, the database links to other resources on JewishGen, as well as selected resources on other sites. The town pages have other very useful information, such as a list of the closest towns in the database to the current town, as well as alternate names for the town in different languages.

JewishGen Family Finder – The JewishGen Family Finder, or JGFF, is a significant resource for potentially finding other relatives. The idea is simple, you add a list of town/surname pairs to the database. If someone else is researching the same surname from the same town, then they will find you when searching the database, and hopefully contact you. I wrote about how to get started with the JGFF on the JewishGen blog back in 2011 (JewishGen Basics: The JewishGen Family Finder) and I recommend reading that post as an introduction if you haven’t used JGFF before.

JewishGen KehilaLinks – Originally known as ShetLinks (as in links to Shtetls), the KehilaLinks project is, for the most part, a attempt to create pages memorializing former Jewish communities. In some ways you can think of KehilaLink sites as modern version of Yizkor Books. The difference, perhaps, is that while Yizkor Books were published by former residents of their communities, at this point KehilaLink sites are being produced primarily by descendants of the residents of these communities. The amount of information available for each town varies wildly, as they are solely edited by volunteers for each town. If you have additional information to contriubte for your ancestral town, I recommend contacting the coordinator for your town and sending them your information to be added.

JewishGen Yizkor Book Project – An amazing project that seeks to collect information on all Yizkor Books published, extract lists of the dead (necrology lists) from them, and translate them. Yizkor Books were for the most part memorial books published by the survivors of communities destroyed during the Holocaust. These books were published in the decades following the Holocaust, frequently in Yiddish or Hebrew, mainly in the US and Israel where landsmanshaftn for these communities existed. Many of these books contain lists of those who were murdered during the Holocaust, memories about what it was like to live in the communities, photographs of people, etc. They are incredible resource that many people have not been able to leverage in their research due to their scarcity (they were privately published in small quantities for members of the community) and the language barrier, but this project is looking to make these books more readily available online, and to offer translations of some or all of each book online.

JRI-Poland – Formally Jewish Records Indexing – Poland, JRI-Poland is a decades-long effort spearheaded by Stanley Diamond to index and publish Jewish vital records from Poland (and places that were formerly part of Poland). Working with local archives in Poland and elsewhere, JRI-Poland has managed to index over 5 million records from over 550 towns. While the index can provide most of the information in a record, the records on JRI-Poland also give you the information you need to order copies of the records from the local archives. More recently as many of these records have gone online, JRI-Poland has linked directly to the digital copies of the records on Polish archive web sites. JRI-Poland’s town pages generally includes the map coordinates for the town, and sometimes the province. Links to off-site resources can include links to the JewishGen Communities Database and Virtual Shtetl. In addition to that basic information, the town page shows you what records exist in the local archives as well as in LDS microfilms (which sometimes overlap), and gives you information on fundraising for the various indexing projects for that town. To see what is actually indexed, however, you must search in their database.

Kirkuty.xip.pl – A kind of memorial to the pre-war Jewish community of Poland, this web site documents the current state of Jewish cemeteries across Poland. The site is, for the most part, only in Polish. Information is given on the history of the Jewish community in the town, and there are usually photographs of the current state of the cemetery and sometimes links to other related web sites.

Routes to Roots Foundation – The culmination of decades of research by Miriam Weiner, the Routes to Roots database contains information on what vital records and other documents covering Jewish communities exist in archives in Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine, and to a lesser extent Latvia, Romania and Russia. Originally published in two books written my Miriam Weiner (Jewish Roots in Poland, and Jewish Roots in Ukraine and Moldova), the information is kept up to date on the web site, and has been expanded over the years to include new records that have been found. When looking to see if any records exist for your ancestral town, this database is a good place to start. It’s worth mentioning that I link to the search results for the town, which might include records from other towns with matching names, so don’t automatically assume that records in these search results are from your town.

Virtual Shtetl – A project of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Virtual Shtetl is a large database of information of current and mostly former Jewish communities in Poland. The database of communities consists of 1971 towns, all either currently in, or formerly in, Poland. Basic information like the pre-WWII province/county and the map coordinates are provided for each community, as well as links to some other sites such as the JewishGen Community Database and JRI-Poland. While each town has different information, information can include information on the Jewish community, cemeteries, synagogues, people, landsmanshaftn, heritage cites, sites where Jews were murdered, etc. Most of the information is in Polish, although some has been translated into English. If you look on the English version of the site it will show you whether is in English, and when it comes to a resource with no translation it will show it to you in Polish.

Złe miejsca dla ślimaków – Roughly translated as ‘Bad place for snails’ this blog documents places near the author’s home in Pulawy, Poland. ‘Near’ seems to be a relative term, as the author has documented hundreds of towns. These places include cemeteries (both Jewish and non-Jewish) and buildings such as former synagogues and yeshivas. The site is completely in Polish, but provides information on the places it documents, and includes photos of each place. When documenting a cemetery, the resource shows up in the Cemeteries section. When documenting a building that was once a synagogue or yeshiva, I’ve placed the resource in the Contemporary section. That may be counterintuitive, but if the Synagogue is currently being used as a bar, then that is the contemporary representation of the former Jewish community in that town. I don’t think there are any examples of a town where there is a contemporary Jewish community and the former synagogue is being used for something not connected to the Jewish community, so it shouldn’t be too confusing.

Some examples of individual sites that I added include The World Society of Częstochowa Jews and their Descendants (see Częstochowa in the compendium), the Chelmer Organization in Israel (see Chełm in the compendium), and the Jewish Tarnow Facebook group (see Tarnów in the compendium).

If you represent another site that has a large number of town-specific information, contact me directly and I can share a spreadsheet that can be filled out to allow records to be added easily to the site. Even if you don’t represent a site, but if you think another existing site is worth adding and are willing to collect the information needed, be in touch. If you’re a site looking to utilize some of the information on this site, such as the province/county data I’ve collected, please also be in touch. My goal is to expand access to this information, and if that means helping other sites to improve, I’m more than happy to help them.

I hope people found this information useful, and that you will share this with your friends (perhaps on Facebook or Twitter?) who may not yet know about the availability of these resources. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

The problem of borders…

One of the problems one runs into when researching their family, particularly those researching family from continental Europe and farther east, is how often the borders changed. The video below is a great visualization of that problem – it shows the borders of Europe over the past thousand years.

I don’t know who put together the original video, and exactly where the data came from, but it’s a very impressive video. I do know that the years being shown at the bottom were added later by someone else, so they probably don’t match up exactly to the map changes, but you can take them as an estimate.

One very interesting thing to watch in the video (it helps to focus on one area when you watch) is Poland. A little before half-way through when the years shown are in the late 1500s Poland is massive. It later disappears completely, later emerging again in a much smaller form.

So what do you think? Learn anything that can help your family research?

A Major Breakthough for Jewish Polish Records

JRI-Poland and the Polish State Archives have announced a new agreement to expand the availability of Jewish records from Poland. An earlier agreement which was in effect between 1997 and 2006 resulted in the indexing of more than 4 million records which make up the bulk of the JRI-Poland database. The cancellation of that agreement in 2006 was a major blow to Jewish genealogy. There have been ongoing discussions since 2007, but the resumption of cooperation did not materialize until now. This announcement, made on Friday, is much more than most expected, and well worth the wait.

The first major component of the announcement is that JRI-Poland will be able to add an additional million records to its database within the next year. That is in addition to the 4 million existing records already in their database that originate from the Polish State Archives.

JRI-Poland Executive Director Stanley Diamond signing the agreement in the
presence of Polish Consul General Andrzej Szydło in Montreal, Quebec.

The second major component is that JRI-Poland will launch a new Order Processing System, which will allow people searching for records on the site to click on a record they want and order it directly on the JRI-Poland site using a credit card. JRI-Poland will handle the credit card processing and the archives in Poland will copy the records. For anyone who has dealt with ordering records from Polish archives directly, this is a major breakthrough.

While my Finding and getting copies of Jewish records in Poland article is still one of the most popular on this site, and was published in print as well, it is my hope that this announcement means that in the future that article will not be needed.

Polish State Archives General Director Władysław Stępniak signing the agreement,
with JRI-Poland representative Krzysztof Malczewski (on left) looking on.

The third major component of the announcement is that the Polish State Archives is starting a major effort to digitize all of their records in all 30 Regional Archives, and make them available for free online. As these digital scans come online, JRI-Poland will link directly to the images from their database search results. As the images come online, the new Order Processing System will be phased out.

The announcement is available on the JRI-Poland site (in English) as well as the Polish State Archives site (in Polish).

I’d like to congratulate Stanley Diamond, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of JRI-Poland, as well as the other JRI-Poland board members, staff and volunteers who made this agreement possible.

I look forward to seeing the different elements of this agreement come to fruition, and will let readers of this blog know about things as they happen.

Database of Polish Victims of the Nazis

There’s an interesting database listing Polish victims of the Nazis, organized by a group of Polish government and non-government organizations, and sponsored mainly by Polish media organizations.

The site is connected to three Polish organizations: the Institute of National Remembrance, the Foundation for Polish-German Reconciliation, and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. It is also sponsored by a number of Polish media organizations, including the Polish Press Agency and several Polish TV stations.
The site, Straty.pl, is unfortunately only available in Polish. Luckily, it’s not too hard to use without knowledge of Polish, especially if you use Google Chrome and the built-in Translate feature. Even without Translate, you can get around the site. This is what the search page looks like:
Straty.pl Search Page
A quick translation of the fields:
Nazwisko (Surname)
Imię (Given name)
Imię ojca (Father’s name)
Imię matki (Mother’s name)
Miejsce urodzenia (Place of birth)
Data urodzenia (Day of birth)
Data śmierci (Day of death)
dzień (day)
miesiąc (month)
rok (year)
SZUKAJ is Search, and CZYSC is Clear.
You can search for a surname alone, but apparently not a town alone. If a surname has too many hits, it will force you to fill in additional search fields to help pare down the umber of results.
Victims listed in the database include Polish soldiers who were killed, prisoners of war, resistance fighters, concentration camp prisoners, those persecuted for reasons of race (aka Jews and Gypsies), those executed by the Nazis, those sentenced to death by German courts, slave laborers, displaced persons, children, civilian casualties (such as from bombing raids), etc.
This list is not exclusively, nor even predominately, Jewish. The site was not set up as a memorial to Jewish victims of the Nazis, but rather as a database of Polish victims of the Nazis, some of which happened to be Jewish. In fact, one looking at the site might wonder if Jewish names in the database are more of an afterthought than a primary section of the database.
There are many sources of data in the database, and each listing will tell you which source they came from, which can help you track down further information. Data sources I’ve noticed include:
International Tracing Service (Bad Arolsen) (http://www.its-arolsen.org/)
Jewish Historical Institute (http://www.jhi.pl/)
Polish Red Cross (http://www.pck.pl/)
State Archive in Krakow (http://www.ank.gov.pl/)
Obviously this database is not complete, and it’s not going to be 100% accurate (and certainly not complete when it comes to Jewish names). It is still useful to supplement the other existing databases out there, and to give you some direction on possible research routes. For example, if you see records from the International Tracing Service, you can contact them to get more information on the person you find.
You can also contribute data to the database, although I have not tried to do this. They have a questionnaire that you can fill out on individuals, listing their name, parents’ names, birth date and location, nationality, religion, place of residence before the war, education, occupation, political organization membership, social activities, etc. This is, unfortunately like the rest of the site, only available in Polish. I’m not sure what would happen if you filled out the form in English.
Of course, when searching for information on Jewish victims of the Nazis, the most important database is the Yad Vashem Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. One important distinction between these databases, beside Straty.pl’s focus on Poles and Yad Vashem’s focus on Jews (with obvious overlap), is that Straty.pl’s database contains victims who are not necessarily people who were killed. Prisoners of camps, etc. even if they were not murdered, are contained in their database.

For example, the database includes two people with the surname Trauring, the couple Ferdynand and Stefania Trauring, who I know to appear on Shindler’s lists. They show up in the Straty.pl database as prisoners of the Gross-Rosen sub-camp in Brunnlitz, which happens to be where prisoners working in Oskar Schindler’s factory were interned. Whether this couple survived the war or not, they are listed in the Straty.pl database as having been prisoners. That’s an important distinction.

Jewish Gravestone Symbols

This is a post about the symbols found on Jewish gravestones. There is very little here for explaining how to interpret the Hebrew text of a Jewish gravestone, although I will likely write about that at a later date.

I’ve tried a few times to finish a post in time for one of the GeneaBloggers ‘daily blogger prompts’ which in general I think is a great way to spur bloggers on and get people posting on varied topics. That said, however, I’ve never actually finished a post by the day in question and I never want to wait until the following week to post something I’ve spent so much time on. Yesterday was ‘Tombstone Tuesday’ (as well as ‘Talented Tuesday’ and ‘Tech Tuesday’) but I couldn’t finish this post by then, mainly because I had to scan all the photos.

Images on Jewish gravestones were not always the norm, and are not as common today as they were in the past, so really what I’m going to show is something you would find on graves that are from 19th and early 20th century. Some of these images still appear on modern graves, but usually in far less elaborate forms.

For examples, I’m using photos I took 18 years ago in Poland. Most of these photos are from the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, although I believe a few are from other locations in Poland. The 18 year time-frame is a bit ironic, being that 18 is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word Chai (חי), which means life (the two letters that make up the Hebrew word Chai (חי) are Chet (ח) and Yud (י), which are the 8th and 10th letter respectively in the Hebrew alphabet, and thus add up to 18). This is why the number 18 is generally considered lucky by Jews.

All of the photos are of the top of the gravestone only. I did not photograph the text on the main section of the gravestone which would identify who the grave belongs to, as that was not my intention at the time. These same graves are probably photographed and in on-line databases somewhere, but you would need to do a lot of searching to find them as I do not know the names of the people from whose gravestones these originated.

I’m going to keep this article a little bit more loose than my usual posting, as this topic is a bit more open to interpretation than most. I welcome peoples comments on the photos. I don’t know the meaning of all the symbols shown, and if you do please add your comments. Some symbols would be much easier to interpret if we had the full text of the gravestone to read, as some are linked to the name of the person who was deceased. For the purpose of this posting we can just guess.

I’ll start with an image which is not a symbol at all, but an acronym. The letters Peh Nun (פנ), sometimes with an quote in between (פ”נ), show up frequently on Jewish gravestones. These letters represent either the phrase ‘Po Nikbar’ or ‘Po Nitman’ both which simply mean ‘Here Lies’. A variation that is sometimes seen is Peh Tet (פ”ט) which represents the phrase ‘Po Tamun’ which means ‘Here is Hidden’.

1) This image is simply a large graphic of the letters Peh Nun (פנ). Although the circles above each letter most likely have some symbolism, I’m not aware of what that is exactly. It could be the general ‘circle of life’ type of symbolism, but I don’t know for sure.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

2) The following two photos again shows the Peh Nun lettering in the middle, but introduces two more symbols, that of the crown and two lions. Both the crown and lions are symbols linked to royalty, although in this case the link is probably more symbolic. They are meant to show honor for the deceased. The crown can also represent the head of a household.

Lions are sometimes also used when the person who died had a name linked to lions, such as Yehuda (Yehuda in Hebrew, Judah in English, the tribe of Israelites which were considered leaders, and the tribe from which King David descended), or the word Lion in various languages: Ari or Aryeh (Hebrew), Ariel (Hebrew for ‘Lion of God’), Leib (Yiddish), Leon (French) or Loeb (German).

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

3) In the following two photos, you can see the crown and the lion again. The center of the images, however, are two hands with thumbs touching and fingers paired and split. For those unfamiliar with Jewish tradition, this is how Cohanim (Hebrew plural of Cohen), those of the Jewish priesthood (descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses), hold their hands when bestowing a blessing during prayer.

As an aside, you might actually recognize this as the hand gesture used as a form of greeting by Vulcans in Star Trek. The reason this is the case is that Leonard Nimoy, who is Jewish, played the first Vulcan character Spock on the TV show and he created this greeting based on the hand gesture used by Cohanim.

This is a very common symbol on gravestones of Cohanim, and indeed you can still find some form of this on modern gravestones as well.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

4) In this next photo there is the familiar crown, as well as the hands of the Cohanim, but also a stack of books. A common symbol on Jewish gravestones, books refer to scholarship. Sometimes the books have specific meaning, based on the number. If there are five books, it can mean the person was very knowledgeable about the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and if there are six books (as there are in this case) it can mean that they were also knowledgeable in the Oral Torah (represented by the Mishnah which has six volumes).

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

5) In this photo you see a bookcase, again representing scholarship, but a tree that is broken. The broken tree represents someone who has died young.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

6) In the following photo you see the bookcase, as well as the book on a table. To the left is a fallen crown. This particular symbol of the fallen crown usually means the person who died was the head of a family.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

7) Of the original twelve tribes of Israel, based on the twelve sons of Jacob, the tribe of Levi was the tribe that dealt primarily with religious functions. Both Cohanim and Levis had part in the functioning of the Temple in Jerusalem. While Cohanim were the priests, the Levis assisted the Cohanim and were known as musicians and singers in the Temple. The Levis would sing a different Psalm each day in the Temple.

Moses and Aaron were both from the tribe of Levi, and the Cohanim, descendant from Aaron, are a sub-group of the tribe of Levi. Like Cohanim, other members of the tribe of Levi also have a tradition of keeping track of their tribal affiliation. While the tribal associations of most Jews have been lost to time, the Cohanim and Levis have traditionally kept track of this affiliation. Thus, like Cohanim, Levis have also decorated their gravestones with symbols representing their Levi heritage. The most common symbol for Levis is a hand pouring water into a basin, as the Levis would wash the hands of the Cohanim before they performed their priestly duties (and still do today).

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

Note in the second picture above the snake eating its tail surrounding the Levi symbol. The snake eating its tail is not a specifically Jewish symbol, but represents the cycle of life. It can also refer to infinity, and thus perhaps the belief in life beyond death.

8) As the Levis were musicians it is also common to find musical instruments on the gravestones of Levis, although of course musical instruments could also signify that the person was actually a musician. Note also the crown and the two birds facing in different directions. In the center are the letters Peh Nun (פנ).

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

9) As mentioned, certain animals are used to represent the names of the people who were buried. A lion may refer to a man named Aryeh. A bird could refer to a woman named Tziporah or Faiga. In the following image there is a lion and a wolf. As we cannot see the name on the gravestone we can only guess, but the wolf may refer to someone named Benjamin. Benjamin was one of the 12 sons of Jacob and he is frequently associated with the wolf. Wolf (pronounced vulf) was also a common Yiddish name.

Note in this image also the crown as well as the pitcher in a basin, referring to a Levi.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

10) Another common symbol on Jewish gravestones is the charity box. Sometimes this is represented by a hand putting money into the charity box. This symbol is meant to show that the person was charitable and helped people.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

11) The following image is a barrage of symbols. In the center is a hand holding a pitcher, a symbol of a Levi. Above it is crown. Next to it is a bookcase, symbolizing scholarship. Above the bookcase is a charity box, showing he was charitable. All of that is flanked by two trees. Trees generally refer to life, although two trees in this context may refer to the two trees explicitly mentioned in Genesis that were in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Jewish tradition the Garden of Eden is essentially Heaven.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

12) The Menora, or seven-branched candelabra, is an ancient Jewish symbol representing the menora that stood in the Temple in Jerusalem. A nine-candle version of the menora is used on Hanukah each year by Jews worldwide. Candles are also lit every Friday night by religious Jewish women, and thus candles and candelabras are associated with women. On Jewish gravestones candlesticks and candelabras are usually associated with women.

In the following photo there is a five-branch candelabra and two birds. Birds in many cultures are associated with the soul, or the departing of ones soul. Birds may also refer to the name of the woman, if her name was Tziporah (in Hebrew) or Feiga (in Yiddish).

If you look at enough of these graves you may notice that pairs of birds show up in many of them. I’m not sure of the specific symbolism, if any, of two birds, but it’s likely that there is something specific to there being two birds.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

13) This next image integrates a candelabra representing a woman, a charity box on the left showing she was charitable, and a book with the letters Peh Tet (פ”ט) which as mentioned earlier is an less-common acronym meaning ‘Here is Hidden’.

Photograph by Philip Trauring.

14) Like the broken tree which indicated a man that had died young in an earlier image, a woman that died young often has broken candles on a candelabra.

polishgravestones-038

polishgravestones-028

polishgravestones-027

15) This image is centered on the broken candle image like the above, but also has two hands. It’s not uncommon to see two hands in an image of candles, as women making the blessing on candles on Friday nights life their hands up when making the blessing.  Note however that one hand is closed. The closed hand looks the same as the hands shown giving charity in other images. Even without a charity box, perhaps it represents charity?

[Rabbi Jay Goldmitz, headmaster of the Ramaz Upper School in NY, writes that the clasped hand probably refers to a line from Chapter 31 of Proverbs that refers to a Woman of Valor (Eishet Chayil): “She sends out her hand to the poor….” and thus would indeed be a reference to her being charitable.]

polishgravestones-036

Here are a few interesting gravestones:

16) The symbols here include two lions with their tongues out. Actually I didn’t point out that the tongues were out in the image two. If someone knows the significance of the tongues being out, please share in the comments. The snake eating his tale is in this image as well. Inside the snake is the word Mavet (מות) which means Death. Above that is an hourglass with wings, a symbol that life is fleeting.

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17) When I first looked at this image on the original negative I couldn’t figure out what it was (it had been 18 years since I took the photo). After I scanned the image I realized it was eight sheep. It seems the eight sheep are coming out of the building on the right and drinking from a well. Does the well represent the person who died? Did he have eight children? I don’t know, but the imagery is fascinating.

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18) This last image is one of the more bizarre. A lion with the tail of a fish wearing a crown. The legs may also be from a different animal. There is actually a mythical beast called a Sea Lion that fits this description. In general mythical beasts such as this can be interpreted as a reference to the Time to Come, after the coming of the Messiah. The crown would seem to lend some credence to this idea, as the Messiah is considered to be a King. The image could also be a reference to the Leviathan, a mythical creature mentioned in Job. In Jewish mythology the Leviathan will be served in a grand feast to the righteous in the Time to Come, which will happen after the coming of the Messiah.

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You may have noticed the one symbol I didn’t include was the Star of David. While it is a symbol, it’s not particularly symbolic. Yes finding it on a grave would presumably mean that the person was Jewish, but it’s not nearly as interesting a symbol as the above mentioned symbols. Also, putting the Star of David on a grave is actually a more recent practice. I did have one image of a Star of David on a grave from Poland, but it was certainly more rare than these other images.

To end, I wanted to include one image of what the graveyard that most of these images came from looked like at the time.

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