In the second half of the nineteenth century, in the face of the rapid development of Jewish settlement in Kielce , the local religious community was faced with the necessity of organizing a new burial site. Previously, a small group of the Kielce Jews buried their dead at the cemetery in nearby Chęciny. For this purpose, in 1868 the land belonging to the Pakosz grange was purchased, by the intersection of Pakosz Dolny and Kusociński Streets.
At that time it was place located outside of a built-up area. In his 1929 essay entitled "Zabytki Historyczne Żydów w Polsce" ("Jewish Historic Monuments in Poland") Meir Balaban wrote that the Kielce Jews: "(they) bought land for a cemetery a long way from the city and to this day bury their dead there". The first documented funeral took place two years later. The Chevra Kadisha brotherhood dealt with organizing burials and managing the cemetery. Society called Chesed Szel Emet also functioned in Kielce which covered costs of funerals of the poorest and the loneliest. Over time, the pre-burial mortuary house, called beit tahara was built, the accommodation for the grave-digger and caretaker was provided and prepared, the cemetery was enclosed with a fence and the access road was hardened. Initially, the small area of the necropolis was enlarged in the 1920s.
The cemetery is a burial place for many persons who played significant role in the life of Kielce. In 1915 Chaim Shmuel Horowitz, tzadik from Chęciny, the great-grandson of the great Seer of Lublin was buried here, and two years later Motele Twerski i.e. Mordechai Kuzmirer, being a descendent of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty was interred here too. The graves of both tzadikim became a pilgrimage destination for many religious Jews.
During the Second World War the Nazis carried out numerous executions of the Jewish population in the area of the necropolis. Bodies of the Jews who were murdered and died in the ghetto in Kielce were buried there as well. Let us quote an excerpt from the memories of Adam Helfand, published in the book by Eugeniusz Fąfara entitled "Gehenna Ludności Żydowskiej" (" Gehenna of the Jewish Population") . Adam Helfand was forced by the Germans to collect the corpses of Jews shot during the ghetto's dissolution from the streets. At the cemetery he witnessed " feverish work digging huge pits into which victims of the operation were thrown (..). Before the corpses were buried, we had to strip them naked. The clothing was burned and the servile Hitlerites searched for gold in the ashes. Some of our mates were compelled by terror and death threats to knock out the gold teeth from the bodies". After the liberation, the remains of the Jews exhumed in various spots of the town in the years 1945-1946 were buried in the cemetery.
On June 8, 1946 a special funeral ceremony took place in the cemetery. The cemetery became a burial place for 37 victims of the Kielce Pogrom. Coffins with the bodies were laid in a mass grave. The funeral ceremony was attended by several thousand people, including representatives of national and foreign Jewish organizations, political parties, army, militia and workplaces. Government authorities were represented by the minister Stanisław Radkiewicz.
After the pogrom the Jews were gradually leaving the city. Devastated as far back as during the occupation, the abandoned cemetery fell into oblivion and decay year on year. In 1956 The Social and Cultural Association of the Jews in Poland in a letter to the Presidium of the National Council of the City of Kielce alarmed: " The cemetery is in a state of dilapidation, the wall is being regularly dismantled, many of the gravestones are broken and scattered around, the graves are being profaned, and the monument to the victims of the Kielce Pogrom has been desecrated with various markings". The same year, officials of the National Council of the City of Kielce in a confidential letter to The Office of Religious Affairs reported that " the former Jewish cemetery in Kielce has been illegally occupied by the Work Cooperative "22 lipca" ("July 22"), which arranged a depot of coal, coke, slag, sand and clay at the cemetery. The management of the Cooperative adapted the mortuary (.....) for a pattern shop". In 1956 the cemetery was officially closed by the authorities.
In the ohel of Kuzmirer and his nephew Moshe Yehuda Leib a carpenter's workshop was arranged. The devastation of the necropolis was vividly described by Krzysztof Kąkolewski in his text entitled "Martwy Cmentarz" ("The Dead Cemetery"), published in "Tygodnik Solidarność" (No. 51 dated for December 16th 1994): " In the seventies the second, terrible matter was growing: the command of the authorities - the Kielce communists had invoked the orders from Warsaw - to desecrate the Jewish cemetery by the deportation of all the remaining matzevot (.....) In the times of the Martial Law (..) the local military unit in a communal act, used to transport the matzevot by trucks in an unknown direction on Sundays. Money for that was obtained from the state defense budget. Tombstones were probably used as a material for the construction of foundations, steps and pavements in the villas of the red barons.
It was not until the eighties that the change of the cemetery's condition arrived - thanks to the efforts made by The Nissenbaum Family Foundation and the Kielce Landsmannschaft the necropolis was fenced and renovated. Parts of the remaining matzevot were used to build a lapidary. The restitution ceremony of the restored cemetery was arranged on the 23 rd of August 1987, the forty-fifth anniversary of the dissolution of the ghetto in Kielce . It was attended by hundreds of people, including the representatives of the Catholic Church with Bishop Henryk Muszyński at the head. Later on in 2007 thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Leib Surkis, the ohel of Kuzmirer was regained. The building was renovated and fenced, the tombs were arranged within it, and an informational plaque was attached at the entrance.
Until the present day several hundred matzevot and their fragments have been preserved within the area of the cemetery, which were used in the construction of the monument and arranged in rows. One may find numerous remains of the masonry and elements of the constructions of damaged tombs. Of particular interest is a monument commemorating the children from a labor camp running nearby Jasna and Stolarska Streets, who were executed in May 1943. The monument bears the names of the victims and the inscription which says: "Here lie the sacred ashes of our 45 dearest, innocent children murdered bestially by the German criminals on the day of 23rd May 1943. The youngest one was 15 months old, and the oldest was 15 years old"
The common grave of the Kielce Pogrom victims was initially marked with a simple matzeva, engraved with the Star of David and the inscription in Hebrew and Yiddish which reads: "Here lie the ashes of 42 victims of the Kielce incident on the day of 4th July 1946. Peace to their memory!" In 2010 on the initiative of Stowarzyszenie im. Jana Karskiego w Kielcach (the Jan Karski Association in Kielce) supported by the private persons, a new monument to the victims of the Pogrom in Kielce was built. For the purpose of carrying out this initiative the Social Committee for the Monument Restitution of Victims of the Kielce Pogrom under the leadership of Bogdan Białek, the chairman of the Association had been formed. The Committee had also been comprised of: Dr Michael Schudrich - the Chief Rabbi of Poland , Wojciech Lubawski - the Mayor of the City of Kielce , Prof. Marek Cecuła - an artist and Yaacov Kotlicki - the chairman of the Kielce Society in Israel (the Kielce Landsmanschaft in Israel )
The originators of the idea of building a new tomb were guided by the two aims - to preserve the memory of the victims of the Kielce massacre buried there and to endow the site with profound symbolism expressed in the aesthetics of an artistic form. The former tomb was nameless, and deeply marked by the passing of time and lack of proper preservation for many years. Prof. Marek Cecuła is the author of the design. The monument's main slab is made of the Szydłowiec sandstone. Names of all the pogrom victims were engraved on it - both of those who died on July 4, 1946 and those who died outside of Kielce on the following days from injuries received in the outburst of anti-Jewish violence. Next to the slab a short description of the events from before 64 years was added. The description is in four languages: Yiddish, Hebrew, English and Polish. In the centre of the tomb a six-metre slab made of black, Italian granite was placed. The slab is comprised of several elements, one of them is a block in the shape of the Star of David (with the inscription "4 VII 1946" on it) - which makes the impression of a broken whole. It was the designer's intention to produce this effect - while creating a vision of the tomb he strove to give it a profoundly symbolic form - the "broken" slab was intended to represent sudden, unexpected death of the people buried underneath.
Next to the tomb a 450 kilogramme (992 pounds) boulder was placed. It was transported from Israel to Kielce - as a gift from the Kielce Landsmanschaft Jews. Like the remaining parts of the dismal site, its placement carries a symbolic message - it conveys the unfulfilled dream of the Jews killed 64 years ago to go to Palestine . It is worth mentioning that the slab's placement proved very challenging for the masons who realized the project. Every single piece had to be set at an appropriate angle and joined one to another with great precision at the same time. The area surrounding the tomb has also undergone a change. Thick shrubs which had overgrown the tomb and created the impression of the place being neglected have been cleared away. The surrounding area has been paved with granite cobbles. By kind permission of Michael Schudrich the front side of the tombstone has been turned 180 degrees from east to west which allows the front of the tomb to be clearly visible from the street.
Ms Irena Kowalczyk, who lives nearby the necropolis on Marmurowa Street 9, renders the key to the main gate of the necropolis accessible. Her phone number is 41 361 62 10
text: K. Bielawski & Bogdan Białek
photos: K. Bielawski
translation: Dorota Lorenc