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The Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

On Okopowa Street in Warsaw, Poland sits an old Jewish cemetery - one of the very few to have survived World War II. Founded in 1806, the cemetery consists of 82 acres and contains the remains of approximately 250,000 people. Unfortunately, the Nazis burned the cemetery's records, so no one really knows how many are buried here.

When the Warsaw ghetto was sealed in November 1940, this cemetery was enclosed inside the ghetto. Though the ghetto wall surrounded the cemetery, there was only one entrance from the ghetto into the cemetery; mourners needed special passes to get past the guards posted at this entrance. In the beginning of the ghetto, ghetto residents who died were buried in individual graves, but soon the deaths in the ghetto were so numerous that the dead were buried in mass graves here.

The Broken Past

Upon entering the cemetery, the first thing that strikes you is a short wall in front of you. Though the tombstones in this cemetery were not taken by the Nazis to use for roads, many were uprooted and broken. The wall is made of pieces of tombstones.

Vladka Meed visited this cemetery in 1945 right after liberation. She describes the destruction:

Wherever I turned, there was nothing but overturned tombstones, desecrated graves and scattered skulls - skulls, their dark sockets burning deep into me, their shattered jaws demanding, "Why? Why has this befallen us?"

Although I knew that these atrocities were the handiwork of the so-called "dentists" - Polish ghouls who searched the mouths of the Jewish corpses to extract their gold-capped teeth, I nevertheless felt strangely guilty and ashamed. Yes, Jews were persecuted even in their graves. *

The wall reminds us of the desecration of the dead.

For the Fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto
"This stone symbolizes the flame of passion that dwelled within those who fought during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Their bodies were left unburied beneath the rubble of Mila 18. Let Their memory live on with those who they fought for."
The Children of the Ghetto

"In memory of one million Jewish children murdered by Nazi German barbarians 1939-1945."

The children were the ones who so often snuck through holes in the ghetto wall to smuggle food into the ghetto, often facing death. For this reason, on the right side of the memorial (the brick structure symbolizes the ghetto wall) is a poem written by Henryka Lazowert in 1941 entitled "The Little Smuggler." In the center of the memorial, pictures of children lie embedded within what looks like rocks. Though it is easy to miss since visitors stand on it, notice the stone menorah walkway leading up to the memorial.

Janusz Korczak

"We dream of a better life with truth and justice a life that is not but will some day be . . .

My aim is to love and be righteous instead of being loved and adored . . . "

And yet he was also loved and adored. This monument is in honor of Janusz Korczak, fondly nicknamed "the king of the children." Though Korczak dedicated his whole life to helping children, he is best known for his brave walk with the 200 children in his care through the ghetto to the deportation trains and on to the Treblinka death camp. This memorial, created by Mieczyslaw Smorczewski, shows Korczak carrying one child, followed by several others, on their way to the trains. Around the base of the monument are hundreds of small candles lit in his memory. (I am sorry for the poor picture quality.)
Victims of the Nazis
Since the cemetery ran out of space for individual graves during the Holocaust, thousands of the Jewish dead were buried in mass graves. Many, many others were deported to death camps and their bodies burned. For these people, there is no memorial stone to mark their grave.

Scattered throughout the cemetery, one can find a few of the individual graves buried early in the war as well as newer tombstones that have been left by relatives of those murdered in the Holocaust.

Head of the Judenrat

"Adam Czerniakow - Prezes Ghetta Warszawskiego"

Though appointed head of the Warsaw Ghetto's Judenrat (Jewish Council) by the Nazis in October 1939, Adam Czerniakow tried to balance life in the ghetto with the demands of the Nazis. Being head of a Judenrat was an extremely difficult job, he had to try to keep the ghetto population alive while the Nazis wished and planned them dead. When Czerniakow was ordered by the Nazis to gather and deport the children of the ghetto, Czerniakow committed suicide on July 23, 1942 rather than to deport the children. We know much about the life of this leader from Czerniakow's diary that survived the war.

Tomb and Shelter
In Polish cemeteries, one can find tombs shaped as an ohel ("tent" or "tabernacle"). These were usually for important people, especially rabbis.

During the period when this cemetery was part of the Warsaw ghetto, Jewish smugglers would use these tombs as places to hide from the Nazis.

Broken and Vandalized

What is the state of the cemetery now? Many of the tombstones lay broken from World War II. Additionally, the cemetery has been the victim of many acts of vandalism, which include tipped over tombstones and antisemitic markings.

Overgrown and Forgotten

Even without the vandalism, the cemetery has fallen into disrepair. Though the cemetery is still in use, the last 50 years of overgrowth is covering and destroying the graves. In a city that was once the home of over 300,000 Jews, there are very few who remain. With not enough people or money to keep the site maintained, the cemetery continues to decay.

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* Vladka Meed as quoted in Martin Gilbert, Holocaust Journey: Travelling in Search of the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997) 325.

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