The Forgotten Cemetery

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Praskipark on October 26, 2012

The Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Zydowski) on Okopowa Street should be on everyone's itinerary when they visit Warsaw. I am quite cross with myself because it has taken me five years to actually go and visit the cemetery. There are so many things to see and do in Warsaw that I keep missing this attraction and move on to something else. Last weekend I made up my mind I was going to take a walk on a crisp, sunny Sunday to take some pictures of the cemetery and to see just what was behind that metal door.

Okopowa is a very long street that will lead you to Arkadia Shopping Centre eventually. If you don't know the address of the cemetery you can easily miss it as it is surrounded by a brick wall and you can't see anything above it apart from trees. Usually you can spot a headstone or tomb rising above the wall but not here. The door blends into the wall as well and there isn't a glamorous sign inviting you in just a small plaque on the wall near the metal door, stating that it is indeed the Cmentarz Zydowski (Jewish Cemetery).

It was before 10am when I entered the main reception courtyard. There is an office where you are supposed to pay if you are a visitor but it was closed and I couldn't see anyone around. I decided to carry on with my visit and promised myself that I would go to the office on my way out to pay.

Two things that I noticed straight away were the large map of the cemetery placed on a free standing board and a lovely old water pump and metal bucket. This must have been the original pump where people visiting could fill up with water to water plants on the graves. A new roof had been attached but the pump was in its original form. The map was excellent and really informative. It showed where all the individual plots were situated, different types of tombstones, ohels (kind of shrine) , vaults, mass graves and there was a list on the right hand side in alphabetical order of all the families buried in the cemetery. The map was written in English and Polish.

At this point I had a bit of a problem; I couldn't make up my mind which route to take. It is a very large cemetery covering 33.6 hectares. Part of me wanted to wander off on the overgrown leafy avenues, the other part wanted to go and see the monument dedicated to Janusz Korczak, Polish doctor and children's writer. In the end I opted for the monument, it stands about a hundred metres from the entrance. (see separate review). After scrutininsing the monument, deep in thought, I made a few steps towards another monument dedicted to the Children of the Holocaust. (See separate review).

Feeling very thoughtful at this point I decided to walk away from these monuments and follow the main path which is cobbled. The small inside wall that envelopes most of the cemetery has been made up of bricks and broken headstones to form a mosaic. It looked very impressive. On the main stretch of the cemetery there are a lot of large tombstones, all black and very morbid looking. It was also very dark, like walking through a dense forest. There are so many ancient trees forming leafy canopies that block out the sun's rays. No wonder many of the gravestones are green and covered with moss and lichen.

I walked on this path for about 30 minutes and then decided to branch off and take one of the overgrown pathways which lead to the very back of the cemetery. I felt like an explorer because the way through to the back was dreadfully overgrown and the graves were so close together that there wasn't a lot of room for walking in between or on to other paths. All the signs were in Hebrew which of course was no use to me as I don't understand Hebrew. The only other signs I came across were white signs with a red edging in Polish. These told me where the water and rubbish points were situated.

I did find this part of the cemetery fascinating yet very sad. So many gravestones had been left to deteriorate; many were broken and covered with trailing ivy and other plants. The thing that really stood out was the lack of movement, there weren't any families clearing around graves and placing flowers and candles like there are in all the other cemeteries. Most of the people I saw in the cemetery were groups of Jewish people visiting from Israel or people like me, taking photographs. I would say that 80% of the graves had been left unattended. I think you can guess why.

I came across some fascinating tombstones. The one I really liked was square in shape with a carved picture of Jerusalem on one side and the Sea of Galilee on the other. The pictures were very simple like you would come across in a children's scripture book. There was also one vault that was open so I went inside. I felt a bit strange doing this, perhaps I shouldn't have but I was so curious. Inside there were three plain concrete tombs with semicircular head stones. On top of the tombs, candles, stones and letters had been left. The vault was a drab place to be buried; it was damp and full of cobwebs.

Leaving the graves behind me I went back into daylight and the main reception area. The path I came out on, led me to the original gate of the cemetery. This stands inside now. The gate was renovated in 1998 by the Gesia Jewish Cemetery Foundation, a body of people who set up a committee to keep Jewish cemeteries in good order. There is a plaque and a photo of the original gate when it was in use. The plaque honours Moises Karwasser and his family along with the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during the holocaust.

Before leaving the cemetery I did go to the office to pay but it was still closed and there wasn't anyone around to give any money to. I will return because I think the money goes to the upkeep of the cemetery and it certainly needs every penny.

I think I must have spent about 3 hours walking around. One grave I didn't find was that of Dr Zamenhoff, the man who created Esperanto and someone my husband has always been interested in as his great grandfather was a keen follower. I am a great fan of cemeteries and there are so many in Warsaw to see. Sometimes, I wonder if there are more dead people in the city than alive.

Usually, I feel very uplifted after a cemetery visit but not this time. Although I was fascinated by the Jewish Cemetery I thought there was something terribly sad about it. If you think at one time the city was buzzing with Jewish life, they were the movers and shakers of the city, active in trade, business, schools and universities. For years and years the Poles and Jews lived side by side. Now, when I look around the city I hardly notice any Jewish people, there is only a handful of restaurants and shops. Looking at the graveyard I wonder if they have been forgotten, surely not.

You can find the Jewish Cemetery on Ulica Okopowa 49/51.

Opening times: Sunday, 9am - 4pm, Monday to Thursday, 10 am until dusk, Friday 9am until 1pm.

Trams to catch are Number 1 and 22. Get off at the stop, CM Zydowski.

There used to be a rule about covering your head but this seems to have lapsed.

Remember to check if the office is open to pay the visitor's charge. If it isn't try to go back another day.
Jewish Cemetery/Cmentarz Zydowski
Ul. Okopowa 49/51
Warsaw, Poland, 01-043
+48 22 838 2622

© LP 2000-2009