All Photos: Liam Hoare
The histories of the Jews of Europe can often best be gleaned not from monographs, museums, or synagogues, but from cemeteries. The details of the matzevot, or tombstones — the size and shape, location, condition, detailing, symbolism, text and language of the inscriptions — can be decoded to reveal not only something about the deceased, but also about the community itself.
But what can be surmised of a community from its cemeteries when all the matzevot are gone?
Paweł Bysko, an official from the Jewish Community of Warsaw, recently unlocked the gates to the Bródno cemetery for me, in the Bródno district on the east bank of the Vistula river. It was a cold afternoon in late October, and as we traversed the central way that ran from one end of the graveyard to the other, the final hours of daylight sliced through the trees that today forest this defunct, desecrated site where the absence of tombs and stones say as much about the fate of Polish Jewry as if they were present.
Founded by Józef Samuel Jakubowicz in the late 18th century, Bródno cemetery officially opened on July 26, 1780, and was used as a regular burial site (in addition to the main cemetery on Okopowa Street on the other side of Warsaw) up until the Nazi occupation of Poland in September 1939. Prior to the beginning of the Second World War, there were around 300,000 marked graves within the walls of the cemetery.
With the occupation came the systematic destruction of the site by the Nazis as the matzevot were used for building material; further damage was inflicted upon it as Warsaw was made dust following the failed uprising of August 1944. After the war, in December 1947, one final burial took place at Bródno: a mass interment of those bodies found and exhumed amidst the rubble of Warsaw. Bródno closed in 1950.
One year later, the communist administration carpeted the site in trees and resumed the Nazi practice of using the cemetery as a quarry, making use of the matzevot as stonework for the reconstruction of Warsaw. The walls and gates of the cemetery were levelled in 1960, and as the condition of the site deteriorated further, it came to be used as pastoral land for cattle farmers and as a resource for robbers in search of loot.
Some order was restored during the 1980s when the then newly-formed Nissenbaum Family Foundation — dedicated to the preservation of the sites of Jewish life and culture in Poland, including its cemeteries — took to tending the site. They erected an iron fence around the cemetery, installed the looming gates, featuring bronze bas-reliefs by Polish artists that play on Jewish themes, and began the work of ingathering the stones that had been dispersed around Warsaw.
Now the future of the cemetery — in a sense a graveyard for gravestones — remains undetermined. The Nissenbaum Foundation, having made inroads tidying and maintaining Bródno, ceased work at the site in 2010. Beyond the gates, their legacy, located at the end of the cemetery’s central axis, is an incomplete lapidarium, a platform for a monument to Warsaw’s lost Jewish culture that was barely started, let alone finished.
Two years ago, Bródno passed back into the possession of the Jewish Community of Warsaw. They have set aside a budget for the site and have loose plans to use the site as an educational facility. The community continues to take in stones returned by city residents or recovered from public places.
But what is evident, of course, is that however many matzevot are found, what has been lost at Bródno — above ground reclaimed by nature, beneath an anonymous mass of bones and dust — shall be so forever. What is true of Polish Jewry is true of its cemeteries.