A Walk Through Alluring History and Symbolism at the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw
Cemeteries aren’t a typical tourist destination which is a mistake. You can learn a lot about the place from the final rest of its people. Necropolises show first of all beliefs of the community and relations with a religion (or lack thereof). But they also teach about the community’s wealth or poverty, artistic styles and fashions, famous people and events.
Warsaw’s Jewish Cemetery at the Okopowa Street is one of the biggest Jewish necropolises in the world. Its place is unique – right next to it is a Catholic Powązki Cemetery (est. 1790) where a lot of famous Poles are laid to rest. Then there are also the Evangelical-Reformed, Russian-Orthodox, and Tatar (Muslim) cemeteries. All of them create a clear sign of how diverse Poland, and in particular Warsaw, used to be. If you have the time – visit them all, you will not regret it.
The history of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery
The Okopowa Jewish Cemetery was established in 1806 and currently has over 250 thousand matzevot (gravestones). This was not the only Jewish cemetery in Warsaw – there was also one in Bródno district on the right side of Vistula River. The Bródno cemetery was considered the poor people’s necropolis. Okopowa Jewish Cemetery, in the beginning, was an elite place of final rest, for the better-off part of Warsaw Jewry.
The Jewish community extended the cemetery’s area a few times and soon it became the main burial place for all Jews – poor or rich. It now occupies 83 acres of land.
As I said, you can learn a lot from a cemetery about the history of people buried there. Walking among the graves you can notice differences in the way they look. Sometimes, the differences can be explained by decades between, but at other times it might be a true sign of their times.
Learning about the changes within the Jewish community from its cemetery
In the beginning of the 19th century, all burials were done according to the strict rules of Orthodox Judaism. But soon big changes came. The revolutionary impact of Haskalah (the Enlightenment movement) was tremendous and the Orthodox monolith started to show cracks. Before it was all clear: men were buried in one section, women in the other. There were special sections for kohanim and leviim (priests and levites). All inscriptions were always done in Hebrew, following traditional styles. But suddenly people wanted to be buried with their spouses and make inscriptions in a language other than Hebrew. Those issues could be seen as petty but they were serious for tradition-loving people. In the end, the cemetery was divided into many more sections – for Orthodox and Reform, for state burials and others.
Another cause for uproar was a wish to include sculptures of humans and angels. In Judaism, this was strictly prohibited (as a consequence of one of the 10 Commandments). And again those who pushed for changes won – kind of. You still won’t see many faces, but you will see beautiful sculptures of angels with covered faces, an artistic compromise with tradition.
Okopowa Jewish Cemetery during, and after, the WWII.
With the start of the WWII, the cemetery became a witness to the most tragic time in the history of Jewish Warsaw community. When you walk through the cemetery you will notice two big empty pieces of land. Stones of uneven sizes surround this strange clearing. Those are mass graves of victims of Nazi persecution – some died during the Ghetto uprising, some as the result of hunger and disease.
If you look carefully, you can still see many signs of war activity – a lot of graves are marked with bullet holes. During the Warsaw Uprising, there were fighters hiding and shooting from among the gravestones.
After the war, the cemetery was left alone to be overgrown by ivy and trees. There were hardly any Jews left to take care of such a huge space. Many gravestones were already ruined by the time, others soon joined them. For the past two decades, there has been a lot of work done to clear the cemetery of rubbish and overgrown plants. But the biggest task is to recreate lost documentation. There are families coming to Warsaw hoping to find graves of their loved ones. With a lot of effort, there are people who try to write down names of all the matzevot – thousands upon thousands.
The rich symbolism of grave ornamentation at the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery
The thing I love most about Jewish cemeteries is the rich symbolism of the matzevot. Even when you can’t read the Hebrew inscriptions, you can still learn a lot about the person who died. Or, rather, how friends and family perceived him or her.
Here are some of the symbols you can see at the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery:
This is a clear sign of a woman’s grave. Lightening candles for Shabbat is one of three most important commandments for women. Broken candles are signs of broken life. This woman cannot fulfill this beloved mitzvah (commandment) anymore.
Books are everywhere at the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery. It is a sign of a person who dedicated his life to studying Torah and other holy books. It does not have to mean that this person was a rabbi. Sometimes, you can see titles of books this person was the author of. You will see bookshelves, sometimes with open doors or just book spines. At other times this symbol can be combined with others.
A hand with a coin over a tzedakah box
Giving tzedakah, or money for the poor is one of the most important commandments in Judaism. It is a symbol of a holy person, selfless and dedicated to supporting the poor.
First of all, a lion is the symbol of Judah – the Biblical son of Jacob, the tribe, and Jerusalem. It is a very common ornament in synagogues (often protecting or holding the Tablets). It can also mean that the buried person’s name was Judah, Arie (“lion” in Hebrew) or Leib (“lion” in Yiddish).
Hands in a priestly blessing
A sign for a kohen (a priest), as that’s the gesture priests do when they bless the community.
A hand with a pitcher pouring water
This is a grave of a levi (a levite). During the Temple times, levites were helping the priests. One of their tasks was to help them in purifying their hands and feet.
Most of the time you will see it on a grave of a woman. Sometimes you will see an image of a nest with chicks in it – the poor, orphaned children. This could be also on a grave of a woman named Tzipporah, which means “a bird” in Hebrew.
Broken tree or broken column
This can be an image or an actual sculpture of a Greek-style column or a tree trunk. It symbolizes the sudden end of a life.
Deer could be a symbol of a man named Naphtali (of the Biblical tribe, blessed with being compared to a swift deer) or Zvi Hirsch (“deer” in Hebrew and Yiddish). Sometimes you can see it being pierced by arrow – a symbol of sudden death.
Date palm trees are symbols of the Land of Israel. Additionally, a tzaddik or a righteous person is likened to a date palm in Psalms.
I included it here even though it is not a symbol but a style of a gravestone. You will see many graves of that kind. What is important to know, it’s that it is only an ornamental structure. In Jewish tradition, the dead body must be buried in the ground and can never be buried above it in a sarcophagus-style grave.
You will notice that there are small hut-like structures at the cemetery. This is an “ohel”, or a “tent” over a grave or graves of tzaddikim. You might notice that some of them have candles and papers with prayers inside. For many people, it is important to pray at the graves of great rabbis and sages. Many come on the day of their yahrzeit (death anniversary, by the Hebrew date).
Other interesting symbolism or art forms at the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery
Famous people buried at the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery
Janusz Korczak – although there is no grave of Korczak anywhere, as he was murdered in Treblinka death camp, there is a monument dedicated to him. He was a doctor, a pedagogue who revolutionized the way children were treated. Janusz Korczak dedicated his whole life to children.
Monument to the Jewish children murdered during the Shoah (Holocaust).
The Do’s and Don’ts of visiting a Jewish Cemetery.
Men should cover their heads – with a baseball cap or a hat. If you don’t have any – ask at the gate, they have kippot (yarmulkes) for visitors.
It is prohibited to eat or drink while at the cemetery.
There are a lot of rules concerned with the upkeep of a Jewish burial place. Please, do not attempt to clean or stand fallen gravestones.
You are welcomed to leave flowers at the graves, but it is not the traditional way of showing respect to the dead. You will notice stones on the graves – if you want, you can place your own. There is also tradition to light candles at graves. If you want to do that – please check if there is a special place created for candles for safety and protection.
Jewish tradition requires that Jews should wash their hands upon leaving a cemetery. There is usually a source of water somewhere close to the gate. At Okopowa Jewish Cemetery, there is water to the left of the gate. The old water pump does not work anymore, but there is a big container with a netilat yadaim (hand washing) cup attached.
Practical tips: When and how to get to the Okopowa Jewish Community
The Okopowa Jewish Cemetery is closed during Shabbat (Friday afternoon – Saturday) and Jewish holidays. During regular weekday and Sundays, it is generally opened till about 5 pm.
The best way to get there is to use public transportation or a taxi. There is a tramway stop right opposite the main gate and the stop is named “Cmentarz Żydowski” (Jewish Cemetery). Take tram no. 1, 22 or 27.
There is also a bus stop nearby (“Esperanto”) – take no. 527 or 111.
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