A Walk Through Alluring History and Symbolism at the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
The artistry and style of some of the gravestones are a clear sign of the wealth of some of the community members.
 
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.

Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Examples of more traditional style of matzevot – Hebrew only, with rich symbolism.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
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.
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Angel, with his face hidden
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Another example of the compromise between art and tradition. Mother’s face is hidden.

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Bullet holes – evidence of heavy fights from the WW2
 
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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

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:
 

Broken candles

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
 

Books

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. 
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
When a simple bookshelf just isn’t enough…

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Books, tzedakah and a lion – many symbols on just one gravestone.

Lions

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).
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

Hands in a priestly blessing

A sign for a kohen (a priest), as that’s the gesture priests do when they bless the community.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
In addition to the priestly blessing gesture, there is a Crown of Priesthood over them.
 

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

Birds

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

Deer

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.
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

Palm trees

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. 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
 

Pseudo-sarcophagus

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
One of the most beautiful examples of the pseudo-sarcophagus style of a gravestone.

Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com

Ohel

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).
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Ohel – in the back

Other interesting symbolism or art forms at the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery

Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Unusual grave with an image of a person. Graves of Warsaw Ghetto fighters from Bund.
 Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

Famous people buried at the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery

Meir Balaban – historian
Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Netzi”v) – Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin, author of several books.
S. An-sky – writer, folklore researcher, best known for his book “The Dybbuk”.
Adam Czerniaków – engineer and a senator, a leader of the Jewish community in Warsaw Ghetto.
Marek Edelman – social activist, doctor, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Died in 2009.
Ester Rachel Kamińska – the “mother of Jewish theater”. 
Dow Ber Meisels – a Chief Rabbi of Kraków and thenWarsaw, political activist and a Polish patriot, fighting for Poland’s independence. 
Icchok Lejbusz Perec (Isaac Leib Peretz) – playwright and novelist writing in Yiddish
Chaim Soloveitchik – a Rabbi and a scholar, also called Rav Chaim Brisker (of Brisk).
Julian Stryjkowski – Polish-Jewish journalist and writer, author of “Austeria”
Hipolit Wawelberg – philanthropist and a social activist for the poor workers.
Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof – a doctor and writer, creator of the Esperanto international language.
 

Other notable places:

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.
 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 
Monument to the Jewish children murdered during the  Shoah (Holocaust). 
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 

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.

 

Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Stones on a matzevah

 

Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
Kvitlech, or little pieces of paper with prayer
  • 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.
Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com
 


Are you interested in cemeteries and Jewish culture? You might want to read on the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague, the final resting place of Franz Kafka.

If you are planning your visit to Warsaw, you might be interested in making a trip to the Kampinos National Park – a beautiful UNESCO biozone, on the outskirts of Warsaw.

Have you been to this cemetery? Do you enjoy visiting cemeteries like this one? Let me know below!

 

Discover the History and Symbolism of the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. awomanafoot.com

 

2 Comment

  1. Frances Stober says: Reply

    Frances here (again) Scotland Hiker, from Montreal.
    Lovely article.
    I am just guessing, but do you know my (new) Rabbi, Boris Dolen? He was at a synagogue in Warshaw before coming here…it’s just a guess. (how small is the word?)
    Any more thoughts about coming to Canada this summer??
    Cheers!

    1. Thank you, Frances!
      Can’t think of a Rabbi called Boris… How long time ago was he here? I’ve been living in Warsaw for about five years now, I’m not from here originally.
      I’m thinking about Canada all the time! I’m trying to find a good ticket price now, which is hard… Thinking of coming with carry-on to save, but it’s not easy 😉
      I found a place I want to hike at – Gaspésie National Park (Chic-Chocs). It’s still not for 100%, but looks promising for solo hiking for 2-3 weeks 🙂
      A Woman Afoot recently posted…Hiking Solo in the Beautiful Parc Natural de Sant Llorenç del Munt i l’Obac in Catalonia, Spain.My Profile

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