Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery: a memorial to a cruel past

I’m mysteriously drawn to cemeteries, especially old ones. Wandering along the rows, looking at grave stones, I try to imagine the lives of those long since departed.

One particularly evocative graveyard is the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.

Our way there is fraught with difficulty. Warsaw’s tram drivers point us in the wrong direction time and again. Exasperated, we hop in a taxi, explain where we want to go and are taken to the Jewish cemetery at last. Or so we think.

The Catholic cemetery in Warsaw, Poland

A brisk flower trade is happening outside the gates. Inside is a bright, well-kept cemetery, full of people. We stroll in the lush, green grass. Through the leafy trees, sun beams touch my bare arms. Flowers abound. Everywhere colours, light, warmth.

After a while, we begin to wonder. No Hebrew script in sight. Is the Jewish cemetery simply a part of this larger one? A part we haven’t yet reached?

Not so. Our taxi driver, though assuring us he understood our destination, has taken us to Stare Powązki instead, Warsaw’s largest – and Catholic – cemetery. Annoyed (but only slightly), we leave to resume our search. One of the many flower sellers directs us around a corner and down a long road.

The Jewish cemetery

At last, we reach our goal. There’s a fee to enter the Jewish cemetery. Just a few zloty, but odd all the same.

Photo of the gate of the Jewish cemetery during the Warsaw Ghetto 1940 - 1943

The cemetery gate, during the time of the Warsaw Ghetto and today

The gate to the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, Poland

A section of the cemetery is in use. It’s a very small section, illustrative perhaps, of the fact that Jews in Warsaw have all but vanished. 350 000 lived here in 1939, a mere 2 000 today.

A small section of Warsaw's Jewish cemetery is still in use today

The Jewish cemetery in Warsaw is unkempt – is it a fitting memorial to a cruel past?

Then the graves. An incredible 150 000 stones, all in various states of disrepair and neglect. They stand abandoned amidst trees and overgrown vegetation. Many lean precariously, some have just given up fighting gravity. Others still stand tall, like soldiers in a row. Some are small and simple with plain inscriptions, others are large, reminding me of over-the-top monuments from medieval times.

Grave stone in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland

Jewish cemetery, Warsaw

Grave stone in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland

In some areas, it’s difficult to separate the stones from the surrounding tree trunks. Standing here, I can’t help but wonder if they will eventually become one…

It’s a lovely, sunny spring day. Yet this is very eerie. I wonder how it looks on a cold, bleak November day when the ground is hard and the trees naked…

The old Jewish cemetery, Warsaw, Poland

Despite our initial irritation at being led astray, we decide our accidental visit to the Catholic cemetery was fortuitous. The contrast between the two rendered our experience all the more thought-provoking.

An interesting character interred here – and one I’d like to meet – is Ludwik Zamenhof, optimistic inventor of the universal language Esperanto. Until then, bonan ŝancon, Ludwik!

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  1. I couldn’t believe the fact that so many Jews were removed from Poland and how small the community is there now when we went last year. This cemetery seems to tell the story well.

    • I think that’s the case for many European countries. Seems the majority of the survivors moved to new world countries… understandably.

  2. You pictures tell me something about peace and mute, although these are the signs of a terrible and killing past… I find that ambivalency especially interesting.

  3. Oh what a wonderful post. It is so full of resonances and meaning and the photos are absolutely terrific at giving us the feel of the place.

    I kind of like the way nature has taken back the scene – better in some ways than manicured lawns.

    • Thanks, David. Agree, there’s something about nature taking over that seems to be…well, as it should be.

  4. It is pity that it is not preserved. But looking like this – it seems that it has its own, unique atmosphere.

  5. I am drawn to old cemeteries too. This one in particular is very poignant both because of the state it’s in and the history behind it. I watched a TV documentary on WWII not long ago and quite a bit of it was devoted to the Warsaw ghetto. Those images still haunt me. How can man be so cruel?

  6. Like you, I’m drawn to old cemeteries, too. What fascinating and sometimes tragic stories they tell. This one in Warsaw has so much historical significance. Thanks for sharing your experience there.

  7. It is discouraging to know that such a historical place is left unmaintained. The place already looks a bit scary and eerie even though its day time and the weather is good. I can imagine how scary the place is at night. Thank you for sharing these photos. It is great to have a glimpse of the Jewish cemetery.

  8. I’ve never seen a cemetery like that before – unusual that it isn’t kept up. And I had no idea that the Jewish people didn’t return to Warsaw in any numbers – 2000 only- remarkable given the numbers before the war.

  9. I love this. Really, what a strange looking place. I too am drawn to cemeteries, but I’ve never seen one like this. Add it to the list. So much history.

  10. I hope many will take an effort to preserve this historical place. Though obviously not being managed anymore, the cemetery exposes potential of being a beautiful place. Right now, I think the cemetery look eerie and mysterious. .

  11. Cemeteries are great in the daylight although this one I might need someone with me. I expect European cemeteries have a lot more history too

  12. This is incredible – your pics tell such a story.

    ~Becca

  13. Excellent images from the cemetery, Sophie. It is quite strange that this cemetery is not being maintained well. You would think that more of an effort would be made to do this. Good to see you bring this to light in your post.

  14. wow, I wonder why the taxi driver did that…..
    Every cemetery has its own vibe (as I get major goosebumps in some), but this one looks beautiful, yet sad at the same time.

    It is weird to hear one has to pay to visit a cemetery though O_O

  15. Hi Anne!

    What a blog! I can’t imagine roaming around that cemetery, knowing that people buried there were killed cruelty.

  16. I am the same way – drawn to cemeteries for some odd reason.

    I visited the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw in late December this year. Very bleak.

    • I imagine it would be very bleak in December, but perhaps an even more evocative experience.

  17. I most definitely have GOT to go to this one… my favorite cemeteries so far were in Lviv (Ukraine) and in Zagreb (Croatia). Cemeteries carry so much history and, paradoxically, I find them to tell us so much about life… beautiful photos, thank you, Sophie!