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