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!



48 Responses to “Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery: a memorial to a cruel past”

  1. ItalianNotes 25 January 2012 0903 #

    You do seem to be drawn be cemeteries, and this one is particularly eerie – just imagine seeing 150 000 stones in such wilderness.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2012 2244 #

      A very strange and spooky place to walk around it was…

  2. JoAnna 25 January 2012 1514 #

    I think cemeteries are fascinating places to visit, and this one sounds particularly interesting with its history.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2012 2246 #

      Cemeteries can tell us so much, can’t they? Like walking through history…

  3. Andrea 25 January 2012 1606 #

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2012 2258 #

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

  4. Abby 25 January 2012 1746 #

    Eerie and powerful, Sophie. I can’t believe how overrun it is. Yes, what a cruel past.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2012 2304 #

      Thanks, Abby. Eerie indeed!

  5. Catwoman 25 January 2012 1951 #

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 8 February 2013 1032 #

      Interesting observation.

  6. David Bennett 25 January 2012 2023 #

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2012 2302 #

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

  7. Anna 25 January 2012 2150 #

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

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2012 2308 #

      Yes. I have never seen anything quite like it.

  8. Ana (Ana Travels) 25 January 2012 2222 #

    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?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 January 2012 2307 #

      The eternal question, isn’t it? That, and how we seem to never learn from history?

  9. The World of Deej 26 January 2012 0423 #

    Great post and amazing spot. I too love exploring old cemeteries. This one surely tops my favorite, Pere Lachaise..

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 February 2012 1039 #

      Pere Lachaise is a very interesting one, too. Chopin’s grave is just beautiful!

  10. Cathy Sweeney 26 January 2012 0423 #

    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.

  11. InsideJourneys 26 January 2012 0424 #

    Glad you finally found it. And you got two for the price of one.
    Too bad it’s not better kept.

  12. dtravelsround 26 January 2012 0549 #

    What an eerie and gorgeous place. I spent time at one of the cemeteries in Krakow. Was mesmerized.

  13. Helen 26 January 2012 0551 #

    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.

  14. Muza-chan 26 January 2012 1217 #

    Great article, as always…

  15. Leigh 26 January 2012 1542 #

    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.

  16. Sabrina 26 January 2012 1830 #

    I’ve never seen this many graves this close together. I do like that there are so many big trees. Must have been a heavy visit.

  17. These are great, Sophie! I could really feel the heaviness in your pictures. One of the earlier pictures reminded me of the Jewish cemetery in Budapest. I too find cemeteries interesting.

  18. Justin 26 January 2012 1915 #

    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.

  19. Maria 26 January 2012 1919 #

    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. .

  20. Dick Jordan 26 January 2012 2005 #

    I recently took a docent-led tour of the Mountain View Cemetery (http://www.mountainviewcemetery.org/) in Oakland, California. Historically speaking, there’s a lot of “buried treasure” to be found there.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 February 2012 1042 #

      Never heard of that one, Dick. Will have a look at your link.

  21. Eileen Ludwig 27 January 2012 0159 #

    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

  22. Raymond @ Man On The Lam 27 January 2012 0449 #

    That headstone with the angel draped over it it hauntingly beautiful…

  23. Mary @ The World Is A Book 27 January 2012 0803 #

    Great and interesting post, Sophie! While I’m not particularly drawn to cemetaries, I found this quite intriguing. It’s a bit odd to charge for admission and yet it’s unkept.

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


  25. Stephanie - The Travel Chica 27 January 2012 1621 #

    I am the same way with cemeteries. I just spent a couple of hours exploring (and taking way too many photos) at an impressive cemetery in South America yesterday.

  26. Cynthia 28 January 2012 0241 #

    This is really amazing its my first time to see this kind of cemetery..Thank you for sharing..

  27. Ryan 28 January 2012 2237 #

    Very powerful place and post, a reminder of just how cruel humanity can be.

  28. Andrew Graeme Gould 30 January 2012 0416 #

    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.

  29. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy 30 January 2012 0603 #

    I love cemeteries too. I’ve never seen one inside a forested area like this. Very interesting.

  30. Nancie 30 January 2012 0718 #

    Not a place I would want to be at night. A strong reminder of a very tragic past.

  31. Si @thedepartureboard.com 30 January 2012 1437 #

    At least it’s not just me drawn to cemeteries. I have to admit I have visited many (Kanchanaburi, Paris, London, Prague….) however, not Warsaw yet!

    Love the blog, kind regards, Si

  32. Annie - FootTracker 31 January 2012 1123 #

    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

  33. Gabby 1 February 2012 0712 #

    Hi Anne!

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

  34. Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 February 2012 1043 #

    Thanks for commenting, everyone 🙂

  35. Katie 2 February 2012 1718 #

    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.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 3 February 2012 1137 #

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

  36. Mary @ Green Global Travel 14 April 2012 0506 #

    Very interesting read, especially the contract with the Catholic cemetery. Your photos really captured the eeriness of the place.

  37. Mariella 1 February 2013 1322 #

    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!

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