The heart of the community
The Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim was at the heart of the Jewish community before World War II. However, it was quickly vandalised when the Nazis occupied the town and many types of cultural genocide were perpetrated there.
"The second path I took after my return home was to the cemetery, to visit my mother’s grave. The surrounding ancient wall had disappeared, and instead of my mother’s grave I found a giant crater caused by aerial bombardment. A terrible sadness came over me as I realised that I would never be able to visit my dear mother’s grave. A great number of the headstones, especially those of marble, had disappeared, and the remaining ones overturned, and some half buried under grass. I dug around and found pieces of the headstone of my great-grandfather, R’ Chaim Schenker, and those of his wife, Libale and of my grandmother Miriam Mali Hollander"
Eliezer Schenker describes witnesses the aftermath of the destruction of the Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim (Schenker 1977: 147-151)
Jewish Cemeteries in Oświęcim
Some sources indicate that an “old” Jewish cemetery opened in the town of Oświęcim c. 1588 but its location remains unknown. The Jewish cemetery that is marked in Oświęcim today was established at the turn of the nineteenth century. The “new” cemetery is located on what is now Dąbrowskiego Street. Burials were still being carried out there at the outbreak of the Second World War.
This cemetery was a particularly important cemetery for the region. Many prominent Rabbis were buried in the cemetery grounds. As Jakubowitz described, “visiting the family graves in the cemetery before Rosch Haschanah is an important custom. Many people, therefore, visited the cemetery throughout the month of Elul before the New Year. And whole families gathered at the entrance begging for money with outstretched hands”.
"There were many Jews from Oshpitzin who went to live and work in other cities. However, in their old age, they always returned to their hometown. The saying was ‘It is a good thing to live in a large city, but the best place for a Jew to die is Oshpitzin’ because the tzaddikim who were buried in Oshpitzin made the earth admat kodesh, holy ground"
Moshe Weiss describes the importance of the Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim to the Jewish community in Poland (1977: 134)
Cultural Genocide Begins
Although the exact date that this began is not known, the desecration of the cemetery in Oświęcim certainly occurred throughout 1940 and continued throughout World War II. What began as ad-hoc vandalism escalated to large-scale destruction.
Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls and Steven D. Reece discuss their collaborative work in Oświęcim Jewish cemetery and impressions of the landscapePlay Video
First, matzevot were broken, shot at and pushed over by the German occupiers. Recent walkover surveys, photogrammetry and laser scanning revealed the extent of this damage and the considerable force that was inflicted to break some of the heavier granite and marble headstones.
These sacred objects were then used as construction materials – to pave roads, line the river and repair buildings. To further increase the desecration and humiliation, the German overseers forced members of the Jewish community (who were by now forced labourers) to remove the matzevot themselves and to participate in these construction projects.
Bringing Back Names
The “Recording Cultural Genocide and Killing Sites in Jewish Cemeteries” project team sought to document and analyse the types of damage inflicted upon the cemetery in Oświęcim during the Holocaust and in its aftermath. Photogrammetry and close-contact laser scanning were used to record these material traces.
This allowed some of the matzevot to be digitally reassembled and for some of the inscriptions that were difficult or impossible to read with the naked eye to be visualised.
3D models of a reassembled matzevah (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University).
Using a total station, we also mapped the locations of the matzevot and fragments within the cemetery.
Contact us if you have a query about individual graves within the cemetery.
The desecration of Oświęcim’s Jewish cemetery had another effect. It prevented the Jewish community from burying their dead.
The last recorded burial in the cemetery took place in 1939 because the desecration of graves was also accompanied by legislation that prevented practicing Jewish customs, including religious ceremonies. The limitations imposed upon the Jews meant that people from Oświęcim and beyond were unable to visit family graves or those of the important rabbis buried there which, as already noted, was an important part of Jewish cultural life.
However, some testimonies suggest that burials in the cemetery did sometimes occur because of the actions of the Chevra Kaddisha – a pre-war Jewish organisation responsible for caring for and burying the dead in Oświęcim. As reported by Meir Shimon Geshuri (1977), in the Oświęcim Yizkor Book, despite the limitations placed upon the Jewish community, the members of the Chevra Kaddisha attempted to ensure that the deceased were buried according to Jewish law.
After the Germans left, burials occasionally took place in the cemetery, though most of the Jewish population of the town had already been killed. Eliezer Schenker once again described the events:
"We were able to rebuild the wall around the cemetery and rehabilitate it. We devoted much time and energy to this task. Only a short time afterwards, to our distress, Polish hoodlums destroyed the headstones we had replaced and smashed them with sledgehammers. Not a year had passed and City Hall began to debate whether the Jewish cemetery was still in use, or whether it was now possible to expropriate it and subdivide it for building plots."
Eliezer Schenker, 1977
Vandalism of the cemetery continued during the Soviet occupation of Poland. For example, a water pipe was installed that bisected the cemetery area, causing further disturbance to graves. Several cases of vandalism occurred in the years that followed and continue to occur in the present day.
In the 1980s, survivors and ancestors of Oświęcim residents now living in Israel restored the cemetery and brought back hundreds of matzevah and fragments. This resulted in the seemingly neat rows of graves and memorials that exist there today. The locations of the original graves were not known and so the matzevah were arbitrarily placed in rows. Broken fragments were used to cover the memorials. A fence was also erected. The cemetery is now under the care of the Auschwitz Jewish Center.
This restoration work and a documentation project that followed (undertaken by Jacek Proszyk in 1997), resulted in the identification of the names of some of those people who were buried in the cemetery before World War II. However, in many cases, the extent of the destruction was so severe that locating and recording the names on the matzevot was not possible. Likewise, given that the matzevot could not be put back in their original locations (because of the extent of the destruction), the inability to visit family graves is something that persisted for descendants in the decades that followed.
Further restoration works have been undertaken by the Matzevah Foundation and the “Recording Cultural Genocide and Killing Sites in Jewish cemeteries” team.
Download our full report for details of our archaeological investigations, social action work and references at Oświęcim's Jewish cemeteryDownload File