Oświęcim: Finding Existing Graves

Having mapped the locations of the matzevot within the cemetery, GPR was used in an attempt to relocate the original graves that they used to mark.

Authored by Caroline Sturdy Colls

An orderly cemetery?

On first glance, the Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim, Poland appears to be laid out in neat rows. However, this is the result of extensive restoration efforts in the 1980s – during which matzevot were returned to the cemetery – and over the last six years as a result of work led by The Matzevah Foundation. The cemetery was totally destroyed by the Nazis and the majority of matzevot were removed from the cemetery’s grounds.

It is known that the rows of matzevot in Oswiecim cemetery do not necessarily correspond to the location of graves or to the grave of the person they each represent as most were put into their current position in the 1980s during restorative works.

GPR was used to search the landscape

Using GPR, it was our intention to reconcile the current positioning of matzevot with the true position of individual graves as well to identify the locations of unmarked graves.

GPR survey being undertaken in Oświęcim Jewish cemetery (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

The cemetery was sectioned into 5 areas with GPR being used across each of them.

GPR survey areas (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

In areas 1 and 2 vegetation, post-war activity and the re-erection of matzevot in the 1980s made it difficult to interpret the results clearly.

In areas 3, 4 and 5, individual graves could be identified using the GPR data.  Although some of these graves had matzevot in place, many did not or had stones which were arbitrarily installed after the war, and so many of the graves are unmarked on the surface.

In Area 4, a roughly square feature – measuring approximately 6.3 x 4.9m – was located during the GPR survey (marked by a black box in the image below). This feature is situated close to the existing ohel (burial structure) that exists in this region. Given the nature of the feature and its shape in plan, it is possible that this could be the foundations of another ohel which was demolished by the Nazis. However, structures were constructed by the Germans within the cemetery so this feature could also relate to this activity.

GPR results for Area 4 showing individual graves (in red) and a feature consistent with structural remains (within the black box) (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

The various types of destruction and development within the cemetery did make interpreting the GPR results difficult in some areas, demonstrating how the efforts to erase traces of the cemetery continue to have long-lasting effects.

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