In the district known as Bagnowka, in present-day Bialystok, Poland, three cemeteries lie adjacent to one another: cmentarz rzymsko-katolicki, cmentarz prawosławny and cmentarz żydowski, the Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish cemeteries, respectively. Nearby also stands cmentarz ewangelicki (the Protestant Cemetery) and cmentarze miejski (the City Cemetery). Bagnowka Beth Olam was the last cemetery to be established in this area in early 1892. The first burial was of “the important, God-fearing woman, the married Fruma daughter of Reb Yehuda Leib. She died on Monday 2nd Tevet year 5652 [21 December 1891]. Today, the oldest extant matzevah is that of “the God-fearing, prominent scholar, our teacher the R. Pinhas son of Mordechai Halewi,” located in Section 32, just to the left on entering the second entrance on Wschodnia Street. R. Pinhas died on the 4th of Nisan 5652 – 20 March 1892 – three months after the establishment of the New Beth-Olam. While the last recorded burial was in 1969, today the most recent matzevoth mark gravesites with dates of death in 1951 and 1952.
Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery was not the first or only cemetery that served Bialystok since it was granted town status in 1692. From the late 17th century to the aftermath of the Holocaust, possibly five other cemeteries within Bialystok, as well as Beth-Kevurim “burial grounds” outside Bialystok, were used to bury the Jewish dead of Bialystok. Documentation hints at the existence of a late 16th century cemetery in Bialystok’s Kosciusko Market; a poor house cemetery pre-1781; as well as more substantial documentation for the Old (Rabbinic) Jewish cemetery, established between 1774 and 1781 on Kalinowskiego Street in the Suraz suburb of Bialystok. A cholera cemetery was established in 1840 on Bema Street; and a Ghetto cemetery on Zabia Street was established during the Holocaust. (Map: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/bialygen/bialcem.htm)
Name, Size and Burial Patterns
Called the New Beth Olam “house of the living” by Jewish historian Avraham Shmuel Herszberg (1860-1943), this cemetery also was called Bagnowka after what was previously a small town with deforested acres well-suited for a cemetery. Over the next 50 years, in its one hundred nearly uniform sections, it had the potential to cradle the bodies of 30-35,000 of Bialystok’s Jews. Surrounded by a brick plastered wall, it had two entrances on Wschodnia Street and another entrance on its eastern border.
In Bagnowka Beth-Olam, the practice of burying the priests and Levites nearest the entrances to preserve ritual purity seems to be maintained from 1892 until 1910, after which burial of one of priestly or Levite descent can be found throughout the cemetery, including the sections farthest from its three entrances and adjoining the Catholic cemetery. While men, women and children are buried within the same sections, each section does distinguish rows for men and rows for women. Children are buried at the back of a section, both boys and girls, at times, alongside women. Rabbis, scholars, merchants, men who “toil with their hands”, women of distinguished lineages, modest wives, mothers, and daughters; the aged, those in the prime of their life, and the very young are thus buried within the same section, a somewhat radical departure from earlier rabbinic practices, which necessitated these individuals be buried apart. These ‘modern’ practices suggest Bagnowka cemetery was impacted by assimilationist burial practices that began in the late 19th century. Such assimilationist practices also allowed an individual or the deceased’s family to determine the language and content of an epitaph and the style of a tombstone. Thus epitaphs are extant in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Russian and German. Many are bilingual. In Bagnowka, family members are rarely buried in the same section; expansion of the cemetery necessitating the use of new sections was determined by the passage of time not by purchasing of family burial plots. As the sections nearest the entrances became full, the next and more distant sections would be used for burial.
In Jewish tradition, one expression for a cemetery is a beth olam “House of Eternity.” Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery is designated as such in the Aramaic prayer written on the gray metal plaque affixed atop the faded, plastered gateway at this cemetery’s entrance on Ulica (Street) Wschodnia:
“House of eternity (beth olam), Bagnowka. Blessed are you, O Lord Our God, King of the World, who fashioned you by right and sustained you by right and brought you to death by right and knows your total number [of years] and is ready to restore and bring you back to life by right. Blessed are you, O Lord, who revives the dead.”
Beneath this plaque are the black wrought-iron gates through which the visitor gains access to and a first glimpse of the largest Jewish cemetery in northeastern Poland, nearly forty acres in size. On entering the cemetery, the visitor steps down into the cemetery. Ahead, the panorama reveals over half of the one hundred nearly uniform-sized sections of this Beth-Olam, with each section delineated by grassy alleys that run both north-south and east-west. Just to the right of the entrance, some 190 feet along one of two north-south arterials, the ground rises to a gentle knoll. Upon this knoll is perched the ohel of Rabbi Chaim Hertz Halpern – a visual reminder of Bialystok’s traditionalist inclination. Rabbi Halpern served as a rabbi in Bialystok for over fifty years and as Chief Rabbi of Bialystok from approximately 1900 to 1919. His followers erected this tent-like structure over his grave in 1922, as recorded in the once faded inscription on the ohel’s whitewashed southern wall, an inscription replaced in 2013 by a granite plaque. Three sections east of Rabbi Halpern’s ohel, on the second major north-south arterial, stands another landmark of this cemetery – the 12 foot tall black obelisk that remembers the Jews murdered in the 1905 massacres and 1906 Pogrom in Bialystok. One hundred twenty-seven names are engraved in Hebrew upon the four facades of this ‘Memorial of Mourning’, which stands upon a mass grave. Just recently, approximately 90 memorial tombstones were uncovered near the black obelisk, which serve as individual memorials to these victims. Memorial pillar and tombstones together serve as a singular example of 20th century memorialization in Eastern Europe. Behind Rabbi Halpern’s ohel and the memorial area, the overgrown, grassy sections give way to a young growth forest whose vegetation has done much to preserve at least some of the gravesites within. Beyond this forest, Bagnowka Beth Olam’s sections finally meet a brick and wrought-iron wall adjoining the vast Catholic cemetery, renovated in the early 21st century.
Bagnowka Beth Olam had the potential to cradle 30-35,000 burials at its peak in the early 1930’s. This sacred realm would remain undefiled until World War II and the assault on Jewish heritage that accompanied the decimation of Bialystok’s Jewish population. Of the once 30-35,000 gravesites with matzevoth, today approximately 3500 to 4000 matzevoth remain, most not in situ.
Restoration and Its Challenges
In 1993-95, a report on Bialystok’s Jewish cemeteries was published. Bialystok’s Jewish cemeteries were surveyed in respect to size, number of tombstones, and challenges to preservation. A decade earlier, mapping and initial documentation near the main entrance by Bialystok’s conservator’s office was undertaken. The topographic map that was prepared also highlighted landmarks on this cemetery. Photographing of sections 1-4 was ostensibly completed. From the late 1990s to c. 2012, local historian Tomasz Wisniewski, Ph.D. engaged in substantial documentation of Bagnowka Cemetery, assisted in translation by Heidi M. Szpek and later Sara Mages. These efforts can be found at www.bagnowka.pl.
With the establishment of Centrum Edukacji Obywatelskiej Polska-Izrael in Bialystok, under the direction of Lucy Lisowska, care of Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery took on new directions. A large gap in the cemetery’s western wall was repaired. An extensive wall adjoining the Catholic Cemetery was rebuilt; the wall on Wschodnia was repaired and repainted. Since the early 2000s, clean up efforts were initiated and maintained through Centrum, often with the assistance of local school children. Restoration efforts also ensued with the volunteer efforts of international students from the United States, Israel and Europe, coordinated by Centrum. From 2010 to 2015 Aktion Suhnezeichen Friedensdienste (ASF) held six summer camps devoted to restoration. In 2010, Heidi M. Szpek, Ph.D. began collaborating with Centrum and in 2013 with ASF in their efforts on Bagnowka. Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery has thus become a living museum, in which students come to learn about Jewish life in Bialystok and Eastern Europe while engaging in this restoration effort.
In 2012 and 2013 Centrum and ASF, worked to restore Sections 3 and 5, just inside the main entrance, at right. In 2013, ASF and Centrum, in consultation with Szpek, prepared a tour of Bagnowka. In 2014, Szpek guided ASF and Centrum in major restoration efforts on the Memorial Complex. In 2015, efforts turned to Sections 1, 2 and 7, just inside the main entrance, at left, with some additional work in the Memorial Complex.
In 2016 and 2017, restoration on the cemetery again took a new direction, drawing on the vision and expertise of stone contractor Josh Degen and his wife, Amy Halpern Degen, of Massachusetts (USA). On a roots tour and educational tour in 2015, Amy, who has family roots in Bialystok, nearby Sokolka, unexpectedly came up ASF working on the cemetery. As a stone contractor by trade, Josh Degen immediately recognized the potential of utilizing mechanized equipment on the cemetery to facilitate a more speedy and effective restoration. Gathering a group of volunteers from the United States, Germany and local Poles, 301 tombstones were restored in 2016; 349 in 2016, during a one-week Summercamp. Previous Summercamps typically restored about 35 to 75 tombstones.
Bagnowka Summercamps 2013-2015
Restoration Before and After
Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery presents unique challenges for restoration and documentation. While considerable progress has been made in cleaning the cemetery and removing overgrown brush and small growth forested areas, approximately a third is still shielded in vegetation. In individual sections, tombstones are often toppled upon each other, with others buried beneath grasses, forests, etc. Thus, each section requires extensive lifting, resetting of monuments, in addition to tombstone cleaning and painting of inscriptions, save illegible ones, which require painstaking translation in situ, before the finest photograph can be captured. Restoration will hopefully continue, determined by funded and feasibility of old and new approaches. Willing volunteers is never an issue! In the words of one 2017 volunteer, “Even if restoration is no longer possible, Bagnowka now looks like a proper cemetery.”
“Bialystok”, Virtual Shtetl. http://www.sztetl.org.pl/en/article/bialystok/12,cemeteries/
Centrum Edukacji Obywatelskiej Polska-Izrael in Bialystok. Lucy Lisowski, president. http://www.bialystok.jewish.org.pl/en/
Gruber, Samuel and Phyllis Myers, A Report to the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. 1993-1995. http://heritageabroad.gov/Portals/0/documents/reports/survey_poland.pdf
Herszberg, Abraham Samuel. Pinkes Byalistok [Pinkos (the chronicle of) Białystok]. Vols 1–2. New York: Białystok Jewish Historical Association, 1949–50. (Yiddish).
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Sohn, David, ed., Byalistok bilder album fun a barimter shtot un yire yiden yiber der welt. [Białystok Photo Album of a Renowned City and its Jews the World Over.] New York, 1951. (Yiddish and English)
Szpek, Heidi M. “Jewish Epitaphs from Białystok, 1905–6: Towards Mending the Torn Thread of Memory.” East European Jewish Affairs 41:1-2 (2011): 1–23.
Szpek, Heidi M. “Jewish epitaphs from Białystok, 1892–1902: embracing the spirit of Dubnow.” East European Jewish Affairs, 42:2 (2012): 129-158.
Wiśniewski, Tomasz. “Cmentarze żydowskie w Białymstoku” [Jewish cemeteries in Białystok]. Studia podlaskie 2 (1989): 380–96.