Poland in Transition 1989-1991: The Jewish Cemetery in Łódź

The birds sing in the branches of these trees, and the bells of the Catholic Church sing to the living. The earth rises to reclaim her own, and the grass, the grass, the grass—it covers everything. The fifth chapter of the book by David R. Pichaske.

During official opening hours you can enter the Jewish Cemetery in Łódź through the main gate: trams 1, 15, or 19 to the Strykowska terminus, or the 51 bus in the direction of Wilanów. But the essence of this place is a growing horror which, like most nightmares, develops imperceptibly by degrees out of the most mundane scenes of daily life. It is better to use the back entrance.

Take bus 57 past the well-tended and well attended Catholic Cemetery, past the Graphic Arts Institute, to where it turns down Wojska Polskiego. Get off at ulica Sporna and walk uphill through what was once the Łódź ghetto, past the Catholic Church, to a chain link fence around what appears to be a large meadow containing several groves of birch trees. If you look carefully in the far distance, you will notice a collection of gravestones. You will see a hole in the chain link fence, at the corner, with a path heading off into the field, toward the gravestones, through some raspberry bushes.

It is better to use the back entrance.

Climb through the hole in the fence.

At first you will think you are in a park, Hyde Park half a decade untended, unless it is winter or a recent arson has burned the grass to its roots. Foliage is high, litter is profuse, and trails radiate in several directions through the meadow and trees. Mind the dog droppings. Follow the paths toward the thicket of gravestones in the distance, or along the fence by the road.

Watch the earth.

Graves in this corner of the cemetery have been so obliterated that I might have trouble convincing you this is indeed a cemetery, but you will not have walked too far before noticing a broken brick or cement rectangle about the size of a coffin, or a fragment of marble or basalt lying in your path. You will see several tombstones of great size now three-quarters buried in the earth. The inscriptions are in Hebrew.

In early spring or winter, if there is no snow, you may notice fragments of bone, what looks to my untrained eye like bits of rib, or femur or ulna. I am not making this up.

I am not making this up.

So this is the cemetery, and you are in the southwest corner of a tract that runs nearly a kilometer along the edge of Sporna-Zagajnikowa. In this corner, the story goes, Nazi barbarians began their systematic destruction of grave sites just before the liberation of Łódź by the Russians late in 1944. Working methodically up one row and down the other, smashing vaults, removing markers, stealing rings, teeth, jewelry—anything, valuable—they wrecked the place so completely that it looks like a meadow, except for half-buried fragments of vaults or headstones. Even the CIA couldn’t reconstruct the lives of people buried here.

The path which runs north, parallel to Sporna, will bring you past a great heap of grave markers, dumped together like the facing stone of some English monastery confiscated by Henry VIII, sold, and mined for some manor house that never got constructed. Perhaps these stones too were headed for a road paving or building construction project. They never arrived. Today they lie in a pile, trees growing out of the center.

Even the CIA couldn’t reconstruct the lives of people buried here.

As you move east from Sporna, toward the inner gate of the cemetery and the axial road that leads down the middle of the burial plots, vandalism becomes less thorough and the cemetery more recognizable: rows upon rows of graves, each three by six feet, one abutting flush with the other, except where a grid of roads and lanes offers access to most, but not all. At one end of each grave is—or was—a head-stone, in most cases facing the pre-burial hall outside the main gate. Some graves have—or had—stone or cement entablatures. A wrought iron railing or a low stone edging may have surrounded the grave. A low vault of brick or cement covered the grave proper. In almost all cases the vault is broken or gone, the headstone is fragmented or thrown down or both, and the iron railing is disrupted.

Moving due north and east, you enter a heavy wood sprung up over the past fifty years, as can be seen by counting the rings in those one or two recently felled trunks. In winter 1939 existing trees in the cemetery were cut for fuel. The present crop grew haphazardly, in some cases directly out of graves. So a double forest: tombs and trees.

Near the main gate you enter a landscape of broken headstones, looted graves, overturned pillars, a forest of stone, the older graves of some of the richest people in turn-of-the-century Łódź: Polish and Swedish marbles, Czech and Hungarian granite, red sandstone, basalt, slate… all haphazard, topsy-turvy, overturned, displaced, thrown down, disrupted by human vandals, by weeds and bushes and the roots of trees which have, over four decades, shouldered even the most massive stone slabs to crazy angles, toppling headstones and Grecian columns and Egyptian ornaments into the dirt which rises to bury them. This place resembles some jungle archeological site in early stages of exploration… or the “Classical Antiquities” rooms of the British Museum, where servants of the crown have strewn carved stone fragments from all over the globe at odd angles across the floor. Or scenes which accompany those Museum marbles, showing fragments in situ before Captain Major Smith and his expedition brought them hither.

So a double forest: tombs and trees.

Or rather a pile of huge child’s blocks, the remains of some kiddie edifice now toppled to a heap of cylinders, rectangles, squares, and triangles.

The temples of the mightiest of the mighty have survived longer than those of the commoners: Poznański, Purssak, Jarociński, Konsztadt, Silberstein with his 50,000-ruble mausoleum of white Italian marble, a Corinthian temple with an Egyptian sarcophagus. Sumptuously carved stone objets d’ art are stacked all over, some lying on their side, some leaning against each other, Grecian columns, basalt funereal vases, granite spheres, finials, fleches, obelisks, needles… a set from Empire of the Sun.

It is not the neglect of this place which so strikes the observer—we have all seen neglected cemeteries. Nor is it the eerie feeling of having entered someplace alien and forbidden, this place full of inscriptions in Hebrew and German and Russian, this place of strange symbols pregnant with hidden meaning—paired hands, their digits mysteriously separated between second and third finger; Stars of David; an oak tree with a broken branch; three- and seven- candle candelabra, sometimes with a broken center candle; tabernacles open to reveal two rows of books in various combinations, five over six, six over five, five over three, seven over five, six over six. Some stones retain traces of red, green, yellow, and black pigment. Some in the art nouveau style, others so standardized as to have been mass produced. What does all this mean?

Photo by David Pichaske.

No, it is not the mystery of the place that presses itself most upon a visitor. Nor is it even the vandalism, so gratuitous, so unrepaired, so contrastive to the Catholic Cemetery on Strykowska (carefully tended, filled with votive candles), or the Evangelical Cemetery on Srebrzyńska (ignored, but not vandalized). It’s the combination that oppresses: vandalism and mystery. And neglect: in the half century since World War II erupted, nobody has cared enough about this place to keep the trees from growing out of people’s graves.

It is dangerous. A thirteen year old boy was murdered there, his throat cut with a broken bottle.

And danger. “Stay out,” Poles tell me. “It is dangerous. A thirteen year old boy was murdered there, his throat cut with a broken bottle. There are fires, lootings, and vandalism still. It is a dangerous place, even in the day.”

And the immensity of it all: a lot of people were buried here, many of them powerful people. An object lesson is what this place is, in the impossibility for even the mightiest among us to provide, provide:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias”

On one visit to this cemetery I met a guide, or caretaker, or self-appointed custodian of the land of the dead. He walked with the aid of a cane, his left leg lost or paralyzed. He asked me something in Polish, and I responded that I was an American. Did I speak Hebrew, he wanted to know. No. Russian then? German?

I told him I spoke a little German. What state did I come from, he wanted to know? Minnesota. Was I Jewish? Lutheran. He hesitated a moment, then directed me to the center of the cemetery, where the wealthiest of the wealthy of Łódź had built their final monuments, to the mausoleum of Israel Poznański. “Incontestably the wealthiest man in Poland,” he told me. “His cloth was sold here to St. Petersburg. He once decided to pave his ballroom floor in golden rubles, you have seen his palace, it is now the city museum? And he would have done it, too, but first he asked the permission of his friend the czar. And the czar gave his friend Poznański permission, but asked that the rubles not be laid with his face up, because the czar did not want people dancing on his face. And that they not be laid face down, because he did not want his face to be turned down, to the earth. But if he were to set them on edge…

Incontestably the wealthiest man in Poland.

“Poznański was buried in a gold suit. On the ceiling of his mausoleum were golden tiles. It was done by an Italian firm, Andrea Salviatti.”

I read the silhouette of letters long ago stolen—bronze? brass? a gold plate?—and note the fence that now surrounds the mausoleum. Come to this, the great Poznański, the czar’s friend, the man who donated half the land for this cemetery, the man who was if not the richest man in Łódź a very definite second (behind Karl Scheibler, whose neo-Gothic mausoleum in the Evangelical Cemetery looks like a small cathedral). And nobody to care? Astonishing.

Photo by David Pichaske.

My guide directed me toward the inner gate, to the cemetery wall. Three or four feet above ground level, the bricks have been blasted and broken by executioners’ bullets. In front of the wall, a row of shallow pits dug many years ago: graves of the executed, the last few dug but unfilled. The Russians were coming, and the ghetto had to be liquidated. On the wall itself, relatives of the deceased have placed memorial plaques in Polish, Hebrew, English, and German. They do not mince words: “In Errinerung an meine lieben Eltern und Geschwister. Chid Wolf Chaslowicz, Chaja Fajga Chaslowicz, Genia Chaslowicz, unbekommen durch die barbarische Nazi-Herrschaft in Polen.” “This plaque [sic] was laid in loving memory of my dear sister BLUMA, on 7 October 1980, who was shot dead by a German murderer without any reason in the ghetto Łódź, Poland.” “In memory of all Kleinlehrer and Najman who were killed by the German beast in the Holocaust [sic] from 1939-1945.”

The Russians were coming, and the ghetto had to be liquidated.

My guide departed abruptly, and I never saw him again—which is a shame because I have a dozen questions I would like to ask him. I would like to inquire about that heap of headstones. I have heard there is a gypsy section of this cemetery, but I have not found it. I have questions from my reading of The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto.

I have more questions, in fact, than I care to hear answered. The story of Nazi vandalism, for example, doesn’t ring quite true. When did this vandalism take place? Immediately after the invasion of 1939, when troops were storming Russia in the east? Not likely, it seems to me, although the Łódź synagogue was burned on November 11, 1939. Torching a building is a one-night job; this methodical destruction took time.

After the ghetto was sealed in March 1940? Germans never entered the ghetto, having their dirty work done for them by insiders. After the liquidation of August 1944, with the Russians coming on hard, the Reich collapsing on itself? Possible, I suppose—Hitler was crazy enough to order the leveling of Warsaw, and his generals were crazy enough to obey. A start, perhaps, in the corner—but what about the other graves in this huge tract?

In spring 1990 I voiced my reservations to an older Pole, one who lived through those years, a good friend to whom I could speak of such matters. Who? What? Why? When?

I was met by way of answer with what can only be called a profound silence. Then a clearing of his throat. Then an explanation of sorts: “You know, before the War, we knew nothing of them, really. It was like two separate nations on one land. Hundreds of years they had lived among us, and most of them could not even speak decent Polish. We spoke no Hebrew. We read our newspapers; they read their newspapers. We went to our churches; they went to their synagogues. Their program of resistance was not our program of resistance, their program for the future was not ours. I would not call it anti-Semitism, really, I would call it a lack of knowing.”

I would not call it anti-Semitism, really, I would call it a lack of knowing.

“Of course everyone thought they were all rich, and they must have been buried with plenty of money. There were stories, you know, of people buried in gold suits. The ceiling of Poznański’s mausoleum was gold tiles, you could see that. People used to throw rocks up at the roof, trying to knock those tiles loose. Finally they put a fence around it. You have to understand; the times were very difficult. It is impossible to explain…”

He did not continue, and I did not press him.

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes of letting the grass cover all, atone for all, for all the sufferings and the deaths, here, everywhere. He had it right: earth finally reclaims its own stone, and grass covers everything. Sooner or later, it comes to this. We build our little houses in our little clearings in the woods, our little cities, our little lives, neatly structured in defiance of our own mortality. But in no way can we guarantee our immortality a few decades, a few short centuries at best. Chaos finally prevails. What desecrated these graves was Nature and human nature. Nature and human nature will desecrate, or forget, us as well. “Gritstone, a-crumble!”

The birds sing in the branches of these trees, and the bells of the Catholic Church sing to the living. The earth rises to reclaim her own, and the grass, the grass, the grass—it covers everything.


It’s the fifth chapter of the book by David R. Pichaske. Visit our website next week to read the next part of this extraordinary journey to Poland between 1989 and 1991.


Poland in Transition: 1989-1991 by David R. Pichaske is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. It is available to download as MOBI and EPUB at poland-in-transition.com.


David R. Pichaske
David Pichaske spent 1989-1991 in Poland, as Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Łódź, during which time these essays were written. His other books include Beowulf to Beatles, The Jubilee Diary, A Generation in Motion, Song of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan, UB03: A Season in Outer Mongolia, The Pigeons of Buchenau and Other Stories, Here I Stand, Crying in the Wilderness, and Bones of Bricks and Mortar. Pichaske holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches at Southwest State University, Marshall, Minnesota.