Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Blood Washes Away; Bullet Holes Do Not; or: How to Not Get Arrested in Poland

The following article was guest-written by my good friend Jonathan M. Klein. After Jonn relayed this experience to me verbally, I invited him to share it with a wider audience. He was gracious enough to agree. - Ed Snyder 

Abandoned Jewish cemetery, Warsaw, Poland

Before we get down to the stories of my adventures in Poland, allow me to give a brief introduction.  I’m a 38-year-old bar owner from Philadelphia who has been an avid photographer for over 20 years.  I was what you might call a “goth“ for many moons, and I’ve always had a fascination with the morbid and decadent.  I first met Ed outside one of my bars when he stopped me on the street to snap some pictures of the hearse I used to own.  I have a salvaged Victorian tombstone in my front yard.  Finally, despite being a practicing atheist, I was born and raised Jewish and continue to culturally identify with the traditions, if not the religion.  I’ve been traveling regularly for 14 years and have always made it a point to explore abandoned Jewish cemeteries in the Holocaust-decimated countries of central Europe whenever I find myself in that region.  Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have all been targets of exploration.  This fall, I set my sights on Poland, which, pre-WWII, had the largest Jewish population in Europe and now effectively has none.  Having done my research, I left knowing that the four cities I was visiting had four of the biggest, most neglected Jewish graveyards in the world.

A lonely path through an abandoned Jewish cemetery, Warsaw, Poland

My first stop was Warsaw, which reading had told me was home to a humungous and extremely poorly kept Jewish cemetery that abutted an equally old, but still very much active, Catholic one.  These were on the edge of the former Warsaw Ghetto, and while I had hoped that the three mile walk from my hotel would provide some interesting sights, the bleak reality was that what the Nazis hadn’t destroyed, the Communists had.  Thus, my walk was very uninteresting, and I was chomping at the bit to use my camera for the first time that day.  It was also my last day in Warsaw, and I knew that I would not be returning anytime soon.  Imagine my disappointment when, after this long schlep to the graveyards, the simple black gate with a star of David on it was locked tight, displaying a handwritten note in Polish that pretty clearly said, “Closed Today”. 

Inside the (Catholic) Powazki Cemetery with the Jewish cemetery beyond the dividing wall

Unbeknownst to me, as a totally non-observant Jew, it was Sukot, a Jewish holiday I barely remember.  Despite the fact that the cemetery is abandoned and decaying, despite the fact that there are almost no Jews left anywhere in Poland, and despite the fact that the property is maintained by the city and not a religious authority, it was closed for the holiday.  However, I’m not one to be put off by simple things like locked gates and rules.  It occurred to me that, as I was planning on shooting the Catholic cemetery anyway, I could scout for a way to gain entrance via the shared back wall.  Imagine my dismay when reconnaissance revealed that, for some reason, the wall dividing the two properties had been almost completely rebuilt, clearly within the last few months!   

However, the work had not been completed yet, and there was one small section of the old wall, which was lower, and still had Catholic graves butting up against it.  I quickly discovered a cross tombstone that afforded me an easy foothold to vault the wall, but… It was a beautiful fall day, and the active cemetery was busy!  There were two funerals while I was there, and many people were tending to the graves of their loved ones.  So I, with my odd facial hair and bag full of camera gear, who stuck out like a sore thumb, had to skulk around for almost a half hour, trying to be inconspicuous and waiting for a clear moment to scale the cross and hop over.  I seized the moment when it came and was in the Jewish cemetery within 30 seconds.  The reward was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had in my life. 

Being the only living soul walled in with over 100,000 burials is something that can barely be described.  It was a beautiful sunny day, but the trees, which have been growing unchecked since 1942, created a canopy of such density that the lack of light was like shooting at dusk.  The only noises were the sound of autumn leaves rustling in the wind and my own footsteps, which I was desperate to keep quiet even though I knew I was alone.  Parts of the graveyard were kept somewhat clear for those few tourists who might wander in, but mostly, it was an overgrown morass of packed, toppled, defaced, and deteriorating markers for the long dead.  I only spent about 2 hours there, but that time left an indelible mark on my memory.   

After covering as much ground as I could without getting too near the gatehouse (just in case!), I returned to the low point in the wall half expecting to see a gaggle of Polish police calmly waiting to take me away.  I was trying to formulate an explanation as to why an atheistic American Jew felt it overwhelmingly necessary to break into an abandoned Jewish cemetery (on a Jewish holiday, no less!), but I could not come up with anything useful.  Fortunately, none was necessary.  My egress was just as clean as my entry, and I spent another three hours photographing the magnificent Catholic cemetery without incident.

Krakow graves in Jewish cemetery

Krakow offered a different experience.  This was a much smaller cemetery where many of the smashed tombstones had been haphazardly reconstructed by the Communists decades ago.  Because Krakow survived the war mostly intact, the graveyard, though abandoned, had a slightly touristy feel to it. The overgrowth is kept to a picturesque level, with clear paths and a fair number of people wandering through. It is surrounded by busy streets, and the former Jewish district of Kazimierz is thriving again.  This was a far cry from the decimated areas of Warsaw I had walked through.  I even got to see a Klezmer concert in a newly re-opened but historic Jewish restaurant. 

Poznanski mausoleum - largest known Jewish mausoleum in the world

The city of Lodz is actually home to not only the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, supposedly, but the graveyard itself is home to the largest single known Jewish mausoleum as well.  That mausoleum is maintained as a monument, but the rest of the cemetery, as in Warsaw, was an overgrown ruin.  I spent the only rainy day of my vacation traipsing through muddy brush, marveling at piles of tombstones that the Nazis had pulled up for use as pavers but never found the need for.   
Stacked headstones in Lodz Jewish cemetery

There are acres of beautifully carved gravestones in Hebrew simply being consumed by the woods, but which are too proud to disappear altogether.  Rusting wrought iron railings demarcate the plots of wealthy Jews whose descendants were still shipped off to the gas chambers regardless of money or status.  The grey, damp weather merely accentuated the sense of loneliness and desolation.

The forest reclaims, Lodz Cemetery

My final stop was Wroclaw.  Having again done some research, I learned that what is now the Polish city of Wroclaw was, until 1945, the German city of Breslau.  The story goes that Breslau, which was the easternmost major German city, put up such fierce resistance that, at the end of the war, Stalin, as punishment, took Breslau from Germany and gave it to Poland as part of the massive border rearrangements that marked the end of hostilities and the start of the Cold War.  I can speak and read a little German, so I was excited that I might be able to understand the inscriptions on some of the tombstones, which obviously were all pre-1945.  

"30mm in Art Nouveau," Breslau/Wroclaw cemetery

Breslau had a vibrant and wealthy Jewish community,  thus the artwork in the graveyard was supposed to be quite elegant, especially that from the Art Nouveau period.  My GPS guided me to a tiny dirt driveway which was so inconspicuous I drove past it the first time, and it wasn’t until I saw the cemetery walls that I realized I had missed it.  After looping back around and parking in the grass, I wandered up to the tiny gatehouse.  The little shack had a bit of information in English, and it was there I learned that as part of the last, desperate Nazi defense of Breslau, SS troops had taken refuge using the high walls against the oncoming Russian army. 

Bullet-riddled headstone, Breslau/Wroclaw cemetery (detail from photo below)

Bullet-riddled grave marker
The resultant gunfight did more damage to the cemetery than the years of neglect or anti-Semitic vandalism. When you wander through the graveyard, which is just barely maintained for the few tourists willing to pay the equivalent of $2 to wander around, the battle scars are everywhere.  Granite, unlike marble, never weathers – it’s why Egyptian sculpture holds up so well.  But, no stone is impervious to gunpowder and bullets.  Marker after marker bore the tell-tale pockmarks of small-arms fire.  Certain tombstones showed evidence of heavy weaponry, while some mausolea were nothing but collapsed piles of rubble.  Snapping picture after picture, I tried to follow the individual trails of gunfire, and I was filled with an odd sense of satisfaction.  The idea of Nazi soldiers, frantic and losing, holed up in a hated Jewish cemetery is surreal enough. But, being able to look at certain tombstones and just know from the level and position of the damage that someone was almost certainly shot against that marker is a whole different idea.  Nazis shot by Russians against wealthy Jewish graves – how could it not appeal to all of my cultural sensitivities?

However, reality then filtered in, and I realized that I was looking at a place where not only is someone buried, but more than likely someone else spent their last few agonizing moments of life.  As Americans, we are so insulated from many of the horrors of the last hundred years.  In that cemetery, I was standing at a place frozen in time, at a pivotal point in history.  The city of Wroclaw has moved on.  Everyone speaks Polish.  Buildings destroyed in the war have been rebuilt or something modern raised in their place.  But amongst those bullet-riddled tombs, it will always be Breslau, 1945.  Those Jewish graves, inscribed in German, chipped and broken, forever bear witness to one of the darkest chapters in human history.