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Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery
Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery
|Location 52°14′51″N 20°58′29″E|
|Phone number 22 838 26 22|
|Address Okopowa 49/51, 01-043 Warsaw|
|Open to visitors yes|
|Need appointment no|
|Handicap accessibility no|
|Geographical Coordinates 52.24759,20.97833|
The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. The Cemetery was established in 1806 and occupies 83 acres of land. The cemetery contains over 200,000 marked graves, as well as mass graves of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. Many of these graves and crypts are overgrown, having been abandoned after the German invasion of Poland and subsequent Holocaust. Although the cemetery was closed down during World War II, after the war it was reopened and a small portion of it remains active, serving Warsaw's small remaining Jewish population.
As the cemetery was established to replace many smaller cemeteries closer to the city center, it was designed to serve all Jewish communities of Warsaw, regardless of their affiliation. Because of that it is subdivided onto several districts dubbed quarters (kwatery), historically reserved for various groups. Among them are three Orthodox (for men, women and one for holy scriptures), Reform Judaism, children, military and Ghetto Uprising victims.
The cemetery, which has become a dense forest in the post-war period, is filled with monuments of Jewish communists, orthodox rabbis, and everyone in between. Many of the markers are simple, others are elaborately carved with Art nouveau angels drooping mournfully over a tomb or with large, elaborate bas relief panoramas of a somewhat imaginary medieval Warsaw. Large mausoleums appear in styles ranging from Egyptian revival to Art deco.
History and time period
In 1806 Warsaw's Jewish Commune petitioned the government to establish a new cemetery for Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw. The lot chosen was located right outside of the city limits in the borough of Wola, next to a new Catholic Powązki Cemetery established in 1790. The petition was accepted and in the following year the cemetery was established, together with Chevra kadisha. The earliest headstone was dated December 6, 1806 and belonged to certain Nachum son of Nachum of Siemiatycze, but it did not survive to our times.
During the first decades of its existence the new Okopowa Street cemetery was used mostly by the higher strata of Jewish society, with poorer Jews interred in the Praga Jewish Cemetery in the easternmost borough of Bródno, on the right bank of the Vistula. Despite that, the cemetery quickly became overcrowded and already in 1824 it had to be expanded. Around that time the Tsarist authorities took over the administration of the cemetery from Chevra kadisha and by 1850 established a separate Funeral Administration. The first on-site funeral home was established in 1828, but already in 1831 it was destroyed by the Russian Army in the course of the November Uprising. A new building was erected the following year and further expanded in 1854. In the meantime the necropolis was extended twice: in 1840 and 1848. Around that time it became the main Jewish cemetery of Warsaw, for rich and poor alike.
Historically the cemetery was separated from the city center and the Warsaw Ghetto by a deep ditch, the so-called Lubomirski's Rampart, created in 1777 to stop the spread of plague and as a tax measure. It was not until 1873 that both Jewish and Catholic communities were allowed to build a bridge across the ditch to facilitate access to both cemeteries. In 1860 and 1863 the cemetery was extended again and in 1869 reached its present form. However, it began to overcrowd and in 1885 all burials financed by the Jewish community (i.e. of the poor) were directed to the Bródno cemetery. In 1877 several notable Jewish families of Warsaw financed a new late Neo-Classical building by Adolf Schimmelpfennig housing a synagogue and two burial houses (one for men and one for women). The second floor was reserved for rabbi's flat.
As the cemetery was used by all groups of Warsaw's Jewry, conflicts arose over control of the cemetery and various burial-related issues. In 1913 it was agreed to split it into four parts: one for Orthodox Jews, one for Reformed, one for children and one for military and state burials. After World War I the cemetery again became overcrowded. Because of that a mound or earthwork terrace was erected over a quarter previously reserved for children to allow for more burials. Between 1918 and 1936 fourteen such mounds were created. In the 1930's the entire cemetery was surrounded with a high wall and in 1939 a construction started on Mausoleum of Jews Fighting for Polish Independence. Work was stopped by the outbreak of World War II and the German occupation of Poland.
During the war the cemetery was partly demolished. German forces used it for mass executions and burial of victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and other mass murders. Those burials included both Jews and non-Jews. Following the fall of the Ghetto Uprising, on May 15, 1943 the Germans blew up all buildings in the area of the cemetery, including the synagogue and burial houses. Only a small well survived to this day. Further damage was done to the cemetery during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when the front line passed directly through the cemetery. After the war the cemetery was reopened. The Communist authorities of Poland planned a road directly through the middle of the cemetery, but the plans were never carried out.
In the 1990s the neglected cemetery started to be renovated for the first time since the 1930's, mostly by the re-created Warsaw Jewish Commune and the Nissenbaum Family Foundation, as well as the City of Warsaw municipal government. The cemetery is still open, with 20 to 30 new burials every year.