Mossy headstone amidst trees at the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery

Our November tour of the sites of Jewish history and the Holocaust in Poland and Lithuania began with a visit to the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.

With more than 250,000 marked graves, plus two mass graves from the 1940s Warsaw ghetto, it is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries still in use today.

A grave from 2009

My friend Rivka Schiller did this photo essay of the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery for me a few years ago, and so I had high expectations of what we would see. I was not disappointed.

I love exploring old cemeteries.

November with its gigantic fallen maple leaves has got to be one of the best months for that. I’ll try to convey its otherworldly atmosphere with some of my pictures and observations here. Please refer to Rivka’s essay for deeper info on this cemetery, in particular, stories of the people associated with individual gravestones.

Initially, the surrounding modern city of Warsaw is a jarring view from this land of tombstones. However, as one wanders farther into this overgrown necropolis, the bustle of present day life recedes.

As you walk on, you feel more like you are in an enchanted forest than a cemetery.

The engravings and reliefs on various gravestones are fascinating; here a more standard one of hands poised in the priestly blessing.

Of course I loved finding this one: a writer’s grave!

The deeper you venture, the more helter-skelter the affair becomes.

As time passes on and the trees rule this cemetery, why not embrace reality and make your tombstone look like a tree trunk right from the beginning?

For all its enchanted and peaceful atmosphere, the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery sadly also harbors two mass graves.

A new memorial covered in rough hewn stones covers the two massive pits, into which the bodies of thousands of Jews were thrown, who died or were murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto between 1940 and 1943.

In this way, the beautiful Warsaw Jewish Cemetery unfortunately was also a harbinger of what awaited us on this tour of the sites of Jewish history and the Holocaust in Poland and Lithuania.

Beware: Posts about subsequent sites will be heavy subject matter. I’ll try to share my impressions as best I can.