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Poland’s Undead Gravestones

Photographer Łukasz Baksik hunts repurposed matzevot, burial markers turned cornerstones and cobbles

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(All images copyright © Łukasz Baksik 2012)

To read more Tablet in Warsaw coverage, click here.

Between 2008 and 2012, photographer Łukasz Baksik—itinerant documentarian and questing typologist—traversed his native Poland, painstakingly documenting the ways in which Jewish gravestones, or matzevot, had been looted and appropriated, both in rural villages and cities, since the 1940s. “Quarried” from cemeteries during World War II (by the Nazis), the decades that followed (by Poles), and even up until the present day, matzevot had been and continue to be used in any instance in which ordinary stone might normally, mundanely, and practically suffice.

The matzevot Baksik photographed had been repurposed (a tricky verb in this context) as paving stones for courtyards and passageways, or else to patch crumbling walls and curbstones in need of reinforcement. They had been shaped into querns and grindstones; had been used to construct a cowshed, a pergola in a city park, a sandbox for children; had ended up as “recyclable” tablets for new Catholic gravestones—the Jewish gravestone was simply carved into again, like a palimpsest—and as a path for monks who, Baksik relates, “had become used to walking on a paved path, and not through the mud.”

Baksik’s previously exhibited archive of quotidian profanation has now been edited and published in a bilingual edition under the title Matzevot for Everyday Use (Czarne, 2012). Sequential black-and-white photographs survey the banal abasement of the looted gravestones, reduced from markers of consecrated soil and chroniclers of lives lived to merely “useful” accumulations of sedimented mineral.

Click on the link to the left to see a slideshow excerpted from Łukasz Baksik’s Matzevot for Everyday Use.

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How can people be so heartless?

Increíble testimonio histórico. No sabe uno si compadecerse, llorar, acusarse o mejor olvidarse. Otro modo de reaccionar es alegrarse de que tales testimonios salgan a la luz. Lo que los alemanes hicieron sangrientamente, los españoles lo hicimos silenciosa e incruentamente, pero lo hicimos, quitar la vida concreta -en su España- al pueblo judío y expulsarles o hacerles pagar carísima su reconvertida permanencia. La religión es y fue la excusa.

Rightbrain80 says:

Hundreds of years of Jewish suffering on a grindstone wheel: I printed out the photo, inverted it and read a name; “Shprintza”. Our names, for deceased ancestors, tell us of our past. Shprintza is a “Slavic version” of the Spanish name Esperanza. It migrated to Poland from Spain attached to an expelled Jewess.

Several years ago I helped name a newborn for her depart great-grandmother who had been a Shprtintze. The name I suggested was Tikvah, Hebrew for “hope”. For Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope.

Ironic isn’t it–On a desecrated piece of a matzevah, now a profane grindstone, an image which evokes my deepest sadness, there is a name, and that name bears a message: Hope.

Bello comentario. De “Esperanza” a “Shprintza” para, finalmente, quedar en la anglosajona “hope”…Uno de los grandes argumentos históricos que, para mi como español tienen los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica es haberse convertido en la casa de la esperanza actual -desde ya hace tiempo- de los nietos de los que fueron españoles hace siglos. Nuestros queridos sefarditas. Un saludo desde Madrid.

bykov says:

this breaks my heart.

Frustrating how anti-Semitic Poland still is.

Shprinza is the name of the women who’s headstone this was

Really? Do you hear of Jews being currently mistreated in Poland like they are in… say France. No you don’t do you? And did Poland treat it’s Jewish citizens as badly as Germany did? Or did you know that during Nazi occupation, Poland was the only country where the Nazis had to institute a rule that anybody caught hiding Jews, that perpetrator’s ENTIRE family would be executed? And that the Polish Underground would execute any Pole who betrayed a Jew to the Nazi authorities? Do you know why there were so many Jewish people in Poland: because when the Inquisition was burning Jews across Western Europe, Poland accepted them and gave them the freedom to worship as they please. Wow, what a shitting place.

Was there and is there Anti-Semtisim in Poland… Yes there is. Where there horrible things that Poles to their Jewish neighbors – yes, there were. (pogroms) Likewise happened across Europe. Europeans are xenophobic and the Jewish culture was alien within a countriy’s borders. And you have scum bag people everywhere. America is no better as racisim is still rampant here.

Bottom line, what’s truly frustrating is how people living in a successful democracy can be ignorantly judgmental of nation that suffered a world war, than had to suffer fifty years communism. Using gravestones like was done in Poland is shameful, but desperate people do desperate things.

The Poles have been paying for the atrocities they brought about during the Holocaust. To be fair, there were some incredibly brave Polish people who hid Jews from the Germans, but the majority took out their hate and superstitions out on their Jewish neighbors and turned them in so they could appropriate Jewish homes and businesses.
Every time I see Poles riding on horses and buggies (with rubber tires) I get a feeling that justice is being done. Hashem said that we were the apple of his eye, and the grinding poverty of so many Poles is their payback for their mal-deeds.

Again, not all Polish people were guilty, but those who are deserve the worst that God can give them.

For the Catholic church that has zero respect for the Jewish departed, they WILL get theirs. I can understand why the Baptist churches call Catholics the whore of Babylon.

It did not stop at the stones. The bones and skeletons have also been taken away, possibly to be fertilizer. We have said to the residents of Szczekociny we don’t want the houses back, but we do want our cemetery and synagogue restored as dignifying places.

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Matzevot, Poland’s Quarried Gravestones

Photographs by Łukasz Baksik
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