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Digging Up the Past in a Jewish Cemetery

In Wroclaw, Poland, the fate of an old graveyard collides with the promise of a new Best Western hotel

Agnieszka Jablonska
March 05, 2018
Photo courtesy Marcin Wodziński
Matzevot at the Breslau Jewish Cemetery on Claassenstrasse, early 20th c.Photo courtesy Marcin Wodziński
Photo courtesy Marcin Wodziński
Matzevot at the Breslau Jewish Cemetery on Claassenstrasse, early 20th c.Photo courtesy Marcin Wodziński

In the Polish city of Wroclaw, a cemetery lies at the center of a question about how to preserve its Jewish cultural heritage.

Before WWII, Wroclaw—then called Breslau, and part of Germany—was home to a diverse and prosperous Jewish community, the third-largest in Germany, with roots dating back eight centuries. More than half of the city’s Jewish population, which stood at over 20,000 in 1933, was decimated during the Holocaust. With the postwar border and population shifts, cultural continuity was disrupted: German Breslau became Polish Wroclaw, and in line with Poland’s Communist policies, the prewar cultural heritage was wiped away or neglected. As a result, the Jewish history of the city vanished from the consciousness of its Polish citizens.

Only a few material examples of Jewish heritage are left in Wroclaw today, including the White Stork Synagogue, several buildings designed by Jewish architects, and two cemeteries. For Poland’s Jewish community, these sites are often the only available memory bridge to the prewar past.

But there was once another Jewish cemetery in Wroclaw, next to the main railway station. Founded in 1761, the Cemetery on Gwarna Street—formerly known in German as Claassenstrasse—operated for almost 100 years and was a burial place for over 4,000 members of the Jewish community of Breslau. Those buried there include the philanthropist Jonas Fränkel, who provided the funds for the city’s influential rabbinical seminary, and the distinguished rabbi and scholar Isaiah ben Judah Loeb Berlin, whose critical commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, called Masoret Ha-Shas, continues to be studied by all Talmudic scholars and is printed to this day in every edition of the Talmud. Other rabbis and scholars buried in the cemetery include Salomon Pappenheim, Abraham Tiktin, and Solomon Tiktin.

In the final months of WWII, the cemetery was destroyed during the siege of the city. Few people remembered the cemetery, which survived only in archival documents and maps.

Apartments, tennis courts, a sports hall, and garages were built on the land in the decades following WWII. Part of the land belongs to the city, while two plots were in the hands of the Polish state—until 2012, when an investor purchased one of the plots from the state. In 2013, the investor demolished the garages, paying for archeological excavations to prepare the lot for resale. Surprisingly, given the abundance of historical records indicating the existence of the cemetery, the property was deemed by the archeologists in 2013 as being “clear” of any remains of a cemetery or other artifacts, making way for an unencumbered sale of the property and the approval of a hotel investment. A buyer who is authorized to run the Best Western hotel brand purchased the land in 2015—a plot that measures 38 x 18 meters, a small fraction of the cemetery’s original dimensions.

In 2017, when work on the hotel began, heavy machinery entered the site, and human remains were unearthed. With that discovery, the results of the 2013 investigations were brought into question. After the intervention of a member of the local Jewish community, a second archeological investigation was launched.

In addition to buttons from German military uniforms and Nazi badges with swastikas—suggesting that the Jewish cemetery had also been used by the Nazis during WWII—the remains of 100 humans were uncovered, along with more than 30 fragments of stone matzevot, and a fragment of a Hebrew text encased in a clump of hard soil. Archaeologists found bones placed into 108 wooden boxes and two sarcophagi, all of which are remains presumably exhumed in either 1908 or 1937 when the Jewish community sold parts of the cemetery to the city. (In 1908, the city used the acquired section of the cemetery to create a thoroughfare leading to the main train station, which in effect divided the cemetery into two parts. In 1937, the remaining plot of land that had been cut off from the main section of the cemetery since 1908 was sold to the city. Historians theorize that at the time, the remains of about 150 individuals were moved to an unused section of the cemetery.)

The story of the sale and contradictory archeological findings received little attention in Polish local and national media. The only comprehensive treatment of the issue was a report published in Midrasz, a Polish-language monthly journal dedicated to Jewish topics in Poland. The article, titled “The Agony of a Cemetery,” was authored by Jerzy Kichler, one of the prominent figures engaged in the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland since 1989; last November, he was elected a member of the Board of the Wroclaw Jewish Community.

Kichler’s article thoroughly described and documented the fate of the Jewish cemetery on Gwarna Street—from its creation in 1761, through its gradual destruction in Nazi Germany and Communist Poland, up until current events at the construction site. Using archival material and quoting first-hand information from the exhumation site, Kichler made the case that the cemetery is an important historical site deserving of protection under the city’s monument preservation program. Kichler concluded that this commemoration of the cemetery should be done in line with the existing urban plan of Wroclaw created for this area in 2000, where green landscape and small architectural elements, such as a lapidarium, would restore the memory of the Jewish heritage in this place.

The regional monument preservation office halted construction works in 2017, allowing archeologists to do their work. However, since then, government authorities at all levels have shown little concern about the outcomes of the excavations. The city reportedly maintains the land was purchased legally and has not revoked the construction permit. Nor does the city seem concerned with the fate of the site. This from the 2016 European Capital of Culture, a city that has built its post-1989 reputation on the recognition of the importance of its multicultural heritage to shaping civic identity. The problem is not new in Wroclaw, and it keeps coming back in Poland and elsewhere in Europe, as different Jewish graveyards (most recently in Siemiatycze, Poland, and Vilnius, Lithuania) are being transformed into investment lots instead of being honored and protected for future generations. Another piece of Wroclaw’s Jewish heritage is gone. The eight-century-long presence of Jewish life in the city continues to be easily obliterated from the map and the historic collective memory of its citizens.

Jewish Breslau was an important part of European Jewish civilization, and its 18th-century cemetery remains a unique trace of Jewish life in this part of Europe. The Gwarna Street Cemetery encapsulates European memory and tragedies that this part of the world is still working through. A more honest and open discussion is needed around the questions of why it is important to keep historical Jewish cemeteries in Europe, and whose responsibility it is to maintain them.

An artifact found during a 2017 excavation at Wrocław cemetery. (Photo: Jerzy Kichler/courtesy of Jerzy Kichler)
An artifact found during a 2017 excavation at Wrocław cemetery. (Photo: Jerzy Kichler/courtesy of Jerzy Kichler)

The Hebrew verse found during excavations was identified—by Wojciech Tworek, in the University of Wroclaw’s Jewish Studies Department—as part of the Kina, a lamentation prayer for Tisha B’Av, the Jewish holiday commemorating the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temple of Jerusalem: “Their mouths gaped wider than the wellsprings of the netherworld. / They engulfed me with harsh reproof! / Panic and pitfalls!

The words preserved in the ground have a profound meaning given the circumstances in which they were uncovered. The Jewish community has not yet made a public statement on the matter and itself has yet to determine where the remains removed during the most recent excavations will find their final resting place. The city, too, remains silent.


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Agnieszka Jablonska is a young Judaic scholar working on her degree at the University of Wroclaw, Poland.

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