Sunday, November 23, 2008

Eastern Europe: Wooden Jewish tombstones

As I have often mentioned on Tracing the Tribe - The Jewish Genealogy Blog, the online Jewish Magazine offers excellent articles. The November issue has a story by Tomek Wisniewski on wooden tombstones from Eastern European Jewish Cemeteries.

The article is illustrated by photographs from Lokache 1915, Druzhkopola 1916, Kisielin 1917, Pinsk 1918, Wilkomir 1915, Ozdziutycze and Lokacze.

The introduction reads, "Tens of thousands of the most beautiful stone tombstones managed to survive in Poland, but not one single wooden one has been preserved."

With a few exceptions, small-town Jewish cemeteries in Poland 'exist' only on old maps and old photographs. Their rich artistic heritage has been lost, or survives only in fragmentary or merely symbolic form, e.g. walled cemeteries behind whose walls practically nothing is to be found. The most interesting and impressive tombstones (matzevot) have disappeared. They all met the same fate.

The Germans used them to cobble roads and pavements, to reinforce escarpments and clad the beds and banks of rivers. They were used in the construction of flights of stairs and farmers used them as sandstone knife-sharpeners. Despite these years of destruction, tens of thousands of the most beautiful stone tombstones managed to survive in Poland, but not one single wooden one has been preserved.

The author comments that Jews erected wooden markers for centuries and were usually found in the poorest localities where it was hard to find stone. They were ordinary wood, painted with the name and dates. Those with a little more money would carve in the wood the names in Hebrew.

In Polesie and around Pinsk (today Belarus, then Poland before 1939), the Jews lived in wooden houses, prayed in wooden synagogues and wooden tombstones were an old tradition.

Wooden tombstones were also used in Volhynia, Mazowsze and Wielkopolska and by the poorest Jews in larger towns such as Bialystok, Wilno and Lublin. During the First World War wooden tombstones were often erected on the graves of Jewish soldiers of the Austrian army, especially in the Beskid Niski region. During the First World War several hundred wooden Jewish tombstones in the old cemetery in Lublin (founded in 1541) were also used by Russian soldiers for firewood.

The oldest Polish wooden markers date from the 18th century, around Miejsce. The Jewish cemetery there has photographs of markers from 1771-1805, which can be seen in the collection of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt-am-Main.

The oldest carved inscription - February 19, 1771 - reads:

Here lies a brave and honorable woman, Mrs. Chajosen, daughter of the venerable Mr. Alexander, of blessed memory. She died on Tuesday, the fifth day of Adar in the year 5531" (19 February 1771).

Photos are rare traces of these wooden markers; there are fewer than 12 photos dating from before 1939. Following years of research, Wiesniewski writes about his collection:

....[he] managed to acquire several original photographs or postcards of wooden tombstones pre-1939 from Ozdziutycze, £okacze, Droshkopol and Kisielin in Volhynia, as well as of wooden ohels with inscriptions from PiƱsk in Polesie and from Wilkomierz in Lithuania, and just one photograph from Radom, dated 1941, of a wooden matsevah in the ghetto.

He describes the markers:

Wooden Jewish tombstones were usually tall and after some years had passed and the wood had begun to rot, the lower part would be cut off and the tombstone buried deeper in the ground.

According to the article, the same tradition was followed in Christian cemeteries. Eventually, the wooden marker would be removed and replaced by stone.

In existing photos, the markers were similar: long narrow wooden planks of oak or pine with little ornamentation. The narrow wood meant inscriptions and dates were truncated, abbreviated or adjusted in other ways, such as spacing. The author gives very detailed examples of inscriptions.

In the 18th century marker from Miejsce, inscrptions are brief. There are three photos containing 15 legible and almost complete inscriptions (from 1895-1913). In Kiesielin, there are two complete and one partial legible inscription detailed by the author. In Lokacze, there are six readable inscriptions. In Ozdziutycz, there are seven inscriptions in a photo. There are translated inscriptions, such as

"Here lies a modest woman, the married Berkah(?) daughter of R. Szlomo. She died the 13th day in the month of Tevet year 5671 (1911) as the abbreviated era. May her soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life."

Women are described as "modest" or "proper;" men as "perfect" or "perfect and upright." and provide only the essential details such as the name of the person, father's name, death date and the abbreviation of 1 Sam 25:29 which "May his/her soul be bound in the bond of everlasting life." At the top is "peh nun," "here lies." There are no surnames.

Read the detailed complete story at the link above. the photographs are fascinating and are from the author's collection.

A book by the author, "A History of Lost Jewish Shtetl Cemeteries" will be published by Kreator later this year.

1 comment:

  1. SCHELLY, Thanks for presenting such a historically important article and link. I do hope all of your readers will follow the link to the November article --- the photographs are wonderful. Both Jewish and Christian historians need to learn about the style and use of wooden burial markers.

    Of major interest to me are the "spirit houses" shown in Figures 6 and 7 of the article. I've been doing some research into the use of spirit houses in cemeteries of the rural South of the United States --- most of those little houses have all disappeared --- but the tradition of them is European. I was absolutely delighted to see old photographs of spirit houses from Europe. Thanks for this most interesting and sad account of burial customs and man's inhumanity to man.

    Terry Thornton
    Fulton, Mississippi USA