The Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

Words and Photography by Pete Heck
The entrance to the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw is not lavishly marked or easy to find. A simple, solid black iron door gates the high brick walls – it looks like nothing more than the passage to a house – but I gently pushed it open and found my way in. Before me were over 250,000 gravestones, numerous mass graves from the Second World War, and memorials dedicated to those who fought or perished through the years of terror.

I immediately felt alone. The sounds of Warsaw disappeared and I silently walked slowly through the rows and rows of graves. Headstones lay shattered and knocked over. Grass and moss had overcome others.

There was no order. I had to be ever so delicate in where I was stepping.

I wandered in areas where it was clear that others had not for quite some time.

Jewish Cemetery

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The cemetery opened in 1806 and countless Jews had since been buried there, but during the second world war the cemetery suffered. The Germans used it as a place for executions and mass burials of victims from the Warsaw ghetto. The cemetery was (and is again) fully walled, it had sustained extensive damage when the Germans decided to bomb all of the surrounding buildings after the Jewish Uprising. All that remained after the war were a few portions of the wall. Tombstones were overturned, skulls and skeletons were exposed and the cemetery was closed.

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Jewish Cemetery

I wandered in areas where it was clear that others had not for quite some time. Stinging nettle had grown in spots over three feet tall and pricked my legs through my pants. The small Jewish community left in Warsaw are trying to diligently preserve and protect it, but the space is massive and time and money are limited.

The Nazis destroyed all documents connected to the cemetery. The only records of who actually resides within are from the headstones themselves.

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Upon leaving the cemetery I came across a memorial for Janusz Korczak. Nicknamed the “King of the Children” he was known for the brave walk with 200 orphans through the ghetto to the deportation trains en route to the Treblinka death camp. He had been offered sanctuary by the Germans but refused to leave the children under his charge.

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His poignant words rang true not only of his own life, but of all in the ghetto, in Europe, in the world.

And still. Lest we forget.

0 Comments... Be the first to comment
  • July 24 2013

    Absolutely stunning photos and a post that chilled me to the bone. This has got to be one of the most moving photo essays I have seen in a long time. Thank you!

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      Thank you Jackie. It was a pretty difficult and moving post for me to create. Your comment is greatly appreciated.

  • July 24 2013

    An absolutely riveting post in stunning word and haunting image.

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      Thank you Betsy. It was very difficult post, both to write and shoot.

  • July 24 2013

    Beautiful images. I am surprised the city doesn’t do more upkeep of the cemetery. I visited the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, which has a similar feeling (crowded headstones and the images on the headstones).

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      They are definitely making an effort to upkeep it. There were a couple of grounds crew personnel there when I was there, but I went so far in that there wasn’t another soul around. It will take years and years and of course money to clean it up completely.

  • Judy Coates
    July 24 2013

    Beautiful! the world has yet to learn the lessons from the past.

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      Thanks Judy.

  • Mariella (Bridgekeeping Traveller)
    July 24 2013

    Gorgeous pictures, Pete – and wonderful words. Did you know it would have been Janusz Korczak’s birthday two days ago? I read in his Memoires today. What an incredible man…

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      I did not know, but thank you for letting me know. An incredible human being indeed.

  • Lori
    July 24 2013

    My 17 year old son was there last year with the International March of the Living. He and his group did their best to clean up the cemetary. They also marched down the train tracks with thousands of other high schoolers from all over the world, from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Your photos brought me goosebumps and tears.

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      Hi Lori, we have a post of our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau coming up in the next couple weeks. These were both very difficult for us to write and photograph.

  • Mom
    July 24 2013

    The images on those headstones are haunting. The emotional pain……….

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      Yes for sure Kay, it was a difficult visit.

  • Ele
    July 25 2013

    I accidentally discovered them while browsing through some city promotional material when I went to Lazienki. I saw that the same bus I’m on goes to this cemetery and I decided to use the opportunity. Quite away from central location but tons of Jewish kids with guitars singing at the graves. A bit odd, if you ask me.
    Ele recently posted..Kūtvėla kieminėja po Vilniaus universiteto ansamblį arba Dėl visko kalti Radvilos.

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      That is odd for sure, I never saw any guitar players. I am so glad that I had the chance to visit.

  • July 25 2013

    Goosebumps. Thank you for sharing.

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      You’re welcome Kirsten. I still get goosebumps thinking back to my visit, so very emotional.

  • July 25 2013

    What a depressing yet must-visit place. Thanks for sharing

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      Yes, it was one of the places in Warsaw that I really wanted to visit and photograph. It wasn’t easy, but I’m so glad that I was able to go.

  • Beautiful pictures but very haunting.

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      Thanks Bethaney. I am lucky that I was able to experience a place such as this, but like you say a bit haunting. I’ll never forget the day.

  • July 26 2013

    Haunting images. It must have been a very powerful place to visit.
    Alex recently posted..The Coney Island Mermaid Parade

    • Pete
      July 26 2013

      Yes, it was very powerful. I remembered going in and preparing myself to be emotionally numb, and afterward the emotion hit me pretty hard.

  • July 26 2013

    Moving post and photos. The stories about the Nazis using the cemetery for executions and destroying the records gave me chills. So fitting that there is a memorial for Janusz Korczak, a person I didn’t know about until reading this.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Cruising the Mediterranean: History Amidst the Bustle of Italy

  • Iain Mallory
    July 26 2013

    Powerful images and the narrative compliments them perfectly. A moving and thought provoking post, I’m really sorry that I didn’t get the opportunity to visit here when I was in Warsaw.

    The people resting here deserve some peace and the dignity of some maintenance of their final place of rest. Though maybe in some ways it’s unkempt appearance further underlines the travesty of the holocaust. Thank you for sharing their story.

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    July 27 2013

    Great photos, Pete. I always really love it when photographers can take somber subject matter and show the inherent beauty that still lies within them. From your own photos, it seems like the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw is very peaceful but also a very powerful place!

  • Beth of Besudesu Abroad
    July 27 2013

    That looks like a hauntingly, beautiful cemetery. I love how you captured it!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Haunting photos Pete — just haunting.
    Raymond @ Man On The Lam recently posted..Black Sands & Blow Holes (and just how do you pronounce Wai’anapanapa anyway?)

  • July 27 2013

    Wow. A very moving set of photos. I never cease to be interested in places like this. Maybe I’m a bit morbid?

  • July 28 2013

    These photos are haunting but beautiful. I really enjoyed reading this. Very moving.

  • Ali
    July 30 2013

    So sad! It still shocks me to hear of all the horror the Nazis caused.
    Ali recently posted..How to Plan Your Own Tour

  • July 30 2013

    Wow. Heavy guys. I do love visiting cemeteries, even if they are a bit hard to swallow. There is just so much there to discover – and you get an “in” to the culture you are visiting.

  • July 31 2013

    Beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing this. It is so important that we never forget.

  • August 2 2013

    An absolutely captivating and moving post. It must have been not easy to do and so I really appreciate you for sharing this. It’s true, humanity can learn a lot from history and that we must never forget.

  • Beautiful images that connect so well with the feeling of solitude you describe experiencing. It seems so peaceful now, despite it’s present state of disrepair and haunting history.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..Top 5 Thailand National Parks

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