By Michael Meagher, Boston University
What does it mean for a cemetery to be brought back to life? A visit to Auschwitz’s Jewish cemetery allows for remembrance of the world the Holocaust destroyed.
The small Polish town of Oświęcim is located an hour to the west of Kraków. More commonly known by the German name ‘Auschwitz’, this half-Jewish hamlet was home to a community of approximately 5,000 Jews before the Nazis constructed their most infamous death camp here. Before the Holocaust, Jews called this town ‘Oshpitzin’, a Yiddish name deriving from the Aramaic word for ‘visitors’ or ‘guests’. The Jews of Oshpitzin lived quiet and prosperous lives, particularly for nineteenth-century Poland. The town once provided for all of the essentials of Jewish life with a synagogue, a kosher butcher, a distillery, and of course, a cemetery.
The Jewish cemetery in Oshpitzin sits at the edge of the town, across from a shopping center and a Communist-era apartment block. The Jewish cemetery once extended into the land these buildings occupy as well, but after having been razed by the Nazis it now consists of a small gated enclave encircled by ivy-robed trees. After the war, the headstones that remained intact were brought back to the cemetery plot, replanted into the ground at random, as their original locations have been lost to memory. Broken or partial headstones were gathered to cover the faces of two stone monoliths that jut upward from the overgrown grass.
The density of vegetation in the cemetery belies its novelty, as do the worn, moss-streaked faces of the matzevoth that obscure their engraved text. Any paths in the cemetery are worn haphazardly; each stone sinks into the ground up to a different height and leans at a different angle. These details combine to create the impression of a cemetery that has abided the centuries, not a post-war recreation of a destroyed world.
It is springtime in Poland, warm and watery. Mushrooms, snails, and climbing vines are abundant, and the concentration of grave markers and plant life makes this resting place for the dead feel full of a kind of life that is no less tangible for its distance from our own. There are two ohels, small mausoleums for rabbis, spaced at opposite ends of the dark green expanse.
A German bunker obscured by an overgrown mound stands in the far corner, meant to provide the Nazi guards from the adjacent factory with protection from an aerial bombardment that never came. Stairs lead down into a series of cold concrete rooms beneath the graves above. In this location, the remnants of Third Reich’s military conquest of the area blend into the landscape and seem almost pastoral as well.
Surrounded by trees, the cemetery is flooded with a green glow from the ivy that obscures their tall trunks and thick branches. Birds chirp quietly, insects whirl, and the heavy stone walls deaden the noise of the nearby road. There is a strange, dark beauty to this cemetery, an otherworldly quality that its tragic history augments. It is fitting for the dead to rest in such a place, an unfamiliar but peaceful locale whose calm conceals its traumatic severance from the past.
In its present incarnation, the cemetery may resemble its pre-war state, but its function and significance have changed enormously. There are no more Jews to bury in Oświęcim; the last, an elderly man who returned home after surviving his internment in Bergen-Belsen, died several years ago. His is the only headstone in a cemetery of thousands that accurately attests to the identity of the deceased lying beneath it.
It is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which another person would be laid to rest here. The Jewish cemetery in Oświęcim is in a sense a dead cemetery, a dismembered resting place whose remaining pieces were cobbled together to reconstruct a version as little bastardized as possible after the bloody amputation of its community.
This reconstruction, artificial as it is, nonetheless provides the Jewish dead of the Holocaust with a dignity and a legacy that are not available in the mass graves of Auschwitz-Birkenau. While many thousands of visitors will rightfully come year after year to the death camps and their associated museums, few see this quiet corner of a town where Jewish life once blossomed. Viewing the anonymous mass graves of the victims of the Holocaust is crucial for understanding the enormity of the evil that occurred here, but seeing this cemetery restored as best as it could be makes the devastating destruction of community throughout Europe concrete, intimate, and understandable in human terms.
Cemeteries such as the one in Oświęcim are some of last remnants of thousands of similarly small centers of Jewish life across the continent. Seeing the horror of the camps shows visitors the outcome of the evils the Nazis perpetuated. The tranquil, verdant cemetery just outside its boundaries opens an all-too-rare window into what existed before, and what was lost.
This post is part of series of articles written by participants on our “We Will Write Our History” writing seminar in Auschwitz. Learn more at http://togetherrestoring.com/writehistory