Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. II, Nos. 1-2 / Spring-Summer 1998
First Person: Tomasz Wisniewski
 
 
First Person: Cemeteries Outside Cemeteries by Tomasz Wisniewski
 
The first time I encountered Jewish tombstones, I was outside a cemetery in Siemiatycze.  At the time, maybe 15 years ago, the Jewish cemetery area was empty, with the exception of a memorial tomb built after the Second World War and a huge, strong stone wall around the cemetery with a huge stone gate.  Opposite the gate I noted a simple barn.  It was built of wood, but for a foundation, the builder had used Jewish tombstones -- surely from the nearby cemetery!  Was he anti-Semitic?  No.  He just saw a few remaining stones and used them.  Other people also used tombstones, especially those of sandstone, which were useful for sharpening knives.  But this was just simply stone, so he used it for the foundation of his barn.  Was he naïve? Stupid? Or just pragmatic?

When I was next in Siemiatycze, I was much "luckier" and found a few more tombstones, again, surely from the cemetery.  Near the school, there stood a wooden building, slightly raised off the ground.  Up to this building ran large, stone stairs.  These big steps were tombstones... We (my wife and my friend, Miroslaw Leszczak) took the steps apart, cleaned the stones and photographed them.  Then we rebuilt stairs.  It was a good idea at the time.  By replacing the stones, they would remain safe and intact.

Many years ago, when the famous Bialystoker professor of medicine, Witold Slawinski, died, he was buried in a small Catholic cemetery in Suprasl (in the former Evangelical section).  On a very simple tombstone, his family had placed an iron plaque with an inscription.  This stone was also from the Jewish Cemetery.  If the stone is examined carefully, it becomes possible to see Hebrew letters on the stone, on its front side.  Were was this stone from?  From which cemetery?

A narrow road leads from Bialystok to the small nearby village of Nowodworce.  The center of village is paved with stones--many of them are parts of tombstones.  Everywhere!  There are perhaps fifty pieces of former Jewish tombstones.  The story of this "cemetery" was told to me by Mieczyslaw Bronowski.  He remembers how, during the war, Nazis destroyed the Jewish Cemetery in Bialystok and used tombstones to build many roads.  Many such roads disappeared, covered with asphalt.

In the very small village of Skrybicze near Zabludow there lived a very old man, deaf in both ears.  Near his house was clutter, everywhere.  And suddenly, amidst the muddle, I saw a Jewish tombstone.  I tried to start a conversation, but he was deaf.  All that I was able to glean from him is that the tombstone was used by his father to build the barn.  It was done after the war.  But the barn burnt and then the tombstone became a step. "It was a very good step," said the man.  But it was damaged and split into two pieces.  From then on, they used it to sharpen knives.
In Topczewo, during the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a small Jewish Community which disappeared at the beginning of the 19th  century.  Today, it is a small, silent village on the way from Bialystok to Bransk.

I was really shocked when my friend showed me the local Christian Cemetery.  In the center, I found a tomb with a cross -- made from Jewish Matsevoth.  On one tombstone, you could easily read the inscriptions in both Polish and Hebrew!  From the Polish text on the stone, we know that S. Kazimierz died in 1944.  Under what circumstances?  In what situation?  What happened?  Why did people from his family in 1944 use a Jewish tombstone?
 

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