One of the finest funerary monuments in Europe is the tomb of Berek Sonnenberg, also known as Dov Baer Shmulovitch, the son of Shmul Zbytkower (d. 1822), the founder of the Bergsohn family in Warsaw, and ancestor of French philosopher Henri Bergson. The tombstone, situated in Warsaw's Okopowa cemetery, contains two remarkable bas-reliefs created by the Jewish artist David Friedlander. One relief depicts a river and cargo boats that signify the trade of the deceased. The same relief also depicts a walled city with towers, houses, including a synagogue, bet midrash (study house) and windmill. On the horizon is a palace; the palace was a gift to the ancestors of the deceased from the last king of Poland, Stanislaus Augustus, with whom they traded. The district of Warsaw represented was known as Szumulowizna. Prominently displayed is the Jewish cemetery of the district, where Zbytkower is buried.
The other relief on the reverse side of the tomb shows the Tower of Babel and a grove of trees, on whose branches are hung musical instruments, recalling the passage from Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down, we wept, when we remembered Zion."
The Sonnenberg monument was sorely neglected during the post-War years and under Communist rule. The Citizen's Committee for the Protection of Jewish Monuments organized repairs for the structure in the late 1980s. Raising the needed funds (approximately $44,000) was slow, but progress was made. Funds came from the Remembrance Foundation, from the regional conservator of monuments and from a few foreign donors.
Prior to conservation work, the monument was fully documented and photographed and a plan was made for dismantling the structure. Stone and paint samples were taken and analyzed. Then, the structure was dismantled. All the rotting iron and lead elements were removed, and the old crumbling brick foundation was replaced.
The elements were reinforced before cleaning and salt was removed from the stone. Cavities in the stone were filled and missing pieces of stone were replaced. A new reinforced concrete foundation was laid; upon this foundation, the structure was reassembled. Restoration work includes introducing horizontal insulation; joining the elements with brass braces and bolts; filling up the remaining cavities; and installing anchors to hold the wooden roof.
An arsonist's fire, however, further damaged the structure in September 18, 1993, causing the need for further repairs. The fire caused extensive cracking, particularly of the marble. The desk, which carried the inscription, was impossible to repair and had to be replaced. The wooden roof had to be removed. All the stone elements were weakened and needed reinforcement. The stone elements had to be mounted anew, fixing the brass joints once again. An entirely new roof had to be made.
Now, over a decade since work began, and almost six years since the fire, the work is nearing an end. To speed the process, the International Survey of Jewish Monuments has contributed $800 for repairs to the roof in this final phase. Jan Jagielski of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, who has been the force behind the project, says that an additional $2,000 is still needed to complete all the repairs to the monument. Scores of other important monuments await conservation in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.
ISJM gratefully acknowledges support from the US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage abroad for this project.
U.S. tax-deductible donations may be sent to ISJM, 123 Clarke Street, Syracuse, NY 13210. Checks should include the note "Sonnenberg Monument."
International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA
tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (315) 474-2347