Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lost Wooden Tombstones from Jewish Cemeteries in Eastern Europe

Tomek Wisniewski, the pioneering Jewish heritage expert in Bialystok, Poland, has just published a fascinating article -- with lots of rare pictures -- detailing the lost wooden tombstones from Jewish cemeteries in eastern Europe. The oldest such tombstones date back to the 18th century, he reports -- the photographs he includes, from the World War I period, show evocative views of many such wooden markers, standing side by side with traditional carved and often painted stone mazzevot.

Most of the wooden markers were flat-faced planks. But Tomek includes extraordinary photos of wooden ohels, or shrines, and tombs resembling miniature wooden peak-roofed houses.

Tomek's new book, A History of Lost Jewish Shtetl Cemeteries, will be published in the coming months and will include further information on Jewish wooden grave markers.

In his article, published in the online Jewish Magazine, he writes:

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.

For centuries the Jews erected wooden tombstones. Typically they were to be found in the poorest communities in areas where stone was in short supply. . . . .

Surviving photographs show that wooden tombstones are very similar to each other, being made from long slender wooden planks of oak or pine whose shape is vaguely reminiscent of a primitive human form. The top resembles a head and the remainder offers just the suggestion of the human body. The slender, elongated, wooden tombstone is unique in shape, in minimalist ornamentation and, especially, in the manner of accommodating the inscription to the narrow register. Although association with the human form may be unintentional, the minimalist ornamentation and accommodation of inscription to the narrow register are clearly deliberate.

Read the Full Article, on

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