Tomasz Wiesniewski opens the gate to the Bagnowka Jewish cemetery in Bialystok, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
by Ruth Ellen Gruber
The online "Jewish Magazine" publishes a fascinating article by the scholar Heidi M. Szpek about the epitaphs in the Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Bialystok, Poland.
Called "In the Bloodshed of Their Days," it explores how tombstone epitaphs provide a vivid picture of the people buried there, and thus shed light on the life of the community -- both the good times and the bad.
As I translated each of this cemetery's inscriptions, I read of the character and qualities of the Bialystoker Jews, of "perfect and upright men" and "modest and God-fearing women". On their tombstones are also words of praise for great rabbis, scholars, and charitable women. Old age is recorded as a triumph, especially in the case of an Abraham son of Israel who lived to be 102 years old. What history Abraham must have seen and experienced from 1830 to 1932, the century and more of his life! (Image 2) Occasionally, the lesser qualities of the deceased are remembered, as one father wrote of his daughter: "Her mouth ceased from (its) evil tongue" – she gossiped!
These inscriptions also hold details that were sadly normal to life in a world a century ago in Bialystok, Poland. Inscriptions remember women who died in childbirth, especially in the cold winter months, women who died before they could marry, and a man who barely experienced the joy of fatherhood before his untimely death. And then there are the tombstones of children. Perhaps the most heart wrenching inscription is that of three sons – Chaim Lejb, Shalom Shechna and Israel Abraham, aged eight, six and four, who died in a fire in March of 1908! How did their father, Asher, and their mother endure this loss? Such deaths, though sad, are not unique to Bialystok; they were part of life without the comforts of the contemporary world.
Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
Szpek, a Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Central Washington University (Ellensburg, Washington), is currently writing a book on the Jewish epitaphs from Bialystok. She spent three years translating all the epitaphs in the Bagnowka cemetery, the only Jewish cemetery to remain in Bialystok. Over the years she has worked with Tomasz Wisniewski, who has dedicated the past quarter century to documenting Jewish heritage in eastern Poland and who has been my own guide to Bialystok.
In Bialystok, Poland's Jewish cemetery on Wschodnia Street, the black Memorial Pillar that stands at its center is a blatant visual reminder of hatred vented in the past. The nearly 50 tombstone inscriptions that speak of "the bloodshed of the days" also bear subtle witness to Jewish persecution in the years 1905 onward. But of what value is this knowledge? The answer no doubt depends on the individual. For some people these tombstones might bring awareness that this entire cemetery - not just the tall, black Memorial Pillar – is a memorial to the "bloodshed of the days" in Bialystok's past. For others the knowledge imparted by these inscriptions fosters remembrance of the very personal world of Bialystok Jewry, a world at times gentle and loving, a world at times sad and violent. But for me, in particular, these horrific phrases, combined with a woman's name, a father's name, a child's name, with words of love mixed with words of grief, and a date, remind me of specific incidents in Bialystok's past. Together all these words also remind me that I am not simply translating words cut into stone. Rather as I translate I feel – if only for a moment – a touch of the anguish experienced by those of Bialystok's now 'lost' Jewish community, those perceived as 'the other' by past generations of Russians, Poles and Germans. In this brief moment of my anguish, an indissoluble desire is implanted in my mind and engraved on the tablets of my heart - that past hatred may not bequeath to us a future legacy of hatred and anguish.
The memorial to the 1905 pogrom, Bialystok cemetery. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber