Saturday, January 3, 2009

Poland: Close-up View of Monument and Matzevot at Kazimierz Dolny

Poland: Close-up View of Monument and Matzevot at Kazimierz Dolny
by Samuel D. Gruber

It has been 18 years since I first visited the New Cemetery at Kazimierz Dolny and marveled at the power and beauty of the giant monument which sits on the hillside in front of what remains of the cemetery proper, with its small number of still in situ matzevot. Returning to the site after many years this fall, I was happy and amazed to find the power and pathos of the site undiminished. Despite my having visited scores of Jewish cemeteries in the meantime, and seen dozens of Holocaust monuments (and even helped design a few), this site still resonates strongly with me.

The enormous monument - which is a kind of giant vertical lapidarium 25 meters long and 3 meters high and holding 600 fragments of Jewish gravestones - was erected in 1983-85 on the design of Polish architect Tadeusz Augustynek. I will not describe the entire project, as I have done so before, and James Young treats the monument at length in his now classic work The Texture of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 199 - 203. It is enough to say that Augustynek created a giant matzevah (gravestone), with terrible crack or rift on one side, indicating the break in Jewish life, Jewish history, and the very broken nature of the Jewish cemetery and its gravestones, too. The stones used in the monument were all excavated from pavements laid during the German occupation40 years earlier. It is said that Polish workmen defied orders and placed the stones face down to protect their inscriptions. Certainly when they were dug up, the inscriptions and carved reliefs of Jewish symbols remained very clear, and some stones even retained traces of color from the original polychrome painting on the limestone.

On this recent visit, I was able to take the time to examine the individual stones. There is a limited range of symbolic compositions. For women it was common to show Sabbath candles and a hand giving charity (tzedakah). For men, there was an open bookcase indicating scholarship and piety. There are also more unusual designs, such as a dove beneath a crown. I assume, after all these years, that these epitaphs have been transcribed and translated. I will try to find out for sure. If not, my photos are clear enough to allow volunteers to do this work now.

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