I left this city in 1935 and returned for the first time only 58 years later. On another visit, in October 1995, I went to the Jewish cemetery in Tomaszow, took some pictures, refreshed some old memories, and was told that only a few days earlier, two Israelis, originally from Tomaszow, who had spent some weeks there, had left.
Only after Benjamin Yaari's visit in my home in Rehovot a few days ago, did I realize that it was he and his uncle Szlomo Birenstock, who had done the painstaking, deeply moving and so important work, which is before us in this book. My profound respect and congratulations to Benjamin Yaari for his initiative, his perseverance and this most successful result of his efforts. let it serve as a link between the past - the ancestors who have disappeared - and the future generations who may be interested to learn something about the origins of their families.
During the summer of 1994, I visited ,my home town of Tomaszow-Mazowiecki for two days. I roamed the streets, stopping near the houses where my family, my school friends and friends from the youth movement used to live. I recalled memories and silently spoke to the walls of the houses; although they did not answer back, I felt peace. during the afternoon of the second day, I went to the Jewish cemetery. I was told that my grandmother's headstone was there.
The gate of the Jewish cemetery was closed and so I passed through the Catholic cemetery. I looked at the gleaming white headstones, noting the plenitude of flowers and visitors, diligently gardening and keeping the area clean. Upon entering the Jewish cemetery, I was stunned: the place looked like a jungle. The headstones were thick with weeds, fungus, layers of dust and black rot. Weeds and bushes prevented free access to the headstones. I tried to discover the names written on the headstones, with no success. The embarrassing situation was very depressing and I decided to seek ways to change it.
Upon returning home, I reported on the status of the cemetery to my friends, members of the Israeli Organization of Ex Tomaszow Mazowiecki Residents in Israel. I filed ideas and work plans to treat the headstones. At the general Assembly of the Tomaszow Organization in November 1994, the operational scheme was worked out and approved and at the end of that year I presented it before the Organizational committee in new York. the plan was received with enthusiasm. We went to work. At the end of January 1995, we sent a letter to the Tomaszow-Mazowiecki municipality, stating our intention to send a team to restore the Jewish cemetery in their town. We asked the municipality for a map of the cemetery and to arrange for a water supply to be available at the site. At the same time, we looked for ways to perform the job. We were assisted with knowledge from the museum in Jerusalem, form chemical engineers, and from excavators experienced in working at ancient sites and in old cemeteries. After four months, during which no reply had been received from the Tomaszow municipality, we approached the Embassy of Poland in Tel Aviv to ask for their help. The First secretary of the embassy of Poland sent a letter on our behalf and soon after he received a reply from the mayor.
At that time, the Town Secretary mailed me an encouraging letter, supporting our idea of restoring the Jewish cemetery. Enclosed with the letter was a map of the immediate vicinity. As for our request regarding a water supply, the reply was that there was no water pipeline to the Jewish cemetery. The municipality did not have funds in the budget to cover laying such a pipe. We tried to make contact with the Catholic Church in Tomaszow, knowing that their cemetery was in close proximity to ours and had running water. Through Father Nicholas Angernard of the Dormitian Monastery in Jerusalem, we managed to contact Mr. Andrzej Krafft, a Catholic priest and a Pole living in Wurzburg, Germany, who had personal contacts in Tomaszow. Mr Krafft presented our case before the Church in Tomaszow and informed us of their positive response.
Upon our arrival in Tomaszow, we contacted the dean, Father Grad. I was welcomed with greetings and directed to Mr. Kowlinski, the priest in charge of the Catholic cemetery in Tomaszow. We set out for a meeting with Mr. Kowlinski in the Catholic cemetery where we were presented before the local management and assured of their generous help with every request we would make for assistance, especially in receiving a water supply. We purchased 90 meters of plastic [pipe and the water flowed.
During the second week of our stay in Tomaszow, we met the Town Secretary. We stayed in touch with him throughout our visit, and his response was encouraging. On his initiative, the municipality sent workers with materials to close up a large hole in the cemetery wall. The municipality fixed a sign on the cemetery's main gate, explaining the entrance arrangements. the Secretary also informed us of actions taken in the two schools next to the cemetery to teach the children to be respectful of the cemetery and to prevent them from using the cemetery for unsuitable activities such as football.
On September 15. 1995, we, Shlomo Birenstock and I set out for Poland. We took
work plans, cleaning chemicals including the substance used to clean the
Western Wall in Jerusalem, tools, measuring instruments, and photographic
equipment with us.
That afternoon, we went directly from the Warsaw airport to Tomaszow. we were guests of the Trocha family who received us warmly and with friendship. The ties with the Trocha family begun by Beate Kosmala, who had stayed there occasionally over the last three years. Mrs. Kosmala, a historian from Berlin, studies the relationship among the Polish, German and Jewish populations in Tomaszow between the First and Second World Wars. In order to learn about Jewish leg of this triangle (and since there are no Jews remaining in Tomaszow), Mrs. Kosmala came to Israel three years ago and met with Jewish Israeli citizens who are former residents of Tomaszow. When Mrs. Beate heard of our plans to go to Tomaszow and restore the Jewish cemetery there, she became interested in participating in the project. And so it was that on September 15, 1995, upon our arrival from israel, Mrs. Kosmala came in from Berlin and joined us in the restoration. We were fortunate to hire diligent workers who assisted us in our efforts to uncover headstones which were buried in the ground. After a few days of work, they became true partners in our search, making a serious effort to try and find headstones hidden in the ground. In the plan presented to the general assembly of the Organization in Israel, in November of 1994, we spoke of about 250 headstones remaining in the Jewish cemetery in Tomaszow. The aim was to decode and record details of as many of them as possible. after a month's work, we had discovered more than 2,000 headstones, and we succeeded in recording the family names of half of them (which was the prerequisite for recording), as well as other personal details. In addition to names and dates, we were able to copy epitaphs, and prayers, which were inscribed on the headstones. We were deeply moved by the inscribed symbols, such as candle holders, animals and birds which ornamented most of the headstones.
From time to time, Shlomo shouted, which meant he had discovered a familiar name on a headstone. There were many emotional moments in this work. In the first couple of weeks, Mr. Yerzy Wonilowicz, a local teacher, worked in the cemetery too.
Mr Wonilowicz studies the German occupation in Tomaszow and has corresponded for several years with our friend Moshe Weisberg.
On the second day of work, a young man named Michal Rzeznik accompanied him. He is a student who is learning Yiddish and Hebrew from a dictionary. Both worked with us during these two weeks (until September 1st when they returned to school), with interest and dedication.
We split into two teams. Mr. Birenstock headed a group which cut free access, with saws and axes, to the headstones, and lifted them out from the ground with iron bars. The second team included Mrs. Kosmala, the historian, Mr. Wolinowicz, the teacher, Michal, and Benjamin. This group worked in cleaning the headstones and copying their inscriptions. we discovered marvelous things, in both beauty and content.
We were interviewed by a local newspaper in Tomaszow, which printed the interview under the heading :The Tomaszowians from Israel". The article told the story of the Jews who came from Israel to restore their cemetery in Tomaszow, and about the activities of the world-wide ex-Tomaszow Jewish Organization. A few people interested in the subject came to visit us, as a result of the article.
At the end of our stay in Tomaszow, we gathered in the lounge of the Hotel Mazowsze on Antogonigo St. Present were the workers and supporters of the project, including the Town Secretary, two priests, the manager of the Catholic cemetery and journalists from two local newspapers. There were greetings from both groups, including warm words by the Town Secretary and questions from the press.
"Why did you come to take care of the cemetery 53 years after the Jewish community was wiped out?" one reporter asked us. Our reply was that during the first few years after leaving Poland the Holocaust refugees busied themselves with rehabilitation, self-healing, getting accustomed to a new place, learning professions, establishing themselves economically, making families and having children. We in Israel were also busy defending our existence and consolidating our old-new motherland. Only lately, upon retirement, do we have the time for a project such as the once we carried out in the cemetery on Tomaszow. Our aim is to preserve the past and hand it over to the next generation, reinstating the honor of the community forefathers. We went our separate ways with wishes of peace and serenity in a spirit of continued cooperation.
The cemetery is laid out in the shape of the Hebrew letter "R". The main gate is located on General Gerta Robyatcky Street, between houses number 39 and 43. From the southernmost point to the northernmost point, which borders the Catholic cemetery, the length of the cemetery is 21 meters, and the width is 64 meters. The length of the upper segment, which is parallel to the Catholic cemetery is 236 meters. The width (parallel to Stoma Street) is 74 meters. according to these measurements, the total area of the cemetery is 2.64 hectares (26.4 dunams).
First we marked the rows: row 1 is adjacent to the eastern wall, and the remaining rows were numbered until row 20, which is adjacent to the western wall. Rows beginning with the number 21 are in the upper part of the cemetery. We added three more digits to each headstone, beginning in the south and moving northward. Thus, we arrived at a 5-digit identification number for each headstone. We wrote each number on its headstone with a waterproof felt-tipped pen. This is the number which is written in the left column of our list of headstones.
There are six columns on the list, as follows:
column 1: Family names and first names column 2: Father's name column 3: Husband's name (Wife of...) column 4: Year of death column 5: Four signs:The sign *= the prayer "God. full of mercy". (we counted 28 headstones with this sign).
The sign ** = epitaphs or words of praise are written
The sign # = a photo of the headstone is in our possession.
The sign @ = a slide of the headstone is in our possession.
column 6: The identification number of the headstones, marked by us.
We found a pile of headstones to the right of the main entrance. These are headstones which were removed from the cemetery by the Germans to be used as paving stones for parking lots for trucks in different places in the town. after the war, the municipality returned a few headstones from the pile and tried to decipher their inscriptions. We were only partially successful: it seams that the trucks movement over the headstones erased most of the inscriptions. Those which we were able to decipher we recorded and gave the number 90 as the first two digits of the identification number.
All the headstones face east, with the exception of the headstones in rows 12a, 12b and 12c, which face west. These rows are located in the upper part of the cemetery, which is the continuation of the boulevard that ends where the cemetery becomes larger.
There is a building in the cemetery that used to serve as the residence of the Jewish grave digger, and nearby there is a smaller building, which used to be the purification room. Today, the purification room serves as a chicken coop, and the residence is occupied by an old, poor, sick, friendly couple. The man told us about his long-lasting friendship with the manager and the grave digger of the Jewish cemetery, whom he names Achil Eisenman. With grief, he told us that two uniformed Germans came to the cemetery one day and shot Eisenman to death, near the residence. he also told us that Eisenman is buried near the first boulevard.
On the base of a few headstones, we found "self-advertising" for headstone carvers: Goldberg, 44 Warszawka Street, Tomaszow. Baczinski, 19 Legiegiem Street, Tomaszow. Z.H. Lebenburg , 33 Litewska Street, Piotrkow C Satat 30 Zagerger Street, Lodz.
We took hundreds of pictures and slides in the cemetery. On the list we marked headstones whose pictures or slides are in our possession. We are willing to provide copies of the pictures at the families' request. We would be happy to answer questions about the cemetery or the headstones. it is possible to contact the Organization's office, at 158 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv, or the head of the Organization, Benjamin Yaari, 6 Dror Street, Holon 58801, tel.: 03-5505432.
It is pleasant duty for us to thank the many good people who helped in the planning, preparation and execution of the project at the cemetery in Tomaszow, and to the generous people who helped and supported the creation of this book. May they all be blessed.
I remembered with nostalgia the lively Jewish presence in this region, and the pictures from the past. we arrived in Tomaszow, and went to the house where we stayed on Szkolna Street. Nearby, there is Polna Street, where in number 24 was my "Talmud Torah." The voices of the Jewish children who studied I could not hear. I soon awoke from my daydreams: no sign from the past remained, no Jews, and nothing to remind me of my past.
Our target in this journey was to find headstones in the Jewish cemetery, and to expose, record and photograph them in order to preserve them and create a memorial to the glorious Jewish community that lived in our city for many years, until 50 years ago, when the Nazis destroyed Judaism in Poland, including our community.
Upon arrival, in Tomaszow, Benjamin and I with Mrs. Kosmola, who came from Germany to help, and a few of the local people, discussed the work plan we made in Israel, and requested the workers to begin to work following morning.
The cemetery was badly neglected. Most of the headstones were uprooted, and some of them were upside down with the inscriptions facing the ground. Some headstones were smashed and broken, especially those of marble, which had been uprooted. Most of them were full of lichens and it was difficult to decipher the inscriptions. the cemetery's fence was broken and the local kids played football in the western part, which was, for the most part, empty of headstones.
Approaching the headstones was difficult. Thistles, bushes and weeds prevented access, and in some places, there had accumulated garbage and dirt, left by other people who gathered in this place for different reasons. A total disaster, there is no forgiveness for what had been done to the living and to the dead. There was a great difference between the Jewish cemetery and its neighbor, the catholic cemetery, because the later has been well cared for and is clean and blooming.
The work was very hard: the heavy headstones had to be turned over and cleaned in order to be able to read their inscriptions, access to the headstones had to be cleared and weeds and bushes had to be pulled out. From dawn to dusk, the entire team, including the local people, worked with devotion, willingness and enthusiasm.
We discovered beautiful headstones which were delicately carved with flowers, coronas, candle holders, charity boxes, blessing hands, the six books of Mishna, the five books of the Torah, and engravings in different styles. Most of the headstones are inscribed in Hebrew, beautifully carved, and some headstones were also inscribed in Polish.
It appears that the headstone carvers were artists who infused their work with soul and love. We knew that it was our duty to do the job for posterity , so that people will know and remember the history of our city. We shall not forget our families, friends, neighbors and the entire community, of whom this is the last sign remaining in the region, and to perpetuate their memory for eternity. May their souls be bound in the bundle of life.
The city itself has changed a great deal, from my point of view: many houses have vanished, the spaces have grown larger. The city is vastly different from the picture in my mind: kerosene vendors are no longer seen in the streets, no more horse-drawn carriages, there are traffic lights, cars and neon signs.
People are dressed nicely, the city streets are clean, there is much greenery, beautiful public gardens, the sun is shining, but there are no Jews in the city, there is no memory of the rich Jewish life that used to be here. A period of history has come to an end, the circle of Jewish life in Tomaszow has closed in the great disaster the Holocaust, the total and brutal destruction.
At the conclusion of the job, which took exactly one month, we met with reporters from the local newspapers, the secretary of the city, priests from the catholic Church, and the people who worked with us faithfully and gave us so much support, and we thanked all for their help. we were glad when we received the promise that in the future, the Jewish cemetery will be cared for and preserved by the municipality.
The memories of the past continue to strike, and the heart refuses to believe that this is how it all ended.
The Jewish life in the city where we were born and raised has ended. we hope for a better future, a future without wars of Holocaust.
With the establishment of an independent Poland after the end of the First World War, conditions were radically altered. Poles found themselves living in their own state, and the Jews and Germans became Polish citizens enjoying autonomous cultural privileges which were granted to them by virtue of the agreement establishing the state. This resulted in many disputes and quarrels between the two World Wars.
In the First World War Germany conquered the region, plundered the factories, and the economy was paralyzed. following the war restoration of the textile industry was hampered by difficulties in marketing because of loss of the Russian markets. Despite the efforts of the Jewish and German industrialists, Tomaszow remained between the two World Wars, one of the three Polish cities with the highest unemployment rate in the state. In 1930 the population was comprised of 27% Jews, 9% Germans and 63% Poles.
How did the inhabitants live under such difficult conditions? what were the relations among them? the Jewish writer Zusman Segalowicz, who visited the city in July 1936, expressed his impressions as follows: "...an original city, indeed, in which chimneys of the factories are surrounded by green trees". he went on to say that the relations among the three nations living in the city appeared to be more sociable and friendly than in other places ("Tomaszow". Ilustrowany Miesiecznik, July 1936). As opposed to this, in a different article, another Jewish writer of Tomaszow wrote that the anti-Semitic poisonous incitement was slowly attacking the inhabitants of the city.
Tomaszow, which witnessed a great deal of perversity throughout its history, much suffering and little prosperity, lost its cultural uniqueness forever during the second World war as a result of the destructive Nazi occupation policy. The terror regime imposed by the nazis brought about great suffering and loss to the Polish population. Nearly all the Jewish population was destroyed in Treblinka. The German inhabitants fled to the West in January 1940. Those who did not escape in time left later on, usually after having been imprisoned in the camps, and settled in Germany. Only a small number of Jews survived the death camps. Some of them were freed from various camps in Germany, others escaped to the USSR and survived, while still others survived by adopting a false identity in Poland, Riga, or in other places. If they returned to the city after the war, it was for a short while only. For many, atmosphere of hate towards them' especially after the pogrom in Kielce in July 1946, and they too left. Jews from Tomaszow can be found today in israel, the U.S.A, Australia, Canada, France and other places.
What can a historian' whose object is to study the relations among people in Poland between the two World wars, find today in a city like Tomaszow, which previously had a mixed population? Do any meaningful tracks remain today of the inhabitants who lived there at that time, and who are no longer there' inhabitants who influenced the development and history of the city? At first glance' one can find very few tracks' indeed. On closer examination' however' one can identify buildings and places' which are proof of the existence of Jews and German Protestants here in the past.
One can still find here private homes that previously belonged to Jewish and German industrialists who resided next to each other close to the old factories with the tall chimneys. similarly' the German school "Mikolj-Rej=Volksschule" still stands in Tkacka Street opposite the Jewish bath house and Mikvah used today as market place. Also, remains of the Jewish high school can still be seen in Pilsudski Street.
Clear evidence of Protestants; life here are the two Evangelical churches: the smaller and older church is in Kosciuszko Platz and the larger one, a brown brick edifice built in 1903, which serves as a church for the small Polish Evangelical community, is located in Antoniego street and called Erloser Kirche. The tombstones of the evangelical church bear names of important local personalities.
Nothing remains of the great synagogue of Tomaszow, which was built in the years 1864-1878 and in which rabbi Samuel Halevi, a Mizrakhi leader and member of the Polish Sejm between 1928-1936 lectured. it was burnt down in October 1939 together with two other synagogues, which were situated in Warszawska and Jerosolimska streets, by Nazis of German extraction. Today there is no plaque or memorial in Tomaszow to commemorate the destroyed synagogues. the only visible sign of once viable Jewish community in Tomaszow is to be found in the run-down Jewish cemetery situated far from the center of the city close to the catholic and Protestant cemeteries.
The city's Hevra Kadisha played an important role in the life of the community as it did in all Jewish communities. Tomaszow, as well as other cities in the mid-19th century, witnessed disputes between the reformists and the ultra-orthodox trends with regard to proper burial rituals. On 22.8.1878 the Jewish newspaper in the Polish language Israelita carried an article about the merchant David Helpern who served as the community leader for many years and was instrumental in purchasing a litter for transportation of all the deceased, who were until then carried by wagons. he also built the wall surrounding the cemetery (which is still in existence today) and set the standards for burials.
The Jewish papers of Tomaszow, in the period between the two World wars, contained articles about the funeral services of well-known Jewish personalities, which were held during that period. Non-Jews also participated in those funeral services which were long, drawn-out affairs, including a procession from the city to the Jewish cemetery. We have evidence to the fact that non-Jews gave eulogies at the funeral of the Zionist Aaron Lichtenstein in 1928 and that of Abraham jakubowicz, a member of the Jewish Bund, in 1933.
The Nazi occupation forced the Jews of Tomaszow to move to the ghetto, in December, 1940, and to live under terribly cramped conditions. The ghetto was shut down in December 1941. in that year the Jewish cemetery was filled by a great many graves of adults and children who were killed, mercilessly, by the police for escaping the ghetto in an attempt to find food. their bodies were collected by members of the Jewish police and piled atop wagons which left blood stains on the road to the cemetery. Relatives were not permitted to join the funeral processions, and no religious ceremony was held. the wagons were emptied into anonymous mass graves, together with the bodies of victims of Typhoid Fever and victims of torture. At a later period the Nazis issued orders to use tombstones for street paving.
After the war, some Jews attempted to erect memorials to their relatives who died here or in Treblinka, but part of the memorials were destroyed a short time after having been erected. The few Jews who returned to resettle in Tomaszow after the war were buried there. This, however, was not to be their final resting place. This was the case of Dr. Fabian Warszawsky, whose remains were transferred to Warsaw in 1963. The history of the Jewish cemetery is also, in part, a history of the people of Tomaszow.
In February, 1993 I inquired of a Tomaszowian member of the Evangelical community about the Jewish cemetery. he located the site on the city's map and noted the dereliction of the place. When I asked him if something could be done to remedy the situation, he asked "By whom?" To this I had no answer.
In May of that year I searched for this sad place, whose tombstones represent the only evidence of a once thriving Jewish community in this city. The tombstones appeared to have been ravaged by time and the elements, but in this case is it not much too soon? A historically documented reconstruction of a destroyed world cannot revive the victims. Is it not incumbent, however, upon the future generations to at least make an effort to recognize that which was destroyed?
My continuing investigations about life in Tomaszow before the Second World War brought me, in April 1994, to Tel Aviv, where I met and interviewed eight former residents of Tomaszow. One of them was Benjamin Yaari, chairman of the organization of Tomaszowians in Israel. To my great surprise, Mr. Yaari revealed to me in a letter in September, 1994 that he had recently visited Tomaszow, his birthplace and the city where he spent his childhood and youth. When he visited the city's devastated cemetery, he decided, there and then' to commemorate the Jewish cemetery as well as the Jewish community of Tomaszow. I offered my help without further procrastination. Mr. Yaari's project was realized in August 1995. He arrived in Tomaszow from israel together with his uncle, Mr. Shlomo Birenstock, and I came from Berlin. Together with four other residents of Tomaszow we established an extraordinary work team. While we worked in the cemetery, also called "House of Life" in Hebrew, the Jewish inhabitants of Tomaszow came to life as Benjamin and his uncle discovered grave stones and spontaneously recounted stories about the people whose names were engraved on the stones.
While working on the project, Benjamin; his uncle and I resided at the home of my friend Urszula Trocha, who, with the aid of her organizational skills, as well as her good will, helped us to solve everyday problems connected with our work and, in addition, "spoiled" us, to the best of her abilities, after hours. We felt ourselves sheltered, even at the most difficult moments of memory and pain. Something which I dared not dream about during my first visit to the city as a stranger suddenly materialized, as Germans, jews and Poles met and talked together again in Tomaszow in an atmosphere of trust and brotherhood.
The Jews bought from him all the weavings that were made in the weaving factory. They carried the merchandise on horse-drawn carriages for great distances and sold it in the markets.
After Count Tomas died (in 1817), his son, Count Antony Ostrowski, tried to gain recognition for Tomaszow as a city with the authorities in Warsaw, and also was active in granting the local Jewish people the status of independent community. Until then, the Jews of Tomaszow belonged to the Ujazd community, which was where they took their dead for burial. Ujazd was a very old community, and the cemetery was as well.
In the year 1830, when Tomaszow was declared a city, the Jews were granted permission to establish an independent community in Tomaszow. In the year 1831, the Jewish community of Tomaszow was established, and in the following year, the city administration approved the collection of taxes for the benefit of the Jewish Community, to be taken from the "Mikveh", "Aliyiah laTorah", kosher slaughtering, and memorial ceremonies.
Count Antony Ostrowksi made a gift to the Jewish community. like he gave to the Catholics and the Evangelists, pieces of land to build three cemeteries.
The first headstone was placed in the Jewish cemetery in the year 1831, belonging to a non-local Jew who was buried there. At the time of the building of the cemetery, a "Hevra Kadisha" was established in Tomaszow, and the establisher was Rebbe Lievke Zilber. His father was killed in a village called Cista, neat Praga, during the 1831 rebellion.
Among the rest of the headstones, two which attract the attention of connoisseurs belong to two sisters who were buried on the same day, and each stone is carved with the white Polish eagle, in all his beauty and glory. According to the title that is known, the two sisters were killed by the Russians. Their names and date of burial were erased, and it is unknown if they were killed during the 1831 rebellion or the 1863 rebellion. It probably happened in 1831, because 60 years ago, I had already questioned a few elderly people in this matter, and they couldn't remember any clear information to tell me.
The old people of the city have never stopped telling that in the year of the 1863 revolution, there was one Jewish woman from Tomaszow commanding a company of rebels who passed through the city many times with the company, riding a horse. One Thursday, a market day, she gave a speech to the farmers who came to the city to sell their goods, arousing them and creating great enthusiasm to participate in the revolution. She was under the thumb of General Leangivitch, who supervised the fighting in Opoczno region, and her family name was Altschuler. According to this information, one can assume that the headstone with the Polish eagle are hers and her sister's.
Another iron headstone, whose carvings are in Polish, and is surrounded by an iron fence, standing on Doctor Sznicer grave.
In order to understand Jewish headstones in Poland, one should not only read the epitaphs written on them and be impressed by their aesthetic design, but also to "read" the descriptive decorations on them, because architectural ornaments, objects, plants, animals, and even human forms that are described on them do not function merely as decoration, but also have meaning and intention to signify something.
I will begin with a "modern" group among the Tomaszow headstones. The headstone of R. David, son of R. Moshe Yehuda Knecht, from the year 1930 (picture 1), and the headstone of R. Moshe Yoseph Salmonovitch (picture 2 unclear date) have a common "geometric" style. The style was influenced by the post-World War I international style in architecture: the form of the "gate" which is also commonly found in earlier headstones as will be seen below consists only of straight and circular lines. Two decorations characterize these headstones: the "victory wreath" and the Star of David. The "victory wreath" is made of laurel leaves and fruits artificially arranged in a horizontal or circular line whose sides fall perpendicularly. This decoration is taken from the neoclassical style of Western art. It symbolizes glory and victory because during the Classical period it was customary to decorate the victor with a laurel wreath. The Star of David on the headstones which became a symbol of Zionism, symbolizes the subjects of glory and victory and that the deceased was a Zionist. Both decorations are rarely found on traditional headstones in Poland before the Zionist movement.
The headstone of Ze'ew, son of Michael Fried (?), dated 1910, is a traditional headstone for a person who was probably a Zionist, from a period before the international style (picture 3). Shown here are traditional symbols and a large Star of David over a book. Is it a Zionist book? If it had an inscription, it has worn away and disappeared. The headstone of Rachel Kirschaum, dated 1936, is a "modern" headstone of a woman who probably was not a Zionist, but was close to the Polish culture because her name is written both in Hebrew and in Latin letters (picture 4) It is adorned with the modern "victory wreath". And the Shabbat menorah, the traditional symbol found abundantly on women's headstones, as will be seen below, shown in a non-traditional form: diminished and in a circular frame.
There are many headstones of Zionists in Tomaszow Mazowiecki. There is also a headstone whose inscription indicates that the deceased was one of the "Bund" Organization. Other headstones bear non-Hebrew inscriptions only, indicating assimilation into the general culture. Many headstones were stolen or broken because they were made of a more expensive stone than the Polish sandstone in order to remove inlaid marble from them. I will say no more about them.
It seems that the use of the shape of the gate on the headstones is influenced too by Romantic neoclassicism. But the gate motif is one of the most common in Jewish art even earlier: in Holy Arks, Ark curtains (parochot ), Hannukah menorahs, front pages of books and marriage contracts (ketubot). Its meanings change in accordance with the object and time, beginning with the hope of redemption on coins of Bar Kochva until "This is the gate of the Lord into which the righteous shall enter" (Psalms, ch. 118:20), a verse which decorates gates of synagogues, Holy Arks and Ark curtains. In spite of the profusion of gates in Jewish art, it seems that the structure of the gate of headstones is not only an imitation of conventional form but possesses symbolic meaning of its own, in addition to those aforementioned. The concept of the grave serving as a house for the deceased and entering it through a gate is ancient in Jewish culture, as it is common in the general culture. In the Bible we can find a few references of an entrance gate to the next world, as is written in Job (38:17,) "have the gates of death been opened unto thee or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?"
These forms of "horns" reappear on the headstones as a result of the neoclassic style, like the form of the gate. Reappear, I have said, because Jewish burial caves of the Second Temple period are decorated with gables and acroteria. There was no hesitation to adopt from the common culture and use them in traditional headstones but they were imbued with symbolic meaning from Jewish tradition. I received interesting evidence to the aforementioned from Mr. Yeshiyahu Kaveh, a carver of headstones in Israel, and a son, grand-son of headstone carvers from Kalisz., Poland. In answer to my question about these forms his father used to carve on headstones, he answered that these were the horns of the sacrificial altar and that is what they were called by the headstone carvers in Kalisz. When he was young and worked in the family business, they decorated almost all the headstones with the horns of the altar. Therefore, it seems that these "horns" carry the symbolic meaning of the deceased's atonement for sins. This originated from the custom of the Cohen to cast the blood of the sacrifice upon the horns of the altar in order to atone for sins, as is shown many times in the Bible (Leviticus, ch 4. And ch. 9). It is also appropriate to mention here the biblical custom of the sinner to hold the horns of the altar in order claim sanctuary. It seems that great importance was attached to the horns of the altar, because in a headstone without the gate, the horns appear alone (picture 3).
" Alon Bacbuth " appeared earlier as a headline to an obituary on the untimely death of a young person, in the Hebrew newspaper published in Poland: "Ha'Tsfira" (no 68, April 21, 1900).
The headstone of Yakov from 1872, is decorated with this symbolic description (picture 5 - right): the open Ark is within a frame in the design of a temple with columns and architrave, and a Torah crown glorifying from above. That is to say: there are holy books here.
The crowns are symbols of kingship and glory throughout the history of common culture. The glory of kingship is attributed to the Torah in "the crown of Torah." But the Mishna is more specific about the crowns and speaks of several different kinds of crowns. "There are three crowns: the crown of the law (the Torah), the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship, but the crown of good name excels them all " (Avot 4:13). Crowns appear many times on the headstones. To which one of the crowns mentioned above do they refer, and what do they glorify? Sometimes the combination of the other descriptions tells us, and sometimes the epitaph tells us. When the crown appears together with the symbol of the blessing hands, it is usually the " crown of priesthood ." In all cases, the meaning of the "crown of good name" can combine with one of the other meaning, or this meaning alone is implied, because the "crown of good name" is more important than the others as previously noted. In this case, inscribed on the epitaph we read: "deceased in good name." or "deceased in g.n." This inscription, in fact, appears on many traditional headstones and originates in the Babylonian Talmud: " Happy is he who was brought up in the Torah and whose labor was in the Torah and who has given pleasure to his Creator and who grew up with a good name and departed the world with a good name "(Babylonian Talmud. Berachot 17:7). and in the Bible, "A good name is better than precious ointment" (Ecclesiastes 7:1). "A crown of good name" comes to glorify the deceased since it is customary to speak of his good virtue.
A different crown from the four aforementioned is the fallen crown that comes to symbolize the mourning and lament of the kinsmen. This is the description on the headstone of R. Moishe Yehuda Knecht. The Fallen crown is described with a ribbon on which is written "the crown is fallen from our head" (picture 6); this image is taken from the lament of the destruction of Jerusalem in the Book of Lamentations: "the joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning the crown is fallen from our head, woe to us. that we have sinned" (5:15-16).
The Shabbat Menorah is the most common symbolic representation on women's headstones. It can appear in the form of two candleholders or a menorah with several branches, but in most cases, it is a three-branched menorah, as on the headstone of Taba Raizel Rosenberg, who passed on in the year 1906 (picture 11). On the headstone of Bella Aidel Ostrowich, who passed on in the year 1910 there appears a menorah with five candles on which the center candle is broken, a symbol of the woman's death, of which the candle will be lit no longer (picture 12). The Shabbat menorah symbolizes the three mitzvahs that a woman is obliged to perform. It has been said in the Mishnah "For three transgressions do women die in childbirth: for heedlessness of the laws of the menstruant, the dough offering and the lighting of the lamp (Shabbat 2:6).
A hand putting a coin in a charity box deco rates the headstone of Bella Aidel, a symbolic description that relates to the mitzvah of giving charity. This symbolic description. in the shape of a charity box only, also adorns the symbolic headstone of Taba Raizel (picture 11). Here it is inside a gate, along with the Shabbat menorah; lions guarding the gate adorn it and "a crown of good name" decorates it. The symbol of giving charity also decorates headstones of men, especially the early ones. On the headstone of Zvi Yitzhak, we can see a realistic inscription of this symbol (picture 5 - left). Great importance is placed upon the mitzvah of giving charity, since it enhances the good name of the deceased.
A representation of a box on a headstone can also be an inkwell. On the headstone of R. Moshe Yehuda Knecht there is what appears to be an inkwell, since it is missing the padlock typically found on a charity box. The inkwell tells us that the deceased was a writer. It is possible that the representation of the four books on this headstone refers to the four books of the deceased, or an interpretation he wrote of four holy books (picture 6).
Animal representations appear in large numbers in Jewish art in general. They are often interpreted according to the popular verse from Avot: "Be bold as a leopard, 1ight as an eagle, fleet as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of thy Father, who is in Heaven" (5:23). The lions, the deer and the birds that often appear, usually on the earlier headstones of Tomaszow, cannot always be explained by this verse. Lions can also decorate a headstone because the name of the deceased is Arieh, Leb or Yehuda. "Yehuda is a lion whelp " was said in the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49:9). Deer can decorate a headstone because the name of the deceased is Zvi, Hirsch or Naphtali. " Naphtali is a doe set free " symbolized the tribe of Naphtali (Genesis 49:21). A bird can symbolize the name of a woman Fajga, Zipporah. If we consider also the lions as "guardians of the gates," that is to say, heraldic lions standing opposite each other and "supporting" a symbol, as they often appear on the headstone which are a symbol of kingship, power and glory in general culture since early days, we can see that these animals are susceptible of more than one meaning. For example on the headstone of Zvi Yitzhak, we see a pair of lions "Guardians of the gate," supporting a gate which symbolizes a kink of "temple" like the Holy Arks of synagogues decorated with a crown (picture 5 - left). The symbol of giving is found in this gate and therefore the crown is interpreted as a crown of good name. Deer and an eagle also decorate the architrave, and between them is an eagle with wings spread. "Light as an eagle, fleet as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of the Father," which in this case means to do charity? It is possible to draw this meaning, but it is not the only one. The deer seems also to symbolize the name of the deceased.
A beautiful headstone from the year 1884, rich with symbolic representations (picture 13 name unclear), is a gate headstone with columns and capitals, as is possible to see in the fragmented picture. The upper structure, the rounded tympanum, is surrounded by a strip on which the date of death can be read. The bottom of this strip is decorated with plants, which end in a bunch of grapes. The inscribed strip surrounds a carving of a lion on one side and a deer on the other, guarding or glorifying a symbolic gate decorated with a large "crown of the Torah." It is a crown o Torah because inside it are the scrolls of the Torah. Is it not also a "crown of a good name?" On the panel, under this inscription, there is the hand placing charity money in the box, opposite another bird on a branch, an eagle spreading his wings between them, surrounded by a half-circle. Indeed "light as an eagle, fleet as a deer and strong as a lion." It will be shown that this eagle has an additional meaning. It is possible to try to " read" the rest of the symbolic descriptions: the Book of the Torah represents the generosity of the deceased, since the shape of a heart decorates it (?). Maybe the deceased's wife donated a Book of Torah in his memory? The bird on a branch can hint at that, since a bird which is not an eagle is often a symbol of a woman or her children. On the headstone of Bella Aidel, we can also see a bird with a branch on one side, and on the opposite, a hand giving charity (picture 12). The deer on the headstone of Zvi Hirsch, which is "bending" a tree with his leg, undoubtedly symbolizes the name of the deceased, since it does not signify any other symbol (picture 14 date unclear). This stone is also a gate headstone, whose columns are decorated with plants. The architrave is decorated with bird and the representation of the aforementioned deer, surrounded by an open curtain, with a crown on his head which seems to hint at the "crown of good name." The strip surrounding the circle of the upper structure has an illegible inscription.
The large bird pecking at his chest and spreading its wings on the architrave on the headstone of Zvi Hirsch is a rare representation on a Jewish headstone. It seems to be a representation of the pelican sacrificing itself for the sake of its nestling and feeding them with its blood. This is a symbol of self-sacrifice originating in the Christian culture.
A large defending bird is standing on the upper structure of the headstone whose name and date are illegible (picture 15) This is an eagle spreading its wings over the upper, rounded shape of the headstone, like the dome of the sky, with his head bent forward. This seems to mean God's protection of he who seeks shelter in Him. This symbol, which also appears above Holy Arks, originates in the Bible: "He shall cover thee with his feathers and under his wings shalt thou trust" (psalms. 91:4). This headstone is skillfully carved, and the shapes are realistic and three-dimensional. It is a gate headstone: birds decorate the capitals of the columns, and the architrave is decorated with plants. Above the architrave there is an open book held by a pair of lions, and in between them there are boxes, possibly charity boxes or inkwells. A trace of faded writing appears on the boxes or inkwells. Is it the Book of Life? The book also has faded traces of writin: the name of the deceased, Yehuda Yosef? It seems that the same interpretation is good for the eagle spreading its wings in the lower arch above the epitaph on the headstone of Zvi Yitzhak
(picture 5 - left) and on the headstone from the year 1884 that I discussed above (picture 13): the protection and shelter of God.
A bird symbolizing death decorates a fraction of a headstone on which all that can be read is "This is a headstone ot burial monument of Zion" (picture 16). This bird is spreading its wings and with its legs extinguishing the candles of life, which are in two candleholders guarded by a pair of heraldic lions.
We have seen that symbolic representations of the human figure appear in the shape of hands only: the blessing hands of the Cohen, the hand of the Levi pouring water and the hand giving charity. There is no complete human figure among the headstones of Tomaszow, and it is very rare among Jewish headstones in general. Therefore, it is surprising to find a human face on the headstone of Hanoch Henich the Cohen (picture 9). Otherwise it is a traditional headstone, with a representation of the blessing hands and an open ark full of books, which indicates the deceased was a Cohen and educated. The face, placed together with a broken branch, a symbol of a break in life, inside the lower arch above the epitaph is a "face" of the setting sun. One line in the epitaph explains its appearance: "We will mourn lamentation and disaster, day turned into night, and he descended into the grave."
The seven-branch menorah and amphora vase decorate the headstone of R. Chaim Son of Menachem from the year 1895 (picture 17). Both are common symbols in Jewish art, from ancient coins, mosaic floors of synagogues from the time of the Talmud, Holy Books from the Cairo archives, to later holy objects, but on headstones in Poland the menorah is very rare. The seven-branch menorah, a symbol of the menorah that stood in the Temple and the hope of rebuilding it, was adopted as the symbol of our country. There is nothing in the epitaph to explain its appearance on this early headstone, which is otherwise a traditional headstone: lions holding a Psalter and a crown above.
The inscription on the aforementioned headstone, which is the prayer "God full of mercy", customarily said during funerals, appears in full on the panel of the headstone. The prayer "God full of mercy" also appears on the headstone of Taba Raizel, from the yea r 1906 (picture 11) and on the front of a few dozen headstones in Tomaszow. It appears to he a phenomenon peculiar to this cemetery, since it sometimes appears on headstones in other places in Poland, but is usually carved on the back of the headstone.
In contrast, traditional headstones, starting with the 1890's and probably until the end of World War I, are carved in a flatter style, less realistic, based more on the colors than on the depth of the figures, since they usually were painted in different colors. The symbolic representations also became poorer, fewer in number and a bit more patterned. Such is the headstone from the year 1895 (picture 17): the headstone of Hanoch Henich from the year 1900 (picture 9): the headstone from 1910 (picture 3): the headstone of Itsche Frenkel (picture 10): and the two women's headstones from 1906 and 1910 (picture 11 and picture 12). In this period, family names appear in growing numbers and become steadily used.
"Modern" headstones in Tomaszow are usually carved in a flat style and are not painted, a change of taste that comes from an external influence, the use of expensive stone, which should not be hidden beneath a layer of paint and is hard to carve, and through a distancing from tradition. "Modern" headstones made of cheap, local sandstone, which is easy to carve, show a tendency to return to three-dimensional depth carving. Realistic, sculptural carving also characterizes the oak tree headstones.
The headstones tell, through description and inscription, on the deceased's position in the community from a religious point of view.
They tell of deceased's virtues: proficient with the Holy Books, reciter of Psalms, giver of charity, a woman who keeps the three mitsvot, the good name of a person. The headstones praise the deceased, and ascribe to him virtues not always realized in life. The virtues express the collective ethos of a community which should be sought after, but which is not always achieved. And of course, they express what every headstone expresses: the break in life, the mourning of the kinsmen, the hope for the future, and acceptance.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Tomaszow, Poland Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2019 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 24 Dec 2002 by LA