Poland -- New Book by Tomasz Wisniewski

Tomasz Wiesniewski, Bialystok, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Tomasz Wisniewski, the long-time researcher on Jewish heritage in (particularly) northeastern Poland has published a new book on pre-World War II Jewish cemeteries. Called "The Lost World of Small-Town Jewish Cemeteries" and published by Istytut Wydawniczy Kreator, it will be officially launched at an event in Bialystok on Sunday.

Most of the book is in Polish, although some of the picture captions are also in English. Indeed, perhaps the main value of the book is to present these pictures, which Tomek has been collecting for many years. Many (if not all of them) can also be seen on his web site, bagnowka.com.

The pictures show extraordinary scenes of Jewish cemeteries all over what is now Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus -- when they were in use by the large and vibrant Jewish communities that once lived there. Many of the stones are painted -- the pictures are in black and white, but Tomek has also included reconstructions of what they may have looked like in color. (You can still find a few stones with traces of colorful decoration in, for example, northern Romania -- and tombstones in active Jewish cemeteries in, for example, Ukraine still occasionally are painted.)

Painted tombstone in Sharhorod, Ukraine, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The pictures also show Jewish grave-markers made out of wood (none of which survive today), as well as graves covered by wooden shelters. Almost none of these cemeteries remains today -- and for those who know Jewish cemeteries in this part of the world only as ravaged vestiges of the past, the scenes are a revelation.

Tomek asked me to write a Foreword for the book, and this is what I wrote:
Tomasz Wisniewski is a rescuer of Atlantis.

Like most of the postwar generation, he grew up in Bialystok with no inkling that his native city had once been an important center of Jewish life, learning and political and economic activity.

Born in the late 1950s, he was ignorant of the fact that Jews had made up the majority of Bialystok's pre-war population, that tens of thousands of Jews had been confined in the wartime Bialystok ghetto, that in 1941 the Nazis had herded some 1,000 Bialystok Jews into the city's main synagogue and then had torched the building.

Only three out of the more than 60 synagogues that had stood in Bialystok before World War II had survived the conflagration, and all were put to other use. The city's Jewish cemeteries had all been destroyed or swallowed up by encroaching forest.

Wisniewski discovered this history by chance in the early 1980s, when he read a book about the wartime Bialystok ghetto and the almost total annihilation of the Jewish population. The book changed his outlook about his town, his country and even his own local identity. "I wanted to know what there was before," he told me, "when Jews lived in Bialystok."

Since that moment more than 25 years ago, Wisniewski has devoted his life to documenting Jewish history both in Bialystok and in the surrounding region, where Jews had formed the majority of the population in numerous small towns, or shtetls. He felt he was discovering a lost world that had vanished from view and from public awareness as if it had been drowned like the mythical continent of Atlantis -- and indeed, "Postcards from Atlantis" was the title of a series of articles that he published in the local press.

Over the years, Wisniewski has become a recognized expert on the Jewish history and heritage of eastern Poland. He has published books and many articles, mounted exhibitions, and, more recently, set up a web site with an expanding database of historic and contemporary photographs of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other heritage sites. In 1998 he became one of the first recipients of an annual award presented by the State of Israel to honor non-Jewish Poles who care for Jewish heritage in Poland.

This new book is based on the extensive photographic archives Wisniewski has collected over the past quarter century. For the first time, the pre-war state of Jewish cemeteries in the small shtetls scattered around the region is visually documented in dramatic detail: the exquisite carved imagery on the tombstones, or mazzevot, the surprising way many of them were painted in bright colors, the many striking grave markers made of wood, none of which survived the Shoah.

In the text that accompanies the pictures, Wisniewski tells stories of the pre-war past but also reflects on the savagery of destruction, both during and after World War II. Tombstones were smashed or uprooted and, as he documents, were used as paving stones, building foundations, and even as whetstone to sharpen knives. Recovering these fragments, too, is a means of rescuing memory and returning from oblivion.