The first of November marks All Saints’ Day, when people all over Europe remember those who’ve passed on. It’s a weekend for avoiding the Polish roads, which will be full of carloads of people traveling to cemeteries all over the country to pay their respects. But while visiting a cemetery at All Saints’ is particularly special, Warsaw’s cemeteries have stories to tell at any time of the year.
The best known Polish cemetery is Powązki, the main entrance to which is off Powązkowska, and it’s the most popular All Saints’ destination. Dating from 1790 and boasting tombstones by some of the best sculptors of the day, its rows upon rows of ornately carved, ivy-covered gravestones are surprisingly relaxing and calming, despite the sad tales of untimely ends told in many of the inscriptions. There are also the silent statements: family tombs that list generations of former Varsovians, ending abruptly in the early 1940s.
While Powązki was for many years the main final resting place of Warsaw’s erstwhile citizens, it’s now a more select affair and you have to have been someone to warrant a place here. As a result, the more recent sections are a veritable ‘who was who’ of Polish cultural, intellectual and scientific life; film director Krzysztof Kieślowski, Nobel-prize winning novelist Władysław Reymont and jazz composer Krzysztof Komeda are among those interred here.
It’s worth a meander at any time. But on November 1, it’s quite magical. Streams of visitors light yellow, white and red votive candles on the graves of those they knew, or whose works and endeavors they admire. By dusk, they spill over and around the graves, and the whole cemetery flickers red and gold as if in a fairy-tale. The most impressive displays are along the Avenue of the Meritorious (Aleja Zasłużonych) where the most famous are buried, and the military section, where many of those who died fighting for Poland are honored. If you feel so inspired, buy a candle from one of the stalls that spring up outside of the cemetery and add to the effect. If not just take a stroll, particularly around dusk, for a memorable experience and some great photo opportunities.
Across the river in north Praga lies probably one of the least known of Warsaw’s cemeteries, the Bródno Jewish cemetery. There are other Jewish cemeteries about, including one right next to Powązki that still serves the local Jewish community. But it’s this one, dating from the 1780s and generally used by the poorer families of the day, that I think tells a singularly sad story about an aspect of Warsaw’s history. It’s made all the more poignant by the fact that it’s rarely heard.
There’s an entry gate off Sw. Wincentego, and you can enter through the small side gates here – although they don’t look exactly inviting. Pause as you go through to consider the gray frescos on either side: they depict Jewish people praying before their execution.
Walk in and down the path, through the birch forests that were planted after the war, and you may start to wonder if you’ve come to the right place, since there don’t seem to be any graves. In fact there are, it’s just that the headstones were pulled up by the Nazis to be used as paving material for roads and airports. They hadn’t managed to use all of them by the time the war ended, so those that remained at that time were tractored back from around the country and dumped here. After a few hundred meters, you’ll come upon them; stacked up in row after row, whole and in pieces, upright and on their sides, lying today just as they were left then. Here, it’s not flowers and candles that adorn the graves, but mosses, tree roots and even graffiti. I’m not surprised that the location has been used as a film set (in Agnieszka Holland’s ‘Europa Europa’); it’s a striking sight.
Scattered about are broken bottles and the ashes of old fires; it’s not the kind of place you’d want to visit after dark, and some guides recommend visiting in a group even during the day. But I’ve taken a few visitors here without incident and while they’ve mostly been a bit dubious as to how interesting a cemetery might be, none has yet come away unconvinced. Like nothing else I’ve come across, it brings home the stark realization of how few descendents of these Varsovians managed to survive to care for this place.
It seems fitting that, at the time when many are visiting cemeteries to honor the contribution of those who’ve passed on, the story of this cemetery is also told, and the legacy of those lying here equally remembered. On behalf of those who aren’t here to do so.