The Jewish settlement in the Bialystok, Poland dates back to about 1658. Bialystok grew to be a successful and predominantly Jewish community. However, anti-Semitism began to surface even before the Nazi insurgence in Poland. In 1906, the Czarists massacred many of Bialystok’s Jews. A black obelisk monument to the victims of those pogroms stands prominently in the center of Bagnowka cemetery. After the pogroms, Bialystok was once again a vibrant Jewish community.
World War II changed Bialystok forever. Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 decimating the population of 50,000 Jews, sending thousands to their deaths to Treblinka Extermination camp, murdering them in the streets of the enforced Jewish Ghetto, and killing more than 2,000 in a single day in the horrific Great Synagogue Fire of June 27, 1941.
Among those killed in the Great Synagogue Fire were family members of Amy Degen. The tragedy inspired Amy and husband Josh Degen to visit Bialystok where they discovered that the devastating destruction of the Jewish cemetery.
In June, 1943, the Nazis entered Bagnowka Cemetery to wipe out any remaining traces of the Jewish community in Bialystok. Over several weeks, the Nazis destroyed, knocked over, and dismantled thousands of headstones and monuments. Monument bases, blocks, obelisks, and pediments were scattered about.
During Amy and Josh Degen’s first visit to Bagnowka in 2015, Josh decided to use his 35 years of experience working with stone, stonescapes, and heavy equipment to begin restoration. Although an earlier restoration effort had been undertaken, those workers only had hand equipment and a tripod pulley system available to lift the stones, some of which weigh over 4,000 pounds. The prior project team was able to lift and reset only 2 or 3 of these headstones per day.
During trips to Bagnowka in August of 2016 and 2017, heavy equipment was rented locally for the job. With the help of 6 laborers, we strapped, lifted, and otherwise re-assembled the monuments and obelisks. By the end of the week, working 6 consecutive 10 hour days, we reset, restored, and re-dedicated 301 monuments during 2016 and another 349 in the summer of 2017, providing a measure of dignity and peace to the souls whose earthly remains were interred at Bagnowka.
Considering that the Bagnowka Cemetery in Bialystok originally contained approximately 30,000-35,000 graves, our work was a humble but significant and tangible effort.
Judiac Linguistic & Cultural Expert and International Support
Our work could not have been successful without the important preparatory work by others. In 2009, a team of local Poles, working with others from all over Europe began restoring this cemetery. The initial restoration idea came from the last living Bialystok Jew, Lucy Lisowska.
Lucy engaged a renowned Judaic academic in the US, Heidi Szpek, PhD, professor emeritus from Central Washington State University. Heidi translated the Hebrew, Polish, and Russian inscriptions, provided critical cultural context and linguistic skills needed to understand grave orientation and placement, and oversaw the proper placement of stones or monuments onto the correct grave.
We are grateful to every person who has donated to our efforts to right a wrong, especially the entire Bialystok cemetery restoration crew, which continues to grow!