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. The 1906 Pogrom, preceded by two massacres in 1905, remind us of growing anti-Semitism in Bialystok. A black obelisk, standing at the center of the cemetery, remembers the victims of these times of violence. Despite these horrific attacks and other sporadic anti-Semitic violence, Bialystok grew and flourished as 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 the devastating destruction of the Jewish cemetery.
From June to September 1943, the Bialystok Ghetto was liquidated. The mortar and brick that bore physical witness to Bialystok’s vibrant Jewish community were likewise annihilated. Bagnowka Cemetery, located in a rural area about 4 km from the city center, was spared the intensity of this hate and devastation. While documentation suggests that some damage may have occurred during the German occupation, the brunt of Bagnowka’s devastation occurred slowly during the post-War years. The implications for Bagnowka’s devastation are shocking – the hatred that began under the Nazis and the willingness to act upon such hatred did not cease with the Nazis’ defeat, it continued under Polish Communism.
2015: 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.
2016-2017: 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.
2018: 2018 was a year to revisit previous sections in the SW quadrant, not quite completely restored by the BCRF in 2016-2017 or by earlier restoration projects on the cemetery. This year an initial foray into the eastern grassy sections also revealed that beneath decades of detritus, one stone after another, row upon row, could be reclaimed for the historic record by gently engaging mechanized equipment. Over 400 stones were reset on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery this year.
2019: Over 400 stones were reset on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Bialystok, Poland, with work undertaken in 25 of the 98 sections that hold burials. In some sections, just a few stones needed tending; other sections were virtually untouched since suffering devastation during and post-World War II. Of the 400 stones reset, 280 held new vital details now returned to the historical record.Report: Białystok Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project, 2019 – Jewish Heritage Europe (jewish-heritage-europe.eu)
2020-2021: The COVID-19 Pandemic necessitated the rescheduling of restoration work until 2022.
2022: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic along with the war in Ukraine prompted the board of the Białystok Cemetery Restoration Project to reconfigure its Summer 2022 restoration plans for Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery in Białystok, Poland. This was the first field session of the BCRP since before the pandemic. Typically, the BCRP would be joined by a contingent of American, German, Israeli, and Białystok volunteers. This year’s efforts, however, focused on meeting with local conservators and trades people to assess and coordinate the restoration and repair of a variety of cemetery structures, initiating the first formal restoration workshop for local volunteers, and conducting a test of a mound on an unused area of Bagnowka Cemetery.
According to local lore and history, in the 1960s, the Communist Party Headquarters was built just opposite the Rabbinic Cemetery at the center of Bialystok. Debris from this construction as well as debris from the ruined structures of surrounding streets was dumped on the Rabbinic Cemetery, creating an artificial mound which was transformed into the current Central Park.
Amidst this construction, for some reason, a portion of the Rabbinic Cemetery had first been cleared. Matzevoth and human remains were loaded into wagons and transferred to the edge of town to be dumped on the unused land of Bagnowka. In the 1970s – early 1980s, housing was also built on this unused land, the peculiar U-shaped street, leading to these homes, held within its curve the mound with an adjoining plain. The BCRF was granted permission by the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the City of Bialystok to extract the matzevoth from this mound. The mound held 122 boulder-style matzevot and one granite stele, ranging in date from 1809 to 1852.
At the conclusion of this season’s work, nearly 70 tombstones had been reset on Bagnowka, bringing the total since 2016 (excluding non-work 2020-2021 during the pandemic) to 1478; 123 stones had been rescued from the mound; and more than a dozen meetings with conservators and local tradespeople had been held, regarding design concepts for five projects underway, including pending fencing and gate estimates, as well as City of Bialystok commitments.
2023: The BCRF Summercamp 2023 was conducted at two work sites in Bialystok, Poland. Excavation of the Opera Mound on the former Rabbinic Cemetery now buried beneath Central Park was conducted from August 2-7, 2023. Restoration and documentation of Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery was held from August 2-22, 2023. This year brought an international group of volunteers from the US, including two Suffolk University students (US), Germany, Israel as well as local Polish volunteers, including a dedicated contingent of students from the University of Bialystok. This year also saw a return of nearly 20 members of the Pearlson Family from Israel. In 2019, several Pearlson family members had travelled to Bialystok to restore the tombstones of their grandmother and great-grandmother.
The Opera Mound, situated at the southwestern corner of Bialystok’s Central Park, was created from rubble when the adjoining Opera House was completed in 2012. Beneath Central Park is the former Rabbinic Cemetery, partially vandalized by the Nazis and subsequently covered with post-War rubble. At the eastern descent of the mound, 20 boulder-style matzevoth were unearthed, scattered helter-skelter. They dated from 1850-1856, nine for women, one for a girl, and 10 for men. These matzevoth match in all details (style, stone, orthography, age) the latest matzevoth also unearthed in the Bagnowka Mound in 2022. Most poignant, however, was the discovery of one Orthodox tombstone on August 4, 2023. Please visit Here for more on the Mound Matzevoth.
Work on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery was focused on resetting and documenting one and a half sections of the woods, recently cleared by the City; lifting tombstones in sections located in the central sections of the cemetery; revisiting hundreds of tombstone with incomplete vital details; as well as completing documentation of two sections that belong to the Memorial Complex. Throughout the cemetery, over a hundred broken tombstones were also glued.
This year’s restoration work on Bagnowka Jewish Cemetery brought the total number of reset tombstones to nearly 2000 since the BCRF began in 2016. Nearly 400 tombstones were reset this year; 169 new records (available Here) were documented, with 451 incomplete records reclaimed – these are vital details that needed extra analysis to record. This year, nearly 50 tombstones were cleaned and painted, the inscriptions sealed with a gloss varnish. A volunteer with Russian language training also provided translations of previously undocumented Hebrew-Russian inscriptions.
Each year brings remarkable epigraphic discoveries on Bagnowka. 2023 was no different. Six are most provocative. A triple tombstone for a mother and two young children possibly killed at home by a Russian soldier; a two-sided tombstone for a husband and wife; an exquisitely preserved black-stained Ashkenazi tombstone with ornament inspired by Gen. Pilsudski’s uniform; a small brightly painted Ashkenazi tombstone; a Polish poem in cursive literary language; and a tombstone that predates the official opening of this cemetery. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment, however, of the 2023 Summercamp was the onsite ancestral reunification with six families.
In 2023, the BCRF also engaged Warsaw conservator, Bartosz Markowski, to restore the Memorial Pillar that remembers victims of two 1905 massacres and the 1906 Pogrom. Progress is proceeding as planned and can be viewed Here. By contract, the pillar’s restoration should be complete by the end of November 2023.