The Jews of Kraków and its Surrounding Towns

The Jewish City of the Dead*

Borowcowej Street in Chrzanow: from behind the cemetery wall peek rounded tombstones, drenched in the shade of the trees and covered with thick weeds. This appearance connects to a world, which is secrets and tales of treasures, buried in the Jewish grave plots. And the presence of Jews actually shaped for over four hundred years the economic, social and cultural development of the city. Their presence imparted a rhythm to the daily life of the Catholic part of the population.

The history of the Jewish community of Chrzanow begins in 1590, when a Jew named Yaakov settled in the town. The Jews often leased mills and inns: they were butchers, bakers, or tailors, and they made wine and managed pawnshops. By the end of the 18th century Jews comprised about 20-25% of the population of Chrzanow. At the beginning of the 20th century 60% of the residents of Chrzanow were Jewish. The most striking witness to the Jewish presence in Chrzanow is the large cemetery on Borowcowej Street.

The Jewish community received permission to build the cemetery in 1759. The cemetery was once made up of two parts; the Large, which has mostly remained to this day, ended at the comers of streets that no longer exist, at the beginning of Shenkiwich Street. The Small was at the site of the gas station and Podwala Street. Between the walls of the two cemeteries was a path, which led to the Nadkhkanski meadow. During the German occupation the Jewish City of the Dead was greatly reduced in size and gravestones were removed to be used for paving roads.

Topography of The City of the Dead

90% of the gravestones in the Chrzanow are elongated, their height being from 50 to 250 centimeters. The oldest stones, decorated with two shofars, were erected in 1803.

It is worthwhile taking note of a tombstone for a married couple, with reliefs of kissing doves, whales, storks, stars and other motifs. Nearby is another gravestone, on which the artist sculpted a vase with flowers and snakes fighting storks. Among the motifs of religion and of mourning one may find a snake slithering through a forest, shells, squirrels, columns, curtains, pomegranates and bunches of grapes. Three graves have a special character: they have a rare relief of two triangles of three fish, joined in the shape of a Magen David. These stones, from the first half of the 19th century, are located in the northern part of the graveyard. The southern part of the cemetery is relatively new; the oldest tombstone in this part is 132 years old. Among the most interesting graves is that of Fanny and Leopold Samuel Tsipper, vice-mayor of Chrzanow.

In the center of the cemetery is a mass grave of 27 people, who were murdered in August 1939 in Trzebina. A memorial stone is marked by a low metal fence, and it is shaped like a large gravestone.

In the Jewish City of the Dead, aside from stone columns, two shrines may be found. In the northern shrine is the grave of the first Rabbi of Chrzanow, Shlomo Buchner, who died in 1819. In the southern shrine from 1894 Rabbi David Halbersztam is buried. The third Rabbi, Yosef Elimelekh, died in 1907, and the fourth, Naphtali Halbersztam, died in 1924. The last Rabbi of Chrzanow, Mendel, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942. The shrines receive frequent visits from Hassidim, who come to pray, light memorial candles and leave bits of paper with notes on them.

The Secret Jewish Symbols

At times it is difficult to differentiate between a symbol and a simple decoration. Because symbols are ancient, and have been reproduced many times, they have at times lost their original meaning. And so it happens occasionally, that the motjf on a tombstone does not match the writing on the stone or the personal attributes of the deceased.

On the stone grave markers, various symbols were chiseled. Some of these denote the standing of the deceased in the Jewish community. Hands appear on the graves of Cohanim, men descended from Aharon the Cohen. A ritual knife or chair of Eliahu the Prophet mark the place of burial of a mohel [circumciser of baby boys], in the brit milah, which symbolizes the covenant with G-d. Pitchers and bowls decorate the graves of Levites, those who assisted the Cohanim in the sacrifices. Candelabras appear on the graves of women, as in Judaism it is their duty to light the sabbath candles and to bless them. Books lined up on a shelf signify a learned religious man. a crown is a symbol of the Torah, the faith and the head of the family. A Magen David and bunch of grapes are symbols of the people of Israel; a lion - the tribe of Yehuda, an eagle - the power of the defense of the Lord, a dove - peace, love and happiness in marriage, Palms, broken flowers, cut-off trees, extinguished candles all symbolize death, A gate means the gateway to the world of eternal life. A bird is an allegory of the soul, and snakes with storks are the picture of the pleasures of the righteous in the days of the coming of the Messiah.

We are unable in this space to list and explain all of the images on the tombstones. But the knowledge imparted here may perhaps encourage greater interest in the history and culture of the Jews of Chrzanow, whose 200-year old cemetery is their remnant.

*(source: newspaper Przelom 28.3.2001 by Lukasz Dulowski)


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Compiled by Eilat Gordin Levitan. Updated March 12, 2020 Copyright © 2007 Eilat Gordin Levitan (