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The cemetery in Lodz is said to be one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, with about 230,000 graves. It was first opened at the end of the 19th century with a large separate building for the preparation of bodies for internment and funerals. Today there is an exhibit of original pre-war items used by the burial society.
By the beginning of World War II, in 1939, the cemetery already contained many of the elaborate tombstones and mausoleums for which it has become famous. The grave markers run the full gamut from that of Israel Poznanski, the largest mausoleum in the cemetery, to those of people who were interred during the Shoah, when tombstones were not allowed. Indeed, one finds parts of bed frames embedded in the ground, often twisted in a particular shape, as a means of identification.
Mass grave of Bnei Akiva youth group members.
There is also the Ghetto Field, a vast, seemingly empty field that is the final resting place of the 45,000 people who died in the Ghetto. During the Shoah, the death rate among Jews living within the ghetto was very high. Dozens of funerals were held each day, with the number going as high as 170 funerals on one terrible day. While these graves remained unmarked, the Jewish community offices kept meticulous records of each grave. Today there is a program through which Israeli soldiers have been coming to Lodz, clearing the field and placing markers denoting dates and the names of the departed.
The job of caring for the cemetery is a tremendous one and never ending. Groups come from Israel on a regular basis to work clearing the wild growth of trees, bushes and high weeds. Schoolchildren from around Poland also come to do their part. Most of the time they are working among graves that are just names, and in many cases the people clearing the area have no concept of who is buried in these hallowed grounds.
The Ghetto area after being cleared of debris and markers placed by the Israeli soldiers.
But every now and then there is a famous name – a Rubinstein, Tuwim and Szyk can be found – but there are many tombs of famous rabbis scattered throughout the cemetery. One interesting feature is that the wives of famous rabbis also have elaborate tombstones. Located separately, these are some of the largest grave markers dedicated to women to be found anywhere. There are also numerous mass graves for multiple victims of German terror. There is the grave of nine Bnei Akiva members who were part of the resistance during the Shoah. Their grave is an often-visited site by scouts and other youth groups (during my recent visit I found a Bnei Akiva pennant and many candle stubs at the site).
During the last days of the Ghetto, when the Russian army was approaching, the Germans sent most of the remaining Jews to Auschwitz, but kept about 800 to clean up the area. As the Russians approached, they were forced to dig pits near the wall of the cemetery, which they suspected would be their own graves. The Russians advanced so quickly that there was no time for the final executions, and the Germans ran away, saving the 800 Jews and leaving the pits empty. These pits have been left open as a reminder of the lives saved and the graves not used.
The cemetery is still in active use today, but it is the history within that draws thousands of visitors every year.