The ohel (structure over the tomb) of the rabbi of Orla, Poland, and his wife, 1930s. Photograph by D. Duksin. (YIVO)

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East European Jewish tombstones follow the Ashkenazic pattern that was developed in Central Europe from the eleventh to the fourteenth century. Their most typical traits include vertical position (as opposed to Sephardic tombstones, which usually lie horizontally), rectangular shape, and the prominence of inscription fields. In addition to simple vertical slabs, pseudosarcophagi were popular in some localities in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Beginning in the eighteenth century, some tombs of exceptional scholars, rabbis, or holy men were built with an ohel (lit., tent), a simple structure covering the grave (see image at right). Until the nineteenth century, all tomb inscriptions were written in Hebrew (with some Aramaic barbarisms in the epitaphs of learned elites), although many betray poor knowledge of the language. Hebrew inscriptions were written in square script. Cursive and semicursive script began to appear sporadically only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and were used for the closing formula (or some part thereof) of the epitaph.

Throughout this entire period, and most notably until the nineteenth century, the most common material for tombstones was undoubtedly wood. Grave markers were simple planks with painted inscriptions or images of full-size gravestones carved into the wood. Given the material’s lack of permanence, very few of these have survived (a few are in Belarus; others are preserved in museums in, for example, Bucharest and Helsinki). Of the tombstones that have survived, the overwhelming majority are carved in stone, although a few nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century examples made of cast iron have also endured, as well as some twentieth-century ones composed of artificial stone (terrazzo, concrete). The most commonly preserved tombstones are thus not representative of East European Jewish sepulchral art in its entirety; rather, they are more typical of the sepulchral art of the wealthier classes, as stonework was expensive until the nineteenth century. Traditional tombstones were often covered with paintings, scarcely preserved to this day.

The oldest Jewish tombstones from the lands later known as Eastern Europe are from third- and fourth-century Roman Pannonia, from the settlements of Solva (today’s Esztergom, Hungary), Aquincum (Buda, Hungary), Intercisa (Dunaújváros, Hungary), Siklós (Hungary), Mursa (Osijek, Croatia), Ciglana (Čelarevo near Novi Sad, Yugoslavia), and Oescus (Gigen, Bulgaria). Ten tombstones survive from these localities, assuming that all have been correctly identified as Jewish. These had typical Roman epitaphs, written in Latin and Greek (the tombstone at Ciglana contains one word in Hebrew); some include images of a menorah.

Medieval tombstone, Wrocław, Poland, dating from 1345. Photograph by Marcin Wodziński. (Courtesy of the photographer)

The earliest group of Jewish tombstones had no influence upon the subsequent development of Jewish sepulchral traditions in Eastern Europe, which did not truly begin to develop until the thirteenth century. The oldest preserved tombstones in Poland (1203), Moravia (1269), and Hungary (1278) date from that century. Stelae dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are more numerous. From the period before the year 1500, these include more than 20 samples from Bohemia (Prague, from 1439; Cheb [Eger], 1242–1385; also Kolín, though the documentation there is lacking), 61 from Moravia (Olomouc, 1269–1338/39; Znojmo, 1306–1430; Brno, 1349–1443), 29 from Silesia (Wrocław, 1203–1345; Świdnica 1289–1383; Brzeg 1348; Nysa 1350), and 30 from Hungary (Buda, 1278–1431, 1492?; Trnava, 1340–1396; Skalica, 1398; Sopron, 1411/12; the oldest tombstone from Great Hungary dates from 1130 and comes from Völkermarkt in Carinthia). Only in Prague and Kolín, however, have the tombstones survived in situ.

In Poland—aside from Silesia, which Poland lost to the Czechs in the mid-fourteenth century—the oldest surviving Jewish tombstones date from the sixteenth century. Those known in the older historical literature as being from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, like alleged medieval tombstones from Chełm, are in fact of much later origin. It is possible that earlier ones have not been preserved. The oldest tombstone in Wrocław (Breslau), from 1203, contains archaic traits reminiscent of eleventh- and twelfth-century Jewish tombstones from the Rhineland (though its epitaph displays oriental influences and its lettering bears archaic reminiscences of oriental types of lettering). Remaining tombstones are rendered in the style already typical of late-medieval Ashkenazic sepulchral forms: they are upright, level rectangular slabs, the only decorative elements of which are flat fascia bordering the inscription field.

Epitaphs from this period contain the basic elements of the formulas that characterized later inscriptions, although individual elements of the epitaph (opening formula, closing formula, information block) had at this point not yet been entirely differentiated. The lettering recalls versions of the bookhand-style lettering with a significant difference in thickness between horizontal and vertical lines; the inscription is always engraved (see image above, left). These tombstones possess no essential characteristics that would differentiate them from Central or West European models.

Tombstone with images of lions, Jewish cemetery, Prague, dating from 1628. Grave of Hendl, the wife of wealthy financier and merchant Ya‘akov Bassevi of Treuenberg (1570–1634). Photograph by Vladimir Uher. (Courtesy of the photographer)

This type of tombstone predominated in all of Eastern Europe until the second half of the sixteenth century, and in more remote localities until the beginning of the seventeenth. The most interesting and largest groups of gravestones of this type, dating from the second half of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, are preserved in Busk near Lwów (from 1520), Lublin (1541), Szczebrzeszyn (1545), Lesko (1548), and Buczacz (1587).

A new type of gravestone appeared in the mid-sixteenth century in cemeteries of the large Jewish communities of Kraków (where the oldest known tombstone dates from about 1549), Przemyśl (1574), and above all Prague, where the sixteenth century saw the development of a school of sepulchral stonemasonry of high artistic value and very particular local traits. For instance, Prague’s tombstones used figurative motifs and the shield of David, rarely encountered elsewhere (see image at right). The Prague cemetery is also the only Jewish necropolis in Eastern Europe in which one can find a continuous sequence of tombstones from the second half of the fifteenth to the first half of the seventeenth centuries. Sixteenth-century tombstones from Prague—as is the case with those found in large Jewish communities in Poland or even in provincial centers such as Chęciny or Pińczów that had a highly developed artistic culture—embodied a Renaissance (and later Baroque) aesthetic, incorporating classical architectural motifs to enrich the composition of the face of the tombstone.

An example of a tombstone in the folk art style, Sienawa, Poland, dating from 1855. Photograph by Marcin Wodziński. (Courtesy of the photographer)

In the mid-seventeenth century, this type of tombstone spread throughout the region, at the same time undergoing “primitivization” and a rapid evolution toward folk art forms. The folk version of this type of gravestone, sometimes referred to as Jewish Baroque, became the best-known type among East European Jewish communities; it predominated until the mid-nineteenth century and—in many localities in Ukraine, eastern Poland, and Belorussia—as late as the Holocaust. The inscription field continued to be the most prominent element in a tombstone of this style, but the composition of the front of the stela changed under the influence of contemporary architectural models—as seen, for instance, in the motif of the arcade, the aedicula and, from the early seventeenth century, a notable tendency toward dividing the front of the stela into clearly differentiated parts: a pediment, a framed inscription field, and a base. Initially the pediment contained the opening formula of the inscription (or at least part of it), but from the late seventeenth century on it was more and more often filled with ornamental and symbolic images; at the same time, the pediment itself grew larger. An extreme example of this tendency can be seen in the gravestones of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century southeastern Poland, Ukraine, and Moldavia, where the pediment, richly ornamented and filled with symbolic motifs, constituted almost half of the tombstone, and the main principle of its composition seems to have been horror vacui (see image at left).

The repertoire of motifs employed to decorate tombstones included ornamental architectural elements as well as perhaps 100 symbolic, figurative motifs, often tied together in stylized, complex, and very specialized compositions (see image below, right). Examples of these specialized hieratic schemes include crowns flanked by heraldic lions or deer, the pitcher and bowl of Levite tombstones, professional symbols (such as the caduceus often seen on physicians’ graves), and family symbols (for instance, the flag of the Maccabees on the gravestones of the Tischler family of Silesia and Great Poland).

Tombstones in the “new” cemetery, displaying a variety of figurative motifs, Szydłowiec, Poland, early twentieth century. (YIVO)

The inscription field was often filled with ornamented epitaphs done in relief script, with much variation in the height and style of the letters, and flanked by various sorts of ornamental fringe, pilaster strips (lisene), pilasters, or demicolumns. The epitaph formula was also elaborated, with laudatory and elegaic sections enriched by poetic elements, frequently with rhyming verse (initially monorhymes, then geminate, cruciform, and encircling in form), acrostics, or chronograms. Stylistically, folk literature with its bead-string structure predominated as a model, in the elite version suggestive of biblical figures of speech and employing citations from and allusions to the Bible. More commonly, however, the epitaphs were quite simple, often with spelling and grammar mistakes, using very simple forms and a limited repertoire of formulas. The largest and most remarkable collections of tombstones of this sort are preserved in Satanów, Międzyboż, Sienawa, and Lesko.

Jewish tombstone with German inscription and three-dimensional statuary, Wrocław, dating from 1917. Photograph by Marcin Wodziński. (Courtesy of the photographer)

The development of this style of tombstones in eastern Poland, Ukraine, Moldavia, and Belorussia in the eighteenth century resulted in a growing divergence between the eastern and western parts of East Central Europe. In western Poland, Silesia, and Bohemia, tombstones began to resemble Christian sepulchral art, and in some areas (including small provincial towns such as Lesko, Krotoszyn, Wielowieś, Dobruška, and Rychnov nad Kněžnou) the influence of high-art styles—Baroque, rococo, and, later, classicism—was notable.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sepulchral art underwent a further evolution, moving even closer to Christian artistic traditions. In western regions (Bohemia, Silesia, Pomerania, and Great Poland) historical styles came into widespread use, with obelisks, columns, fully three-dimensional statuary, and larger architectural structures becoming popular, while traditional Jewish symbolism all but disappeared (see image at left). At the same time, German or bilingual (German and Hebrew) inscriptions became widespread, initially written in Hebrew letters, later also in the Latin alphabet, as in Breslau from 1831. In the twentieth century, German inscriptions became prevalent, while some tombstones had the date of birth indicated by an asterisk (that is, the Christian symbol of the star of Bethlehem), and the date of death, by a cross. Similar, though not quite so radical, tendencies were visible throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century Eastern Europe, above all in large urban areas such as Warsaw, Łódź, or Lwów, where various sepulchral art traditions commingled. The first Polish epitaph is found in Warsaw, inscribed on the grave of Antoni Eisenbaum in 1855.

Prefabricated tombstone, an example of mechanical stoneworking, Czeladź, Poland dating from 1926. This cemetery contains many nearly identical tombstones. Photograph by Marcin Wodziński. (Courtesy of the photographer)

In the nineteenth century, the style of more traditional East European sepulchral art also evolved. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, vanitative symbolic elements of non-Jewish origin (e.g., hourglasses, butterflies, pommels, or poppies) became increasingly common. Inscriptions grew increasingly formulaic, stiff, and segmented. The number of available symbolic motifs gradually decreased; at the same time, however, there was a loosening of hieratic symbolic compositions, as a result of which symbols were composed more freely and new compositions of a narrative character began to appear. With the spread of mechanical stoneworking, ornamental plane lettering was replaced by typographic styles, while relief inscriptions gave way to sunken lettering (see image at right).

During the interwar period even the most traditional Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were inundated by prefabricated tombstones, resulting in a marked deterioration in Jewish sepulchral art. Nor was this art reborn after the Holocaust. Jewish tombstones in Eastern Europe are currently made according to generic stoneworking models, with Jewish symbolism principally restricted to a Star of David, while Hebrew is generally used only for the closing formula of the epitaph.

In Eastern Europe today there are several million extant Jewish tombstones, often removed from their original locations and often severely damaged. Despite increasing interest, the subject is still very poorly researched; only a handful of individual cemeteries have been inventoried or systematically documented and studied. Professional documentation of Jewish tombstones in Eastern Europe is a singularly urgent task, given the rapidly progressing devastation of these tombstones due to both vandalism and atmospheric pollution.

Restored polychromatic tombstone of Ya'akov Yitsḥak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, dating from 1815. He died on the Ninth of Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temple. Photograph by Andrzej Trzciłski. (Courtesy of the photographer)

Suggested Reading

Petr Ehl, Arno Pařík, and Jiří Fiedler, Old Bohemian and Moravian Jewish Cemeteries (Prague, 1991); David N. Goberman, Jewish Tombstones in Ukraine and Moldova (Moscow, 1993); Monika Krajewska, A Tribe of Stones: Jewish Cemeteries in Poland (Warsaw, 1993); Otto Muneles and Milada Vilímková, Starý židovský hřbitov v Praze (Prague, 1955); Alexander Scheiber, Jewish Inscriptions in Hungary from the Third Century to 1686 (Budapest and Leiden, 1983); Andrzej Trzciński, Symbole i obrazy: Treści symboliczne przedstawień na nagrobkach żydowskich w Polsce (Lublin, Pol., 1997); Marcin Wodziński, Hebrajskie inskrypcje na Śląsku XIII–XVIII wieku (Wrocław, Pol., 1996).



Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec