Jewish Cemetery


by Leszek Hońdo (Jewish Cemetery in Tarnów, Jagellonian University Press [2002], p.15-29)

It is impossible to unambiguously determine when the Jews first settled in Tarnów. Icchak Schiper thought that they settled at the earliest in the second half of the 16th century, because in 1631 they acted as an organized community with a synagogue and its own cemetery. Nevertheless, the same historian in “the History of Jewish Trade in Poland” cites an organized Jewish community in Tarnów already in the 14th century. However, he does not document this claim. In the files of assessors the oldest notation mentions a Jew Kalef (Iudeus Kalepf de Tarnow) in 1445. By 1507 Tarnów Jews were found in a registrar of Jewish communities of the Crown. Their presence in Tarnow in the 16th century is corroborated by these sources.

During early Polish history Tarnów was in private hands. It belonged to famous families, among them Tarnowscy, Ostrogórscy, Koniecpolscy, and Sanguszcy. Their policy toward Jews was very pragmatic. On one hand they were given privileges similar to townspeople, on the other hand – prohibitions limiting Jewish residence in towns. This is particularly evident during the 17th century when the situation of the Jews changed several times. In the regional museum in Tarnów there are documents pertaining to the Jews of Tarnów, some of which mention the Jewish cemetery. Some of these documents list the privileges granted to the Jews by the owners of the town, other deal with financial matters. Not a single document remains which would indicate when the Jewish cemetery was first established in Tarnów. On the basis of the privileges granted Jews in the 17th century, we can assume that in 1581 the cemetery already existed. The owners of the town mention a privilege for the Jews by Prince Konstanty Ostrogski, voivode of Kiev, published May 4th, 1581, which imposed a penalty of 500 zlp for an attempt to destroy the cemetery.

The oldest document is a contract between the Jews and the city council of Tarnów. The council, led by Mayor Baltazar Bujakowicz, in the presence of the full village court Mayor Tomasz Passer, signed on May 16th, 1631 a bilateral agreement with Zachary Lazarowicz and Salomon his son-in-law. It regulated Jewish tax for the use of the cemetery and a farm bought by the Jewish community. We cite a fragment of the agreement: “Gentlemen of Council, exercising its authority, reached agreement with the Jews that from this time forward Jews of older Tarnów now, and existing in the future, shall pay eight zloty each for this cemetery to the city treasury, per every 30 groszes paid annually for the town hall, in two installments, of which the first two were paid, that is, the first installment of four zlotys was paid on day of Saint John the Baptist this year 1631, and the second installment, also of four zlotys, on the day of Saint Martin, and so each year forever should pay the above named Tarnów Jews or the successors of these Jews. And regarding the enclosure situated at the corner of the cemetery, which shall never more be separated from the cemetery, they should separately pay for it an annual rent in the sum of 12 groszes, as do other subjects without any difficulties and labor, also royal taxes and various other ones, and pledge obedience to the city without any difficulties and excuses. With respect to this rent, gentlemen councilors promised to protect these Jews and obligated their successors with the same responsibilities, so that there should be no provocations or attacks from other subjects of Pogwizdów and other jurisdictions of the town, with the Jews contended and which stopped. And the above-mentioned Tarnów Jews, Zachary and Salomon, obliged themselves and their progeny, all the Jews of Tarnów, to adhere to this same contract and forever hold and pay on time such other designated sum if they were not submit an installment. To this end for a stronger agreement a stamp of the town Council is applied.” The Jews had to fulfill this obligation, since in the list of City of Tarnów revenues and expenditures from the beginning of 1632 to 8th of January 1633, there appears a notation of an annual rent from the cemetery in the amount of 8 zlotys and 12 groszes. Władysław Dominik, Prince of Ostróg and Zasław, Count of Tarnów, on request of the city council affirmed on the 7th of March, 1633 significant restrictions of Tarnów Jews. On the 3rd of July 1637 he changed the ordinances pertaining to the Jews. Among the given privileges there appeared an item related to the cemetery:
“…both the synagogue and the cemetery have to be left in peace from any provocations or wantonness, which city council has to enforce, defending them…”
Alexander Janusz, Prince of Zasław, Heir to the City of Tarnów, confirmed on the 18th of May, 1670, the existing privileges of the Tarnów Jews, which included a law about the inviolability of the cemetery:
“A right to a synagogue given to them by us in Kraków on the 17th of March 1632, approved by the government, is retained and strengthened. Likewise we are leaving in full force their right to a cemetery, or burial place, in Pogwizdów according to extracts of city records de Actu Feria Sexta post Dominicam Jubilate 1631. Their places, both the synagogue and the cemetery, are to be left in peace from any provocations or wantonness. Thus the city council has to enforce and protect them – according to the above mentioned letter of the saintly memory His Grace Konstanty, which clearly states these rights and reinforces them with a penalty of five hundred zlotys for violations.”

Michał Kazimierz Radziwiłł, Prince of Ołyka and Nieśwież, citing prior privileges of the Jews, granted on the 17th of February, 1676 in Kraków a privilege in which he excludes the Jews from the jurisdiction of the city and places them under the royal court. At the same time he recommends that they be entitled to specified powers on par with the townspeople.
“Exercising our powere, we retain and strengthen the right to a synagogue granted to them in Kraków on the 17th of March 1632, approved by our predecessors. Likewise, we are leaving in full force their right to their cemetery or their burial ground in Pogwizdów located according to extracts of city records de Actu Feria Sexta post Dominicam Jubilate 1631. Their places, both the synagogue and the cemetery are to be left in peace form any provocations or wantonness. This city council has to enforce (…) Being according to the above mentioned letter of the saintly memory His Grace Konstanty, which clearly states these rights and reinforces them with a penalty of five hundred zlotys for violations.”

A privilege to the Jews was also enacted by the other co-owner of the town, Stanisław Koniecpolski, count of Tarnów on the 27th of February 1676. Citing prior privileges of the Jews, excluded them from the jurisdiction of the city and placed them under the royal court and recommended that they be entitled to specified powers on par with the townspeople. The text contains a remark regarding the cemetery:
“Both the synagogue and the cemetery are to be left in peace from any provocations or wantonness, which city council has to enforce.”
Even before the fall of the republic, Jews paid taxes for the cemetery. In the summary of payments of the village Pogwizdów to the town of Tarnow of May 15th, 1763 there appears a payment in the sum of 3 zloty of a poll tax. In turn a landlord living there was obligated to pay 3 zlotys of a poll tax, 16 zlotys of rent, and contribute 15 work days.

During the first partition, Tarnów fell under Austrian control and Jewish cemeteries became subject to Austrian jurisdiction. A decree of Joseph II issued on the 23rd of August, 1784 ordered an immediate transfer of cemeteries from populated areas and defined a method for their relocation. The decree pertained to the cemeteries surrounding churches of Tarnów, yet it did not pertain to the Jewish cemetery in Tarnów because it was located outside the city limits. The Jews of Tarnów visited their cemetery, about 1 kilometer distant from the town, by a path through the buildings of Pogwizdów village. In 1775 one of the landlords of Pogwizdów, in the course of erecting a fence, moved it in a way that obstructed the path. The Jewish Community brought a complaint to city council, attesting that this landlord, “with his fence, unlawfully extended into the street, encroached an elbow into the public path.” The council ordered this landlord to move his fence.

Even though Tarnów found itself within the Habsburg monarchy after the first partition, the city maintained an autonomous system of municipal authorities which was formed before the partition. Prince Heronim Sanguszko waived his rights over the city only in 1787. In the same year the Austrians ordered elections of a new city government. In the submitted earnings of the town from that year one finds a note that “rent for the cemetery located in the grounds of the city is paid by the Kahal annually in the sum of 4 florins.”
The Jews of Tarnów had a hospital, which was located on Żydowska [Jewish] Street, hence within the city limits. Effective sanitary laws in Galicia forced them to close it in 1840 because it “happened to be located in the middle of the city”. With the help of the county the Jewish community built a new hospital at Szpitalna Street. It was inaugurated on the 26th of January 1842. On the 14th of May 1842 it was entered into an official registry of Galician hospitals. The document of incorporation, signed by the foreman Joseph Breindl, Mayor of town Ignacy Hingler, and representatives of the Jewish community, among others, contains a notation that for its upkeep and activity the Jewish community will contribute income from a bath-house, synagogues and praying houses, birthday collections, weddings, haircuts, aliyoth to Torah, and contributions to tzedaka (charity) boxes located in public places. The document lists two more sources that were taxed to support the hospital, namely the monies collected during gatherings in the case of death, and unveiling of tombstones at the cemetery.3 It is hard to ascertain how much burials cost at the time. Tarnów press reported in 1844 that it depended on the wealth of the family. At the time the payments were 5 zlotys and up. According to “Union”, the heirs of Lazar Maschler paid 5,000 zlotys, Wolf Kahane – 1,000 zlotys for the burial of his wife, while the heir of Wolf Kahane – 2,200. Izrael Hudas had to pay 1,500 for his wife. Listed are also Józef Fast – 600 zlotys, Beile Fast – 600 zlotys, Aleksander Goldmann – 300 zlotys. B Rosenzweig -300 zlotys for his wife, and Jakób Salomon – 300 zlotys.

The presence of two payments related to burial is also noted in the Statute of the Jewish community in Tarnów, which contains an established maximal burial payment of 1,000 kroner. This payment pertained to an ordinary grave in an ordinary cemetery location. Permission for a grave in a specific place or a family grave was being granted on the basis of a separate agreement with the Jewish community board. A separate payment pertained to a permit for erecting a monument (tombstone) at the maximal sum of 400 kroner, while the width of the tombstone could not exceed 1 meter. Erecting a larger tombstone hinged on a separate agreement with the community board. Interestingly, the Polish version of this bilingual statute is missing the following sentence present in the German version:
“Those lacking funds are exempt from the burial tax and for a permit to erect a tombstone.”
The magnitude of the sums involved in the agreements with the Jewish community for selecting the burial places and erecting the tombstones can be ascertained from a dispute which appeared in 1914 in the pages of Tarnów press. Availing itself of the courtesy of the editorial board of “Pogoń”, the Jewish Community Board published the names of the persons and the sums of their contributions toward the building of the new Jewish Hospital. One of the readers asked why the list of the donors did not include Israel Wechsler and Szaje Silberpfenning, even though they donated 20,000 kroner. In the next issue of “Pogoń” Jewish Community Board clarified that the listed sum was donated by the heirs of Chana Mindi Aberdamow (from her estate) in 1913. It was a payment for selecting a place at the cemetery and erecting a tombstone.

During the interwar period the fees for the burials were set by the board of the Kahal (Board of the Jewish community) according to its ordinances. In 1929 the maximal fee per grave was 5,000 zlotys. For comparison, the board of the Warsaw community on June 5th, 1930, approved a schedule of fees in which the maximal rate was assessed for erecting a sculpted tombstone from granite or marble – 1,200 zlotys. Similarly fees for a burial and a plot at the most desirable location amounted to 1000 zlotys plus at least 3,000 zlotys. This schedule was approved on the 22nd of November 1935 and did not list any maximum. Regardless, as a base fee, it was still lower than in Tarnów. At the beginning of the 1880s, the Tarnów press came out against Jewish traditions related to burials. It reported that the deceased were buried in graves only 80 cm deep. A more compelling argument was that the Jewish burials were decidedly contrary to health rules followed by the Christian population. Although it was forbidden to bury the dead within 48 hours of death for fear of only an apparent death (a mistake in declaring death), Jews were burying their deceased as soon after death as possible. They were carried from the houses of mourning to the cemetery without caskets, on open biers barely covered with a shroud. This situation prevailed in the entire Galicja, since on June 22nd, 1884, the government issued a circular about the caskets at the burials of the Israelites (i.23 894):
“Bodies of the deceased Israelites must be transported from the houses where the death occurred to the local cemetery unequivocally in tightly closed caskets, regardless of the distance to the cemetery or the nature of the illness which was the cause of death, regardless of presence or absence of a widespread disease.”

This obligation was imposed on the authorities of Jewish communities and the persons responsible for the burials, including the family of the deceased. Previous general rules regarding burials in the coffins must have been ineffective, since the government adopted an ordinance which carried a penalty of 100 zlotys or 14 days in jail for transporting and burying bodies without caskets. Another problem with traditional practice was photographing corpses. Bodies of deceased children were carried to photo studios while bodies of adults were photographed directly in their homes. It is not clear to what extend this problem pertained to the Jews. It was however a widespread custom which did not exempt people who succumbed to contagious diseases. Therefore an ordinance was issued on March 14th, 1891 regarding measures against spreading disease during taking of the photographs of dead bodies:

“ 1. Transfer of bodies to photography shops is forbidden.
2. Photographing the dead of infectious diseases by professional photographers is forbidden. An exception is granted only for photographing bodies in cases required by the courts or police and approved by the authorities.
3. As to the persons dead of noncontagious diseases, photographing their bodies in their own homes is permitted only if approved by the doctor who conducted post-mortem inspection.”

Along with the spread of liberal tendencies and the establishment of a synagogue in Tarnów for assimilated Jews (Temple Association at 10 Saint Anne Street, operating in Tarnów since 1890), there arose even among the Jews themselves attempts to alter prior traditions relating to burials. Among other matters, the Temple Association undertook an effort to collect funds to purchase a Jewish hearse. However, prior Jewish traditions must have been too strong, as the Tarnów press, fighting all symptoms of “backwardness”, did not note a positive change nor did it report any use of that hearse. The only known changes in Jewish burial traditions among progressive circles appears to be the presence of flowers during the funerals, similar to those at Christian cemeteries. Some families decided to forego wreaths placed on caskets in favor of donations to charitable organizations. In 1907, for example, a donation in the sum of 20 kroner was given to the Association of Poor Jewish Youth. This custom became widespread during the interwar years.

Since the beginning of the 19th century registry books were kept in Tarnów. Starting in the 20th century at the end of each year there are notations that the registry was managed by Izydor Brand. Likewise in the “Schematyzm Tarnowa” there is information that in 1913 and 1914 Izydor Brand was in charge of the registry. Before World War I, the Jewish Registry Office was located at 3 Zdrojowa Street (after 1913 known as Goldhammer Street). The “Głos Tarnowski” from that period, years 1906-1910, which often attacked the management board of the Jewish community, published a note about abuses by the cemetery manager. One of his opponents on the Jewish Community Board demanded that the cemetery manager not collect cemetery dues and not pocket them for private use. He further requested that cemetery dues be paid directly to the Community Board. The request was approved. As a symbolic gesture of resigning his position, the cemetery manager sent to the Jewish Community Board the Cemetery Records Book. After long and stormy debates the Board decided not to accept this resignation by “a ceremonial return to his home of the Cemetery Records by four respected members of the community.”

During World War I Tarnów was for the longest time the western-most point of Russian invasion into Galicia. This was a result of an unsuccessful Russian offensive on Kraków and halting of the front along the rivers Dunajec and Biała. Tarńow cemetery has some tombstones of soldiers from that period. If the fallen soldiers were identified as Jews, they were buried separately in military quarters in the existing local Jewish cemeteries, unlike Christian soldiers routinely buried in common graves. A catalogue of completed works of the Branch for Matters of Military Graves contains information about cemetery nr. 201 situated at the Jewish cemetery in Tarnów. It included 43 individual graves marked with cement tombstones. Most of those preserved (20) tombstones are presently located along the wall at Słoneczna Street. Two tombstones were found in the middle of the cemetery. It is not apparent from a sketch in the catalogue that there was a separate military quarter. A few surviving tombstones have Hebrew inscriptions. Form these it appears that the interred died in different periods. This indicates that they received a spot available in the cemetery at the time and that there was no separate quarters for the soldiers.

There is one episode from World War I related to the cemetery. From November 10th, 1914 until May 6th, 1915 Tarnów was occupied by the Russian army. In January 1915 the Russian commander of the town, lieutenant colonel Markow, demanded 14 hostages, because he suspected the residents of Tarnów of contacting Austrian forces which were shelling Tarnów from across the river Dunajec. In the middle of February the Russians found a telephone connection next to the Jewish cemetery. Therefore the Jews were accused of collaborating with the Austrians. 31 Jewish hostages were taken and deported deep into Russia, among other places into Nizhny Novgorod.

Reclamation of Polish independence gave rise to an increase in activity of Jewish political parties and an unceasing struggle for influence in the town council and within the Jewish community. The structure of Jewish communities was first normalized by law on April 5th, 1928. In 1928 Zionists won 8 seats in the contests for 20 places in the Jewish Community Council. After the election they arranged for an alliance with the orthodox group of Meir Löw and led the council. Management set itself a task of improving community economy. Getting the cemetery in order was one of the issues to be addressed.

Three influential parties began to vigorously oppose the Zionists: the Bund; the Orthodox, led by Dr. Zygmunt Silberger; and the People’s Party of Tarnów Deputy Mayer, Herman Mütz. In 1929, a prior ally moved to the opposition and the budget which included funds for the cemetery was not approved. Under the heading of expenditures, there was an entry for the cemetery personnel (5,825 zlotys) and expenditures for cemetery (12,500 zlotys). In turn the income from the burial fees came to 20,000 zlotys. At the time the situation of the community was exceptionally dire because the income covered only the current expenses. There was no money to fund urgent projects, for example renovation of the community buildings which had not been renovated since World War I. For this cause the community decided to take a mortgage loan from the Savings Bank of Tarnów in order to pay the debts and drain the cemetery. The Community Board took out a loan for the sum of 8,000 dollars. From this sum it paid for an x-ray machine and paid for a site for a new cemetery. Security for the loan consisted of the bath house, cemetery building and the purchased site.

In April of 1930 a budget was approved for 1930-1931 in which the expenditures for the maintenance of the cemetery amounted to 16,513.75 zlotys, while projected income from the burial fees was 40,000 zlotys. That same year, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the founding of Tarnow, Aniela Piszowa published a book which contained a piece about the Jewish Cemetery. The author listed the privileges on the basis of which the Jews were allowed to establish a cemetery. She reported that the oldest readable date at the time was the year 1642.

A persistent infighting with mutual accusations between the parties caused the director of the Jewish Community, Dr. Henryk Ehrenfreund, to resign his post in February of 1931. This was a decisive factor in recalling the current management and establishing a receivership headed by Dr. Zygmunt Silbiger, who was accused of causing the fall of the democratically elected management. “Tygodnik Żydowski” attacked him under numerous pretexts, including the matter of the cemetery:

“The head of the receivership hits… thus on the 16th of this month (August 1931) an indigent eighty year old man, Leib Meschel, who came to the Jewish cemetery to collect a few groszes from those visiting the graves. During the month of Elul it is customary for Jews to visit the graves of their relatives. It became commonplace to give small handouts to the poor at that time. However, to protect visitors to the cemetery from beggars, the prior management directed that beggars may panhandle only in front of the cemetery. Leib Meschel, trembling and barely standing erect, had crossed over from the area designated for panhandling. When on the 16th of this month the “manager” of the Jewish community, Dr. Silbiger, arrived at the cemetery and saw there the old man quietly waiting for donations, this “manager” yelled at and cursed the poor man.(…) But that was not enough (…) he brutally kicked old Leib Meschel in his posterior . The 80-year old man felt the foot of the “manager”, fell, and hurt himself so badly that instead of the money he almost had to collect his own bones…”

Begging around the cemetery was a nuisance. A charitable organization “Tzedakah”, created in 1928 at the initiative of the Jewish community in order to combat begging in the city, proposed in 1937 to solve the problem of panhandling during the burials and visits to the cemetery. A charity box was supposed to be placed at the office of the cemetery to collect donations from all the cemetery visitors. Registered beggars would be supported from these donations. It is not known whether this initiative helped to solve the problem of begging around the cemetery.

By the beginning of 1932 there were disputes in the management. Aware of uncertainty of his situation and that of the receivership, Dr. Silbiger circulated a letter reporting on his activities. One of the achievements he mentioned was erecting the wall around the cemetery at the cost of 35,000 zlotys.

Before the Second World War stubborn infighting among the Jewish parties was evident in every aspect of life. It did not bypass the cemetery. “Tygodnik Żydowski” writes about the desecration of the cemetery:
“A few days ago there was a funeral of a tragically deceased Jewish laborer. “Freethinkers” of the Bund considered it appropriate to discharge their revolutionary zeal at the Jewish cemetery with the singing of their songs and uncovering their heads. How far this incident affected the Jewish opinion can be seen from an edict by Hevra Kadisha labeling such behavior as a desecration. (…) Bund members have no luck. In everything they have imitators who are trying to “do the Bund one better” in radicalism. Leftist “Poale Zion” also made sure to have their own “cemetery spectacle.” A week later they also misbehaved.”

During the interwar period there were several incidents of using the cemetery as a hiding place for stolen goods. Thieves robbed a store of Michał Honig and hid the merchandise in the cemetery. Such desecrations of the cemetery were not exclusively the results of illegal actions by the Jews. For example, Tarnów court held a case against a band of thieves who robbed, among others, Blaseers’ store for leather goods, and hid the goods in the tomb of a former deputy Mayor Eliasz Goldhammer.

On the fourth of September 1933 Wilhelm Waldemar Brand, director of the Jewish Registry Office, lodged a complaint with the Tarnów prosecutor’s office against Szymon Appel, a caretaker of the Tarnów cemetery, who concealed from the registry office two cases of death and misappropriated registry fees. One case concerned the body of Mendel Fajkar who shot himself in the Hotel Poland on the 28th of August, 1933, and the other, Scheindel Kołacz from Nowy Korczyn. Both parties were interrogated; however, the evidence presented did not make it possible to ascertain the guilt of Mr. Appel. Finally on the 15th of June, 1934 the case was dismissed due to the lack of evidence. Mr. W.W. Brand did win a case in Tarnów court about defamation. He was accused in 1935 by Dawid Freireich of illegally reaping property benefits.

There was an article published by I. Schiper in “Tygodnik Żydowski” about the Sexton, Appel. He claimed that in the Jewish cemetery there was a separate area for martyrs. He told the story, quoting stories repeated by Tarnów Jews about the martyrs murdered by Russian soldiers on the Mountain of Saint Marcin. The author searched cemetery records and found a note about 7 people killed in 1809. He concluded that the murders must have happened in Tarnów during the stay of the Russian Army. Here is that note:
1. On the Holy Shabbat of the fourth day of Chol Hamoed Sukkot, fell martyred Rabbi Aron grandfather of Rabbi Chaim, the superior of the rabbinical court in Zielin and Wolbróm. He was buried on Sunday (Hoshanah Rabbah) in the new cemetery.
2. On the same day fell martyred Mr. Icyk with his brother martyred Mr. David. They were buried on Hoshanah Rabbah.
3. On the same day fell martyred Reb Ezra, who was also buried on the same day as above.
4. On the same day was killed martyr Zelig Katz, who was also buried on that day.
5. On the same day was also killed and buried Master Moyshe.
6. On the same day fell martyred Reb Mechel, who was also buried on the same day as all of the above.
Unfortunately it proved impossible to find the tombstones of these persons. Only a note about their death was found in the book of the deceased for the year 1809. That note differs from the one cited above from the cemetery records. It also contains last names. Thus we know that the killed were Aron Gullmann, Isaak and David Liepmans, Esra Meyers, Selig Nachem, Osher Mayers, and Michael Selig.

Nazi occupation brought the extermination of the Jewish population. From the first day of theoccupation of Poland, the Germans began a campaign of terror and destruction. Before the onset of the systematic and planned extermination of the Jews, the occupying powers issued a series of regulations aimed at their psychological and physical affliction. It included a regulation of the 20th of October, 1939 about the mandatory wearing by the Jews of white armbands with a sewn on Star of David. Noncompliance with this regulation was punished by prison or being sent to a camp. With the creation of the General Government, mandatory work for all persons age 14 to 60 was introduced. In November of the same year all Jewish bank accounts were blocked. All Jewish stores and companies were to be marked with a white Star of David.

The doors and shop windows of Jewish restaurants and cafes also had to be marked. An order was issued to register the Jews. Lists which would later make the extermination easier included men and women separately, as well as division by profession, and three age groups: up to 16 years old, 16 to 60, and over 60. The beginning of 1940 ushered in further restrictions on the Jews. Among the actions prohibited were changing the place of residence and using railways. In April 1940 an order was issued prohibiting Jews from entering parks. Curfew, which also affected Poles, was extended for the Jews. Those Jews living on Krakowska and Wałowa streets were ordered to vacate their premises within 12 hours. Their homes were later taken over by the Germans.

Jews were subject to additional repressions. They were robbed and murdered by the occupiers Between the 9th and 11th of November 1939, Nazis burned and destroyed all the synagogues in Tarnów. In the summer of 1940 the Jews were expelled from their homes and rounded up at the market. At that time their homes were systematically robbed under the pretext of a general search. Over a dozen of the most respected citizens were deported to Auschwitz, where they perished. Executions were also taking place in Tarnów itself. For example on the 24th of April 1942, 56 people who returned to Tarnów by various means from Lwów were murdered. In spite of the terror, Jewish population was attempting to “live normal lives.” Until 1942 burials were taking place at the cemetery. To this day, a few tombstones of those deceased in 1940 and 1941 can be located. Most of them are in area H along the main path. Occasionally they are found in the areas of the graves from the inter-war period. For example tombstones near the entrance belong to Abraham Leifer (deceased 1940), Amalia Berfeld (deceased 1941), Lila Scheindligem and Selig Stechler (deceased 1941). These burials are corroborated by the preserved registry of the deceased. Setting of these tombstones in their current location is random, because as late as the beginning of the 1990s these tombstones were lying in scattered heaps.

The decision about the final solution to the Jewish question (Endlösung der Judenfrage) – extermination of about 11 million Jews living in the areas under the control of the Third Reich – was made on the 20th of January 1942 at the Wannsee conference at the outskirts of Berlin. Beginning in February of 1942 the Nazis began the so-called “campaign of expulsion” of the Jews to the concentration camps. This was accompanied by frequent local mass executions. In Tarnów, such a campaign was conducted from 11th to 18th of June, 1942. At the time about 40,000 Jews resided in town. Of these some 3,000 were murdered and buried at the cemetery. Mass executions were also conducted there at previously prepared pits:
“At the Jewish cemetery twenty Jews dug two long and wide pits for the victims shot by the German murderers. After the pits were dug, these twenty Jews who dug them were executed. At the same time hell was reigning at the marketplace. Kneeling Jews were tormented and beaten. The youngest children were murdered without wasting bullets. Gestapo or Ukrainian outcasts of society would grab innocent crying children by the legs and smash their heads against the stone pavement or a wall. Jewish blood was flowing in the gutters which stretched from the marketplace into the town in various directions.”

About 10,000 people were deported to Belzec concentration camp, and about 6,000 children and elderly were shot in Buczyna Forest in Zbylitowska Góra near Tarnów because the mass graves at the cemetery were already overfilled. The remaining Jewish population was forced into a newly created ghetto. This is how Józef Korniło recalls those days:
“After finishing the horrible action of mass murder, the so-called deportation, German executioners began to chase the surviving Jews to toil at cleaning the streets and removing the marks of the bloody massacre. I, too, was selected for this work. It mainly consisted of loading the bodies of murdered Jews onto peasant carriages and transporting them to the cemetery. Trucks and simple carriages filled with dead Jews were all arriving there. Right at the gate to the cemetery heaps of dead bodies piled up. Then the actual work began. First the clothes were pulled off of the deceased. Their naked bodies were thrown into prepared pits. The clothing was sent to storage at the Czacki School. Frequently, among the dead, seriously wounded Jews, still barely breathing, were encountered. As an act of “mercy” they were shot by Gestapo. There we worked for two days.” The period between “the actions” was almost daily filled with executions of remaining Jews. The Chevra Kadisha was used to clear the bodies. They tried to observe the Jewish burial laws while burying the bodies. Even before beginning the systematic liquidation of the Tarnów Jews, the Gestapo increased the number of people working for Chevra Kadisha to 50 people. The work in the Chevra was very hard and did not guarantee survival as some of the Jews might have believed. A. Chomet remembers one of them:
“Among them was Jechiel Meirl, a religious old man. (…) As a member of Chevra Kadisha he was often called to a Gestapo yard they often executed Jews, the bodies of which he had to clean up. The other members of the Chevra were afraid to go to the Gestapo yard. As soon as the old man Jechiel Meirl would hear that there was a body of a martyr in the Gestapo yard, he would immediately go there in order to bury the body according to the Jewish ritual laws. (…) One morning he learned that a murdered Jew was lying in one of the yards at Goldhammer Street. That man was accused by his servant woman of being a Bolshevik who recently returned from the region controlled by the Soviet government. All the neighbors were warning the old man not to go where the victim was lying, because it was not clear whether the Germans left the place yet. But he was clinging to his convictions – caring for the dead is one of the most holy mitzvoth. He went to the place of the crime and started taking care of the body. Rommelmann, the murderer, recognized him from afar. The old man fell on top of the body of the earlier victim, shot to death.”
The second action in Tarnów took place 16th – 18th September, 1942, and the third on the 15th of November 1942. The final liquidation of the Tarnów ghetto took place 2nd – 3rd September, 1943. Only a group of 300 people, so called Sauberungskolonne, was left in the town. It was supposed to clean up the area of the ghetto. After the action was completed, a thorough search of all the houses was conducted. A few hundred Jews discovered in shelters, bunkers, and sewers were shot. In November of 1943 the few remaining Jews of Tarnów were deported to a concentration camp in Szebnie near Jasło.
The Nazis not only murdered the Jews, they also destroyed all the traces of their existence in the city. The Jewish cemetery was supposed to share the fate of the Tarnów Jews. In 1942 the tombstones made of sandstone were used to strengthen the roadways and pavements. Up until the 1990s, the supporting wall surrounding the square near the post office was constructed from the stones taken from the Jewish tombs. They were placed in such a way that the sides with inscriptions were covered by dirt. Only small ornaments remained visible to betray their origin. Now the stones from that wall have been collected at the cemetery. Some of them still show the remnants of Hebrew inscriptions. The Germans were planning to build a swimming pool from the marble tombstones. However this plan was not realized. The scale of the devastation at the cemetery can be seen by examining the areas of the inter-war period, where the tombstones were numbered. In some places most of the tombstones are missing. Their absence is evident from the remaining bases.
After the war a Jewish community was resurrected in the city. It was formed by a few individual who survived under the German occupation and those who returned from the Soviet Union. A newly created Jewish Committee took care of the Jews returning to the city. One of the first decisions was to collect at the cemetery all the tombstones scattered throughout the city. It is impossible to know how many tombstones were returned to their original places. On the 11th of June, 1946, on the anniversary of the first extermination, a monument created by Dawid Becker was unveiled at the location of a mass grave. After the war exhumations were performed at the Tarnów cemetery. This is documented by the boards placed on the graves of Naftali Herz and Israel Ekiba Bernstein, which speak of transferring the remains to Jerusalem in 1964. Many more bodies were exhumed from other places and buried in the Tarnów Cemetery. For example, preserved documents of the Jewish Faith Congregation in Tarnów from 1949 testify about remains brought from Rzędzin (4 persons), Gromnik (5 persons) and Świebodzin. Among these were the bodies of Mojżesz Maiz and Rafał Fries who were murdered by the Nazis in 1942 and buried in a common grave. The labor was financed by a Mixed Commission at The Organizational Committee of the Jewish Congregations in Poland. Next to the tombstone of M. Maiz and R. Fries are buried the remains of Nachum Yehuda […] and Trajna Kahane murdered in Górnik. Where the other exhumed bodies were buried at the cemetery is not known.

In 1976 Jewish cemetery in Tarnów was registered as a national landmark. Despite this designation which should protect this site, in 1978, the Provincial Directorate for Development of Urban and Rural Settlements commenced efforts to transfer a part of the cemetery amounting to 2,652 square meters for a widening of Starodąbrowska Street. It was supposed to be a 22 meter strip of land. To advance this effort, the President of Tarnów met with the remaining small group of Tarnów Jews. In the end the Congregation of Mosaic Faith in Kraków, to which the Jews of Tarnów belonged, did not agree to this transfer. Restructuring of the streets Starodąbrowska and Słoneczna was achieved without disturbing the cemetery. This restructuring elevated the street level relative to the cemetery, which in turn had a negative impact on the state of the wall.

On the 6th of January 1988, there was a meeting to form a Committee for the Protection of Monuments of Jewish Culture. Its members were Jews originating from Tarnów currently scattered throughout the World, and Poles interested in preserving Jewish culture. As its first goal, the committee proposed renovation of the cemetery. In that same year, efforts to build a new fence along the side of the Starodąbrowska and Słoneczna streets and renovate the wall along Szpitalna Street began. These works were completed in 1990. Simultaneously the task of clearing trees and shrubs at the cemetery was launched. In 1989 a confusion surfaced relating to a protracted case aiming at establishing the rightful owner of the cemetery. In 1990, at the request of an attorney representing the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and with the approval of the provincial conservation officer and the Minister of Arts and Culture, a replica of the cemetery gate was constructed by the local firm, Biedrońscy. A proposal to transport the Tarnów cemetery entrance gate to the Holocaust Museum in Washington sparked a protest by local authorities and was met with a categorical refusal by the provincial governor, who agreed only to the transfer of the replica, not the original gate. His refusal was based on the fact that since 1962 the cemetery was the property of the national treasury. However, the museum negotiated an agreement with the Congregation of Mosaic Faith in Kraków, which began efforts to reclaim ownership of the cemetery. As a result, in 1991 the original gate was taken by then President of Poland Lech Wałęsa, who decided during his visit to the USA, to donate some relics from the holocaust to the Museum. The place of the original gate was taken by the replica. And so it remains to this day. During the 1990s, under the auspices of the Committee for Protection of Monuments of Jewish Culture and the Congregation of Mosaic Faith in Kraków, the lawful caretaker of the cemetery, the tombstones lying along the main path and those collected after the war from the streets were reset.

Translated by Russ Maurer