The Old Jewish Cemetery of Wroclaw, Poland

It may sound odd to some, but we’ve visited a fair share of cemeteries on our travels. It’s not morbid or creepy in my opinion - I am just interested in observing how cemeteries vary in different places. And walking around, looking at sculptures and art on tombstones, is like walking through an outdoor museum of sorts. At least that’s how I see it.

When I found out there was the Old Jewish Cemetery in Wroclaw, I definitely wanted to go. Not only did it involve a cemetery, but it combined another area that interests me - Jewish history. So off we set to the south section of Wroclaw, away from the city center to see the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in town. By its name, you might think it is hundreds of years old. In reality, it’s not that old - it was created in the mid-19th century. 

It was fashionable in that time to create cemeteries that placed tombstones in natural, park-like settings. Though walking through the cemetery today, it felt very natural. It was a bit overgrown and wild, as if to say its existence was remarkable in the face of years of neglect. I don’t think the atmosphere it emanates is too far from the truth. During WWII, the Nazis actually used the cemetery as a fortress and you can see bullet holes from the fighting that took place. Afterwards, this place was forgotten until it was recognized as a city monument of Wroclaw in 1975, and restoration measures finally began.

This tombstone with the menorah marks the grave of famous rabbi Ferdinand Rosenthal and his wife.

To really enjoy a visit here, it is essential to purchase the booklet written on this Old Jewish Cemetery (by Maciej Lagiewski). I tend to be cheap on things like this, but Michael talked me into buying it and it changed our visit immensely. Why’s that? Because our time walking around became another scavenger hunt. No gnomes this time though - we were on the look out for specific artistic elements as indicated in the booklet. 

I always thought of Christian tombs typically having a cross of some sort, and Jewish ones with the Star of David. But there is so much more! We started to learn about the sepulchral art of the Ashkenazi Jews and the symbolism involved. If you notice a broken candle on a tombstone, it means that woman’s life ended young. A set of hands indicates that person was a descendant of Aaron. Some were more secular and had symbols indicating that person’s profession, such as a helmet for a soldier. 

A set of hands on a tombstone indicates that person was a descendant of Aaron.

And so our scavenger hunt began! We tried to spot as many symbols as we could as we made our way through the overgrown plot. There were some more rare symbols that we eventually had to give up on finding - like there were only two butterfly engravings in the cemetery to express the soul’s eternal life. And search as we did, we couldn’t come up with the one rare deer engraving in the cemetery, symbolizing the Naphtali tribe. But we did find some engravings of our own that were not mentioned, so we took the liberty of coming to our own conclusions:

Our book didn't mention this symbol, so we're assuming this person was part of the Illuminati...

You can see in this grouping of tombstones a sculpture of a tree chopped off, leaving behind the trunk. It is a metaphor for a sudden death.

A jug of water indicates that person was a descendant of the Levites (because the Levites wash the hands of the priests).

I have to say, this turned out to be one of the most interesting cemeteries I have visited in my travels!

Do you ever visit cemeteries while on vacation? 


Old Jewish Cemetery of Wroclaw (Stary Cmentarz Żydowski)
Ślężna 37/39, 52-443 Wrocław
Open daily 10am-6pm, in autumn and winter open until dusk                                
Admission: from 7 pln to 20 pln, free on Thursday
Make sure you buy the book the Old Jewish Cemetery by Maciej Lagiewski for a great explanation of the cemetery and the tombstone artwork.