After my wife and I examined the records at the Polish State Archives in Racibórz, our English-speaking research guide, Ms. Malgosia Ploszaj, suggested we visit the site of the former Jewish Cemetery once located on Leobschützerstrasse [today: Wilczej Górze and Fojcik głubczycki streets] on the outskirts of Raciborz. (Figure 1) Knowing family members had
once been buried here, I was particularly intrigued to see their final resting place. Malgosia had already warned my wife and me that the Jewish Cemetery no longer exists as such but consists merely of ivy-covered pathways meandering through a forested area scattered with fragmentary pieces of headstones (Figure 2), a cemetery originally 5 acres in extent. Beyond the occasional piece of headstone, the only original element of the former Jewish cemetery is the front entrance gate.
According to the International Jewish Cemetery Project (IJCP), this cemetery served the Jewish Community from about 1817 until the last two burials were placed here, respectively, in 1940 and 1941; by their estimate, no more than 200 Jews remained at the time of the “Final Solution” in Ratibor in 1942. While it may ultimately have been the intention of the Nazis to systematically destroy all Jewish cemeteries, by the end of the Third Reich some were still left intact, including the one in Ratibor. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, although its location on the outskirts of town may partially explain why it was not destroyed. However, with no surviving postwar Jewish community to tend the graveyard, nature was in effect gradually reclaiming it. Consequently, by 1973, a decision was taken by the Communist authorities to, in the words of the IJCP, “decommission the cemetery [and allow] masons from the surrounding area . . .to reuse them [the headstones] in Catholic cemeteries.” IJCP describes the gravestones dating from the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries as “. . .black, white or pink marble or granite and sandstone. . .in traditional shapes or obelisks, boulders and more artistic forms with a wide array of decoration.” The inscriptions were a combination of Hebrew and German. Supposedly, following the Jewish cemetery’s decommissioning, it was used as a community garden.
Tangentially, I became intrigued about the destruction of Jewish culture. There is a widely circulated notion that once having exterminated the Jews, the Nazis planned a “Museum to an Extinct Race”; in 2015, while on a walking tour of WWII sites in Prague, our tour guide in fact brought this up. Prague is widely associated as the place where this museum was to be located because upwards of 100,000 Jewish liturgical, religious, historical, and archival objects were archived there at the Central Jewish Museum. Suffice it to say, the idea of such a museum is a myth and there never existed a Nazi plan to create such a museum. The phrase “Museum to an Extinct Race” was in fact coined by Jews following WWII. For readers interested in reading about this myth, I direct them to a video of a fascinating lecture given by Dale Bluestein, former Director of the “Memorial Scrolls Trust”: https://vimeo.com/120373842
In recent years, the Polish schools have apparently taken an interest in re-discovering their Jewish history. Malgosia showed me the product of one such endeavor, a booklet prepared by local students and published by the European Union, written in both Polish and German. This booklet is entitled in German “Vergessene Geschichte der Juden aus dem Ratiborer Lande,” which translates roughly as “Forgotten history of the Jews from the land of Ratibor.” (Figure 3) The cover page includes a hand-tinted drawing of the former Jewish synagogue, along with additional pictures inside showing the conflagration as it was destroyed on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938.
Following Kristallnacht, the Moorish synagogue (Figure 4), which had originally been built in 1889, survived as a ruin until 1958, when Communist authorities demolished it.
Inside this publication are multiple photographs of the headstones of the former Jewish cemetery, amazingly, including one of my great-grandparents grave, Hermann Berliner (1840-1910) and Olga Berliner, nee Braun (1853-1920). (Figures 5, 6) Malgosia graciously obtained an original copy of this booklet for me, and explained that the majority of the headstones from the former Jewish cemetery were photographed before the gravestones were disposed of. It remains unclear whether these photographs were taken by a well-intentioned individual
interested in documenting history, or by the Polish Security Services with some nefarious purpose in mind to further “torment” dead Jews and their descendants come back to reclaim stolen Jewish property.
The most remarkable thing, I came to discover, is that the original photographs of all the headstones from the former Jewish cemetery are archived at the Muzeum Raciborzu. (Figure 7) My wife and I learned of their existence too late to actually schedule a visit there in 2014, but immediately upon my return to the States that year, I contacted one of the curators at the museum and asked
if we could examine these photos on a subsequent visit; the archivist indicated this would present no problem. So, upon our return to Raciborz in 2015, again in the company of Malgosia, we examined and photographed all the pictures. (Figures 8, 9)
The curators at the museum have created an Excel spreadsheet with the names of all the people once interred at the Jewish cemetery, along with their dates of birth and death, where this information can be gleaned from the pictures. A copy of this database was given to me. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to compare the birth and death information obtained for a few individuals from the headstones with comparable information obtained from original birth or death certificates for these same people, and, interestingly, I’ve found some discrepancies not owing to archival errors but, ironically, to incorrect dates being inscribed in stone. One can only wonder whether surviving relatives “lost track” of the year their ancestors had been born. In any case, the Excel spreadsheet with the names of the entombed has provided a wealth of useful family history information.
The previously discussed booklet included a touching photo of “small” headstones once belonging to the graves of children who’d perished at birth or shortly thereafter. (Figure 10) I knew that my great-grandparents on my grandfather’s side had eight children but had only been able to track the fate of six of them. I was hoping these headstones would shed some light on the fate of the other two, but this was not to be.