Lesko, Jewish cemetery

The Jewish cemetery of Lesko lays to the north of the Sephardic synagogue, on the top of a high hill. It is said to be one of the largest Jewish cemeteries of Poland where even after the destructions of 1942 more than two thousand tombs remained intact. Now they are being destroyed by the time. The largest part of the cemetery – except for the entrance with the grave of the martyrs of Belżec and a clearing somewhere in the middle with the graves of the rabbis of Lesko still attracting visitors from far and wide – are covered with weed, the stones sink into the earth, moss and fungi make illegible their inscriptions and disintegrate their carvings. It seems that the inhabitants of modern Lesko are not interested in the conservation of this heritage. It is sad to see this decay, but if we compare it to the Disneyland into which the old ghetto of Cracow has been recently transformed, this place still appears much more genuine.

As there are very few publications on the cemetery of Lesko, here we publish as many photos
as possible, including those of lower quality – unfortunately there are some like this,
as we arrived at the cemetery in the evening twilight.

Right after entering the gate, we encounter the oldest tombs of the cemetery. According to the testimonies of their inscriptions they are not much younger than the Jewish community of Lesko itself whose origins reach back to the beginning of the 16th century. The oldest tomb I could decipher was dated of 1599.

The last line of the inscription includes the Hebrew date 5359 corresponding to the year of 1599.

To the left: “Here / is hidden the estimated / woman, Esther, / (…) daughter of Judah”.

These early tombstones lack any imagery, but the calligraphy of the inscriptions is exceptionally beautiful. Although the community of Lesko was founded by Sephardic Jews, the impact of the Ashkenazi cultural environment may have been quite strong, as these stones – in contrast to the traditionally laying Sephardic tombstones – are standing erect, and most of them display an Ashkenazi calligraphy of a classical beauty. The inscriptions are rather laconic: the name of the deceased and the date of the death are framed only by the traditional formulas “Here is hidden” and “May his/her soul be bound up into the bundle of life”.

Here is hidden / The estimated and honorable / Woman, Gitl, / daughter of Rabbi Jacob / of blessed memory / Buried in / (…) 5362 (1602)

Two woman’s tombs, the date of the one to the left is 5362 (1602)

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Here / is hidden the estimated / and honorable woman…

Beginning with the end of the 17th century, the decoration of the stones gets richer. There appear the first symbols indicating the descent and conditions of the deceased. The tombs of the Kohanim – the descendants of high priest Aaron – are marked by two hands lifted to priestly blessing.

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Tomb of a Kohen with hands stretched for blessing. Inscription: Crown of priesthood.

In the times of the Temple of Jerusalem, the helpers of the high priests belonged to the tribe of Levi. Similarly to the Kohanim, they also keep in evidence their descent. Their tombs are decorated with the pitcher with which they had washed the hands of the high priest in the Sanctuary.

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In the foreground, two Levites’ tombs, both marked with the hand holding a hand-washing pitcher.

This tomb of a Levite from a good family has the inscription “Estimated man from the Horowitz family”. Above the pitcher on the top of the stone there is a three-letters Hebrew word pronounced as “Segal”. This is the widespread abbreviation of the title of the Levites: “Segan leviyyah” whose interpretation is debated. Literally it means “the Levitical deputy”, but it is better translated as “the prince of the Levites” or “the assistant of the high priest”. It is first used in a written document for the indication of the Levites in 1070. Later it became a frequent family name for Levites; the renowned painter Mark Chagall also bears a version of this name in a French transcription.

An interesting couple is the Levite’s pitcher and the resting deer on the following tombstone. The deer may refer to the Hebrew name – Tzvi, Naftali – or family name – Hirsch – of the deceased.

The tombs of housewives are often decorated with five-branched candlesticks referring to the festive candle-lighting and to the piety of the deceased woman. In the cemetery of Lesko this symbol is found in a fantastic diversity: there are candlesticks with three, five and seven branches in a variety of styles from a flamboyant Baroque to a Classic sobriety.

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Woman’s tomb with a beautiful twined candlestick. The name of the deceased is Leah.

In the 18th and 19th century the art of tombstones lived a great revival. This period saw the establishment of an Eastern European school of tombstone carving which assimilated the motifs of high Baroque art into a “folk Baroque”, a widespread popular art. This virtually unprecedented flaring of folk art was most certainly connected with the incursion of Hassidism which propagated the beauty and love of life, and rediscovered the relationship between man and nature. This unexpected outburst of joy of life is reflected in the new Jewish folk art of the 18th century which penetrated dance, music, illustrations and pottery as well as the work of tombstone carvers. The stones of this period display a never seen proliferation of pictorial symbols and decorations. Often it is impossible to determine whether a certain element of the rich decoration – an animal as an eagle, deer, lion or dove, or a crown, a bookcase, a fruit or a flower – is a symbol or just an ornament. It is perhaps more correct to speak about an imagery or a pictorial language which recalled a series of associations in the pious Jews well-versed in the Bible and the Talmud. To mention just an example, several Jewish tombstones display a cluster of grapes. According to the great professor of Jewish folklore, Rabbi Sándor Scheiber this symbolizes the family: “Your wife is like a fertile grapevine” (Ps 128:3), while in other places it is the symbol of Israel: “You have torn out a grapevine from Egypt” (Ps 80:9). Which one is the right meaning? What did the one-time master want to convey with this symbol? A large number of interpretations is possible, and this makes the message of the stones attractive and beautiful.

Let us highlight some recurrent tombstone motifs together with their Biblical and Talmudic sources. We often see a crown on the top of the stone. This refers to a verse of the Talmudic tractate Pirkei Avot: “There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.” (Avot 4:17)

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To some of the Lesko crowns the carver also added an inscription indicating which of the four types it is: usually the crown of good name, but the tombs of the Kohanim naturally display the crown of priesthood.

Crowns of good name

Both inscriptions were obviously carved by the same master. The fields for the text are similar, but the one to the left has the text of the crown of good name while the other that of priesthood.

On some tombstones we do not find any explanation, but the image makes the interpretation unambiguous. On this stone which most probably stands above the grave of an outstanding Talmudic scholar, the crown above the bookcase can only symbolize “the crown of the Torah”:

The deceased must have been a very educated person if he was represented with a full bookcase.

The eagle, the deer and the lion can also refer to a verse of Pirkei Avot: “Be strong as the panther, light as the eagle, fast as the deer and courageous as the lion, so you could do the will of your heavenly Father.” (Avot 5:23). In Lesko the deer may also refer to the frequent family name “Hirsch”.

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The eagle can be a symbol of maternal caress as well: “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that hovers over its young, it spread its wings and caught them, it carried them on its pinions” (Deut 32:11). It can also symbolize the caress of God: “Your youth will be renewed like that of the eagle” (Ps 103:5).

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The lion is a very frequent motif with a very wide symbolic sphere. It is the coat-of-arms animal of the tribe of Judah and of the house of David, and thus also a general Jewish symbol. According to Professor Tamás Raj, the crown held by two lions – a frequent motif in Lesko as well – represents the protection of the Torah. Furthermore, it can also refer to the Hebrew or Yiddish name – Judah, Aryeh, Leeb, Löw – of the deceased.

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Probably the grave of an outstanding Talmud scholar, as it is indicated by the case full of books, supported by two lions

On some more recent tombs we see peculiar lions whose almost human face is close to blasphemy:

Year: 5685 (1925) Name: Yichak

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It is reassuring that the only legible word of the inscription is: “pious”. We do not know, however, if it refers to the lion or to the one laying under the stone…

I have discovered with surprise that some close relatives of these “antropomorphic” lions live several hundred kilometers away from here, in the likewise splendid Hassidic cemetery of the Romanian Gura Humorului where similar human-faced lions smile on us from several gravestones:

Gura Humorului, Hassidic cemetery: Tomb of Elimelekh Ligvornik

Gura Humorului, Hassidic cemetery: “Here is hidden a pious and righteous man, our teacher
and master Rav Yehuel Mikhal, son of the Kohen Rav Yisrael. Deceased on the 22nd
day of Adar Rishon of 5668 (1908). May his soul be bound in the bundle of life”
– From the album of Lajos Erdélyi: Az élők háza (The house of the living)

On some stones the lion and the deer lay together:

“Tzvi ratz li-meqom menuhato…” – “A deer has run to its place of rest…” The ending of the second verse indicates that this is a rhymed inscription. Below, at the beginning of the line marked in blue one can read the name of the deceased: Tzvi Abraham, son of R…

It is interesting to see that this imagery still flourished in the first half of the 20th century. Several stones that I would have dated to the 18th century on the basis of their motifs, were carved as late as the 1920s.

The deceased was called Tzvi Hirsch, and the top of the stone displays a deer. It is interesting that both the Hebrew name and the family name of the deceased meant “deer”. The first verse of the rhymed inscription is: “Ish halakh be-derekh tamim…” (The man followed the path of the righteous ones…) Died on the 6th day of Tammuz in 5680 (1920).

The new, rich imagery brought with itself a change of the style of the inscriptions as well. The former laconic texts were succeeded by rhymed elegies of several verses which praise the merits of the deceased in a classical Biblical style.

The community of Lesko was swept away by the Holocaust without a trace. It is no wonder that most tombs have no visitors today. The most important exceptions are the tombs of two rabbis in the middle of the cemetery. The most important one is that of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Rubin. His son, the Hassidic rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz was the founder of the dynasty of Ropschitz, and as many as five other descendants of him became founders of Hassidic dynasties. The visitors coming from all the world thus revere in Rabbi Menachem Mendel the forefather of not less than six Hassidic dynasties. They light candles on his tomb, and as a sign of their visit, they place pebbles and kvittels, notes with requests on the gravestone.

In the foreground the original, in the background a more recent tombstone. The latter includes the date of death: Tishri 23, 5564 (1804).

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The other, somewhat more modest tomb marks the place of rest of the Rabbi of Lesko Avraham Chayim, son of Naftali Tzvi and grandson of Menachem Mendel. About him we know just as little as about his grandfather. On the internet only a few pages in Yiddish and Hebrew mention his name in connection with his kinship. Nevertheless, the pious pilgrims do not forget about him, and we also find several candles, pebbles and kvittels indicating their visits. The last verse of his tomb is: “And He loves Israel”. If we add the numeric values of these letters, we receive the date of his death: 5591 which corresponds to the civil year of 1831.

The tradition of kvittel writing has an interesting development in Lesko. Most notes, which also include the list of the persons making the requests and their family members, were written by hand by the pilgrims.

However, not even an ancient tradition like this is left untouched by modern technology: we also find some computer-printed lists of requests.

The most far-out kvittel, however, was seen on this tomb:

The name of the person making the request can be read above the bar code of the baggage tag. Did the pious pilgrim pray here for the recovery of his luggage lost at the airport? Or by way of this state-of-art technology his request is simply displayed on the screen by scanning the bar code in the Heavenly Hall? Will the progress of technology lead to the establishment of a digital kvittel-sending service in Lesko, similar to the ones existing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, at the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem or that of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the Ukraine? Hopefully not.

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9 comentarios:

Araz dijo...

Beautiful images, beautiful post. It reminds me our visit to the old cemetery with my grandpa back in my childhood, when we were trying to spell the ligature of Arabic characters to confirm once again that the old man correctly memorized the places where our ancestors were buried up to six generations back.

Studiolum dijo...

Beautiful memories. I would be happy to visit that cemetery.

Irene dijo...

An incredible, absolutely shocking post and photos. Here in Kiev we had a Jewish cemetery not far from the Baby Yar. It was demolished in the 1960th and they started a construction of the TV Centre. http://yagazeta.com/news.php?extend.3347
A Polish site on the Jewish issues Tęsknię za Tobą, Żydzie: http://www.tesknie.com/

Araz dijo...

I would be happy to visit our old cemetery, too. It must be somewhere here, near the village my father was born in (500 km far from Baku). I am terrified to realize that the last time I visited it was back in 1994. There were few really old stones there from XVI century, I guess, broken into seven pieces. People around visiting the place had a legend about "yeddi seyid" - "seven sayyids", while running from overtaking group of persecutors they prayed for being turned into stones. In fact the stones looked like pieces of two "sanduga" tombstones, one (biggest piece) with interesting images of a noble man with his armour-bearer servant and horse standing on a balcony. Small brief inscription was mentioning some "bey" and the year.

Zvi dijo...

A fantastic inventary and iconographic description! Thank you very much.

Just a minor addition: the half-sunken laying stone on the seventh full picture from above seems to be of Abraam, son of Natanael, from 1605.

Liang Sheng dijo...

Thank you for the appreciation and for your contribution to deciphring the inscription! Indeed, the first two letters of the first line can very weel be שס which can be the first two signs of the year, but I can not read the rest of the line at all. And where do you see the
אברהם בן נתנאל?

Perpignan dijo...

An informative overview and touching pictures. Thank you very much!

Effe dijo...

memories belonging to all of us, somehow.
Everytime I have to repeat: grazie.
(didn't know about Chagall-Segal, very interesting)

Studiolum dijo...

Ruth Ellen Gruber, author of the National Geographic Jewish Heritage ravel: A Guide to Eastern Europe (2007, also in Hungarian, 2010) has mentioned our post in the Jewish Heritage blog.