Grave Memories

It’s the All Saints’ Day long weekend – roads across the city will be busy.

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Grave Memories (Warsaw Insider, Oct 2011)

Make time for lighting up on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

You could wait till nightfall on All Saints’ Day (Dzień Wszystkich Świętych, November 1st). But you don’t have to. Poles lavish candles, and white and yellow chrysanthemums on the graves of their loved ones through out the year. However, it’s on the evenings of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Dzień Zaduszny or Dzień Wszystkich Zmarłych, November 2nd) when the cemeteries are besieged by blooms and glowing candles. Rubbing shoulders with throngs of well-wishers in a sea of flickering flames permeated with a distinct scent of molten wax is a night out to remember.

Like numerous Catholic countries, Poland devotes the first two days of November to religious rites and paying respect to the graves of family members. As October draws to an end, locals stock up on znicze, candles in lantern-like containers for shielding the flame from wind and rain. Expats may have imported jack-o’-lanterns and costume parties. And in some neighbourhoods, Polish kids get sugar rush from trick-or-treating. But the Halloween merrymaking is not going to make a dent in the All Saints’ Day rituals for they are deeply rooted into family life.

To partake in this tradition, head to the Wola District, which has some of the most ornate historical cemeteries in the capital. To the south of ul. Powązkowska alone, there are six burial grounds for different faiths, from Catholic to Muslim.

The oldest is the 43-hectare Powązki Catholic Cemetery. Established in 1790, an estimated one million were buried here. Among them were royals (relatives of King Stanisław August Poniatowski); heads of states, military and political leaders (Stanisław Wojciechowski, President of Poland); Nobel laureate (Władysław Reymont); and countless accomplished scientists and artists. The eminent citizens can be found along the Avenue of Merit (Aleja Zasłużonych). Even if you not interested in the top brass, you’ll still be blown away by the grandeur and the artistic styles of the mausoleums and tombstones created by top sculptors of the time. Neoclassical and Secession designs aside, there are also contemporary ones, such as the “camera’s perspective” sculpture at the grave of Krzysztof Kieślowski, the director of Three Colours. On All Saints’ Day, the cemetery will be blanketed with candles. Along narrower pathways, you’ll be jostling for standing space.

Separated by a wall is the Jewish Cemetery. In contrast to the streams of candlelight and foot traffic at Powązki, the Jewish Cemetery is eerily silent. Founded in 1806, it has about 200,000 tombstones, many of which are in forlorn condition. Dense undergrowth has rendered some segments inaccessible. Near the entrance, there is a monument depicting Janusz Korczak accompanying the children from his orphanage to the extermination camp in Treblinka. Next to it, someone has left a toy at the foot of the memorial wall erected for the 1.5 million Jewish children perished during World War II. Instead of lighting candles at the tombstone, the Jewish practice is to leave small rocks or pebbles that signify permanence and continuity in remembrance. But on All Saints’ Day, you can buy candles by the entrance if you want to join other well-wishers in leaving a light behind.

The Tartar Muslim Cemetery has also assimilated to the November 1st practices. “Their descendants now live all over Poland,” said the caretaker of the deceased under his charge. “It’s on All Saints’ Day when you see the most number of candles lit here.” World War II wasn’t kind to this lot; military vehicles were trespassing the compound, incurring considerable damage. Established in 1867, it was intended as the final resting place of Muslim soldiers in the Russian army. Later, civilians of Polish Tartars origins from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were also buried here. Though small in size, the cemetery tells a poignant tale of wanderers aching to go home. On the headstones, names of faraway territories are craved below the exotic first names and surnames. One epitaph spells out the sentiment succinctly: “Sleep peacefully in this grave, and may you dream of the Caucasus”.

To the south of the Jewish Cemetery, the Augsburg Protestant and Protestant Reformed cemeteries stand shoulder to shoulder. Both were founded in 1792. The former has the family tomb of the Wedel’s, the premium chocolatiers of Warsaw. It also stands out for its imposing chapels, namely that of the Halpert and Jung clans, and one crafted from cast-iron. In both there are scores of tombstones inscribed in foreign languages, such as English, French, German and Russian. At the Protestant Reformed sector, we bumped into fans of Stefan Żeromski. Together, we located the writer’s plain but regal grave under a willow tree. This cemetery is said to be the most liberal in granting a plot to the dead of any spiritual inclinations. And that approach is evident in the varied designs of the graves, from a Celtic cross and to a child’s grave that is sans crucifix but vibrant with colourful toy windmills.

Moving east from the Powązkowska area, you’ll come to another cluster of cemeteries along ul. Wolska. The Orthodox Cemetery was founded in 1834 when Warsaw’s other graveyards could no longer cope with the increased number of Orthodox believers that arrived after the unsuccessful insurgency of Poles against the Russian Empire (the November Uprising 1830-1831). In the more recent past, sections were allocated to the builders of the Palace and Culture, the Red Army and other Russian natives. Though not as famous as Powązki, this site is replete with historical and artistic masonry of all sizes. Interestingly, tombstones with Cyrillic writings have three-bar papal crosses or Catholic crucifixes. The northern section of the cemetery is now used for Catholic burials. On All Saints’ Day, services are conducted here for both denominations. Further down the road, the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery bears the ashes of victims of the Warsaw Uprising.

Polish nationals who died in service to the country in uprisings and world wars are interred in the Military Cemetery. There also cemeteries dedicated to foreign forces. The Italian Army Cemetery is a small compound exposed to open skies. On it stands rows of identical white gravestones inscribed with the names and ranks of the over 2,000 Italians killed on Polish soil during the two world wars. The Cemetery Mausoleum of the Russian Army, located near the airport, has the mass graves of over 21,000 soldiers who didn’t survive the orders to liberate Warsaw during World War II.

No doubt, it’s a solemn period. But it’s also a time for unity with family, friends and strangers in keeping alive the memories of the souls who have come and gone.

Practical Matters:

November 1st is a national holiday; shops will be closed. Traffic across the country starts to pick up at the weekend prior to All Saints’ Day as locals return to their hometowns to visit family graves. Within the city, roads near the cemeteries will be cordoned off to vehicles. Public buses and trams will be operating; these are better bets for reaching the cemeteries than using your own wheels.

Augsburg Protestant (ul. Młynarska 54/56) Daily 7:00-19:00

Cemetery Mausoleum of the Russian Army (ul. Żwirki i Wigury 10) Open all hours.

Italian Army (ul. Marymoncka 40) Daily 10:00-17:00

Jewish (ul. Okopowa 49/51) Mon-Thurs 10:00-17:00, Fri 9:00-13:00, Sun 9:00-16:00

Military (ul. Powązkowska 43/45)

Orthodox Cemetery (ul. Wolska 138/140) Daily 8:00-18:00

Protestant Reformed (ul. Żytnia 42) Mon-Fri 8:00-18:00, Sat-Sun 9:00-18:00

Powązki Catholic Cemetery (ul. Powązkowska 14) Daily 8:00-18:00

Tartar Muslim (ul. Tatarska 8 ) Tues, Fri, Sun 10:00-16:00

Warsaw Insurgents (ul. Wolska 174/176) Open all hours.


About kitfchung

Experienced food and travel journalist based in Warsaw, Poland.
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