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Jewish War Cemeteries in Western Galicia

by Adam Bartosz

In the multinational Austrian army there were, of course, Jewish soldiers. They fought on all fronts of the First World War and were killed with their comrades in arms of other nationalities and regions; but if identified as Jews they were buried separately. All other soldiers, regardless of religion, were buried in common cemeteries or common graves, according to a law derived from Emperor Joseph’s 1784 regulations on burying the dead.

In western Galicia, bloody battles between Austrian and Russian armies lasted until May 1915. There are hundreds of military cemeteries, and military sections in parish cemeteries, in this area. The greatest number of casualties were near Krakow, in the battles against the Russian army: in its advance from the east (4-10 December 1914), in its retreat from Limanowa (5-19 December 1914), and especially in the Austrian army’s spring penetration of the front under the command of General August Mackensen. This Austrian offensive began with a fierce attack on Gorlice and pushed the Russians eastward; it was only the Russians’ summer offensive under General Aleksei Brusilov (June-September 1916) that pushed the Austrians back towards their original positions. Apart from these offensives, there were periods of positional warfare lasting many months and destroying entire platoons from both armies. The dead were buried on the battlefield, predominantly in shallow common graves.

The Austrians started to clean up the battlefields after driving the Russians out of western Galicia in the spring of 1915. In spite of continuing war (there were battles in eastern Galicia and in Bukovina), a systematic burial of the dead at newly established cemeteries began. It was carried out by the War Graves Division (K. u. k. KriegsgraberAbteilung) established in the spring of 1915 and located in Krakow. The division consisted of specialized units for design, surveying, construction, statistics, and so on. It employed prominent painters, sculptors, and architects of Polish, Czech, German, and other nationalities. The workforce consisted mainly of Russian prisoners of war, but there were also Italian prisoners of war and civilian workers from factories and small ventures.

The area of western Galicia was divided into ten cemetery regions (Kriegsgraber-Bezirke), named after the main town of the region (the number of cemeteries is given in parentheses): 1. Zmigrod (31); 2. Jaslo (31); 3. Gorlice-Grybow (54); 4. Luzniany-Ciezkowice (27); 5. Pilzno (26); 6. Tarnów (62); 7. Dàbrowa Tarnowska (15); 8. Brzesko (50); 9. Bochnia (40); 10. Nowy Sacz-Limanowa (29).

Between summer 1915 and autumn 1918, the War Graves Division designed and constructed 365 cemeteries. In addition other units (e.g. the regional commands) built war cemeteries too; all in all in western Galicia 378 were built, with an additional twenty-two established in the area of the Krakow fortress. Of these 400 war cemeteries in this part of Poland, some were not completed, since in the meantime the Austro-Hungarian state had ceased to exist. At those 378 cemeteries built by the War Graves Division, 60,829 dead were buried. They were soldiers of both the Austrian and the Russian armies, as well as civilians killed during war activities. The builders were driven by an ideal of treating the dead equally, regardless of nationality.


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A catalog published in 1918 by H. Broch and H. Hauptman lists the 400 cemeteries built by the War Graves Division under their command and by other military units active in western Galicia and the area of Krakow. Among these 400 cemeteries the catalogue lists fifteen located at local Jewish cemeteries. Among the war cemeteries housing the dead of other religions, some are sections of already existing local cemeteries; in the case of Jewish war cemeteries, however, all but one are sections of local Jewish cemeteries. The exception is Zakliczyn, which will be discussed later.

The national composition of the Austrian army was as follows: Austrians 24 %, Hungarians 23.3%, Czechs and Mauritians 12.6%, Serbs and Croats 9.2%, Poles 7.9%, Ukrainians 7.8%, Romanians 7%, Slovaks 3.6%, Slovenians 2.5%, Italians 1.3%, Bulgarians 0.03%. Military statistics did not list Jews, but according to the numbers given in the data on religion, around 3% were Jews. In the units fighting in western Galicia, Poles and Ukrainians predominated, along with the Austrians; and the percentage of Jews was undoubtedly higher than average in the whole empire.

Of the dead in all 400 cemeteries, Jews make up 3.72%, which is close to the percentage of Jews in the Austrian army—though among the Jews buried were also some Jewish soldiers from the Russian army. It is also the case, however, that all unidentified corpses were buried in non-Jewish graves, so a number of Jewish dead were buried in common graves at non-Jewish cemeteries.

According to Broch and Hauptman’s catalogue, there were Jewish military cemeteries, or, more precisely, war sections at Jewish cemeteries, in fifteen towns: Biecz (cemetery no. 107), Bobowa (no. 132), Bochnia (no. 313), Brzesko (no. 275), Gorlice (no. 90), Grybow (no. 306), Jaslo (no. 241), Krakow (no. 387), Krakow-Podgorze (no. 385), Myelenice (no. 327), Niepolomice (no. 328), Olpiny (no. 35), Tarnow (no. 201), Tuchow (no. 162) and Zakliczyn (no. 293). The war cemetery in Zakliczyn is exceptional because it is a separate site, while others are parts of existing local Jewish cemeteries.

Unlike other war cemeteries presenting unique, often interesting, architectural designs, Jewish sections do not have elaborate designs; they are simple, designed with a minimum of architectural elements. The traditional matsevah was used most often: a vertical stone tablet with a flat or semicircular top and on it the Star of David. It is possible that these small graveyards for soldiers were arranged this way because of Jewish religious customs, which are different from Christian traditions for commemorating the dead. Also, by placing the sections for fallen soldiers in already existing Jewish cemeteries, the designers had limited options regarding the outlook, composition within the landscape, or spatial layout of the cemeteries, which were often already crowded with existing tombstones. These sections apparently got only marginal attention from those responsible for designs in their areas. Broch and Hauptman’s brief chapter dealing with the architecture of the cemeteries does not mention military sections within Jewish cemeteries.

Jewish war cemeteries are in seven cemetery areas of the War Graves Division’s regions: in the second region (Jaslo), there are cemeteries in Jaslo and Olpiny; in the third (Gorlice-Grybow), in Biecz, Gorlice, and Grybow; in the fourth Luzniany-Ciezkowice), in Bobowa; in the sixth (Tarnow), in Tarnow and Tuchow; in the eighth (Brzesko), in Brzesko and Zakliczyn; in the ninth (Bochnia), in Bochnia and Niepolomice; in the tenth region (Nowy Sacz-Limanowa), a cemetery in Myelenice. There are also two cemeteries within the city of Krakow, outside the area of the War Graves Division.

Of fifteen Jewish war sections, five have not survived. In Biecz, Myelenice, Olpiny, and Tuchow, they have been destroyed together with the whole surrounding cemetery. At one still existing, albeit devastated, cemetery in Jaslo, no traces of the war sections can be found. Remnants of such sections (several tombstones, some of them knocked over) are at the cemeteries in Gorlice and Grybow; in a better state of preservation are sections in Bobowa, Brzesko, Krakow, and Tarnow, distinctly discernible in the terrain and with partly or wholly preserved gravestones. The best-preserved is the little cemetery in Zakliczyn, incidentally the most interesting of all Jewish war cemeteries.

Jewish cemeteries, like other war cemeteries and war sections of cemeteries, had different designers in each region. However, because their designers did not treat them with particular care, they differ only in the form of their grave stelas, which derive in all cases from traditional matsevot. Only in two preserved cemeteries, Bochnia and Brzesko (other than Zakliczyn, which is a special case), did designers go beyond standard tombstones and add accents in the form of taller central elements in the rows of stelas. The other sections, which do not exist any more, were probably similar to known cemeteries and were small or had only a few gravestones (for example Niepolomice).

Two cemeteries deserve special attention. In Tarnow the war cemetery is not a separate section. The characteristic war tombstones made of concrete are gathered in one place, but among them there are regular civilian matsevot. Single war tombstones are also scattered in other places nearby. Those killed in the war and those who died as civilians were buried in chronological order of their deaths.

Most interesting is the cemetery in Zakliczyn (no. 293), which is the only separate Jewish war cemetery. Although Broch and Hauptman’s catalogue describes it as located at the local Jewish cemetery, Zakliczyn never had a Jewish cemetery. Thus the Zakliczyn war cemetery is an exception among the cemeteries we are dealing with.

It is a small cemetery designed by Robert Motka. Rectangular in shape, its area is 130 square metres. The back wall is made of limestone. Against this background there is a stone stela in the shape of a matsevah with a shallow niche containing the inscription

(We, the Dead, welcome only the step of those who are worthy of the fruits of our Victories).

There is additional information in the guide (together with the information on the war cemetery in Nowy Wienicz (no. 311) that the local Jewish cemetery is supposed to have a few military graves marked with stelas. I did not manage to find them. Outside the area covered by the guide, however, another Jewish war grave has been found at the cemetery in Rymanow. The existence of a military grave at that cemetery is probably not unique in that part of Galicia. The grave is located at the western upper end of the cemetery and is marked by a single limestone stela with semicircular top. It faces west and is engraved with the inscription

(Here lie Jewish soldiers who fell in 1915).

Above the inscription, in the crown of the matsevah, there is a bas-relief of lions lying facing towards the center.

We do not know about the organisation of the burial services in eastern Galicia. In any case, there was no equivalent there of the War Graves Division of western Galicia. Probably the dead were buried according to basic burial rules, with Jews probably

being buried separately. It is possible that there are some war graves at Jewish cemeteries there; their identification, however, is not possible because there is no catalogue. Thus only chance discoveries are possible.

This article is based on an essay by Dr. Bartosz and is publishedwith his permission, for which we are grateful. Dr. Bartosz was born in 1947 in Zielona Góra (formerly Grunberg in western Poland). In 1972 he received an Ethnology diploma and in 1976 Museology diploma from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. In 1995 he received a scholarship to the Oxford Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and in 1996 he was the recipient of a stipend from the Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

He has been a director of the Regional Museum in Tarnow since 1980. Dr. Bartosz has specialized in national minorities of Central Europe—mainly Gypsies and Jews, the culture of the Carpathian region, and Polish folklore. He is the author of several publications about Gypsies and Jews in Galicia.


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