Cemeteries in the post-war Wrocław landscape

Cemeteries are not only vast spaces full of the graves of our loved ones and friends, but also places of peace, quiet and reflection, conducive to thanatourism, which has become fashionable in recent years. Cemeteries are also one of the images of the city’s history. An image of a history rich and full of great names on the one hand, and painful and tragic on the other – especially in Wrocław and the entire Western and Northern Territories.

The majority of the necropolises existing in Wrocław in 1945 were founded in the 19th century, and since Wrocław, like the entire Lower Silesia, has always been multicultural and multi-religious, cemeteries of different denominations have always operated side by side in this area.

The dynamic development of the city and the increase in the number of residents in the 19th century forced the city authorities to establish large cemeteries that would be available to all religions. In this way, cemeteries were created in the 1860s in Osobowice, Grabiszynek and Kozanów. In addition to such large-scale necropolises, there were still small cemeteries at the disposal of parishes, but they were no longer located next to churches (as before) but outside the then city limits. Previously common church cemeteries had to be closed down in the 18th century due to the ban issued in 1775 by King Frederick II on burying the dead within the city limits.

In 1926, there were 41 active necropolises in Wrocław and the immediate vicinity with a total area of 237 ha. Two years later, after several new districts were incorporated into the city limits, the number of cemeteries increased to 77 (259 ha). Some of these cemeteries were destroyed during the defence of Festung Breslau, while the remaining ones, 70 to be precise, came under the management of the Polish administration in May 1945.

The former German cemeteries which existed in Wrocław after World War II were a thorn in the side of both residents and city authorities, as they were directly associated with Germanness and war trauma. Before World War II, Wrocław was a city inhabited mostly by Protestants. After 1945, the situation changed dramatically, because most of the new residents were displaced persons from the East, as well as from central Poland, mostly Catholics who did not want to bury their deceased loved ones in former German Protestant cemeteries, not only due to their nationality, but also for religious reasons.

As part of the fight against Wrocław’s German past, the city authorities tried to do everything possible to effectively eliminate all German traces in the form of omnipresent inscriptions, names of streets, squares and other communication routes, as well as monuments, plaques and cemeteries. However, while German inscriptions, monuments and plaques were easy to remove from public space, just as German names could be easily replaced with Polish ones, the issue of liquidating German cemeteries was not so simple.

In addition to the graves in municipal and parish cemeteries taken over by the Polish administration, protected by the Act of 1932 on the burial of the dead and determining the causes of death, there were many war graves in Wrocław which were protected on the basis of international humanitarian conventions, and primarily under the act of 1933 on war graves and cemeteries (as amended) still in force today. The oldest graves, located at the military cemetery at the intersection of today’s Ślężna Street and Wiśniowa Avenue, came from the second half of the 19th century and contained the remains of soldiers of the Wrocław garrison and their families, as well as distinguished figures of the Prussian army, such as Gen. Karl von Clausewitz. Slightly newer quarters, mainly at the Osobowicki cemetery and the Jewish cemetery at today’s Lotnicza Street, came from the period of World War I. Moreover, within the city limits there were many places where victims of World War II were buried. Before the dramatic fighting for Festung Breslau began, both German soldiers and deceased civilians were buried in almost all existing cemeteries, but from January to May 1945, several hundred makeshift burial areas appeared in the city, hastily created in parks, gardens, squares, in the gardens of private properties, and over time – on every free piece of land near villas and tenement houses in the city centre, as well as in the ruins of houses and even on their roofs. Such war graves were located in 160 or, according to other sources, 270 places within the city. To the people who came to Wrocław from Lviv in the first weeks after the end of the war, this sight could certainly have reminded them of Lviv during the fighting for the city at the turn of 1918 and 1919, where such makeshift cemeteries occupied a large part of the city before exhumations were carried out and the dead were moved to the newly established Cemetery of the Defenders of Lviv.

The legal regulations in force in post-war Poland did not allow for the immediate liquidation of former German cemeteries located in the new areas granted to Poland as a result of international agreements. There were nearly 3,000 such necropolises (over 2,000 ha). According to the law, the cemetery area, after being closed, could only be used for another purpose 50 years after the last burial. This meant that both the residents of Wrocław, living out of suitcases, who felt alienated and uncertain about the fate of these lands, and the city authorities had to come to terms with this specific part of history and urban landscape, which were the former German necropolises.

In addition to legal regulations, there were also moral considerations against the liquidation of graves from German times. Even though most of the tombstone inscriptions were in German, many of the deceased had Polish-sounding surnames. The well-known historian from Lviv, Prof. Karol Maleczyński, who in 1945 examined the Catholic cemetery of St. Laurentius II, i.e. the area currently occupied by the cemetery of St. Lawrance at today’s Odona Bujwida Street, stated that the 837 graves he examined had 223 Polish-sounding surnames. This is probably why this cemetery quickly became the most popular burial place for Poles who died in the first post-war years. Initially, new graves were created on empty plots, but over time the oldest and abandoned German graves were gradually liquidated, thus making room for new burials. This meant that this cemetery, like some other parish cemeteries, e.g. at Smętna Street, was slowly transforming into a Polish necropolis. Only a dozen or so German graves have survived there to this day.     

In the first period of development of Wrocław by the Polish administration, one of the most serious problems was the recording (in accordance with the law in force at that time), and quick transfer of graves from temporary areas to another place for sanitary reasons. Since the policy of the Polish authorities towards the graves of the German army – held responsible for war crimes – was basically aimed in only one direction: to completely erase the fact of their existence from the collective consciousness of Poles, the practice was far from the requirements of the law; therefore only a small number of the graves were moved, while most of them were liquidated.

The condition of more than half of the 70 former German necropolises in Wrocław taken over in 1945 was disastrous in the first post-war years and got progressively worse every year. Cemeteries were not only destroyed as a result of war, but they were also being systematically devastated. All cemetery property was successively being stolen, including slabs, tombstones and metal elements. The crematorium at the Grabiszyński cemetery was devastated and became a playground for lthe ocal youth. There were also frequent acts of desecration of corpses. Alleys and graves were overgrown with lush vegetation, becoming places for libations and pasture for cattle. The lack of reaction from the city authorities, treated as connivance to such a practice, put them in bad light, especially since the cemeteries were visited by German families looking for the graves of their loved ones.

The destruction of former German cemetery areas and the lack of care for them caused understandable dissatisfaction expressed in the German public opinion, which became one of the reasons for the change in the approach of the Polish state authorities to this matter in the late 1950s. In the years 1959-1964, it was decided to finance a programme for tidying up the cemeteries in the entire Western and Northern Territories from the state budget. Due to the fact that the funds allocated for this purpose were drastically low, and therefore the revitalisation progressed very slowly, it can be assumed that the initiative of the Polish state authorities was not intended to meet humanitarian goals. This is confirmed by the parallel strenuous efforts to change legislation which would allow for more radical solutions, i.e. the liquidation of former German cemeteries. The new Act on Cemeteries and Burial of the Dead adopted in 1959 was intended to facilitate this task. According to it, closed and abandoned cemeteries, of which 44 were in Wrocław alone in the late 1950s, could be closed down 40 years after the last burial, i.e. approximately in the mid-1980s. However, neither the new act nor the provisions of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 prevented the premature liquidation of German necropolises in Poland, including German war graves, which – in accordance with humanitarian law – were subject to the perpetual protection of the Polish state.

Preparations for the liquidation process began in Wrocław in 1957. During the first stage, in the years 1960-1963, 15 cemeteries in the city and the city centre were liquidated, including Grosser Friedhof, i.e. the Great Cemetery, which was the resting place of outstanding Wrocław residents living in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cemeteries in peripheral districts were liquidated during the second stage, i.e. in 1964-1965. The third stage, lasting until 1970, covered 13 necropolises, most of them in the vicinity of today’s Andersa Park and Skowroni Park, as well as in Kozanów and Pracze Odrzańskie.

Unfortunately, not much is known about the course of the liquidation, because these activities were not well documented, in accordance with the unwritten rule in force at that time to say and write as little as possible on this subject, as it was against the law. Therefore, the liquidation of cemeteries indicated by the city authorities was carried out “quietly”. They were primarily limited to levelling their areas while leaving the remains of the dead in the ground. Not only tombstones of historical and artistic value were destroyed, but also war graves from 1939-1945. Most of the tombstones and slabs which had not been stolen before were put in huge heaps, e,g, in the Osobowicki cemetery (in the place of today’s columbarium by the chapel), and then sold to stonemason’s workshops as recycled material. The tombstones from the demolition were also used for construction work, e.g. strengthening the city moat, renovating the Olympic stadium, and building pavements and new enclosures at Wrocław Zoo, which is why even today there are unusual places in Wrocław where you can see the remains of German tombstone inscriptions. Some parts and artistic details from the tombstones were donated to the Higher School of Fine Arts in Wrocław at the request of the school’s authorities.

Most areas of closed cemeteries were transformed into parks and lawns, e.g. the area of the former parish cemeteries of St. Mary Magdalene, St. Maurice, St. John, the Saviour and the Evangelical Reformed cemetery is today’s Andersa Park and Skowroni Park. The former Grabiszyn I and Grabiszyn III municipal cemeteries were turned into Grabiszyński Park, with only section II retained and transformed into a Polish cemetery. Zachodni Park was expanded to include the area of the liquidated municipal cemetery in Pilczyce, while in Karłowice, in the area of the cemetery of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, the Marii Dąbrowskiej Park was created. Today, only the arrangement of alleys, evenly planted huge thujas, fields of ivy or barely visible parts of old architecture remind one that these areas were once cemeteries. In the area of the Great Cemetery, between Legnicka, Braniborska, Dobra and Trzemeska Streets, apartment blocks and public buildings were built. The remaining cemetery areas were also quickly re-developed to create playgrounds for children, residential buildings, industrial facilities and a swimming pool. These are just a few examples, as Wrocław is full of areas where its residents live, work or relax, not even aware that the spirit of the past still lingers in these places. There are no tombstones there today, but the ground still contains the remains of former residents of Wrocław. It is an extraordinary image of the difficult and painful history of the city, on the one hand showing its historical continuity, and on the other – the drama of its residents, both past and present.

The effects of the illegal post-war destruction of former German cemeteries are still felt today. The failure to carry out the legally required exhumations has already made itself evident many times, causing not only many problems for construction companies while implementing their projects, but also arousing commotion and anxiety in public opinion.

The liquidation of former German cemeteries became one of the causes of the huge cemetery crisis which hit Wrocław in the early 1990s. Burial plots at municipal necropolises were decreasing at an alarming rate, and at the same time there were no prospects for the creation of new cemetery facilities. At the beginning of the 1990s, Wrocław had only 82 ha of municipal cemeteries, which constituted 65 percent of the total area of all cemeteries (127 ha), covering less than 0.5 percent of the city area. The largest cemeteries were Osobowicki and Grabiszyński. Nearly 60 percent of burials, i.e. 3,600, took place at municipal cemeteries; the remaining 40 percent at 16 active parish cemeteries managed by the Roman Catholic Church. In this situation, the city authorities decided to expand the areas of municipal necropolises, at the same time looking for areas to establish new ones. The difficulties related to this task meant that the reactivation of former cemetery areas was also considered, e.g. Grabiszyński Park covering almost 30 ha, but after numerous problems this idea was finally withdrawn.

The first municipal cemetery built completely from scratch in the post-war period is the branch in Psie Pole at Kiełczowska Street, opened in 1997, called the Kiełczowski cemetery. Ultimately, its area will cover approximately 50 ha, less than half of which has been developed so far. The only municipal crematorium in Wrocław, where over 2,000 cremations are performed annually, is located at this cemetery.

Back in the 1990s, there were plans to build another, nearly 30-hectare cemetery, on Ibn Sina Avicenna Street. Its first part was to be built in 2020-2022, ultimately providing the city with 90,000 new burial plots. Unfortunately, in mid-2019, the city authorities suspended the construction of this necropolis due to lack of funds.          

Currently, there are several dozen cemeteries in Wrocław, including six municipal ones. The rest are parish cemeteries, mostly managed by Roman Catholic parishes. In addition, there are two large Jewish cemeteries, one of which, at Ślężna Street, is a branch of the Wrocław City Museum and functions as the Museum of Cemetery Art. There are also four military cemeteries.

The largest and oldest municipal cemetery is the one in Osobowice. The area of this cemetery, founded in 1867, is approximately 53 ha, with nearly 124,000 graves of over 140,000 people. Buried at the slightly newer Grabiszyński cemetery, established in 1881, with an area of approximately 27 ha, are over 80,000 people in nearly 58,500 graves. There are no new earthen burial plots available at this cemetery, and even the earthen burial plots for urns have run out, so any burials are only possible by adding them to existing graves or in the columbarium. The smallest of the municipal cemeteries (1.2 ha) is the one in Leśnica at Trzmielowicka Street, which was founded in 1883 and initially served only Protestants. It is the only municipal cemetery where traditional earthen burials no longer take place, not only due to lack of space, but also due to the high level of groundwater. Only burials in urns to already existing graves are available here, and there are less than 3,000 of them. The city also has two small cemeteries: in Pawłowice at Złocieniowa Street and in Jerzmanów at Jerzmanowska Street. Just over 6,500 people are buried there in total, on approximately 5 ha.

Municipal cemeteries in Wrocław, managed by the local government budget division – the Municipal Cemetery Board – have a total area barely exceeding 140 ha. They are the resting place for over 240,000 people buried in approximately 203,000 graves. According to estimates, Wrocław has enough burial areas for about only 10 more years, therefore the construction of a new necropolis should be one of the key challenges facing the Wrocław local government, because the maintenance and establishment of municipal cemeteries has been one of the commune’s own tasks since 1990.

Parish cemeteries, where many distinguished residents of Wrocław are buried, also require the interest of the city authorities. The Silesian Genealogical Society has been taking care of maintaining their records for several years. The most striking example is the small cemetery of St. Lawrence at Odona Bujwida Street, covering less than 5 ha, managed by the cathedral parish of St. John the Baptist. It is the final resting place for over 18,000 people buried in approximately 8,000 graves, including many important figures from the world of science, culture, art, sports, local government, as well as the pre-war Wrocław Polish community, the military, and Wrocław’s clergy and consecrated persons. This cemetery, worthy of being called the Pantheon of the Great Residents of Wrocław, is the main object of interest of the Remembrance Commission established in 2019 as part of the Society of Wrocław Enthusiasts, which is preparing a monograph of this necropolis, together with a guide and a grave search engine.

Written by: Kamilla Jasińska
Translated by: Fabryka Tłumaczeń

taken from: “Kalendarz Wrocławski” XLIV, published by Towarzystwo Miłośników Wrocławia i Wrocławskie Wydawnictwo EMKA, Wrocław 2020, pp. 347–356.