Cemeteries are not only vast spaces full of graves of our loved ones and friends. They are also an image representing the history of a given town. On the one hand – an image of a rich history full of great names, and on the other – of a painful and tragic history, especially in Wrocław and the entire Western and Northern Territories. Cemeteries are also destinations of tourist trips and subjects of regional education. They provide a lesson in history. By reading the information on tombstones, you can easily see that Wrocław is truly a meeting place.
Today, there are several dozen necropolises in Wrocław, including six municipal cemeteries. The remaining ones are parish cemeteries 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 war cemeteries in Wrocław. An important part of the history of Wrocław is the history of the necropolises which no longer exist – as they were liquidated during the post-war years or much earlier, in past centuries.
Cemeteries have many functions. The main and most obvious one is serving as a burial ground. Another one, which many researchers and subject-matter experts pay special attention to, is the communication function. It may sound strange, but such a communication occurs at different levels and carries different content between different generations. In this sense, a cemetery becomes an image of the city’s history – its carrier and transmitter. Such a context gives it educational values. In addition, necropolises, as spaces full of greenery, peace and quiet due to their status as sacred ground, also have a recreational and environmental function. To sum up, in this way cemeteries are not only large-area resting places for our loved ones, but they should also be subjects of tourist trips and regional education.
Thanatotourism – named after a term introduced by a researcher from Łódź, Prof. Sławoj Tanaś – is not very widespread in Poland yet. It is a type of cultural tourism. It consists of travelling and visiting various places commemorating death. If we go to Oświęcim, where we visit the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, or if we visit Lviv and go to the famous Lychakiv Cemetery and the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lviv, and in Vilnius – the Rossa Cemetery, we practice this type of tourism. While in Warsaw, we may visit the Old Powązki Cemetery, in Cracow – the Rakowicki Cemetery, and in Zakopane–- the Pęksowy Brzyzek Cemetery. So, let us ask ourselves a question: how often do tourists appear at Wrocław’s cemeteries, for example at the St. Lawrence Cemetery at Odona Bujwida Street?
It is not as common a sight at Wrocław cemeteries as it is at the Lychakiv Cemetery (or was, actually – before 24 February 2022, and the outbreak of the war in Ukraine). What causes this? There may be several reasons and it is generally a problem of the Western and Northern Territories. According to many researchers dealing with this topic, such as Prof. Małgorzata Zawiła from Cracow the basic issue is the specific situation of these areas, i.e. the change of their state affiliation after World War II. Let us keep in mind that the Polish part of history actually began here not so many years ago, in 1945, and therefore we do not have two-hundred-year-old family tombs here, the care of which is passed down from generation to generation. Back then, in 1945 and in the following years, the city was alien to its new inhabitants, they did not feel connected to it at all, they lived out of suitcases. When they started dying, they had to be buried in this foreign land, and the existence of former German cemeteries, mainly Protestant ones, was a huge problem. They could not be liquidated as easily as the former German monuments. It was a long-term process and began in the late 1950s. More than 40 cemeteries were liquidated in Wrocław, i.e. most of those taken over by the Polish administration after the war. For many years it was a taboo topic and still is in fact. It is hard to talk about it, although many Wrocław residents still remember this practice, because it actually did not end until the 1970s. As Poles and hosts of these lands, we must face it.
Today’s largest and most popular cemeteries, i.e. the Osobowicki Cemetery and the Grabiszyński Cemetery, were established in the 19th century as municipal cemeteries and still function as such today, although few graves have been preserved from pre-war times. Many necropolises once operated almost in the very centre of the city, such as the Great Cemetery (Grosser Friedhof) founded in 1777, located between Legnicka and Braniborska Streets, today sometimes called the pre-war pantheon of great Wrocław residents or the pre-war Wrocław Powązki Cemetery, because many distinguished residents of the city laid buried there. It was razed to the ground in 1957. Most of Wrocław’s current parks are former cemeteries. Housing estates and public buildings were also built on former necropolises. It can be said that the Wrocław residents of today sleep, eat, work, rest, play, walk and practice various sports on the remains of the former Wrocław residents hidden deep in the ground…
Every cemetery is worth visiting and getting to know, because all of them provide a lesson in history. Take a slow walk, even just along the main alleys, find out who is buried there, who they were, where were they born. Try to read everything that is legible from the inscription, depending on the state of the tombstone. By getting to know these micro-stories and analysing this data, especially the place of birth often put on the tombstone, you will quickly come to the conclusion that Wrocław is truly the city of meetings. Let us remember not only about graves, but also about other ‘memory carriers’ located at cemeteries, such as the Katyń Crosses or the Monument to the Victims of Communist Terror at the Osobowicki Cemetery.
This website is of a popular science and educational nature. According to the concept of its creators, it is ultimately intended to be a compendium of knowledge about Wrocław cemeteries. We would like to invite all those who care about this topic to contribute to it.
Written and edited by: Kamilla Jasińska
Translated by: Fabryka Tłumaczeń
The concept of the online portal was created in 2019 by the Society of Wrocław Enthusiasts
(authors: Kamilla Jasińska – concept, development, selected texts; Sławomir Bienias – IT).
Since August 2023, the website has been run by
the ‘Remembrance and Future’ Centre (Depot History Centre)
in cooperation with the Society of Wrocław Enthusiasts and the Silesian Genealogical Society.