At the time of their establishment, the Jewish cemeteries in Wrocław were located outside the city walls or – as in the case of 19th-century necropolises – in areas belonging to housing estates near Wrocław. The history of these necropolises reflects the complicated history of the Wrocław Jewish community. In total, five were established, and two have survived to this day.
NON-EXISTENT JEWISH COMMUNITY CEMETERIES
- Cmentarz żydowski na Przedmieściu Oławskim (Judenkirchhof an der Ohlauer Vorstadt)
- Cmentarz żydowski przy ulicy Gwarnej (Jüdischer Friedhof an der Claassenstrasse)
- Cmentarz żydowski na Psim Polu (Jüdischer Friedhof in Hundsfeld)
JEWISH COMMUNITY CEMETERIES ESTABLISHED BEFORE WORLD WAR II AND PRESERVED
- Cmentarz żydowski przy ulicy Lotniczej (Jüdischer Friedhof an der Flughafenstrasse)
- Cmentarz żydowski przy ulicy Ślężnej (Jüdischer Friedhof an der Lohestrasse)
At the end of the 12th century, settlers of Jewish origin began to arrive in Silesia in significant numbers. The evidence of the existence of an organised Jewish community in Wrocław at that time is a preserved tombstone from 1203 from its oldest necropolis – the Jewish cemetery in Przedmieście Oławskie. In 1453, after the burning of 41 Jewish people accused in the so-called trial of John of Capistrano, the final liquidation of the commune took place. Shortly after these events, in 1455, Wrocław obtained a privilege which introduced a ban on the settling of people of Jewish descent within the city limits (“de judaeis non tolerandis”).
The existence of an organised Jewish community in the capital of Silesia, despite the medieval privilege aimed against Jewish people still being in force, was confirmed in 1702. In 1744, after Silesia was taken over by Prussia (1741), the establishment of a Jewish community in Wrocław was officially allowed, at the same time imposing on its management the obligation to organise their own cemetery. Further important changes in the legal position of Jewish people were brought about by the political reforms carried out in 1790 and 1808, especially the Edict of Emancipation issued in 1812, equalising the rights of the Jewish community with other groups inhabiting the Prussian state. However, starting in the early 1870s, there was an escalation of anti-Jewish sentiments, which intensified after 1918. Persistent anti-Semitic tendencies led to the Holocaust during World War II, and in the case of the Wrocław Jewish community – to its liquidation in 1943.
The beliefs and ethics of Judaism were expressed in Jewish religious practices, the traditional foundations of which were developed in their main form between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD. The basic unit organising the local Jewish community was the commune, which provided the opportunity to meet religious needs, but also created conditions for helping its poorer representatives. The most important tasks of the Jewish community included establishing its own necropolis. According to tradition, the cemetery area was an inviolable place until the day of resurrection on Judgement Day. Therefore, it was forbidden to bury the dead in places previously already used for this purpose. The necropolis area, which had to be fenced, was always located at some distance from human settlements. The method of burying the dead was regulated by the rules which did not allow the pious dead to be buried next to evil people or suicides. Until the mid-19th century, men, women and children were buried in separate quarters.
A building necessary for the functioning of a modern Jewish cemetery was a pre-funeral home, where the ritual washing of corpses was carried out (Heb. tahara). Members of the burial society (chevra kadisha) had exclusive access to the room where the ceremony took place. They also carried out ritual activities. The remaining funeral participants waited outside or in a room specially prepared for this purpose. After carrying out the tahara ceremony, the body of the deceased was dressed in a shroud and placed on a wooden stretcher called a bier, on which the body was carried to the grave dug on the day of the funeral. Near the prepared grave there was a wooden coffin made of unplaned boards connected without the use of nails. After covering the coffin with a lid, the grave was quickly filled in and a prayer for the dead (kaddish) was recited. The bodies were placed in the grave with their faces facing east – towards Jerusalem. The burial site was usually marked with vertical tombstones (matzevot), the placing of which on the first anniversary of death was a religious obligation. In the 19th century, in addition to traditional matzevot, tombstones with forms commonly adopted in Christian culture appeared at Jewish cemeteries.
At the time of their establishment, the Jewish cemeteries in Wrocław were located outside the city walls or – as in the case of nineteenth-century necropolises – in areas belonging to housing estates near Wrocław. The ban on reburying the dead in the places of previous burials made it necessary to establish Jewish necropolises within a relatively large area. For the above reasons, the period of using the cemetery area was much shorter than in the case of Christian cemeteries.
Written by: dr Marek Burak, Halina Okólska
Edited by: Kamilla Jasińska
Translated by: Fabryka Tłumaczeń
M. Burak, H. Okólska, Dawne cmentarze Wrocławia, Wrocław 2007, pp. 283–307.
T. Włodarczyk, J. Kichler, Przewodnik po żydowskim Wrocławiu, Wrocław 2016, pp. 123–152.