Jews hiding in cemeteries

During the German occupation, Jews sought refuge on the so-called Aryan side, including in the apartments and houses of Poles, in farm buildings, in forests and fields, in dugouts and canals. Among those places were also cemeteries of various denominations: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish. In this study, we present a selected few of the many stories of Jews hiding in cemeteries.

“The plate was pulled back, I saw two metal coffins. It made a terrible impression on me, but my husband and the others assured me that they would stay there even until the end of the war, so as not to die in the gas chamber. They brought some boards and straw from [the undertaker] Sommer's shed, made places for sitting and lying down, as the tomb was very high. […] I slid the plate back. After a while, I moved it again to make sure that they would not suffocate in a closed grave. They told me they could endure it,” wrote Kazimiera Poraj, who had been hiding in the Jewish cemetery in Lviv, in her diary.

Characteristics of Jewish hideouts in cemeteries of various denominations

In the years of the German occupation of Poland, most cemeteries were located outside built-up areas. The tombs, sometimes with crypts, could be converted into hideouts. Throughout the war, many of these cemeteries had caretakers who were able to help Jews looking for shelter.

Jewish cemeteries were not the best option for Jews looking to hide. Unlike Christian graveyards, they included much fewer above-ground architectural structures. The matzevot were often quite low and thus did not provide good shelter. Moreover, Jewish cemeteries were systematically vandalised from the first weeks of the war – not only on German orders, but also by the local population acting on its own accord. The rate of destruction increased after the establishment of ghettos, and especially after the extermination of most of the Jewish community in 1942. At that time, the abandoned Jewish cemeteries became an easy target for tombstone thieves and sites of executions carried out by the Germans. All these factors exposed those in hiding to the risk of denunciation.

It is also important to remember that Jewish cemeteries were venerated places, euphemistically called “homes of fathers”; they were holy, but at the same time ritually unclean. Using a cemetery for purposes other than burying the dead and worshiping them was a violation of tradition. Izaak Grynbaum, who was hiding in the cemetery in Chęciny in 1942, claimed that before the war he wouldn’t even have dared to enter it at night. The necessity to use tombstones to build a hideout was a source of mental torment for many people.  

Chapel in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Brańsk

“We found a chapel there in which the body of a priest was buried. To remove the coffin, we had to wait for a windy night, so that no one would hear us breaking the wall. When everything was ready, we decided to make a second exit so that we could escape if someone discovered our hideout. We dug a shelter. We formed mounds out of the removed soil, they were supposed to resemble graves. […] Our peasant acquaintances provided us with food for a fee,” recalled Szmul Klejnot. 

The chapel at the Roman Catholic cemetery in Brańsk became a place of refuge for six people. Szmul and Mosze Klejnot as well as Dora and Herszel Rubinsztajn hid there from May to autumn 1943. They had earlier been helped by the Gołębiecki family, but they had to leave their home for fear of potential denunciation.

Only Szmul Klejnot survived. Dora and Hersz were murdered in October 1943, during a raid organised by German military police. Mosze was killed in February 1944. 

Izrael (Stanisław) Brenner and Chaim Wróbel also stayed in the same chapel. They could count on the help of the Sobolewski family, who provided them with food. “In the winter, they removed their tracks in the snow, moved the plate back and entered, there was a narrow cellar with coffins under the chapel,” recalled Zofia Drzewiecka née Sobolewska years later.

After leaving the chapel, Izrael Brenner and Chaim Wróbel fought in the Zhukov partisan unit. After the war, they emigrated to Palestine and the United States. On 9 December 2007, the Yad Vashem Institute awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations to Paweł and Wacław Sobolewski and their children: Zofia, Aleksander, and Antoni. 

Tomb and morgue in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Buczacz

The Roman Catholic cemetery on Fedor Hill in Buczacz (Ukr. Buchach) was the hiding place of Klara Rosen and her sons Henryk, Jechiel, and Samuel “Milek” from May 1943 to March 1944. Gravedigger Mańko Świerszczak arranged a shelter in a brick tomb with a masked entrance. 

“With every passing day, we struggled more and more with the unbearable living conditions. During the day we sat huddled in silence […]. The excrements of four people, collected in an old bucket, were poisoning the air. The lack of water made it difficult to maintain personal hygiene. We soon became infested with lice, which were an additional nuisance. At night we went outside. A breeze of fresh air made us believe that we were still alive. With time, we started to venture out to the Strypa River to bathe. […] The darkness surrounded us day and night.” This is how the living conditions in the tomb were described by Samuel “Milek” Rosen.

For some time, there were also four other Jews living the cemetery: Fiszel Szwarz and three men whose names remain unknown. After a short period, however, they decided to look for another shelter. Their further fate is unknown.

The people hiding in the tomb faced many dangerous situations. The Germans used the cemetery as an execution site of Jews captured in Buczacz and its vicinity. There were also people coming to the graves of their relatives and peasants grazing cattle between the tombstones. 

Obtaining food was a big problem. Initially, Mańko Świerszczak was receiving money for shopping from the Rosen family, but they soon ran out of funds. He then had to pay for the food himself. His wife Maryna helped him bring the products to the hideout. The increased amount of food they were purchasing caught the attention of an Ukrainian man who notified the military police. During the interrogation, Mańko Świerszczak was beaten, but did not confess to hiding the Rosens.

In the winter, the Rosens moved to the cemetery morgue, where they set up a shelter under the floor with the help of the gravedigger. In March 1944, German soldiers entered the morgue, preparing to fight the approaching Red Army. The roof of the hideout collapsed under their weight and they discovered the hiding Jews. The Germans shot Klara Rosen. Her sons managed to survive.

After the liberation of Buczacz, the brothers joined the First Polish Army. After the war, Jechiel and Samuel emigrated to Palestine, and Henryk to the United States. On 7 July 1983, Mańko and Maryna Świerszczak were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Tomb in the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv

The Roman Catholic cemetery in Lychakiv provided shelter to Zinajda and Leszek Allerhand wandering around Lviv. In the vast necropolis, they found a tomb that could be entered after moving aside a stone slab. They laid out the interior with leaves. 

 “I was so afraid of everything that this place that makes everyone shudder gave to me a joyful, wonderful moment of repose. I never felt so calm and safe as I did in someone else’s grave,” recalled Leszek Allerhand in 1997, when asked if he was afraid of living in a cemetery.

Zinajda and Leszek Allerhand hid in the tomb from August until late autumn 1943. Thanks to false identity documents, Zinajda could come out of the cemetery to get food. After a few months, however, she decided to look for another shelter for safety reasons and due to the increasingly severe cold. 

Hiding in the Old Believers' cemetery in Kamionek, Warsaw

During the Holocaust, the now defunct Old Believer’s cemetery at 307 Grochowska Street in Kamionek became a hiding place for the Międzyrzecki family: spouses Izrael and Rywka, their children Genia and Beniamin as well as Fejgele Peltel (Władka Meed). They all escaped from the Warsaw ghetto in September 1942. The cemetery had been out of use since the interwar period, but it was still guarded by a caretaker, Jakub Kartaszew, and his wife Anna. When people would come to the cemetery to visit graves, the Międzyrzeckis and Fejgele Peltel hid behind a double wall in a goat shed (according to Władka Meed – in the kitchen of the caretaker's house). Beniamin, who had the so-called “good” looks, helped with funerals and cleaned the area. At times he would also venture outside the cemetery. 

Despite the difficult conditions, the Międzyrzecki family tried to follow the rules of kashrut, prayed, and celebrated holidays. Beniamin and Fejgele were active in the Jewish resistance movement, including smuggling weapons to the ghetto. They stayed in the Old Believers' cemetery until the Warsaw Uprising. They all survived the war and in the following years immigrated to Palestine and the United States. 

On 13 June 1988, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem awarded Jakub and Anna Kartaszew with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Hideout in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw at Okopowa Street

Almost at the very centre of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw at Okopowa Street, there is a brick cellar. It is one of the few hideouts from the times of the Holocaust in the territory of Poland which have been preserved to the present day. It was built in 1942, probably after the Germans had started the so-called Great Liquidation Action (Grossaktion) of the Warsaw ghetto.

During the German occupation, tens of thousands of people who died or were killed in the ghetto were buried in the cemetery. At that time, the necropolis was also used to smuggle food into the ghetto. The Germans cut the grass growing on the premises to make mattress filling, and grew beetroots, cabbages, tomatoes, and potatoes at the site. In 1942, therefore, the cemetery was frequented by Jews, Poles, and Germans alike.

One of the cemetery employees was Ajzyk Posner. Together with stonemason Mosze Aroniak, they built a hideout in the quarter no. 41, located in the middle of the cemetery. It was constructed in a place filled with graves from the end of the 19th century, which almost certainly required the exhumation of human remains buried there. The shelter was small – it was about 1.8 m deep, and ca. 1.5 wide and 2.5 m long at the base. Aroniak and Posner used bricks from the cemetery wall or from the Mausoleum of Jewish Fighters for the Independence of Poland to build the walls of the shelter. They made the ceiling out of iron T-bars and matzevot, including those marking the graves of Idalia Kramsztyk and Dorota Rubinstein.

The shelter was intended for several people. Apart from Ajzyk Posner and Mosze Aroniak, the people who knew of its existence were Dawid Płoński, wife of Ajzyk Guta Posner, and Lea Stolbach-Wajnberger from Leżajsk with her twelve-year-old son Abram. They did not stay in the “bunker” all the time – they hid there when the Germans came to the cemetery. 

The cemetery gave people seeking shelter the advantage of a large area covered with thousands of tombstones, but hiding there was also associated with many threats posed by the Germans, smugglers, and blackmailers. It is worth mentioning that the cemetery was not overgrown with dense vegetation during the war. Additionally, many trees were cut down in the first months of the occupation. 

Dawid Płoński thus described the hideout and the fate of its users: “Mosze Aroniak […] was an officer in the Polish army. He was a strong, upright man, a beautiful figure. And the manager of the cemetery was Posner. His son was a doctor. We built a grave there with matzevot – not really a grave, but a room, though situated inside a grave. And we made a deal with this doctor that when the Germans came, whoever was in the grave would stay in the grave; and whoever was outside would not run towards it."

The hideout was unmasked on 6 September 1942. When a German patrol came to the cemetery, Ajzyk Posner, contrary to earlier arrangements, started running towards the bunker. The Germans shot Posner and his wife Guta. Their companions buried their bodies next to the ohel of Rabbi Szlomo Zalman Lipszyc.

Contact point in the Jewish cemetery in Bródno in Warsaw

The other Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, located at Odrowąża Street, became the hideout of Zygmunt Nissenbaum, who smuggled food into the ghetto as a teenager.

“I arranged a hideout and a contact point for myself and for my friends at the Jewish cemetery in Bródno. We felt relatively safe in the vicinity of the family graves, although patrols, police raids, and executions were often carried out there. It was there, in the first months of my escapades, that I saw a scene which was truly terrifying, especially for the young boy I was at the time – the execution of 10 people, including a rabbi carrying the Torah. […] Despite such events, this cemetery seemed to us all a peaceful haven compared to what was happening in the city. We rested there each time before stepping back to the ghetto, which could turn out to be the last steps of your life."

When the Nissenbaum Family Foundation was founded in the 1980s, one of its first projects was to erect a fence and take up renovation works in the Jewish cemetery in Bródno. Placed at its entrance is a suggestive bas-relief showing a group of people led by a rabbi carrying a Torah scroll.

Tombs in the Jewish cemetery in Lviv

The Jewish cemetery at Kyrylivska Street (former Szlachecka Boczna Street) in Lviv was one of the hideouts of Dawid Ringiel and Szaje Gerber after they escaped from the Janowska camp. They both stayed in private homes, for example in Antonina Hernik's flat, but they fled to the cemetery in times of danger. “Then we would always go to the cemetery to sleep in a tomb, and the next day we would come back at night so that no one would see us. We sat inside all winter without any sun, we were white as a wall,” they recalled. 

After the war, Szaje Gerber emigrated to the United States. Dawid Ringiel settled in Wrocław. For many years, he led prayers in the White Stork Synagogue, he was also the chairman of the Jewish Religious Community in Wrocław. On 23 February 1984, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem awarded Antonina Hernik with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

A group of 10 Jews waited out the so-called liquidation action in August 1942 in another tomb at the same cemetery. Among them were the husband of Ukrainian woman Kazimiera Poraj, whose name remains unknown, and nine relatives and friends of attorney Fuks. A cemetery worker demanded 1,000 marks for hiding them.

“The plate was pulled back, I saw two metal coffins. It made a terrible impression on me, but my husband and the others assured me that they would stay there even until the end of the war, so as not to die in the gas chamber. They brought some boards and straw from [the undertaker] Sommer's shed, made places for sitting and lying down, as the tomb was very high. […] I slid the plate back. After a while, I moved it again to make sure that they would not suffocate in a closed grave. They told me they could endure it,” wrote Kazimiera Poraj, who had been hiding in the Jewish cemetery in Lviv, in her diary.  

Kazimiera's husband stayed in the tomb from 17 to 25 August 1942. He only left it at night. His wife provided him with food. After leaving the cemetery, he returned to the ghetto for some time, then hid in his own apartment. He lived to see the Red Army take over Lviv in July 1944.

Bunker in the Jewish cemetery in Jędrzejów

In 1942, several Hasidim set up hiding places in the Jewish cemetery in Jędrzejów. One day, the gravediggers were surprised to notice new mounds of earth. Gravedigger Menachem Horowicz recalled this event in his account submitted to Yad Vashem:

“There was still a handful of Hasidim in the ghetto. Another group lived in the village of Piaski, near the Jewish cemetery, at a Polish acquaintance’s house. Together with him, they constructed a bunker in the cemetery. The Hasidim dug twelve fresh graves during the night and built a bunker underneath. There were actually several bunkers. They could be entered from that Pole's house. […] This Polish acquaintance was supposed to deliver them food to the bunker. It was all arranged for a lot of money.”

When the local residents began to dismantle the cemetery wall and take away tombstones, it was no longer possible to use the “bunkers.” The Hasidim had to leave the cemetery. Some of them were killed by the Germans in Jędrzejów, others were taken to a forced labour camp in Skarżysko-Kamienna.

Cellar in the Jewish cemetery in Chęciny

In the summer of 1942, Guta Szynowłoga, her daughter Lila, and her cousin Izaak Grynbaum came to the Jewish cemetery in Chęciny, picturesquely situated on the hillside topped by the Queen Bona Castle. Still living at the site were the caretaker, Karol Kiciński, and his daughter Janina. Kiciński and Grynbaum set up a bunker in the basement next to the gatehouse. They used a dozen or so matzevot to build it.

The people in hiding were greatly traumatised by the stay in the cemetery. Lilka, only several years old at the time, “was terribly afraid of the corpses. […] Sometimes she heard some groans and calls, as if the dead were looking for each other, or as if they were reproaching her for having violated their rights, because the cemetery and graves are the land of the dead, not the living.”

Although the cemetery was situated outside the city, it was not a safe place. From time to time, local residents came there to steal tombstones or graze animals. Guta and Lilka lived almost two years in such conditions. Izaak Grynbaum was killed in March 1944 by Home Army partisan from the “Barabasz” unit commanded by Marian Sołtysiak. He was 26 years old. His body was found in the Market Square in Chęciny and buried in the Jewish cemetery. 

After 1945, Guta Szynowłoga returned to Warsaw. She found Karol and Janina Kiciński and brought them to live with her. Karol – known as "Grandpa" – died two years later. Janina Kicińska lived with the Szynowłoga family for several years and was treated as part of the family. On 3 March 1983, Karol and Janina Kiciński were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Hiding in the Jewish cemetery at Rybna Street in Łódź

The Jewish cemetery at Rybna Street in Łódź became a shelter for 14-year-old Arek Herszlikowicz. In September 1942, when the Germans began deporting children and the elderly from Łódź to the death camp in Chełmno and Nerem, the boy climbed over the cemetery wall and spent the whole day there. 

„“I found a place where I could climb the wall. When I jumped down, I fell on a rock and sprained my ankle, but I was so afraid that I didn’t feel any pain at all. In search of shelter, I dragged myself to a tombstone, praying: ‘God, help me, protect me. Don't let them take me away’. I was limping from matzeva to matzeva, trying to get as far away from the wall as possible. ‘God, please don't let them catch me.’”

WIn 1944, Arek Herszlikowicz was sent to KL Auschwitz-Birkenau and later in Theresienstadt. After the war, he settled in the United Kingdom and changed his name to Arek Hersh.

Hiding in the Jewish cemetery in Serock and Tarczyn

Many Jews were looking for rescue in cemeteries during deportation actions. In December 1939, when the Germans began deportations of the Jewish population from Serock, Dawid and Jenta Drezner and their children Doba and Alter went to the local cemetery during the night. Forced to hide in such a place on a cold night, they felt even more endangered. After a few hours, they left the cemetery and went to their family in Legionowo.

In the years 1943–1944, Jochwed Kantorowicz and her sister hid in the vicinity of Tarczyn. In the autumn of 1943, during a roundup organised by the Germans, they both escaped to the nearby Jewish cemetery. However, “many graves were dug out, many monuments broken. The cemetery resembled an empty field. There was a rabbi's grave in which we wanted to arrange a hideout. But we weren't there long. A dog started barking and we ran away.” In the middle of winter, chilled to the bone and exhausted, the women decided to go to the cemetery again and make a stove for their dugout from cans littering the site, as well as to “dig up some fresh corpse, take off its clothes and put them on to get warmer.” However, they eventually abandoned this idea.

Krzysztof Bielawski, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, October 2021


Read more:


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