Date: 24.10, Tuesday, 11.00
Place: Ślężna St.
Tour leader: Renata Wilkoszewska-Krakowska
The Old Jewish Cemetery (today: Museum of Cemetery Art, branch of the City Museum of Wrocław) is a special place on the historic map of Wrocław. Situated along the present-day Ślężna Street, it used to be the burial site for members of the Jewish community from 1856 to 1942. Today it is the city’s last surviving necropolis dating back to the second half of the 19th century, and Poland’s only Jewish cemetery elevated to the rank of a museum. On the premises of the cemetery there are numerous funerary monuments important due to their artistic and cultural-historical value. The original collection of funerary sculpture and street furniture combines into a harmonious whole with the well-kept old greenery. The reason for it is that the character of the cemetery stems from the 19th-century tradition of establishing necropolises on the same principles as parks and gardens. As a coherent and compact combination of architecture and park, in 1975 the cemetery was inscribed on the list of Wrocław monuments.
This lapidary of old sepulchral art is no longer used today. Its unusual character stems from the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, which was initiated by German Jews striving after reforms in the spirit of assimilation and integration with the German society. This phenomenon manifested itself in German inscriptions on the tombstones and the splendid family tombs, very different from the modest matzevahs marking Jewish graves in other cemeteries. The tombs by the walls were often designed by renowned architects, such as Edward Oppler or Richard and Paul Ehrlich, and made by the best stonemasons from expensive materials that often came from faraway places in Europe. Their forms drew upon many previous epochs, from Antiquity to Art Nouvau to Modernism, because in the late 19th century imitation in art was fashionable. These little gems of architecture pepper the walking routes in the necropolis.
This special place of memory today symbolises the mutual influence of two cultures, the Jewish tradition and the German one, and stands as cultural testimony to a bygone age. Around 12,000 tombs and gravestone still exist on the premises. The cemetery used to be the burial site for the members of the Jewish community in Wrocław, which was the third largest Jewish commune in Germany. Among them were many outstanding representatives of political, scientific and cultural life, who rendered great services to not only the city, but to the entire region and Europe.
Intensive conservation work, intended to restore the former splendour of the old necropolis, has been constantly performed over the last 35 years. Destroyed during the siege of Festung Breslau and forgotten after the war, the cemetery has survived thanks to the involvement and hard work of many people. Today it is visited by guests from all over the world, who can interpret this peculiar text of a bygone culture as a testimony to human life and human achievements.