Headstones Which Tell Stories
The Jewish community of Tomaszow Mazowiecki numbered 13,000 people on the eve of World War II. In the Jewish cemetery there are scarcely a few hundred headstones to be found. The searching and cleaning project which took place this year added to the number. The pictures brought by Benjamin Yaari enable an initial and partial survey of these headstones. Since this cemetery began as a place of burial in the 1830's, one cannot expect more ancient headstones. The older headstones sank into the ground and were covered by layers of fallen leaves since it is a forested area. Those which were uncovered owe their good condition to the fact that they were covered with soil. But since most of the headstones are made of Polish sandstone, which is not preserved well over time, some of them were worn away and the epitaphs on them are hard to read. In addition, since most of the headstones dating from the 19th century are carved only with the first name and the name of the father, without the family name, clear pictures were not always taken. All this makes it difficult to "read": and understand those ancient headstones, which are rich in symbolic representation and their artistic qualities are evident in spite of the ravages of time.
In order to understand Jewish headstones in Poland, one should not only read the epitaphs written on them and be impressed by their aesthetic design, but also to "read" the descriptive decorations on them, because architectural ornaments, objects, plants, animals, and even human forms that are described on them do not function merely as decoration, but also have meaning and intention to signify something.
I will begin with a "modern" group among the Tomaszow headstones. The headstone of R. David, son of R. Moshe Yehuda Knecht, from the year 1930 (picture 1), and the headstone of R. Moshe Yoseph Salmonovitch (p.2 unclear date) have a common "geometric11 style. The style was influenced by the post-World War I international style in architecture: the form of the "gate" which is also commonly found in earlier headstones as will be seen below consists only of straight and circular lines. Two decorations characterize these headstones: the "victory wreath" and the Star of David. The "victory wreath" is made of laurel leaves and fruits artificially arranged in a horizontal or circular line whose sides fall perpendicularly. This decoration is taken from the neoclassical style of Western art. It symbolizes glory and victory because during the Classical period it was customary to decorate the victor with a laurel wreath. The Star of David on the headstones which became a symbol of Zionism, symbolizes the subjects of glory and victory and that the deceased was a Zionist. Both decorations are rarely found on traditional headstones in Poland before the Zionist movement.
The headstone of Ze'ew, son of Michael Fried (?), dated 1910, is a traditional headstone for a person who was probably a Zionist, from a period before the international style (p.3). Shown here are traditional symbols and a large Star of David over a book. Is it a Zionist book? If it had an inscription, it has worn away and disappeared. The headstone of Rachel Kirschaum, dated 1936, is a "modern" headstone of a woman who probably was not a Zionist, but was close to the Polish culture because her name is written both in Hebrew and in Latin letters (p.4). It is adorned with the modern "victory wreath". And the Shabbat menorah, the traditional symbol found abundantly on women's headstones, as will be seen below, shown in a non-traditional form: diminished and in a circular frame.
There are many headstones of Zionists in Tomaszow Mazowiecki. There is also a headstone whose inscription indicates that the deceased was one of the "Bund" Organization. Other headstones bear non-Hebrew inscriptions only, indicating assimilation into the general culture. Many headstones were stolen or broken because they were made of a more expensive stone than the Polish sandstone in order to remove inlaid marble from them. I will say no more about them.
Headstones in the Shape of a Gate.
Many headstones in Tomaszow Mazowiecki are shaped in the form of a gate which contains a panel with an epitaph, that is to say, two columns with bases and capitals, an architrave, and an upper structure, the tympanum, above. The earlier headstones are usually topped by a semi-circular form, or in a few cases, when the top of the he3 is horizontal, the semi-circular shape is carved in it. For example, the headstone of Jacob, from 1873 (p. 5. Right), and the headstone of Zvi Yitzhak (p. 5. Left). It seems fit here to mention that on earlier headstones, it is possible to read the name of the deceased in a capital letters at the beginning of the lines, and that's how I read the names on these two headstones. Later gate headstones are topped with a circular form, sometimes even with a gabled triangular form; in both cases they are decorated with two horn-like forms on both sides; R. Moshe Yehuda Knecht's headstone is an example of this (p. 6, the year is impossible to read).
It seems that the use of the shape of the gate on the headstones is influenced too by Romantic neoclassicism. But the gate motif is one of the most common in Jewish art even earlier: in Holy Arks, Ark curtains (parochot), Hannukah menorahs, front pages of books and marriage contracts (ketubot). Its meanings change in accordance with the object and time, beginning with the hope of redemption on coins of Bar Kochva until "This is the gate of the Lord into which the righteous shall enter" (Psalms, ch. 118:20), a verse which decorates gates of synagogues, Holy Arks and Ark curtains. In spite of the profusion of gates in Jewish art, it seems that the structure of the gate of headstones is not only an imitation of conventional form but possesses symbolic meaning of its own, in addition to those aforementioned. The concept of the grave serving as a house for the deceased and entering it through a gate is ancient in Jewish culture, as it is common in the general culture. In the Bible we can find a few references of an entrance gate to the next world, as is written in Job (38:17,) "have the gates of death been opened unto thee or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?"
The Forms of "Horns"
The forms of "Horns" which decorate many gate headstones testify that unique Jewish symbolism is related to forms which originate in common culture. These forms are sometimes designed as horns and sometimes decorated with stylized plant motifs of palmetto. These "horns" are the acroteria, forms which decorate the lower corners of roof gables of buildings of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. They decorate ancient Greek headstones and Roman sarcophagi, stone coffins in the shape of a house.
These forms of "horns" reappear on the headstones as a result of the neoclassic style, like the form of the gate. Reappear, I have said, because Jewish burial caves of the Second Temple period are decorated with gables and acroteria. There was no hesitation to adopt from the common culture and use them in traditional headstones but they were imbued with symbolic meaning from Jewish tradition. I received interesting evidence to the aforementioned from Mr. Yeshiyahu Kaveh, a carver of headstones in Israel, and a son, grand-son of headstone carvers from Kalisz., Poland. In answer to my question about these forms his father used to carve on headstones, he answered that these were the horns of the sacrificial altar and that is what they were called by the headstone carvers in Kalisz. When he was young and worked in the family business, they decorated almost all the headstones with the horns of the altar. Therefore, it seems that these "horns" carry the symbolic meaning of the deceased's atonement for sins. This originated from the custom of the Cohen to cast the blood of the sacrifice upon the horns of the altar in order to atone for sins, as is shown many times in the Bible (Leviticus, ch 4. And ch. 9). It is also appropriate to mention here the biblical custom of the sinner to hold the horns of the altar in order claim sanctuary. It seems that great importance was attached to the horns of the altar, because in a headstone without the gate, the horns appear alone (p. 3).
Headstones in the Shape of an Oak.
Headstones in the shape of an Oak Tree are another group of headstones, which are probably used specifically for people who died at a young age of before they started a family. An example of this is the headstone of Avigdor Samuelson who passed on in 1933 (p. 7). Another on is the headstone of Yeshiyahu Warzager, who passed on at the age of 17, in the year 1917 (p. 8). The first one is designed as a gate with a gables roof and acroteria, and the second is not of the gate type. The common thread between them is the broken oak tree. It is not only a broken tree, a broken branch or a broken flower, which appears on many headstones in Poland as a symbol of the break in life, which is death, as we can see in the headstone of Ze'ev Ben Michael (p. 3), but it is definite big oak tree that in Tomaszow, at least, signifies the headstone of a young person. On the first headstone there is a realistic three-dimensional bas-relief of an oak whose broken trunk is carved on one side and whose body, which is designed with branches, leaves and acorns, falls over to the other side of the panel with the epitaph. The headstone of Yeshiyahu is designed entirely as a tree stump with a branch of oak attached to the bottom, and a panel with an epitaph attached to the trunk above. This broken or cut-off oak is "Alon Bacbuth", the oak of the weeping, a metaphor taken from the Bible: "But Debora, Rebekah's nurse, died and she was buried beneath Bet El, under an oak and the name of if was called Alon Bacbuth (Gen. 35:8) (the oak of weeping).
"Alon Bacbuth" appeared earlier as a headline to an obituary on the untimely death of a young person, in the Hebrew newspaper published in Poland: "Ha'Tsfira" (no 68, April 21, 1900).
Common Symbolic Representations.
Some of the most common descriptions on the headstones were meant to symbolize the religious status of the deceased in the community. The most common of them throughout the Diaspora is the pair of hands in the position of he blessings of the Cohens (priests), which indicates the headstone of a Cohen. On the headstone of the Cohen Hanoch Henich, the blessing hands emerge from sleeves in a realistic fashion (p. 9). A pitcher and a bowl, or in the case of the headstone of Itsche Frenkel, a hand pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl, indicates that the deceased is from the tribe of Levi (p. 10). The roll of the Levi is to wash the hands of the Cohen in the synagogue before the blessing of the Cohens, a ceremony which took place in the Temple. Itsche Frenkel was probably also a member of a group of psalm reciters, "Tehilim Zoggers." These people used to get up early every day, summer and winter, and read the Book of Psalms together until the beginning of the morning prayers, before they went to their daily work; the representation of the Book of Psalms on this headstone symbolizes it. The Psalm reciters were usually simple. God-fearing people but not highly educated. The headstone of a person who knew a chapter of Gemara and its commentaries and could integrate Torah study with daily life is probably decorated with an open Ark with books in it.
The headstone of Yakov from 1872, is decorated with this symbolic description (p. 5. right): the open Ark is within a frame in the design of a temple with columns and architrave, and a Torah crown glorifying from above. That is to say: there are holy books here.
The crowns are symbols of kingship and glory throughout the history of common culture. The glory of kingship is attributed to the Torah in "the crown of Torah." But the Mishna is more specific about the crowns and speaks of several different kinds of crowns. "There are three crowns: the crown of the law (the Torah), the crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship, but the crown of good name excels them all" (Avot 4:13). Crowns appear many times on the headstones. To which one of the crowns mentioned above do they refer, and what do they glorify? Sometimes the combination of the other descriptions tells us, and sometimes the epitaph tells us. When the crown appears together with the symbol of the blessing hands, it is usually the "crown of priesthood." In all cases, the meaning of the "crown of good name" can combine with one of the other meaning, or this meaning alone is implied, because the "crown of good name" is more important than the others as previously noted. In this case, inscribed on the epitaph we read: "deceased in good name." or "deceased in g.n." This inscription, in fact, appears on many traditional headstones and originates in the Babylonian Talmud: "Happy is he who was brought up in the Torah and whose labor was in the Torah and who has given pleasure to his Creator and who grew up with a good name and departed the world with a good name" (Babylonian Talmud. Berachot 17:7). and in the Bible, "A good name is better than precious ointment" (Ecclesiastes 7:1). "A crown of good name" comes to glorify the deceased since it is customary to speak of his good virtue.
A different crown from the four aforementioned is the fallen crown that comes to symbolize the mourning and lament of the kinsmen. This is the description on the headstone of R. Moishe Yehuda Knecht. The Fallen crown is described with a ribbon on which is written "the crown is fallen from our head" (p. 6); this image is taken from the lament of the destruction of Jerusalem in the Book of Lamentations: "the joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning the crown is fallen from our head, woe to us. that we have sinned" (5:15-16).
The Shabbat Menorah is the most common symbolic representation on women's headstones. It can appear in the form of two candleholders or a menorah with several branches, but in most cases, it is a three-branched menorah, as on the headstone of Taba Raizel Rosenberg, who passed on in the year 1906 (p. 11). On the headstone of Bella Aidel Ostrowich, who passed on in the year 1910 there appears a menorah with five candles on which the center candle is broken, a symbol of the woman's death, of which the candle will be lit no longer (p. 12). The Shabbat menorah symbolizes the three mitzvahs that a woman is obliged to perform. It has been said in the Mishnah "For three transgressions do women die in childbirth: for heedlessness of the laws of the menstruant, the dough offering and the lighting of the lamp (Shabbat 2:6).
A hand putting a coin in a charity box deco rates the headstone of Bella Aidel, a symbolic description that relates to the mitzvah of giving charity. This symbolic description. in the shape of a charity box only, also adorns the symbolic headstone of Taba Raizel (p. 11). Here it is inside a gate, along with the Shabbat menorah; lions guarding the gate adorn it and "a crown of good name" decorates it. The symbol of giving charity also decorates headstones of men, especially the early ones. On the headstone of Zvi Yitzhak, we can see a realistic inscription of this symbol (p. 5, left). Great importance is placed upon the mitzvah of giving charity, since it enhances the good name of the deceased.
A representation of a box on a headstone can also be an inkwell. On the headstone of R. Moshe Yehuda Knecht there is what appears to be an inkwell, since it is missing the padlock typically found on a charity box. The inkwell tells us that the deceased was a writer. It is possible that the representation of the four books on this headstone refers to the four books of the deceased, or an interpretation he wrote of four holy books (p. 6).
Animal representations appear in large numbers in Jewish art in general. They are often interpreted according to the popular verse from Avot: "Be bold as a leopard, 1ight as an eagle, fleet as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of thy Father, who is in Heaven" (5:23). The lions, the deer and the birds that often appear, usually on the earlier headstones of Tomaszow, cannot always be explained by this verse. Lions can also decorate a headstone because the name of the deceased is Arieh, Leb or Yehuda. "Yehuda is a lion whelp" was said in the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49:9). Deer can decorate a headstone because the name of the deceased is Zvi, Hirsch or Naphtali. "Naphtali is a doe set free" symbolized the tribe of Naphtali (Genesis 49:21). A bird can symbolize the name of a woman Fajga, Zipporah. If we consider also the lions as "guardians of the gates," that is to say, heraldic lions standing opposite each other and "supporting" a symbol, as they often appear on the headstone which are a symbol of kingship, power and glory in general culture since early days, we can see that these animals are susceptible of more than one meaning. For example on the headstone of Zvi Yitzhak, we see a pair of lions "Guardians of the gate," supporting a gate which symbolizes a kink of "temple" like the Holy Arks of synagogues decorated with a crown (p. 5, left). The symbol of giving is found in this gate and therefore the crown is interpreted as a crown of good name. Deer and an eagle also decorate the architrave, and between them is an eagle with wings spread. "Light as an eagle, fleet as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of the Father," which in this case means to do charity? It is possible to draw this meaning, but it is not the only one. The deer seems also to symbolize the name of the deceased.
A beautiful headstone from the year 1884, rich with symbolic representations (p. 13) name unclear), is a gate headstone with columns and capitals, as is possible to see in the fragmented picture. The upper structure, the rounded tympanum, is surrounded by a strip on which the date of death can be read. The bottom of this strip is decorated with plants, which end in a bunch of grapes. The inscribed strip surrounds a carving of a lion on one side and a deer on the other, guarding or glorifying a symbolic gate decorated with a large "crown of the Torah." It is a crown o Torah because inside it are the scrolls of the Torah. Is it not also a "crown of a good name?" On the panel, under this inscription, there is the hand placing charity money in the box, opposite another bird on a branch, an eagle spreading his wings between them, surrounded by a half-circle. Indeed. "light as an eagle, fleet as a deer and strong as a lion." It will be shown that this eagle has an additional meaning. It is possible to try to " read" the rest of the symbolic descriptions: the Book of the Torah represents the generosity of the deceased, since the shape of a heart decorates it (?). Maybe the deceased's wife donated a Book of Torah in his memory? The bird on a branch can hint at that, since a bird which is not an eagle is often a symbol of a woman or her children. On the headstone of Bella Aidel, we can also see a bird with a branch on one side, and on the opposite, a hand giving charity (p. 12). The deer on the headstone of Zvi Hirsch, which is "bending" a tree with his leg, undoubtedly symbolizes the name of the deceased, since it does not signify any other symbol (p. 14. date unclear). This stone is also a gate headstone, whose columns are decorated with plants. The architrave is decorated with bird and the representation of the aforementioned deer, surrounded by an open curtain, with a crown on his head which seems to hint at the "crown of good name." The strip surrounding the circle of the upper structure has an illegible inscription.
The large bird pecking at his chest and spreading its wings on the architrave on the headstone of Zvi Hirsch is a rare representation on a Jewish headstone. It seems to be a representation of the pelican sacrificing itself for the sake of its nestling and feeding them with its blood. This is a symbol of self-sacrifice originating in the Christian culture.
A large defending bird is standing on the upper structure of the headstone
whose name and date are illegible (p. 15). This
is an eagle spreading its wings over the upper, rounded shape of the headstone,
like the dome of the sky, with his head bent forward. This seems to mean
God's protection of he who seeks shelter in Him. This symbol, which also
appears above Holy Arks, originates in the Bible:
"He shall cover thee with his feathers and under his wings shalt thou trust"
(psalms. 91:4). This headstone is skillfully carved, and the shapes
are realistic and three-dimensional. It is a gate headstone: birds decorate
the capitals of the columns, and the architrave is decorated with plants.
Above the architrave there is an open book held by a pair of lions, and
in between them there are boxes, possibly charity boxes or inkwells. A
trace of faded writing appears on the boxes or inkwells. Is it the Book
of Life? The book also has faded traces of writin: the name of the deceased,
Yehuda Yosef? It seems that the same interpretation is good for the eagle
spreading its wings in the lower arch above the epitaph on the headstone
of Zvi Yitzhak
(p. 5. left) and on the headstone from the year 1884 that I discussed above (p. 13): the protection and shelter of God.
A bird symbolizing death decorates a fraction of a headstone on which all that can be read is "This is a headstone ot burial monument of Zion" (p. 16). This bird is spreading its wings and with its legs extinguishing the candles of life, which are in two candleholders guarded by a pair of heraldic lions.
We have seen that symbolic representations of the human figure appear in the shape of hands only: the blessing hands of the Cohen, the hand of the Levi pouring water and the hand giving charity. There is no complete human figure among the headstones of Tomaszow, and it is very rare among Jewish headstones in general. Therefore, it is surprising to find a human face on the headstone of Hanoch Henich the Cohen (p. 9). Otherwise it is a traditional headstone, with a representation of the blessing hands and an open ark full of books, which indicates the deceased was a Cohen and educated. The face, placed together with a broken branch, a symbol of a break in life, inside the lower arch above the epitaph is a "face" of the setting sun. One line in the epitaph explains its appearance: "We will mourn lamentation and disaster, day turned into night, and he descended into the grave."
The seven-branch menorah and amphora vase decorate the headstone of R. Chaim Son of Menachem from the year l895 (p. 17). Both are common symbols in Jewish art, from ancient coins, mosaic floors of synagogues from the time of the Talmud, Holy Books from the Cairo archives, to later holy objects, but on headstones in Poland the menorah is very rare. The seven-branch menorah, a symbol of the menorah that stood in the Temple and the hope of rebuilding it, was adopted as the symbol of our country. There is nothing in the epitaph to explain its appearance on this early headstone, which is otherwise a traditional headstone: lions holding a Psalter and a crown above.
The inscription on the aforementioned headstone, which is the prayer "God full of mercy," customarily said during funerals, appears in full on the panel of the headstone. The prayer "God full of mercy" also appears on the headstone of Taba Raizel, from the yea r 1906 (p. 11) and on the front of a few dozen headstones in Tomaszow. It appears to he a phenomenon peculiar to this cemetery, since it sometimes appears on headstones in other places in Poland, but is usually carved on the back of the headstone.
About the Style and Time of the Headstones. Two of the dated headstones are older: the headstone of Yacov from the year l872 (p. 5, right) and the headstone from the year l884 (p. 13). Both are gate headstones with columns, architrave and the rounded tympanum but without the horns. On the headstone of Yacov, with horizontal ends, the rounded upper structure is carved. Both are rich with symbolic descriptions and plant decorations. Their style of carving is realistic, with depth and three dimensions. Their style of inscription is also similar: beautiful, wide letters and precisely- spaced letters and words. Based on the similarity of these characteristics, I can also relate some of the other headstones to an earlier period, although I cannot read the dates on them, specifically, the headstone of Zvi Yitzhak (p. 5. left); the headstone of Zvi Hirsch with the pelican representation (p. 14); the beautiful headstone with the protecting eagle (p. 15); and also the fractional headstone with the bird of death extinguishing the candles of life (p. 16).
In contrast, traditional headstones, starting with the 1890's and probably until the end of World War I, are carved in a flatter style, less realistic, based more on the colors than on the depth of the figures, since they usually were painted in different colors. The symbolic representations also became poorer, fewer in number and a bit more patterned. Such is the headstone from the year 1895 (p. 17): the headstone of Hanoch Henich from the year 1900 (p. 9): the headstone from 1910 (p. 3): the headstone of Itsche Frenkel (p. 10): and the two women's headstones from 1906 and 1910 (p. 11 and 12). In this period, family names appear in growing numbers and become steadily used.
"Modern" headstones in Tomaszow are usually carved in a flat style and are not painted, a change of taste that comes from an external influence, the use of expensive stone, which should not be hidden beneath a layer of paint and is hard to carve, and through a distancing from tradition. "Modern" headstones made of cheap, local sandstone, which is easy to carve, show a tendency to return to three-dimensional depth carving. Realistic, sculptural carving also characterizes the oak tree headstones.
In Conclusion: What do
the Headstones Tell?
They tell us that shapes and motifs were taken from other cultures, but almost without exception, were given meaning from our ancient tradition. This tradition was alive and creative at least until after World War I. It may be possible that not every person could "read" the meaning of the symbolic representations immediately, but it seems that every person educated in books and tradition who thought deeply about what he saw on the headstone, understood the symbolism of the representations and their origins in the Torah, Bible, Mishnah and Gemara.
The headstones tell, through description and inscription, on the deceased's position in the community from a religious point of view.
They tell of deceased's virtues: proficient with the Holy Books, reciter of Psalms, giver of charity, a woman who keeps the three mitsvot, the good name of a person. The headstones praise the deceased, and ascribe to him virtues not always realized in life. The virtues express the collective ethos of a community which should be sought after, but which is not always achieved. And of course, they express what every headstone expresses: the break in life, the mourning of the kinsmen, the hope for the future, and acceptance.
Back to Tomaszow Maz. Cemetery Book
Back to Ada Web Page