Over 150 Jewish gravestones pillaged by Hitler’s troops to build a road found buried under small town market square
Over 150 Jewish gravestones have been found under a market square in a small town in southern Poland.
The grizzly discovery was made in the town of Leżajsk, where they were laid during Nazi-Germany’s WII occupation to harden the road surface.
The find, which is the biggest discovery of ‘matzevot’ in Poland in recent years, is all the more valuable because some of them have retained their original colours and painted lettering, which surviving headstones in the local Jewish cemetery have lost over the years.
The stones were found during road construction when workers removed a layer of asphalt on the town's market square.
They were discovered about 20 cm below the surface and covered a stretch of road of almost 30 metres on south-west frontage of the market square.
Initially, when workers removed the asphalt, they found a layer of bricks in a herringbone pattern.
It was originally suspected that this was probably made in the 19th or at the turn of the 20th century when the town was part of Galicia in the Austrian partition.
However, when the layer of bricks was removed to reveal the headstones, it became clear that the work was carried out during World War Two.
Some of the headstones still retain gold lettering and coloured painting. The blue, green, yellow and red colours of the inscriptions are clear and vivid.
Ornamental crowns, candlesticks, flowers, lions and hands are perfectly visible. One has gold-painted letters.
Around one hundred are whole, apart from the traditional rounded heads, which were removed most likely to make it easier to lay them close together.
A further fifty headstones were broken into small pieces and used to fill in gaps.
So far, little is known about the age of the matzevot or who they belonged to. “We can't read the years, because everything is in Yiddish. Some matzevot are made of sandstone, others of concrete.
These are better preserved, because the sandstone cracked in contact with water. They are in different condition, but they are really beautiful,” said Ewa Kędzierska, the archaeologist supervising the work on the market square in Leżajsk.
Paradoxically, because of this profanation of the headstones by the Germans, the painted colours of the matzevot used as cobblestone has survived to this day, while the same colours are no longer present on the matzevot that survived in the cemetery.
The market square in Leżajsk was paved on the order of the Germans in November 1939. Bricks were used from the synagogue, which the Germans burned down, as well as two houses on the market square that hit by a bomb during the German invasion of Poland.
When the bricks ran out, the Germans ordered that headstones be brought from the nearby Jewish cemetery.
The find was expected by local archaeologists as similar discoveries have already been made in the same area. However, the scale of the find has stunned local historians and archaeologists.
“We were expecting to find some because 19 years ago matzevot were also found during the construction of a roundabout in the centre of Leżajsk. But nobody expected such a number. There are more than 150 of them and still not all of them have been removed,” said Kędzierska.
Leżajsk is visited each year by thousands of Hasidic Jews who come to pray to the tomb of Rabbi Elimelech Weissblum, one of the founders of the Hasidic movement. According to legend, he healed the sick and was able to talk to animals.
Hasidic Jews believe that on the anniversary of his death, he returns to earth to take their requests to God, which is why they come every year to Leżajsk, where Elimelech died.
The graveyard where he was buried and from where the stones were taken was almost completely destroyed during the war. It was reconstructed by the Nissenbaum Foundation, together with other private donors.
The discovery on the market square has led to speculation that the headstone with gold lettering may belong to the Rabbi.
“I hope that one could be the grave of Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk. That would be a great discovery,” Kędzierska said.
The stones are now the property of the State Treasury and the Podkarpackie heritage conservator will decide on their final destination.
At the moment, the excavated headstones have been placed on a plot belonging to the local council in Leżajsk.
“The decision on their final location will follow consultations with the Rabbinical Committee for Cemeteries,” said Bartosz Podubny from the Podkarpackie heritage conservator’s office.
Before the war, Jews constituted one third of the population of Leżajsk, numbering just over one and a half thousand people. Many more lived there at the beginning of the 19th century, when the town’s Jewish population was over 3,000 people.
After the Germans occupied the town in September 1939, most of the Jews were expelled to the Soviet occupation zone just 11 kilometres away. The remaining 350 Jews were confined in the town’s ghetto in 1941 and many were murdered in executions in the local cemetery.
On May 1, 1942, the ghetto was liquidated. Some Jews were moved to a transit camp in Pełkinie and labour camps in Rozwadów and Radymno.
About 100 people were executed on the spot. Some local people from Leżajsk helped Jews in the ghetto despite the threat of being killed by the Germans for doing so.