Some may consider that an unusual hobby, but I like to visit old cemeteries wherever I go. Especially those that are no longer used by any community, that are forgotten and decaying because the people whose relatives were buried there no longer live there. It started when as a kid I used to spend some time every year in the summer at my grandparents. The village they live in was once inhabited by Germans, expelled after World War II when that region was incorporated to Poland. Apart from houses and other belongings they left a small cemetery hidden in the nearby forest. I used to visit it many times looking for the last remains of graves and stone tombs. Last time I saw it the only sign of the cemetery’s former presence were the two rows of tilia trees once marking the entrance. The rest had been totally absorbed by forest.
Every year I spend two weeks in Masuria region in Poland. There is a similar historical background behind that land, whose mixed German / Masurian population disappeared almost completely after 1945. Their houses became inhabited by newcomers from other parts of Poland, protestant churches turned into catholic ones but nobody needed their cemeteries anymore. When I’m there I always look for the signs of the presence of people who were born and spent all their lives there. Although there’s new life there and a few generations of post-war inhabitants have already been born there, I still have that unpleasant feeling of emptiness, the notion that something is missing.
Last year I came to the old cemetery in Mrągowo (formerly known as Sensburg) and saw exactly what I could have expected. The place dominated by weeds, the remains of tombs slowly but constantly sinking into the ground. However I saw also a few graves that apparently someone was taking care of and that was a hopeful sign. You can still read the names on tombstones or steel crosses and think that not only them but also their families and the world they used to know is gone.
However, probably even more piercing experience can be a visit to one of jewish cemeteries left in Poland. Many of them were destroyed during the war by Nazis, who profaned them and
used the tombstones (matzevah) to toughen the roads or as elements of buildings walls. They wanted not only to kill the Jews but also annihilate the memory of them. It’s worth mentioning that some Poles were doing exactly the same after the war had ended but it deserves another, separate post in future. One of the biggest jewish necropolis that mostly survived that barbarity is located in my hometown, Warsaw. I’ve been there only once so far and it really hurt. There are thousands of gravestones there and almost every one of them is in some way crooked or distorted. The area is tightly overgrown with trees so when you cross the gate you feel like you were entering a mysterious, shady forest. I’m not good at describing my feelings, so I’d use just one word to express what I felt when I saw it all: regret. Very deep regret, made even greater by the fact that I couldn’t read the Hebrew inscriptions on the tombstones and they seemed to me even more silent witnesses of what once was.
The last war made my country a land of ghosts of people for whom it had been their place on earth. What we can do is to remember they once lived here. And I do.
P.S. It was not my intention to put Holocaust and expulsion of Germans on the same level. These are two different things and I know it. I’m only describing my feelings.