Jewish epitaphs from Białystok, 1892–1902: embracing the spirit of Dubnow

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Department or Administrative Unit

Philosophy and Religious Studies

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In the early twentieth century, Polish historian Mejer Bałaban delivered a most telling condemnation of Jewish epitaphs as “blatantly baroque,” “overloaded with epithets” and difficult to understand. In the late nineteenth century, the maskil Simon Dubnow had delivered a plea to the maskilim (intellectuals) and mithnagdim (traditionalists) of his day to engage in documenting and writing the woefully lacking past history of Yiddish civilisation as a means to unite past history with emerging nationalistic inclinations. Dubnow specified gathering epitaphs as part of this documentation. Despite Dubnow's plea it is Bałaban's condemnation that has held sway in American and English-speaking European academies and which has not yet been fully reversed in the scholarship of the century since then. In the spirit of Dubnow, the current paper examines the first decade of extant epitaphs from Bagnowka Beth Olam in Białystok, Poland, dating from 1892 to 1902, as an example by which we can move towards establishing the potential that Jewish epitaphs hold as another evidentiary source corroborating or enriching Jewish history. In this first decade of epitaphs from Bagnowka Beth Olam, we will encounter the world of the mithnagdim amidst which the minority of the maskilim are in evidence. Place names bring remembrance of the cities, towns and shtetlekh from which Jews migrated to Białystok. Surnames evoke remembrance of founding families that would continue to build Jewish Białystok in the coming decades. Unexpected historical and biographical details remind the reader of the professions and businesses in which Białystoker Jews engaged and life's circumstances that prompted charitable responses. Subtle words or a unique phrase, intentionally or unintentionally incorporated into the epitaphs, are telling of the realities of the harshness of everyday life at the turn of the twentieth century and telling of what is significant to both individual and collective memory. One singular epitaph serves as a portent of the violence that would soon descend upon Białystok. Through these representative examples we are offered a microcosm of Jewish Białystok from 1892 to 1902, and a glimpse of the changing trends to be revealed in the next five decades as written upon the matzevoth of Bagnowka Beth Olam.


This article was originally published in East European Jewish Affairs. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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East European Jewish Affairs