Jewish epitaphs from Białystok, 1905–6: towards mending the torn thread of memory

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Philosophy and Religious Studies

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In the centre of the Jewish cemetery of Bagnowka in Białystok, Poland, stands a black pillar that serves as a memorial to two 1905 massacres and the 1906 pogrom that devastated this Jewish community. The historical record has not yet recognised that, in addition to this Memorial Pillar, another evidentiary source exists within Bagnowka Beth-Olam, marking violence from 1905 to 1939. This recently uncovered source consists of nearly 100 of the extant 2300 epitaphs from this cemetery. The current paper specifically examines the provenance, formulaic structure and content of the epitaphs commemorating the victims of the 1905 and 1906 violence. Set against those of their period, the memorial matzevoth replicate stone type, shape and stonecutter's hand dating c. 1900 to 1910. Their formulaic components similarly parallel epitaphs from this time with two exceptions: the addition of specific language referencing death by violence, and, occasionally, inclusion of specific details delineating distinct circumstances of death. Consideration of the presence of these memorial matzevoth also provokes the question: why memorialise by both pillar and matzevoth? While pillars and matzevoth are attested to as memorials in Eastern Europe, Bagnowka Beth-Olam stands at present unparalleled in combining both architectural structures in its form of remembrance. Such remembrance, as we will see, is not simply duplication; rather each structure serves a distinct function. Equally provocative is that several deceased remembered on these memorial matzevoth are also remembered by epitaphs on matzevoth in sections outside the memorial area. No such duplication of epitaphs exists for individuals after the violence of 1905–6, suggesting that memorialisation by pillar, memorial matzevoth and personal matzevoth was intentional, marking violence unprecedented in Białystok's history.


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