Most foreigners in Warsaw tend to the stick to the center of the city and Old Town, with some maybe venturing as far as the Praga district. Being that these areas are mostly discovered and easy to tour — along with being packed with tourists and locals — I decided to start taking trams to the more distant districts of Warsaw, places where most apartment buildings are architectural leftovers from the Soviet era and which have been slower to evolve with the modern age. One such district — and my favourite of all so far — is the Targówek District, a bit further past the better-known Praga.
I initially went into this area to go hiking in the Bródno Forest (Bródnowski Las), in that district. After a peaceful and invigorating hike, I decided to check out surrounding area, and found three amazing sites: Bródno Sculpture Park, Bródno Cemetery (Polish: Cmentarz Bródnowski), and the Bródno Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Żydowski Bródnowskiego).
Nowhere else in Warsaw have I encountered such an acute sense of the historical directly adjacent to the contemporary.
Bródno, Warsaw, 03-337
Bródno Sculpture Park is a free and open public space, meant for quiet, leisurely strolls. It was started in 2009 by Paweł Althamer, an internationally recognized Polish sculptor who was inspired to put Polish artist Grzegorz Kowalski’s concept of “Common Space — Individual Space” into practice. This concept seeks to neutralize individualism in the interaction/communication of artists and viewers.
There are a total of eleven sculptures by various artists scattered around the park. It is a project of social, participative character, with roots in abstract and minimalist art. Althamer has two contributions: “The Garden of Eden” and “Sylwia,” both of which were, in fact community creations. “Sylwia” was created in partnership with artist Grupa Nowolipie and community members with multiple sclerosis who used the art as a form of therapy and rehabilitation. “The Garden of Eden” was also a collaborative effort with community members of the local area, including elementary school students. This sculpture garden thus represents the formation of community around objects that provide an opportunity for gathering, meeting, and taking action together.
One artist, Honorata Martin, lived in the park for weeks in 2015, residing in a tent as a way to perform the idea of inhabiting a city park. Because her piece was inherently ephemeral, only traces of the performance are left. There is a bas-relief called “God the Monkey,” installed where her tent was set up (in Paweł Althamer’s “Garden of Eden”) and poems painted on the pavement by Andrzej Przybysz, a local poet who participated in her performance in the park.
Some of the works are not even visible, as with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s piece, “To Be Found”: Weiwei buried three cylinders filled with broken pottery, earth, and turf, serving as a conceptual art piece that explores the boundaries of the visible and the invisible, the accessible and the inaccessible. This piece really challenged me, as it forced me to accept that not all things “public” are necessarily accessible.
Entrance Address: ul. Św. Wincentego 83, Bródno, Warsaw, 03-530
Hours: 6am – 3pm Monday-Saturday
The Bródno Cemetery is by far the best-tended and beautiful cemetery I have ever seen. It was established in 1894 to provide affordable burial plots, and thus is known as a burial place for the poor and the homeless. It started expanding in 1934 and was used as an arsenal and hideout by Polish resistance fighters during WWII. During the communist period, many representatives of various social classes were buried there, which effectively changed the social status of the cemetery. More and more people of all classes are being buried here now (there were two funeral processions that I saw the day I was there), including many notable figures such Roman Dmowski, the co-founder and chief ideologue of Poland’s right-wing National Democracy political movement. It is now one of the largest cemeteries in Europe, with over 1.2 billion burial plots filled. There is also a beautiful chapel that stands next to the cemetery where it seems there is always a service taking place.
Bródno Jewish Cemetery (Cmentarz Żydowski Bródnowskiego)
Entrance Address: ul. Św. Wincentego, Bródno, Warsaw
Hours: Open when somewhere is there to let you in
Getting to the Bródno Jewish Cemetery from the Bródno Cemetery is very easy on foot or by bus. Both of their entrances are on ulica Św. Wincentego, with the Jewish Cemetery being on the southwest end of the street. There is no address or phone number, but the impressive gates to this cemetery cannot be missed. Additionally, it is now being renovated, and they are hoping to open up a museum adjacent, and thus hopefully in the future it will be more functional. Due to it still not being officially recognized, at the current time you have to hope that construction and renovation will be going on when you arrive, so that the gates might be open (I thus suggest getting there before 1 or 2 pm, but this is still not a guarantee. On several occasions, when I have gone there, there has been no one present to let me in).
Originally opened in 1780, it is the oldest of all Jewish cemeteries in Warsaw. More people are buried here than in the Jewish Cemetery on Okopowa Street; until 1806, when the Okopowa cemetery opened, Bródno was the main Jewish cemetery in the area. With the opening of the Okopowa cemetery, the Bródno Jewish cemetery began to receive less attention, and by the 1870s functioned as a burial ground for impoverished Jews. After that it quickly began to deteriorate.
During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Nazis completely wrecked the cemetery, using many of the tombstones as paving stones for roads. After the war came even more devastation, as the Soviets ripped hundreds of tombstones from the ground and piled them in heaps. After exhuming mass graves of Jews the Nazis had buried, the Soviets closed off the cemetery in 1950, and it lay in decay until 2011.
In the 1980s, the Nissenbaum Family Foundation located the cemetery and had a fence put in around it, as well as the monumental gates. However, because the cemetery was owned by the city — who were, at the time, Soviets — the restoration work put forth by the Nissenbaum Family Foundation was never completed due to bureaucratic restrictions. In 2011, Krzysztof Bielawski, a Virtual Shtetl cooperator and administrator of cemeteries and places of martyrology, “discovered” the Jewish Bródno Cemetery while walking in the Bródno Cemetery. He noticed that the wall of the Soviet army section was made of matzevot (Jewish tombstones), and upon researching those matzevot realized they actually came from the Bródno Jewish Cemetery. The Jewish Community in Warsaw was notified in addition to the media, and the Jewish Community in Warsaw now owns the property. Since then, numerous tombstones found around Warsaw are being returned to this cemetery, from where they were taken. From what it appears, they are assembling the found matzevot into an exhibition — a circular wall of tombstones with a pavilion in the center.
In 2014, official renovations began. These renovations are still on-going, and due to this, the area is still not entirely secured. For example, in 2015 the fence of the cemetery was vandalized with the words “Jews for Slaughter!” (which has since been cleaned up). Such acts of anti-Semitic vandalism continue, although at a smaller rate.
At first glance, it seems shocking that such a place would go unnoticed and untended for so long. But if one starts to examine the historical and contemporary political and ideological history of Poland, an understanding of why such historic places might be overlooked becomes clearer. The controversy around the recent Polish film, Wołyń, directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, captures this difficulty intensely. Wolyn depicts local collaboration with the Nazis as well as brutal atrocities performed by Polish and Ukrainian fascists. Many in Poland deny that these things occurred. Some sections of society even today espouse anti-Semitic ideology. In attempting to heal after such terrible events as happened in WWII, it is difficult to reform a stable national narrative. Sometimes, apparently, it is easier to overlook those areas of one’s history and society than to deal with them directly.
When considering these three sites — Bródno Sculpture Park, Bródno Cemetery, and Bródno Jewish Cemetery — as part of a whole Bródno, an intense amalgamation of suffering, survival, creativity and joy come to the forefront. Long walks in this area have helped stimulate my creativity and deepen my understanding historical and contemporary Poland, as well as my understanding of Polish cultural weaknesses and strengths in the past and present.
Rebekah Switala is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is working on her Master’s degree in Central and East European Studies with specialization in women and gender. She received her BA from Western Michigan University in 2011, graduating magna cum laude, after which time she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a women’s rights organization in North Moldova. She is studying Polish in Warsaw and is undertaking an internship at Political Critique there. She intends on pursuing a Ph.D. after completing her Master’s.