Unexploded Nazi mortar uncovered in ‘Warsaw Ghetto’ Jewish cemetery

The device was exposed during the cleaning of the First Quarter of the Okopowa Cemetery.

An Orthodox Jew walks through the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw April 15, 2013. The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising will be commemorated on April 19, 2013. Picture taken April 15, 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Orthodox Jew walks through the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw April 15, 2013. The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising will be commemorated on April 19, 2013. Picture taken April 15, 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An unexploded German mortar was uncovered in the major Jewish cemetery in Warsaw during renovation works on Monday.
Established in 1806, the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery has borne witness to Jewish life and death in the Polish capital ever since and it is the final resting place for over 200,000 people. Major figures including rabbis, intellectuals and entrepreneurs are buried there, often under elaborate tombstones and commemorative monuments. The area was also included in the boundaries of the ghetto established by the Nazis after the occupation of Poland and many of their victims were also buried in it.
“A few years ago, we received funding from the government to carry out a major cleaning of the cemetery which had not been done since before the Second World War,” Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis told The Jerusalem Post.
Ellis has been living in Poland for several years as an emissary for Shavei Israel, an organization that describes its mission as “to help descendants of Jews reconnect with the people and State of Israel.” The rabbi also heads the Rabbinical Commission for Jewish Cemeteries in Poland that ensures that activities in the facilities are carried out respecting Jewish laws and traditions.
The device was exposed during the cleaning of the First Quarter of the Okopowa Cemetery, which is the oldest of the site, presenting at least two levels of burial.

“On Monday everything happened extremely quickly. The police and the bomb squad arrived rapidly. I was called in to help make sure that no unnecessary damage occurred, although since an event like this represents a matter of pikuach nefesh nobody was going to pose restrictions to the work of the sappers,” the rabbi said, referring to the Jewish concept of a life or death matter which trumps any other consideration.
“Thank God, the device was removed without exploding and carried somewhere else to detonate so no damage occurred,” he added.
While the cemetery was incorporated in the area of the ghetto, researchers believe that the mortar is likely to have been shot not during the Ghetto Uprising in 1943, but during the city uprising in 1944, when the area stood exactly on the frontline.
“The bomb squad told us that often when they uncover this kind of mortars they look for a second one because these devices were often launched two at a time, but in this case they would not be able to do so because of the nature of the location and the presence of many metal elements. However, it looks like another mortar might have actually fallen and exploded not far from the one which was found, since there is an area were all the tombstones were destroyed,” Ellis explained.
Among the people buried in the cemetery are Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, also known as Reb Chaim Brisker, the founder of the Brisker method for studying Talmud and the grandfather of prominent American Modern Orthodox leader and thinker Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as well the major Yiddish writers Yitskhok Leybush Peretz and Jacob Dinezon.
The cemetery is still used by Warsaw’s Jews to this day and every year is visited by tens of thousands of people.