Over 150 historic Jewish tombstones have been unearthed during construction in the market square of Leżajsk. It is the largest such discovery in Poland for many years.
Before the Holocaust, the Polish town had a large Jewish population and became an important site for Hasidic Judaism. During and after the war, with Jews expelled, ghettoised or murdered, gravestones were taken from the Jewish cemetery to be used in construction.
Those now discovered under the square were used by the German occupiers when laying a road. They have been gradually uncovered over recent weeks, after renovation works begun in early June.
The tombstones had been buried below a layer of sand, brick and asphalt along a 30-metre stretch of road. As a result, many have been better conserved than the surviving tombstones at the local Jewish cemetery, with lively colours and relief ornaments.
Almost one hundred of the matzevot are mostly intact, often with just their curved tops hewn off to allow for tighter placement side-by-side. Another fifty had been cut into smaller pieces and spread out. It is likely that more will be discovered.
“No one had expected such an number. There are over 150 and not all of them have yet been removed,” Ewa Kędzierska, an archaeologist overseeing the works.
In the interwar period, Leżajsk’s Jews made up around one third of the town’s population, numbering between 1,500 and 2,000. Previously, in the nineteenth century, the Jewish community had been even larger. During the war, Jew were expelled or murdered, with only 33 returning afterwards.
The age and ownership of the gravestones is yet to be determined, as they await further research and translation of the Yiddish inscriptions, says Kędzierska.
From 1940-1941, the German occupiers paved the market using bricks from the town’s demolished synagogue and two bombed-out buildings. When they ran out of material, they began using gravestones from the Jewish cemetary.
The town’s authorities have for now secured and stored the unearthed tombstones, and a decision on what to do with them next will be taken in consultation with Jewish religious authorities.