Thousands of photos in cardboard folders. A memory of working together with Jan Jagielski

Written by: Dr. Eleonora Bergman
Translated by: Przemysław Batorski
Fight for the preservation of monuments, trips with a camera all over Poland, tedious work in the archives. Jan Jagielski, a long-time employee of the Jewish Historical Institute, was one of the people who did the most to maintain and collect the documentation of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries. Dr. Eleonora Bergman, director of the Institute from 2007 to 2011, recalls their joint achievements.

Jan Jagielski at the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa Street in Warsaw. Photo by Grzegorz Kwolek, JHI


We met during the Solidarity era in 1981. Thanks to Janek, the Social Committee for the Care of Jewish Cemeteries and Monuments was established at that time. At that time, I was working in the Warsaw branch of the Studios for Conservation of Cultural Property. Gradually, our activities for the sake of Jewish monuments began to coincide and complement each other. At the request of the Warsaw Cultural Heritage Documentation Studio, we jointly prepared a model conservation study for the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. At the beginning of 1990, we published an article in "Meetings with Monuments" about all preserved synagogues in Poland and their use – most often completely inappropriate. Immediately afterwards, this text appeared in volume 5 of the Oxford yearbook ”POLIN”[1].

When Janek started working at the Jewish Historical Institute at the beginning of 1991, I joined him after a few months. During the almost 10 years since the founding of the Committee, an extremely important thing has occured – people from all over Poland who were anxious to do something about decaying cemeteries, or those who tried to save synagogues themselves, wrote to the Committee, seeking advice and help. These contacts became the foundation for further cooperation within the JHI, and it was this correspondence that initiated the documentation that was later collected systematically, in white cardboard tied folders, which were more and more numerous. We gradually added press clippings and copies of articles to these folders, as well as ephemeral local publications. Our ambition was to collect information and documentation for all Jewish communities in pre-war Poland.

Jan Jagielski at work. Photos by JHI/private archive


Gradually, we created a department at the JHI that was never before present in its structure, but it turned out to be so necessary. After my departure in 1996 (although I have never ceased to be associated with this department), Janek significantly expanded it. We called it the Monuments Documentation Department, because that's how it started, but in fact it became a place where the life and death of Jewish communities and Jewish families were documented. It became an address known all over the world, to all people and institutions interested in the history of Polish Jews, the fate of their old towns and regions – and those who wanted to commemorate them.

In our documentation plans we were not the first in the JHI. Around 1960, director Bernard Mark sent photographers to document the remains of Jewish material culture throughout Poland, but after 30 years no one remembered it and did not use their work. For us, it was one of the first tasks carried out together with Urszula Fuks. The folded prints had to be straightened first of all, and then placed in appropriate binders on specially designed cards. There were over 5,000 of these photos! And how many Jewish cemeteries did Janek photograph himself, maybe from the 1960s? Thanks to his photos glued to countless notebooks with checkered pages, it was possible to compare the condition of the same tombstones 30 or 40 years later, or to treat these photos as the only documentation of something that did not exist after many years.

Janek initiated the renovation and cleaning of Jewish cemeteries in small towns, encouraging especially young people to look after these cemeteries. He liked to do field work, wander with the camera, register memorials, and photograph the unveiling ceremonies of such monuments. He was invited to all such events, and even a few years ago he always tried to attend, and sometimes we went there together.

In May 1992, together with the Board for the Protection and Conservation of Palace and Garden Complexes, we organized a conference for provincial conservators of monuments, where we presented various issues related to the documentation, protection and conservation of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. We wanted to provide conservators from all over Poland with at least basic knowledge on the subject, about which most of them had no idea. It was probably then that many of them had their first contact with a representative of the Union of Jewish Communities and realized that they could be an important partner in their daily activities, although it was not the case before 1989.

From the spring of 1991, for over two years, as part of a program initiated by the Jewish Heritage Council of the World Monuments Fund, financed by The United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, and led by Samuel Gruber and Phyllis Myers, we managed the documentation of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Out of 1008 identified cemeteries at that time, standardized descriptions were created for 855 in Polish and English. Of course, it would not be possible without the cooperation of about 20 people, including correspondents of the above-mentioned Social Committee for the Care of Jewish Cemeteries and Monuments, historians, researchers and guardians of these monuments: Adam Bartosz from Tarnów, Adam Penkalla from Radom, Wiktor Knercer from Olsztyn, and others. In January 1994, and then in November 1995, two reports were prepared on this basis, published in a very limited edition, and the accumulated knowledge was used, inter alia, by the Union of Jewish Communities of the Republic of Poland during the preparation of the Act on the State's Relationship to Jewish Religious Communities in the Republic of Poland, commonly known as the Act on Restitution.

It was easier for us to have our knowledge of the preserved synagogues published for publication, the more so because we already had a co-written article from 1990 behind us. Over the next few years, we found new objects – the book was supposed to cover 321 of them in total. We decided to add at least one photograph, possibly up-to-date, to each description. It required a lot of travelling as the facilities were located in 240 places. Moreover, we agreed that due to the adopted layout (the work of Sławomir Parfianowicz) the photos must be horizontal, which made Jan a bit nervous, he did not like such a discipline... The catalog was published at the end of 1996[2] and became the most important point of reference for the restitution commission, established under the aforementioned Act. Unfortunately, to this day the issue of the use of former synagogue buildings, which do not serve religious purposes, remains unresolved. From time to time, in our conversations, we returned to the project to publish a catalog of unpreserved synagogues. We have never succeeded in making it happen, and we were aware that there is still more and more material in our folders and binders.

When in 2007, at the invitation of the Warsaw Conservator of Monuments, Ewa Nekanda-Trepka, I began to prepare and create signs defining the boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto together with Tomasz Lec. We both came to the conclusion that photographs of these places from the occupation times would be an essential part of these signs and we invited Janek to cooperate. By that time, he had already collected and systematized the photographic documentation of the area, created a compilation of photos of Warsaw streets (including pre-war photographs), invaluable for Varsavianists, and invaluable for our project. Janek chose photos that can be seen in all 21 places where stelae, boards and descriptions were arranged.

Again, together with Janek, we took part in a project initiated and led by prof. Feliks Tych in 2007-2009 "The Consequences of the Extermination of Jews. Poland 1944-2010". In a bulky volume published in 2011 in Lublin, and then in English in 2014 in Jerusalem, there is our chapter “Traces of Presence. Synagogues and cemeteries”, [3] which also included information about the commemorations – monuments, plaques – and their fate. It was a topic that Janek was interested in, parallel to the history of cemeteries, and for several years he had been trying to organize this knowledge. He did not manage to finish this. Our joint study on the Umschlagplatz from 1997 has not been published yet, but I hope that we will be able to do it and we will also include one more joint publication in various bibliographies.


Jan Jagielski died on February 17, 2021.

Read more about Jan Jagielski



[1] Eleonora Bergman and Jan Jagielski, The Function of Synagogues in the PPR, 1988, in: „Polin. A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies”, no 5 (1990), p. 40-49.

[2] See E. Bergman, J. Jagielski, Zachowane synagogi i domy modlitwy w Polsce. Katalog, JHI Press, Warsaw 1996.

[3] See E. Bergman, J. Jagielski, Ślady obecności. Synagogi i cmentarze, [in:] Następstwa zagłady Żydów. Polska 1944-2010, ed. F. Tych, M. Adamczyk-Garbowska, Maria Curie-Sklodowska University Press/JHI Press, Lublin 2011, p. 471-491.

Dr. Eleonora Bergman   architectural historian, director of the Jewish Historical Institute from 2007 to 2011