With All Saints’ Day approaching, Powązki Cemetery becomes takes on a new lease of life…
As October winds to its conclusion, visitor numbers to Warsaw’s cemeteries rise sharply in anticipation of All Saints’ Day on November 1st. In the days preceding, the capital’s 40 graveyards find themselves blanketed in a spooky reddish glow as tens of thousands of locals descend to leave flickering votive lanterns at the graves of their loved ones.
Yet while Warsaw has no shortage of spellbinding cemeteries, it is the 43-hectare Powązki that is the most loved. Founded on November 4th, 1790, and the home to over one million graves, it offers a rich bounty of curious sights – not least located on the so-called Avenue of Notables.
Here lie some of Poland’s biggest names, from the family of Chopin to the stars of stage and screen. When the leaves turn damp and the mist hangs heavy, visiting this necropolis can feel like traveling in time.
Several ‘they lie here’ maps exist online of Powązki, but the truth is the best way to see the cemetery is to let instinct be your guide. Doing just that, visitors will pass scores of beautiful graves, many of them bearing the stains of time. With October’s milky half-light slashing through the trees, exploring the various avenues is an enchanting experience that’s not short of surprises.
Barbara Bobrowska (1924-1989)
A theater actress and singer by profession, Barbara Bobrowska’s tomb was embellished three years after her death courtesy of a stunning monument designed by Wojciech Chmiel and Dorota Mulicka-Rudzińska. Featuring a sweeping female figure, the hourglass in her hand reputedly symbolizes mortality and time. Alluring and enigmatic, there’s an ethereal quality to this moving piece of art.
Piotr Janowski (1951-2008)
An honorary citizen of the state of Arkansas and the city of Cognac, Janowski was a prolific violinist whose music enthralled the world. Playing a 1772 Italian violin produced by Guarneri del Gesu, he first achieved fame in 1967 when he became the first Pole to win the Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition. Passing away in London, the cosmopolitan musician was later interred in Powązki where he today stands guard with his beloved violin.
Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996)
Commonly regarded as one the greatest Polish film directors of all time, Kieślowski’s grave is marked not by a bog standard cross, but by a pair of hands posed to form the shape of a frame. Unusual to say the least, its bronze form attracted the attention of a drug-addicted thief in 2013 who stole it and sold it to a metal dealer for PLN 300. It was later recovered in a Targówek scrapyard.
Jerzy Kolanowski (unknown)
Thus passes the glory of the world – so says the Latin inscription on the Kolanowski family tomb. Depicting the Greek God Kronos looking bent and haggard, this atmospheric sculpture was added as recently as 2017. Made from marble, its relative newness strikes a contrast against the neighboring moss-eaten tombs and skeletal trees. Strangely, despite being cited as one of the more spectacular tombs in Powązki, little information exists about the Kolanowski clan, a point that lends an element of mystery to this eerie-looking grave.
Marcin Pawłowski (1971-2004)
The popular TVN news reader died prematurely from cancer at the age of 33. Among other things, his career involved reporting on the 9/11 attacks and covering the death of Pope John Paul II. Despite the gravity of his illness, he continued to appear on TV and in the process endeared himself to millions. Seen as a blue door, his grave is symbolic of the divide between life and death. Left slightly ajar, it suggests that the dead never entirely leave us.
Stefan Rachoń (1906-2001)
A reminder that true love never dies, Stefan Rachoń’s grave is sometimes described as the most romantic in Powązki. A conductor and violinist, he was the founder of the Polish Radio Orchestra and made around 10,000 recordings during a glittering career with them. Passing away in 2001, his tomb shows him about to lead his wife, an opera singer, into song.
Maria Wisnowska (1859-1890)
In Powązki Cemetery, it’s natural to assume that many stories come laced with tragedy, and that’s never truer than in the case of Maria Julia Wisnowska, a theater actress who was shot in 1890 by her Russian lover, Alexander Bartniew. Said to have held a morbid fascination with death, and known for her fondness for opium, she was shot by the young Tsarist officer in a crime of passion. Her tombstone, designed by Bolesław Syrewicz, features a palm leaf to symbolize martyrdom. Strangely somewhat, Wisnowska is still said to haunt her former apartment on Nowogrodzka 14 where she is known to play cheerful pranks on unwitting residents.