Drones Rescue Last Physical Proof of Jewish Life in European Towns

By Ofer Aderet

Every genealogist knows that a cemetery is not only a place of the dead. Valuable information is engraved on the headstones, which often is used to help solve family mysteries and centuries-old historical riddles. Accordingly, many genealogists have welcomed a new project that is enlisting drones and other technological means as part of the mission of locating and mapping the historic Jewish cemeteries in Europe.

Some 10,000 Jewish burial sites are scattered in some 50 countries across the Continent. Many of them are undocumented; abandoned and neglected for decades, since the end of World War II, they have fallen into a state of decay. As a result, the large amount of information that they contain – names, dates of birth and death, as well as other valuable texts engraved on the headstones – has been lost or inaccessible to researchers, historians and also to the families of the deceased.

The European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative (ESJF), a nonprofit organization established in 2015 in Germany, recently recruited a team of drone operators to map burial sites in a number of countries whose Jewish communities were annihilated during the Holocaust. In the year ahead, some 1,500 cemeteries will be documented by this means in Slovakia, Greece, Moldova, Lithuania and Ukraine.

The first experiment using drones is being carried out this month in the town of Pyriatyn, Ukraine, where a burial site with 400 headstones and graves dating from the 19th century was discovered in 2017.

The topographical information being collected by the drones will make it possible to determine where the boundaries of the cemeteries are so that they can be fenced in and restored. In addition to protecting the cemeteries from possible acts by vandals and anti-Semites, the fences will demarcate the graveyards as Jewish heritage sites for the benefit of both the local communities and visitors. The project has received a grant of 800,000 euros from the European Union.

“New” burial sites continue to be discovered from time to time, long after they have fell off the historical radar. In Belarus last month, the remains of hundreds of people who were shot to death in World War II were found in a mass grave at the site of the Jewish ghetto in Brest, adjacent to the border with Poland. The grave site was unearthed during work on a residential construction project in the city center. This week, it was reported that the remains of more than 700 people were found at the site, some of them with apparent gunshot wounds.

The use of the drones is the latest addition to extensive activity being undertaken by ESJF in recent years to save Jewish cemeteries from oblivion, in some cases, considering their degraded conditions, at the 11th hour.

“It is especially important for the next generation of Europeans to know about Jewish existence here and to combat the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial,” says Philip Carmel, the organization’s CEO. “In many cases,” he adds, “the cemeteries are the last physical testimony to the existence of centuries of Jewish life in the towns and villages of Europe, and there is no better way to fight Holocaust denial.”

Besides launching drones, the researchers are also seeking out cemeteries with the aid of old maps, some of them predating World War I, and with aerial photographs taken by the Luftwaffe, the Nazi-era German air force, which were originally intended to locate bombing targets.

However, the most significant work is taking place not in the air, but very much on the ground. Many of the cemeteries that will be mapped in the year ahead were located with the assistance of local residents, who told project members about their existence and location, even about sites long abandoned and forgotten.

Similar preservation operations are also underway in Poland, which is often described as the largest Jewish graveyard in Europe, because of the size of its pre-Holocaust community and the scale of devastation it suffered during the war. Last December, the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Shudrich, and the country’s minister of culture, Piotr Glinski, launched a new project intended to map the country’s 1,400 Jewish cemeteries, and whatever is learned about the people buried in them will be entered into a central database that will also be accessible by using one’s phone to scan a barcode situated at the entrance to each cemetery.

One of the most efficient ways to make the information contained in the cemeteries available is by entering images of the headstone texts into a digital database. A current example of such an effort is a project being led by Ilia Lurie, a researcher of Eastern European Jewry and administrative director of the Israel-based Jewish Galicia and Bukovina Organization. “For almost a decade now, we have been redeeming many Jewish cemeteries from oblivion, among them sites that possess cultural, artistic, historic and national value,” he told Haaretz.

The organization’s volunteers survey cemeteries, photograph tombstones and post their findings in the organization’s internet database. Last summer, they scored a major success by locating the grave of Esther Czaczkes, mother of the writer S.Y. Agnon, who died in 1909 at the age of 43 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Buczacz, in Ukraine. It turns out that this cemetery was in continuous use for some 400 years. More than 2,000 headstones from the site have survived.

“Paradoxically, they attest to the Jewish community’s vibrant and diversified life,” Lurie noted. “Their size and artistic quality reflect the strength of the community in that period.”

This cemetery, like others in which the Israeli group is active, was never previously documented. The volunteers mapped all the surviving headstones and deciphered their inscriptions, and then uploaded the material to jgaliciabukovina.net (in English, Hebrew and Ukrainian).

The cemetery in Buczacz occupies a special place in the life and work of Nobel Prize laureate Agnon. In addition to his mother’s grave, which had been lost since the Holocaust, the headstone of the writer’s grandfather Rabbi Yehuda Farb, who had a special relationship with the young Agnon, was also found.

“Models for the protagonists of Agnon’s works as well as quite a few of his other acquaintances – grocers, midwives, sages, teachers, physicians and public activists – were laid to rest here, and their memory is engraved on the headstones we documented,” Luria said.

The epitaphs further enhance the singularity of the Buczacz cemetery, he added: “They excel in extraordinary Hebrew phraseology, a highly developed literary genre, a type of popular poetry that is thrilling and beautiful. The literary atmosphere attests to the ground from which Agnon’s distinctive talent and style sprang.”

What about documentation Israel’s cemeteries? Here, chaos reigns. No up-to-date national database exists containing all the information available about the cemeteries in this country. The site-specific search engines used by the burial society of Tel Aviv and the Central District, for example, or the Mount of Olives cemetery, are problematic and not user-friendly. Other cemeteries in Israel are neither mapped nor have computerized records of those buried there.

The private sector offers a partial solution. BillionGraves, an international documenter of cemeteries, contains photographs and other information about tens of thousands of graves in Israel. A search there will also turn up the soldier Harry Potter, who was killed in Hebron in July 1939, toward the end of the Arab Revolt, and buried in the British military cemetery in Ramle.