Preserving Cemeteries in Europe, Saving Jewish Heritage

Matzevot in cemetery wall; photo by Virtual Shtetl.
Matzevot in cemetery wall; photo by Virtual Shtetl.

By Liam Hoare

Last month, I found myself walking through the abandoned and desecrated Jewish cemetery in the Bródno district of Warsaw, on the east bank of the Vistula, with my guide Paweł Bysko, a specialist with the social communication office at the Jewish Community of Warsaw.

Active up until 1939, Bródno was subsequently plundered and destroyed, first by the Nazis, then by the communists, who used the cemetery as a quarry, taking the matzevot – some dating back to 1780 – and using them in the construction and reconstruction of Warsaw. As he was showing me around the site – the stoneless spaces carpeted with trees and the grey-black mounds of recently-returned markers – Paweł acknowledged, “I’d rather talk about the living Jewish community than the dead.”

But talk about it one must. The question of what is to be done with the dead is one all Jewish communities around the world must consider. But in Europe, it is a quandary that takes on an especial importance, with unique challenges related to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and the role of external institutions.

At the centre of the dilemma is now best to strike the balance between caring for the living and caring for the dead, within small communities, in possession of even smaller budgets. In Europe, to care for the living continues to mean not just to care for children in Jewish day schools and teenagers want of trips to Israel but also the survivors of the Holocaust. In eastern Europe, these survivors reside on small state pensions and depend for their care on aid from charities such as the JDC, and sister federations in wealthier communities in the United States.

To tend to the dead, therefore, is often not possible in the manner many European communities might like specifically because of the absolute need to prioritize resources for the living over the dead. Moreover, the sheer volume of sites of remembrance in eastern Europe – not only graveyards but memorials and monuments – can be too great a challenge for these shrunken Jewish communities to take on by themselves. This rather necessitates the intervention of third-party organizations and NGOs such as the Nissenbaum Family Foundation and the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.

Compounding the issues of finite resources and finite numbers is the legacy of the Holocaust, Nazi occupation, and communism on the actual places of remembrance themselves. In Warsaw, the matzevot of the Bródno cemetery can be found in public spaces such as parks and in private homes. In Brest in Belarus, the Soviet authorities dismantled the largest Jewish cemetery in 1959, and during the construction of a new supermarket there recently, more than 450 Jewish gravestones were discovered in the foundations of houses demolished to make way for it.

Ownership of the sites of remembrance is also an unresolved matter, related to the larger issue of the restitution of property stolen during the Shoah – the Bródno cemetery was returned to the Jewish Community of Warsaw but two years ago. And then there is the problem – in some parts of Europe more so than others – of anti-Semitism in the form of vandalism and the defilmement of matzevot. In the past few months, headstones in Jewish cemeteries in Trondheim in Norway, Düsseldorf and Bochum in Germany, and Manchester in the United Kingdom have been sullied and spoilt with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Given all of the above, in order to maintain the sites of the dead, European Jewish communities are coming to rely on assistance from both inside and outside of the larger global Jewish community. In Vienna, for example, on November 2 around sixty volunteers – predominately non-Jews – participated in an annual cleanup of a neglected Waehringer Jewish cemetery, an event that has taken place there for past ten years. The JTA reported:

Located north of the city’s center, the cemetery is closed to the public because of the thick vegetation that covers its corroded headstones, some of which have collapsed to form deep pits that make the area unsafe. Thousands of Jews were buried there between 1784 and 1880, when the cemetery became inactive.

After the rise of Nazism in Germany and Austria, hundreds of graves were opened and their contents emptied by researchers studying race theories. The excavations caused major damage, according to the historian Tina Walzer, who has cataloged many of the gravestones.

Marco Schreuder, who helps recruit volunteers to clean up Vienna’s cemeteries, told the JTA that the Jewish community of Vienna “cannot be expected to use its limited resources for the dead at the expense of the living.” He added that, “this cemetery is the final resting place of some of the founders of Vienna as we know it, people this city owes a lot to.”

Meanwhile, in Hungary, restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Rácalmás is continuing as a consequence of funding from central government. The financial support derived from a 4.8 million Euro fund, set up in order to provide financial assistance for non-governmental and local government initiatives realized during the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year. During the course of the renovation project, a Cemetery gate was constructed, 30 gravestones were renovated and a gravel path and overpass were established.

(This fund has proven controversial. Jewish groups have in the course of the past year chosen to reject or return state money “to protest what they see as the government’s whitewashing of Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust,” Ruth Ellen Gruber reported. “We wanted to send a very strong message to the government that we are interested in truthful, not symbolic, remembrance, and this is something money cannot buy,” Andras Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, told her.)

The work of outside groups – be they volunteers or philanthropic organizations – is absolutely critical, for even faced with such challenges, that question of what is to be done with the dead still must be talked about. After all, in post-Holocaust Europe – even in an age where large and diverse communities in the United Kingdom and France co-exist alongside smaller Jewish revivals in Poland and Bulgaria – its Jewish cemeteries are imbued with much meaning, memory, and significance and are an essential part of European Jewish heritage.

To look at the matzevot, to observe their size and shape, location, condition, detailing, symbolism, and text and language of the inscription is to see and learn as much about Jewish lives in Europe as can be determined from a book, lecture, or museum. More than simply being a connection to the past, to blood lines and family ties, to great scholars and industrialists, men and women of note, the Jewish cemeteries of Europe contain within them the histories of the communities of the Jews of Europe.