Before World War II, more than seven million Jews lived in Central and Eastern Europe. Jews inhabited these towns and villages for centuries. Across the continent, Jewish burial sites provided direct physical evidence of this Jewish presence. Eighty years on, traces of many of these cemeteries have been lost, they lie overgrown and unprotected – the result of the annihilation of their communities in the Holocaust. Centuries of Jewish settlement in Central and Eastern Europe and critically, the historical witness and evidence of it, were driven from memory.
Arutz Sheva spoke to European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative (ESJF) Founder and Chairman Rabbi Isaac Schapira at the Conference of European Rabbis about the challenge of abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe and what is being done to minimize desecration.
The ESJF project has begun the process of physically protecting Jewish burial sites in Europe, most particularly in places where Jewish communities were wiped out in the Holocaust. Moreover, it has identified resources, limitations, costs and general practical models in order to provide a prototype for a sustainable, practical and efficient long-term project with its core objective to protect and preserve all the Jewish cemeteries in Europe.
Rabbi Schapira first attempts to depict the scope of the problem: "We believe before the wars there were 20,000. They were absolutely neglected, sadly sometimes partially or wholly destroyed, and we took it upon ourselves to preserve and respect the cemeteries of our ancestors.
"I will be reporting to the rabbis that this year we complete five years of activity, having preserved and saved 162 cemeteries in 5-6 countries."
Rabbi Schapira described the method of action: "We first get in touch with the local authorities; we don't do anything unless it's fully coordinated with them, we receive a building permit, we have our engineers, we have our architects, we tender the jobs. We are trying to extract out of every euro, five euro to make sure that we have as much money as we [need] to do as much as possible, We don't restore the gravestones because that would take us so many years, but our job is to clean up the cemetery, to bring it to a tidy situation, and then to build around it a wall, so that it's clear to everybody that this is a Jewish cemetery, thereby destruction is out of the question, and also passing by through the cemeteries, very often without tombstones, animals or people there throwing their empty vodka bottles, this possibility has thus become eliminated. We are very proud of this achievement, 162 cemeteries in five years.
"It's done in coordination with some very interesting funding from the German government, quite generous; seventy years after the Holocaust they consistently refused to fund anything like that, but when we became involved and came into the picture, they changed their policies, they support us very generously.
"Another source is the European Union; they're not giving us money to save cemeteries, but rather to locate them. We have a very professional office in Kiev, we have one floor with a very able and intelligent team who do nothing else other than wall construction, engineering, architecture, and another floor where the team is there to locate cemeteries."
Funded in 2015 through a pilot grant of 1,000,000 Euros from the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, the ESJF is now working on some 30 individual protection projects in four European countries, all of which will be completed by the end of this year. The initiative has also set up a strong and sustainable administrative and research structure and created standardized models for engineering and halakhic methodology and cost effectiveness which can be rolled out in all European countries and which are applicable for all future work.