Jewish Heritage Europe

Book Review: Learning about Jewish Life (and Lives) from Jewish cemeteries. Review essay of Rudolf Klein’s new book

Mausoleum of the Schmidl family, Kozma utca Jewish cemetery, Budapest


Jewish cemeteries are often called Houses of the Living, and for good reason. The epitaphs and grave markers — be they simple matzevot or grand mausolea — represent, and tell the stories of, the people they memorialize. They speak of life, as well as death; some even bear photos or sculpted images of the deceased.

In “Messages in Stone,” a lengthy review of Rudolf Klein’s important new book, Metropolitan Jewish Cemeteries, the writer Gavriel Savit recognizes this basic fact.

So much of European Jewish life seems to have been overwritten by the tragedy of the Holocaust. But Jews lived—and importantly, also died—in Europe for generations, and they left behind monuments, cemeteries, and headstones for us to see and interpret when they were gone. We must, of course, continue to remember the tragedy of the Holocaust. But I think we do our ancestors a disservice if we study the Nazi deaths at the expense of the Jewish ones. […]

In fact, after flipping through Klein’s book, one comes away with an impression of decided Jewish diversity, and not just between disparate rites—even within discrete communities. We can often fall into the habit of thinking of our Jewish forebears as generally unified in their approach to religious law, but the cemeteries here tell a very different story.

Savit’s review, in Tablet Magazine, is more an essay of discovery — and he concludes  by urging his readers to visit cemeteries and make the same sorts of discoveries themselves.

Who, then, are these Jews? They niggled, they compromised, they rebelled as they struggled with their traditions, but in the end, each of them was buried—whether traditionally or transgressively—in a Jewish cemetery. Their homes, their shops, and many of their synagogues are gone, but their cemeteries remain.

So visit them, if you’re in the neighborhood—I think you’ll find that you have more than a little bit in common.

In the Sephardi Jewis cemetery, Belgrade


Unfortunately Savit’s essay fails to include the publication details of Klein’s book (which we noted in our August 30 post announcing the publication).

Rudolf Klein photographing the historic Jewish cemetery in Hamburg-Altona (which is not however in the book).

Formally titled Metropolitan Jewish Cemeteries of the 19th and 20th Centuries in Central and Eastern Europe: A Comparative Study, Klein’s book, published by Imhof Verlag, is a richly illustrated, detailed examination of 19th and 20th century Jewish cemeteries in Eastern and Central European cities in all their aspects — funerary art, layout, topography, architecture, the impact of religious streams, and much more, including their destruction during and after WW2.

Richly illustrated, it is divided into two sections.

The first includes 19 chapters devoted to general topics and issues: from the history of Jewish urban cemeteries in Europe, to specific topics regarding how they look, were arranged, and were used.

The second section includes a general overview of cemeteries that Klein researched, as well as comparative case studies on 21 urban cemeteries in the cities of Belgrade, Berlin, Bratislava, Bucharest, Budapest, Krakow, Lodz, Prague, St . Petersburg, Sarajevo, Sofia, Vienna, Vilnius, Warsaw, Wroclaw, and Zagreb.

Click to view our post from August 30 to see the Table of Contents and further details.

Click to read Savit’s full essay

1 comment on “Book Review: Learning about Jewish Life (and Lives) from Jewish cemeteries. Review essay of Rudolf Klein’s new book

  1. Sadly, it seems that Mr. Savit has not spent time reading the book – he speaks of “thumbing through” and “flipping through” the many pages, mostly it seems to look at pictures and draw his own conclusions. Not once, I think, does he stop to report any of what Prof. Klein says. Of course, due it its size and scope it is a hard book to review – there is so much in it , it is difficult to decide when there is word-count limit about what to address. Still, we can try. Some of the questions I have regard the urban and landscape aspects of these large cemeteries, and what negotiations went into securing them, and what restrictions – if any – were placed on their use. What about divisions within the cemeteries – between different religious, class, professional and other groups of a city’s Jews. And what about the economics of these big places. Who paid for what, and when, and how? And certainly, I’ll look to see what Klein has to say of the many monuments – to epidemics, pogroms, wars, civil disturbances and finally the Holocaust – that punctuate these cemeteries. I’ve just received the book to review for another publication so I’ll see if I can do better…but it’ll be awhile.

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