Jewish Heritage Europe

Cross-disciplinary conference on European Jewish Cemeteries

Jewish cemetery, Siena. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
Jewish cemetery, Siena. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
A cross-disciplinary conference on Jewish cemeteries in Europe, held October 25-28 in Vilnius, Lithuania, gathered some 60 experts from more than a dozen countries and touched on a wide range of topics within the broad framework of theory, policy, management, and dissemination of information. Organized by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe and hosted by the Lithuanian Jewish community, the conference was a specialized follow-up to the working seminar on managing Jewish built heritage held in Krakow in April 2013. The conference had three core aims:

— To review the achievements since Krakow, including new trends in technology

— To explore key issues through a series of roundtable and panel discussions

— To encourage future collaboration among participating individuals and organizations, exploring how they can work together, encourage cross-border opportunities and consider further strategic co-operation.

Participants also were taken on site visits to half a dozen Jewish cemeteries and sites of mass graves in Vilnius and several other towns: Pabrade, Svencioneliai, and Svencionys.
Dr. Michael Brocke photographs the memorial at the Vilnius Uzupis cemetery, made from gravestones that had been plundered and used for construction under the Soviet regime
Dr. Michael Brocke photographs the memorial at the Vilnius Uzupis cemetery, made from gravestones that had been plundered and used for construction under the Soviet regime
The introductory keynote on today’s needs and challenges was given by Dr. Michael Brocke, Professor of Jewish Studies at the Steinheim Institute in Germany, and a noted scholar on Jewish cemetery preservation, documentation and epigraphy. Specific sessions at the conference focused on: — The Value of a Jewish cemetery (Jewish law; honoring the dead; education; tourism; cultural heritage; art and architecture; historical source through epitaphs and inscriptions; genealogy, etc) — Cemetery restoration — what to do; how to do it; historical perspectives — Ownership and accessibility of information — Different approaches to preservation: fencing; documentation — Jewish cemeteries as part of European and World Heritage (including efforts to get Jewish cemeteries including on UNESCO’s cultural heritage roster — The role of the internet in documentation; dissemination; attracting interest in preservation — Advances in the use of technology — Cemeteries and scholarship — Building stakeholder relationships — among and between owners and other interested parties (Jewish communities; descendants; municipalities; NGOs, etc) There was also a session devoted to the situation of Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania (which are owned by municipalities). Vilnius-wm1 The conference concluded with a screening of A Town Called Brzostek, an award-winning film by Simon Target that documents, step by step, the process of restoring and rededicating the ravaged Jewish cemetery in the village of Brzostek, in southeastern Poland, spearheaded by UK scholar Jonathan Webber, whose grandfather came from the town. Webber introduced the film and spoke about the experience. Several key themes emerged from presentations, discussion and what conference participants saw on the ground during site visits. These included: — The difference in general approaches in cemetery care, preservation and management. This was perhaps best illustrated in the contrast between what can be called the “macro” and “micro” approaches.

The macro approach is best illustrated by that of the recently created European Jewish Cemetery Project ESJF, funded by private donors and the German government,  whose aim, as outlined by its CEO Philip Carmel, is to erect fences around as as many Jewish cemeteries in Europe as possible, but not engage in other clean-up, restoration, documentation or further maintenance. 

“We are a macro type organization,” he said. “We don’t have attachments … to the inside of a cemetery. We deal with protection and preservation, not renovation and restoration. We think that the fact that we can protect a site from the outside will make it easier for [others] to come in [and work on restoration].”

This was in sharp contrast to the “micro” approach as outlined by Jonathan Webber, with the Brzostek project, and by Dr. Michael Lozman, who has spearheaded the restoration of more than a dozen Jewish cemeteries. These approaches emphasize close cooperation and involvement with local people in carrying out and maintaining Jewish cemetery projects: Lozman’s method fences cemeteries, for example, but with low fences aimed at being indicators of boundaries rather than as physical protection.

Conference participants at the Jewish cemetery in Svencioneliai, which was restored through the efforts of one of them, Dr. Michael Lozman
Conference participants at the Jewish cemetery in Svencioneliai, which was fenced and restored through the efforts of  Dr. Michael Lozman

Webber described his approach as “Jewish Cultural diplomacy.”

He said: “Don’t just parachute in and fix a cemetery – involve the local people, make them feel that it is their project. I wasn’t aware how much the locals wanted to learn about their own local history of their village. I used a local contractor for the work, for example. And I worked with the priest; I didn’t just just invite him to come to the dedication but to officiate together with me and the chief rabbi to make it a genuinely interfaith affair. I wanted to make an impact on the local people. It was done in a spirit of dialogue – that Jewish heritage today belongs to everyone. We can’t expect people to look after Jewish heritage today unless they feel that it is theirs.”

— The need to establish and publish “best practice” guidelines that could serve as models for municipalities, Jewish communities, NGOs and individuals on the ground. A number of participants raised this issue — as did some of the local stakeholders met during site visits.

“There is a need for practical but sustainable solutions,” said Martynas Užpelkis, who coordinates Jewish heritage preservation issues for the Lithuanian Jewish community. “There are no standard practices; there is a lack of knowledge. There is a need for seeting standards, or developing and monitoring management plans for each cemetery; for training and counselling. […] Local people who want to help ask basic questions.  Can we produce guidelines?”

—  The value of new technologies in cemetery documentation, research, restoration. 

These include, as discussed by forensic archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls, new non-intrusive techniques such as ground-penetrating radar and other tools that can explore Jewish cemeteries, determine grave sites and boundaries and find other information even when all surface evidence of the cemetery has been destroyed. Other techniques, as demonstrated by Jay Osborn, show ways that digitizing old maps can help find borders. And Prof. Leonard Rutgers discussed new techniques that can aid in reading even very weathered inscriptions.

 — The need for collaboration on international and interdisciplinary levels on Jewish cemetery work.

“We should create a network of people and institutions that take care of cemeteries, to have permanent platform to exchange ideas, and have a common voice,” said Dario DiSegni, the president of the Italian Jewish Heritage Foundation, echoing a number of other participants.

Click here to see a gallery of photos on the Jewish Heritage Europe Facebook page More pictures — from participants Marla Raucher Osborn and Jasna Ciric — can be seen on Facebook HERE (range of pictures)  and HERE (Svencionys cemetery) and HERE (Pabrade Jewish cemetery)  and HERE (conference sessions) and HERE (Vilnius Uzupis cemetery) and HERE (Svencioneliai cemetery) and HERE (Vilnius active Jewish cemetery). Samuel D. Gruber has been posting about Jewish cemeteries on his Jewish art and monuments blog, based on site-visits during and after the conference in Vilnius. We cross-posted his article about concrete as a material for Jewish headstones. Also see his post HERE about the reused of materials for headstones. See a video on the conference, with excerpts from some of the presentations, produced by participant Tomasz Wisniewski, a long-time researcher writer and documentarian from Bialystok, Poland:

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