Jewish Heritage Europe

Presentation by Ruta Anulyte (Maceva Project, Lithuania)

Litvak Cemetery Catalogue MACEVA

By Ruta Anulyte

Pictures to go with this presentation can be found here:

There were 220 Jewish communities in Lithuania before the WWII, but now only 200 Jewish cemeteries remain in Lithuania. Some of them have been destroyed, and some are neglected and forgotten, but it is still possible to see the signs of burial — including the old tombstones there.

The MACEVA project is a non-profit, non-governmental institution that aims to preserve old Jewish cemeteries. MACEVA creates a virtual Jewish cemetery database, digitizes tombstones and searches for  volunteers in order to fulfill this work.

Started in 2010, as the Lithuania Jewish Cemetery Project, MACEVA is mostly a volunteer-driven organization supported by individuals throughout the world. It took two enthusiastic people for the MACEVA project to be started with one clear goal – to preserve this cultural heritage for future generations.  Aleksandr Avramenko and Sergey Kanovich established the organization called MACEVA two years ago. 

The virtual Jewish cemetery database of MACEVA contains links to all existing Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania and it has references to cemeteries that have already been digitized  on the  initiative of other organizations or individuals: for example our database contains links to the IJCP (International Jewish Cemetery Project), JewishGen, LitvakSIG, Shtetlinks etc. We are also very proud that MACEVA has became a part of LitvakSIG, which represents the interest group for Lithuanian Jews. LitvakSIG has agreed to collect donations in the U.S. for MACEVA and assist in realizing our goals.

Due to the activity of MACEVA, the Lithuanian Jewish cemetery database is constantly revised, expanded and updated with visual materials from a variety of Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania. All Jewish cemeteries included into this virtual database have historic, artistic and memorial value – it is an integral part of both Lithuanian and Litvak culture.

Since our inception, we have been able to digitize 19 cemeteries. This number is twice as many that have been completed by other groups during the past 20 years. We now have over 1,000 tombstone pictures translated and uploaded to our website, and more than 1,200 matzeva pictures waiting to be translated. During our brief history, we have been supported by more than several hundred volunteers who helped take pictures of the gravestones, translate Hebrew texts, develop the website, and create printed materials. During 2012, students from three schools in Lithuania and 100 volunteers have been involved in cemetery restoration in their towns. Last year we visited and documented nine cemeteries, including 3 Jewish cemeteries that were done with the help of local schoolchildren.

We think that a Jewish cemetery is not only a burial place: it is a memorial place. MACEVA, as a memory-preserving institution aims to transmit  the memory about the Litvaks who lived in Lithuania to future generations. It is important to realize that these memorial places are mostly destroyed not by the time but by the apathy of people.

The founder of MACEVA, Aleksandr Avramenko, once said that MACEVA is more a “despair project,” because it is quite clear that no matter how much effort we put into the project, the survival of cemeteries is only temporary. Even where grass is trimmed, or a fence is painted periodically (if there is one), gravestones still continue to sink into the ground, some are stolen, or due to effect of the sun and humidity, inscriptions are disappearing. The only way to “save” cemeteries is a photo camera. That is what we do, we systematically capture all the gravestones, trying to highlight each letter so that it can be read, we translate them and post on the Internet.

Anyway, MACEVA takes care not only of memory virtualization. It also wants to maintain and preserve the manifestations of Jewish heritage in Lithuania – the old Jewish cemeteries. Our goal is to preserve the authentic memory of those who no longer have a voice. Unless we preserve what has been dramatically neglected, we risk losing the importance of those generations who came before us. Caring for graves is a sacred obligation of every culture and religion, because in this way, we preserve the memories for the living. Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania have become a field of oblivion, which we, at MACEVA try to awaken.

That is why MACEVA pays particular attention to educational activities – especially, cooperating with students and various youth organizations. It aims to improve an inner youth tolerance, to deepen youth interest in their local history and cultural heritage. We actively work with local municipalities, the Cultural Heritage Department of Ministry of Culture, the Jewish Community, other governmental institutions, and non-governmental organizations to ensure sustainability of our work and to motivate local activists to support this crucial history. We are attempting to enforce that cemeteries that are listed as “state protected objects” in the Cultural Heritage Department Register, should be maintained. However, it is true that some Jewish cemeteries are already beyond preservation.

As it was noted before, where volunteer work is performed in Lithuania by schoolchildren, we attempt to provide the schools and schoolchildren with an education on the Jews that lived in the area, the positive impact Jews had on Lithuania, and what was done to the Jews. People from schools, history teachers, other enthusiasts, who organize trips for children to the cemetery, now teach them about Jewish culture, customs and the Holocaust. This is definitely the most important “side effect” of our project.

Some local museums are willing to work with us, as well as scout leaders; they all offer help in cleaning graves. There are many people who want to contribute to our activities; it is encouraging. The Lithuanian Jewish community supports our work, Vilnius Sholom Aleichem school is the only Jewish school in Lithuania, and it is also cooperating with us.

MACEVA also started a partnership with Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in California. Some schoolchildren are involved in reading old tombstones with a help of their Hebrew teacher. MACEVA Advisory Board member Grant Gochin teaches the volunteer schoolchildren about Litvak History. As we grow our program, we hope to expand to more Jewish schools and involve more children in learning about Litvak heritage.

One of MACEVA‘s goals is to ensure a free access to the virtual cemetery database to everyone, thus creating an open virtual Litvak cemetery catalogue. MACEVA, as a non-profit organization largely depends on volunteers, translators and other people of good will who not only care about heritage matters but also about the continuity of the memory.

To sum up, Litvak Cemetery Catalogue MACEVA seeks to promote the awareness in local communities, reduce the confrontation between “alien” and “own” heritage in order to preserve the public respect for Jewish cemeteries. Therefore, our project is  long-term and binding, we believe.

Pictures of Litvak Cemetery Project: