Jewish Heritage Europe

Dovid Katz: On the Use and Misuse of Jewish Gravestones and Memory

The Yiddishist Dovid Katz has written a powerful op-ed in the Times of Israel about the use and misuse of Jewish gravestones and memory. He focuses on Vilnius in particular, but the issue is much broader and is one that is constantly confronted in many places. 

On the Fate of A Vilna Jewish Cemetery

By Dovid Katz 

One of the predictable consequences of genocide is the spectacle of old cemeteries without relatives or descendants of the buried to care for the gravestones or the site. Some stones will fall, some will sink, and then some will just be taken as usable components for the foundations of houses, the ballast of roads or the walls of a basketball court.

In many parts of the erstwhile Soviet Union, the Nazi-led annihilation of the Jewish population was followed by the Soviets’ ideological disregard for religious traditions.

Happily there are nowadays organizations, local and international alike, that work to preserve old Jewish cemeteries whether by direct investment of resources or by political appeals to powers that be to respect them and prevent further desecration of gravestones that are often the only tangible public trace of a people destroyed.

Here in Lithuania, as in other post-Soviet countries that have joined the European Union and NATO, the democratic governments have generally reversed Soviet policy and worked to preserve and respect old Jewish cemeteries, to encourage efforts at restoration where possible, and to see in cemetery preservation a positive political opportunity as well. These efforts build good will with various “diasporas.” As ever there is a downside. Such projects can cover for efforts to falsify the history of the Holocaust and deflect attention from anti-Semitism by professing love of ancient Jewish relics, a game known among some local remnant Jewish communities in Eastern Europe as “the dead Jew business.” But that is all another chapter.

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