The ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative was founded in 2015 to protect Jewish cemeteries across Europe, particularly in eastern Europe outside the EU. ESJF CEO Phil Carmel reflects here on the progress made since then, and on the importance of cemetery surveys now launched in Ukraine and Belarus.
Maximizing Jewish cemetery protection in Europe
By Phil Carmel
In the blessing that concludes the narrative part of the Haggadah during the Pesach Seder, the words “joyful in your building and happy in your work” mark the entrance to the celebratory meal and the realization of redemption.
After a little more than two years of intensive construction of Jewish cemetery walls and fences in Eastern and Central Europe, the organization we set up with German government and private funding in 2015 has indeed met its primary role in protecting a substantial number of sites and we are set to reach the 100 fence mark some time this year.
It is a proud achievement for the ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, and as its CEO, I am deeply proud of the work of our project staff, researchers, engineers and rabbinical experts who bring each project to fruition.
So, in terms of our core objective: “To protect the largest number of cemeteries in the shortest possible time according to the strictest halachic and engineering criteria,” we do have a certain cause for satisfaction, a joy in our building, and a happiness in our work.
We strive to build fences and walls that are compatible with the local environment and not too high or secured that they look like Fort Knox. They may fall short of some people’s expectations of aestheticism and artistic beauty. But every additional cent spent on one such cemetery comes at the cost of work on another. And another.
So yes, we are content. But to perfectly honest, this really misses the point of the nature of the task in hand.
Thousands of Jewish burial grounds lie neglected and open to the elements across the vast territories of Eastern and Central Europe. Each one is a physical reminder of the presence of a living and vibrant Jewish community in that place, often over a period of hundreds of years. And it is also a living witness to answer the question why and how that community is no longer there.
Realistically, even if we had all the money available – and we’re talking about fairly large sums – we couldn’t protect all these in the short term.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to protect them.
That’s why the ESJF has engaged in a system of mass surveying and monitoring of Jewish burial sites, with prioritization in areas outside the European Union.
Why outside the EU? Because here, sites “disappear” or are destroyed under the radar. Without anyone knowing, it is likely that barely a week goes by without a cemetery dug up or encroached by agricultural or industrial developed, or gobbled up by a neighboring non-Jewish cemetery.
Cemeteries may be equally threatened in Poland, in Lithuania, in Hungary and Slovakia, for example; but if something happens at these sites, somebody, somewhere, knows about it and makes it known to the world. To a structured Jewish community, a local council, international Jewish organizations, or the media. But in Ukraine and Belarus, sites are destroyed as if they are trees falling in the middle of a forest in the dead of night.
We know this because our surveyors regularly find these kinds of places in Ukraine. Sites unvisited for years, even decades, with no demarcation, graves dug up, bones exposed above the surface. After visiting about 300 sites already in different regions of Ukraine, we have clear statistics that show that as much as 70 percent of all the sites in the principal non-EU states require urgent treatment.
We can’t fence them all tomorrow. And 70 percent of around 2,500 sites in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova equals a lot of sites… and a lot of euros.
But we can mark them and make contact with the local authorities. We are definitively creating a sort of holding operation. We may, in the coming years, make things better at these places. But at the moment, we are making sure they don’t get any worse. Visibility and full cooperation with and respect for local people is all. And where possible, we link this work with education projects in local schools.
We set our task to protect all the Jewish cemeteries of Europe. All, meaning all. Not just the big ones in the big cities, not just those with famous rabbis, not even only those with iconic and beautiful gravestones. But every cemetery in every town, village, and hamlet where Jewish communities were destroyed.
The fencing organization we were set up to be continues its work but the equally if not more important task of protecting those sites which we can’t yet fence takes increasing relevance now as we embark on mass surveys in Belarus and Ukraine.
For the ESJF, the Jewish fencing operation par excellence, this has been a humbling and learning experience.
Ultimately, fences don’t protect Jewish cemeteries, people do.
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July 3, 2017
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Phil Carmel is Chief Executive Officer of the ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative.