Jewish Heritage Europe

“We Can’t Live on Air” — Why the Litvak Cemetery Catalogue put its database behind a paywall

Sergey Kanovich walks along the wall of the restored Jewish cemetery at Seduva, Lithuania
Sergey Kanovich walks along the wall of the restored Jewish cemetery at Seduva, Lithuania

Since it was founded five years ago, Maceva, the Litvak Cemetery Catalogue, has documented around 40 of Lithuania’s 200 or so Jewish cemeteries. Strapped for funding, it recently put its digital database behind a paywall for most users.

Maceva founder Sergey Kanovich says he knows this move is controversial – and in this essay explains why this step was taken.

“We Can’t Live On Air”

By Sergey Kanovich

In 2011 Maceva was a private initiative of few dedicated people who would spend their personal vacation time preserving Lithuanian Jewish cemeteries: abandoned, forgotten, and neglected, they exist in all parts of the country. We felt that allowing the cemeteries to go back to nature was a form of Holocaust denial. Municipalities, whose job it should have been to do the work, had little or no interest; Jews were a part of distant memory.

Soon, we decided to turn our sporadic and unsystematic work into a structured project, and this is how the NGO “Maceva – Litvak Cemetery Catalogue” – was born.

Five years on, with about 40 cemeteries cleaned, recorded, digitized and, in effect, virtually preserved, we can look back — and also try to look forward.

Our achievements are widely known. Foremost among them is that we have managed to bring public attention to the issue of preservation of memory, and, as a result, we now have wide support from volunteers in local communities. The Lithuanian public is aware now of why it is important to care for Jewish cemeteries. The fact that our work has inspired others to follow our initiative also speaks for itself. But we always wanted, and we continue to desire, to do more.

In the Jewish cemetery, Kalvaria, Lithuania
In the Jewish cemetery, Kalvarija, Lithuania

We have received multiple endorsements, encouragement and applause — but very little financial support. We are continuously short of funds that would enable us to achieve more, or to keep people working for us and show them that there is a future in working on the protection of Jewish heritage and on the protection the memory of the murdered Jewish community. Year by year we have fought for survival with only a few people offering substantial financial donations.

Our aim is to virtually protect and preserve the cemeteries, through photographs, epitaphs and digitization.

Does protection of memory cost? Yes, it does. We can’t live on air. Besides cemetery clean-ups, we cannot rely on the goodwill of busy volunteers to translate thousands of headstones free of charge. Today we are asked to pay 2 Euro per headstone translation.

This summer, working with the German Action Reconciliation Service for Peace NGO, we are organizing an international project at one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania – Švenčionys. Volunteers from Lithuania, Bulgaria and Germany will be spending two weeks on site – cleaning, marking, and documenting the cemetery, which has more than 3,000 graves.

We are grateful that a donor without links to Svencionys – someone who just sincerely cares for the cause – has given us a targeted donation of $6,000 for this project. But translation costs alone will exceed this sum. Maceva still has to fund accommodation, transport, material, food, etc.

In the Svencionys Jewish cemetery, Lithuania
In the Svencionys Jewish cemetery, Lithuania

Recently, Maceva’s primary donor, and others, came to the realization that, while our cause is serious and our results fantastic, they were almost the only ones who cared enough about our work that they continued to finance it. After five years these people asked the legitimate question – why only us? And after five years of supporting the cause they said – we have done enough, let others also contribute.

But where are the others? There are there, but, looking at our monthly donation sheet, their contributions are simply not enough: we receive about $200 a month from individuals, in dribs and drabs. We clearly see that, unless things change, we will have no other option but to cease operations. If that happens we will donate our database (under certain conditions) to an organization that would, at a minimum, undertake to continue the work we have begun.

Critics might ask why we were not fundraising? Well, we tried. But the people who work for us are researchers, not fundraisers. We turned to fundraisers – they were asking for fundraising fees that we do not have enough resources to pay. No professional fundraiser would take us on a commission basis. We applied for grants, from both Jewish and non-Jewish entities, unfortunately with little or no success. But, all the way, we heard applause, suggestions and encouragement. We became tired of that.

In the Jewish cemetery, Svencionys, Lithuania
In the Jewish cemetery, Svencionys, Lithuania

The situation led us to our inevitable last resort – our new website asks people to contribute in order to access our existing database.

We foresee a storm of frustrated reactions along the lines of “how dare they.”

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that this comes from the people who were silent users of the work we have done, and who have never considered helping by donating to the cause.

We have little hope that our new approach will be efficient enough to guarantee that we will continue to exist in the form we currently do. Let us see. Because if we won’t be able care for these sites, then who will?

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July 25, 2016

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Web site of the Litvak Cemetery Catalogue

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