On April 9 and 10, Jewish Heritage Europe coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber joined Ivan Ceresnjes of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, Jasna Ciric, President of the Nis Jewish Community, and Ruben Fuks, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia, on a visit to the Jewish Cemetery in Nis, southern Serbia, to assess its condition and threats to its preservation. Photos in this post (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber
The Jewish cemetery in Nis is believed to date back to the 18th century. It was expropriated by the communist authorities in 1948, and burials were barred in 1965. After that, Roma families occupied about one-third of the site, building homes among the tombstones and creating a village without proper plumbing, sewage treatment or garbage disposal. Industry also encroached on the area, and the cemetery was long used as dump for rubbish and human waste. Vandals over the years broke open tombs, scattering bones.
A major clean-up operation in 2004 removed tons of garbage and waste that had covered the site to the depth of 1.5 meters and also installed a sewage system for the Roma village.
But the cemetery has received little care or maintenance since. And despite being listed as a National cultural heritage site in 2007, it still faces several threats. (JHE ran a news item in December 2011 about new concern by the Jewish community over the situation in Nis, nearly eight years after the clean-up operation – the visit this week was a follow-up to that.)
One-third of it is still occupied by the Roma settlement, or Mahala – composed of permanent brick/masonry/cement structures that are home now to 70 families, or between 700 and 1,500 people, depending on whom you talk to. Warehouses, a restaurant and other illegal industrial construction have encroached on the rest of the space, bulldozing tombs and closing the area off with an illegal 4-meter high wall, making access difficult and sometimes impossible.
Moreover, the new industrial construction also destroyed the sewage treatment system that was installed during the 2004 cleanup.
At the same time, the Jewish community has been restituted part of the property (but so far only that part occupied by the Roma Mahala), and city authorities now include the cemetery on a big tourist map set up in the center of town, meaning that they — at least in theory — recognize the site as important. (The modernist synagogue in Nis, meanwhile, has been restored and is used as an art gallery and is promoted as a tourist attraction.)
The Jewish community expects to be restituted the rest of the cemetery — or at least the open part where there are still graves — but Jasna Ciric reported that the owners of the restaurant and other commercial and industrial sites built on this land have made clear that they will refuse to vacate or move.
On our visit April 9-10, we were able to enter the Roma village (escorted by two security guards and two plainclothes policemen as well as by the headman of the village) so that we could document about a dozen grave markers that are visible in the open, outside houses. Most were slabs or fragments embedded in the paving or protruding from the foundations of houses, but there were several sarcophagi, including one with inscriptions.
It was clear to us that by now the presence of the Mahala is a fait accompli, and that there is little chance such a permanent village can be moved. But – it was not clear at all what is happening with the sewage and other waste. Pipes leading from the buildings are draining into the cemetery grounds, and though there are no open sewers or toilet areas as before the 2004 clean-up, it is unclear what the situation actually is.
We also made a close documentation of the grave markers in the open part of the cemetery. This area had recently been cleaned up – weeds and brush cut, etc – probably ahead of our visit, rather than as a result of regular maintenance. But the vandalism denounced by the Jewish community in December was clearly visible, and dogs roamed among the tombs.
There are about 1,000 grave markers, notable because of the unique – and mysterious – carving on many of the older ones, horizontal slabs that otherwise generally have no epitaph or other inscriptions. The carvings include semi-spheres (numbering from two to 12) arranged in various patterns; geometric forms, and snakes. There is also at least one example of a spiral pillar, laid horizontally. (We could not find two examples of these carved tombs known to have existed there in the past.)
Ivan Ceresnjes believes that these carvings are rooted in Jewish mysticism and may indicate a link to followers of the false Messiah Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676). Zevi was exiled to Albania and lived the last years of his life and died in Ulcinj (now in Montenegro). In Ulcinj, Ceresnjes has found symbols similar to the ones in Nis, and the earliest reference (or one of the earliest references) to Jews in Nis refers to people coming there from the south. (The only other place he has found seemingly related carvings is in Sarajevo.)
We met at City Hall with Mimi Pesic, director of the city housing office, whom we were told was a representative of the Mayor, and raised concerns about the threats, particularly the lack of regular maintenance and the encroaching (illegal) construction around the site which can bar access to the cemetery.
We urged that the city guarantee access to the site for visitors, provide regular maintenance, erect a plaque at the entrance giving information about the cemetery, promote tourist visits, see what can be done about the illegal construction, etc.
Pesic expressed willingness to do all this, but it is far from clear what actually will happen.