(During recent road trips visiting Jewish heritage sites in nearly a dozen towns in Ukraine, JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber took note of how rampant vegetation makes some Jewish cemeteries almost inaccessible and leads to further deterioration of the sites.)
High summer is not the best season to visit Jewish cemeteries — especially abandoned cemeteries that receive no care to keep down grass, weeds, and other vegetation other than from the occasional grazing of sheep and other farm animals.
This is a truism, of course: anyone with a garden knows how fast weeds can choke flower beds and how quickly crops and meadow grass and flowers can grow tall in open fields (or lawns…) Such natural growth, year after year, can swallow Jewish cemeteries, sometimes engulfing them, ultimately, amid forests.
Nature’s power was dramatically demonstrated at the Jewish cemeteries I visited recently in western Ukraine, including some, like Busk, that I had visited at almost exactly the same time of year just over a decade ago.
Here are some comparative pictures of the same sections of the Jewish cemetery in Busk, taken by me in 2006 and then on July 28, 2017.
The cemetery is unfenced, and a dirt road used by local people cuts right through it.
To put things in even more stark perspective, here are a couple of pictures taken of the Busk Jewish cemetery in April, 2013 — before the growing season…..
The situation in other cemeteries I visited was even starker. When Christian Herrmann visited the Jewish cemeteries in Mikolaiv and Shkyrets in the December 2016, he braved dangerous icy roads — but found large cemeteries that were “well accessible” and exhibited real “masterpieces of stone carving.” Moreover, the cemetery in Shchyrets had been recently cleared, with larger trees and bushes cut down.
Little more than seven months later, I found both of these cemeteries so overwhelmed by this year’s growth that they were just about impossible to reach — not wearing high boots, I didn’t even try.
The Shchyrets cemetery, which is unfenced, could just be glimpsed across fields of chest-high weeds. My traveling companion, Tomasz Jankowski, tromped his way through to it but said that once at the cemetery, it was difficult and even dangerous to make his way, because of the felled trees and branches that lay covered and hidden by the vegetation.
The Mikolayiv cemetery is situated at the edge of a ravine, which was the site of the mass execution of Jews during WW2.
Unfenced, it lies next to a Christian cemetery, which has expanded over the years to by now reach the border of the Jewish cemetery — but the contrast between the two is dramatic: the relatively well maintained and frequently visited Christian cemetery, next to the wilderness of the Jewish one. The only sign of care manifested by the Jewish cemetery is the fact that the matzevot appear to have been painted white.
How to cope with Nature presents challenges even in sites that are generally maintained: the city several times a year cuts the vegetation on the site of the Jewish cemetery in Zolochiv, where there is a Holocaust memorial but no standing matzevot — but limited resources cannot keep the growth fully in check, except in the area directly surrounding the monument.