The near-total removal of trees and other vegetation in the first stage of the state-sponsored restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau has laid bare the vast expanse in a way that has revealed the extent of damage to the site and shocked some observers.
“The view is sad and scary: many gravestones are broken, knocked down, shattered,” Moldovan Jewish scholar Irina Shikhova told JHE.
In addition, some 80-100 grave markers were damaged during the process of cutting trees, including, Shikhova said, “several of the graves of the Kishinev Pogrom 1903 victims – the oldest on the extant part and, probably, historically the most valuable ones.”
The restoration of the cemetery, which began in December, is being carried out by the state, with the aim of using the cemetery to anchor a Jewish history, heritage, and cultural center.
The damage created when trees were cut prompted media criticism and was highlighted by local TV8:
Responding to the media criticism, the Jewish community issued a statement stressing that clearing the vegetation was only the first stage of the rehabilitation and “the restoration phase and necessary repairs have not yet begun.”
It said that the “long-awaited decision of the authorities [to restore the cemetery] was perceived positively by the Jewish community, who expressed willingness to provide methodological support and expertise for the restoration and conservation of monuments.”
The cemetery, at Milano st., though ravaged and long-neglected, is the single largest Jewish heritage site in Moldova and was listed as a national monument in 2012 — even though about half of it, the oldest part, was demolished in the Soviet period after 1958 and built over with tennis courts, houses, and a park with playgrounds.
The existing part of the cemetery underwent care and some restoration in the 2000s, and its more than 23,000 grave markers were fully mapped. But by 2018 it was very overgrown and neglected.
By a government decision in December 2018, the cemetery is now administered by the Chisinau Municipal Council, subordinated to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Research.
Irina Shikhova explained to JHE:
For years the oldest part of the extant half of the cemetery was not sufficiently kept and by the end of the 20th century it day by day fell into decay. In 2003 a private foundation, Dorledor (Generation to Generation) was created in order to clean and maintain the cemetery; during 2004-2006 the foundation managed to do much: mapping and the full list of graves (more than 23,000), paths, water, 24 hour security, everyday cleaning etc. Then the Chisinau municipality took over responsibility for the cemetery, but it never had sufficient resources to maintain it, and by 2018 the cemetery anew had arrived at a disastrous situation: totally overgrown, it looked like a jungle rather than a historical object under state protection
An information panel at the site details the goals of the current restoration:
The Chisinau cemetery — and the other Jewish cemeteries in Moldova — are among the 1500 or so Jewish cemeteries in five countries of eastern, east-central, and south-eastern Europe that are being surveyed by the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative ESJF under a project funded by an €800,000 EU Grant. The survey project, currently under way, uses drones and other technology. The other countries are Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Ukraine.