Established in the early 1890s, the vast Jewish cemetery on Kozma utca (st.) in an outlying district of Budapest is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, encompassing 70 hectares; more than 300,000 people are buried there, in around 175,000 grave sites, ranging from large and elaborate family mausolea and the ornate tombs of leading personalities, to the simple gravestones of ordinary people and burials and memorials of Holocaust victims.
The cemetery is divided into around 100 demarcated sections — and it is estimated that more than two-thirds of the area is overgrown with bushes, trees, vines and forest that have taken over in the decades of neglect since the Holocaust.
JHE director Ruth Ellen Gruber visited the cemetery recently to witness and learn about the uphill battle to clear the vegetation, restore graves, and maintain the cemetery.
We are writing about it in two separate posts.
This first post deals with the work of a non-profit organization, Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery, which was established in 2016 and has taken on the task of cleaning up the huge expanse, one section at a time.
The non-profit was co-founded and is headed by two businessmen, Marc Pinter and Michael Perl, who are both the sons of Holocaust survivors who fled Hungary just before or during the abortive Hungarian revolution of 1956.
“There are more than 70 sections (out of about 100) where overgrown forest needs to be removed and access restored,” a statement by Friends of the Budapest Cemetery says. It estimated that “70,000 man hours clearing, trimming and building [are needed] to prevent further damage.”
Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery began work last fall. Its stated plan of work is to “initially restore access to all of its sections by removing jungle-like conditions and then set out to ensure the architecturally significant mausoleums and grand funeral building are restored.” The process includes physically clearing the vegetation and also spraying with herbicide.
Pinter told JHE that — while both he and Perl have ancestors and family members buried in the cemetery — they decided to start by clearing sections that had been particularly overgrown, so that the difference could be more easily appreciated.
The organization has signed a letter of intent with the Budapest Jewish Community, which manages the cemetery, which “provides full support for the project while allowing complete financial independence.” Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery thus hires its own workers and carries out its own fund-raising.
According to the web site, work commenced on October 18, 2018, with Section 26:
We engaged 7 workers and had additional help from a few volunteers as well as one day with 5 workers from a nearby prison. In just two weeks, with the help of our Stihl equipment, we managed to clear the entire section of 5576 square meters allowing access to over 1200 graves with approximately 1800 burials.
So far clearance of three sections has been complete. Work on a fourth section began in April — Section 28, which at close to 19000 square meters is one of the two largest sections in the cemetery. It contains 4871 burials within 4454 graves, most of the burials date from 1908-1909.
A statement from Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery says that beyond clearing the cemetery to make graves more accessible, the project has the goal of using the cemetery grounds
as a place of education in a country of intolerance – we will invite high schools and universities to bring their students on a conducted tour where they will see the graves of and hear the biographies of many famous people who made Budapest and Hungary what it is today. We would like youth to consider the definition of identity: They may have been Jews but they were proud and famous Hungarians. It also creates a link with younger generations of descendants overseas whose families had to escape political intolerance.