(JHE) — Jewish heritage experts are decrying the destruction of the oldest part of the historic Jewish cemetery in Sataniv, western Ukraine, by a Haredi group claiming to restore it. Branding the operation desecration and vandalism, they called for control measures and oversight to prevent further episodes of such damage.
The Sataniv cemetery dates back to the 16th century. Many headstones bear exceptionally intricate carving, epitaphs, and iconography.
Photos now show that many scores of centuries-old matzevot have been uprooted, reset in poured concrete bases, and artificially arranged in straight rows that bear no relation whatsoever to the original sites of the stones and the burials they marked.
In some cases, the concrete base covers part of the epitaph.
“The most beautiful Jewish cemetery in Ukraine, and perhaps in Europe, has been desecrated,” Boris Khaimovich, Chief Curator of the Museum of Jewish History in Russia, told JHE. “I think this is a crime.”
Khaimovich, who carried out a documentation of the cemetery for the Center for Jewish Art in 1992, blasted it as an example of “unprecedented vandalism, barbarism, and unheard-of audacity” and called for the establishment of an expert council to oversee heritage interventions.
He and others noted that if hooligans knock over headstones or otherwise vandalize a Jewish cemetery it makes headlines and triggers official condemnation. But the destruction such as that in Sataniv — by a Jewish group — goes on with impunity.
“This jewel of Jewish heritage and unique lieu de mémoire has been irreversibly harmed; many tombstones have been crudely renovated and misplaced,” Prof. Ilia Rodov, of the Department of Jewish Art at Bar Ilan University, told JHE.
If the graves were desecrated and headstones moved away by spiteful hoodlums or dumb drunks, a voice of indignation would have been loudly raised, and mass media and law enforcement involved. This time, the vandalism is presented as care. The bitter truth is that the intentions of those who worked at the Sataniv cemetery were perhaps good, but their over-zealousness and ignorance caused detriment. […]
Substantial responsibility and profound awareness of persons and organizations performing works at the cemeteries for the proper maintenance of tombstones is urgently needed. The regulations for preservation of historical monuments and cultural heritage should be applied and the works at cemeteries watchfully monitored.
The work at Sataniv is being carried out on behalf of Rabbi Israel Meir Gabay and his organization Agudas Ohalei Tzadikim.
Gabay travels frequently around Europe, ostensibly to restore Jewish cemeteries and to commemorate famous rabbis, often by building ohels — protective structures — around their tombs. His web site shows examples of how gravestones in other cemeteries were uprooted and embedded in concrete rows — it should be noted that other Haredi cemetery organizations also carry out such interventions.
Recently Gabay carried out a similar radical “renovation” to that in Sataniv at the old Jewish cemetery of Medzhybizh, working during the pandemic to uproot hundreds of matzevot and fragments and embed them in more than two dozen long, straight rows surrounding the ohel of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. The zadikim web site described the operation as “thoughtful and meticulous work that lasted for many weeks” that “Rabbi Gabay commanded […] carefully and sensitively” until “at the end of the project the whole compound changed its face.”
The zadikim web site highlights earlier work by the organization at Sataniv, concentrated on specific graves. An undated news post on the web site said the current work on the cemetery had begun, but did not provide details. The zadikim post said that Gabay had devised “an appropriate solution for the cemetery” which (earlier) had not been implemented due to lack of funds. It said the cemetery needed “immediate rescue action.”
In its recent survey of the cemetery, however, the European Jewish Cemetery Initiative — which also created a 3-D model of the cemetery — described it as only “slightly overgrown” and requiring “clearing and fencing.”
Dmitry Polyukhovich, an ethnographer, journalist and author of a book on Sataniv, told JHE that Gabay’s operation began in September. He said the matzevot were all being removed from the oldest part of the cemetery, but that, according to the information he had, the newer part — with stones dating from the second half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century — would not be touched.
The cemetery has been researched and studied in great detail — the Center for Jewish Art documentation includes mapping of the original site of each matzevah and details about the deceased and the carved decoration.
It was not clear who, if anyone, gave permission for the current operation at the Sataniv cemetery or if there is any accountability for the destruction.
“The Sataniv Jewish cemetery does not have the status of a historical monument of national importance, although it fully deserves it,” Polyukhovich told JHE. “In that case, any work here would be possible only with the permission of the Ministry of Culture and according to an agreed project.
But the cemetery has only the status of a “cultural heritage site”, which does not bear any legal prohibitions on carrying out work here. Moreover, the cemetery has no legal owner – that is, it is officially ownerless. Accordingly, local authorities have no legal leverage to prevent vandalism.
In addition, he added, technically everything going is not only legal, but even, in the eyes of the authorities, correct and positive. For them:
A Jewish organization is putting in order the abandoned Jewish cemetery (cause for applause). A well-known saying by V.I. Lenin is well suited here: “Technically correct, but in fact a mockery.”
There is one more important aspect, he added: “Officials are simply afraid to speak out, lest they be publicly accused of anti-Semitism.”
Khaimovich, Polyukhovich, and other experts described the current operation as vandalism on a grand scale but also denounced it as outright desecration in a religious sense.
“Let us be plain,” Sergey R. Kravtsov, Research Fellow at the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem told JHE.
Whatever were his intentions, r. Israel Meir Gabay moved the tombstones of Sataniv Jews from their actual graves. By doing so, he stripped the buried Jews of the promise uttered by a prophet: “Even unto them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:6). This text is exactly the verse where the expression “yad va-shem,” meaning “a monument and a memorial,” was coined.
So far as r. Gabay’s activity is prolific and involving Jewish cemeteries in many countries, it should be put under public control to avoid future faults and implement the best preservation practices.
Jay and Marla Raucher Osborn of the Lviv-based Jewish heritage preservation NGO Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, said they were “aghast” at the damage shown in the photos from Sataniv.
“Uprighting the stones to make them easier to read in no way compensates for this disrespect to the dead buried underneath, and likely compromises the stone materials in a way which will accelerate their decay and failure,” the Osborns, who collaborated on a detailed online guide to best practices in preserving Jewish cemeteries in western Ukraine, told JHE. The guide has a section on headstone conservation and resetting. They added:
This vandalism at Sataniv’s historic Jewish cemetery is only the latest affront to vulnerable Jewish burial sites in western Ukraine, and an insult to the work of preservation and long-term care that many of us are doing at these precious sites. What happened in Satantiv (and risks happening elsewhere) is desecration, pure and simple, and must stop.
“Righting fallen gravestones in their proper places is permissible but uprooting stones and disassociating them from the very remains they commemorate is an affront, a violation of centuries-old practice and norms, and a desecration,” Samuel D. Gruber, President of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, told JHE. He
There are many examples where with careful planning and thoughtful design, Jewish cemeteries have been cleaned, protected, and made beautiful in a way that respects the dead and the history of that place. Sadly, in recent years there are many self-appointed individuals and proclaim themselves and their organizations – no doubt with the best of intentions – as the sole protectors and cemeteries, and the arbiters of what should be done there. It is especially disturbing that these individuals should take advantage of the pandemic to accelerate the pace of their destructive work. It is also true that despite several decades of cemetery documentation and many cultural heritage agreements, that many Jewish cemeteries, even such an historic site as Satiniv, still exit in legal limbo that allow intrusive and destructive work without any process of oversight and review.