Protect the thousands of burial sites across Central and Eastern Europe

By joining forces to restore cemeteries and share heritage, not only do we protect the memorials of the dead, we also welcome the living, and send the message that Europe belongs to us all.

Desecrated French Jewish cemetary (photo credit: REUTERS)
Desecrated French Jewish cemetary
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the Jewish faith, burial sites are even more sacred than synagogues. Not just cemeteries, but also the mass graves created during the Second World War. These are the “houses of the living” where souls remain unbreakably linked to their former bodies, awaiting the resurrection.
Yet, across Europe, countless such sites have fallen into disarray. The causes are mixed: desecration and grave robbing, yes, but also poor management, short-sighted town planning and a lack of funds. Many have become overgrown. Some have been sold off, only to end up as hotel complexes and leisure parks. Few have benefited from clear local guardians.
The loss of Jewish cemeteries on European soil is a problem. And not just for historians or the descendants of the deceased, but for all those who value tolerant and inclusive societies.
Europe’s Anti-Racism Committee recently reported a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism across our nations. Many Jews living here continue to leave in order to begin new lives in Israel, America and elsewhere, rather than stay and watch old prejudices grow.
We must step up efforts to ensure that Europe is a place where all Jewish people feel at home. The vanishing of burial sites is a far cry from the “never forget” maxim repeated at Holocaust memorials every year. I was fortunate enough to attend the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army; such large-scale events are moving and vital. Recent years have also seen a number of impressive new Jewish museums emerge, notably in Munich and Warsaw. But, for most of us, history is best absorbed by osmosis: through the local culture and heritage we come into contact with in our everyday lives. These burial grounds are a physical reminder of Europe’s long and proud Jewish lineage. They force us to confront painful but important questions about our shared past.
The Council of Europe – the continent’s human rights watchdog – will therefore lend its support to an ambitious project, run by the ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative and funded, in part, by the German government, to protect the thousands of burial sites across Central and Eastern Europe.
Tomorrow, I will join Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister and long-time peace advocate, in the Polish town of Frampol. Here the sizeable Jewish population perished under German occupation.
Following decades of disarray, however, their cemetery was successfully restored by the ESJF last year, working with local partners. The very fact that there was something left to save was thanks to predominantly Christian pupils from a nearby school: the upkeep of the graveyard previously fell to them.
The Frampol example can and should be applied across different faiths. Many mosques and churches have also suffered vandalism and neglect. This is no good in a Europe where populism and xenophobia are becoming troublingly commonplace. I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, but I am a believer in open and diverse nations. Democracy is my creed and the rich patchwork of religious and cultural sites adorning the continent is thus my – and your – heritage too.
The Council of Europe’s Faro Convention, a groundbreaking international treaty, empowers citizens to run conservation initiatives, working with public authorities – whether the so-called “heritage community” has an obvious connection to the area or not. Frampol is one example. In some cases, the group may not have long established roots in the community, perhaps if they are migrants. In others, they may be segregated from wider society, as is often true for Roma. In all, the process of reclaiming and redefining heritage, and its management, fosters a deeper sense of belonging and inclusion. In impoverished northern Marseilles, for example, the Faro Convention has empowered disenfranchised residents to set up urban walks, showcasing for tourists the life and beauty otherwise obscured by the bleak industrial setting. More visitors join the tour each year, as proud local guides confound stereotypes and reveal their Marseilles.
As our societies continue to grow more diverse and tensions remain, the cohesive value of such projects should not be downplayed. By joining forces to restore cemeteries and share heritage, not only do we protect the memorials of the dead, we also welcome the living, and send the message that Europe belongs to us all. This is our shared cultural mission. Today, Polish school children will show us how it’s done.
The author is secretary-general of the Council of Europe.