Grave situation: The effort to save eastern Europe's Jewish cemeteries

European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, ESJF, has restored more than 100 graveyards in central and eastern Europe since its creation in 2015.

A tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Lubavitch (photo credit: ESJF)
A tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Lubavitch
(photo credit: ESJF)
LUBAVITCH, RUSSIA – Sergei Levashov comes out of his small wooden house shirtless in the summer heat. Down the street dozens of Chabad Hasidim are drinking shots of vodka to celebrate. They have come here to mark the fact that this village’s ancient Jewish cemetery has now been surrounded by a steel fence and a new wooden walkway ending in a shiny steel gate with Jewish stars.
Levashov says his grandmother and her twin sister, both age 92, are not at home as they’ve gone to a tea party in the village. But they remember when Jews used to live in Lubavitch until the 1940s. His grandmother also suffered under the Nazi occupation of this area during World War II, he says.
“If somebody hid Russian partisans, their whole family was killed,” he said. “I am collecting the history of this place, and I would like to make a movie about it.”
Walking the dirt streets here, it feels like someone already did one. It bears a striking resemblance to Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof. The village has 200-300 residents says mayor Yuri Ivashkin, who lives in a nearby town. People still travel by horse and buggy, and most make a living by farming.
Mayor Ivashkin is familiar with the Jewish site of Uman in Ukraine, the location of the grave of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of Breslav Hasidim. Tens of thousands of Israelis visit Uman every year, especially around Rosh Hashana. Ivashkin says he’d like to see a similar number coming to Lubavitch, which is about a six-hour drive from Moscow on the border with Belarus.
The cemetery in Lubavitch goes back at least to the 1800s. It is the burial place of two Lubavitcher rebbes, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who died in 1866), and his successor Shmuel Schneersohn who died in 1882.
There is an ohel, meaning a mausoleum, around the Tzemach Tdedek’s grave inside the cemetery. For the dozens of Lubavitch Hasidim who have come to visit the new gate and fence of the cemetery, the ohel is a holy place. They take their shoes off at the entrance and pray and sing inside. They also write notes and prayers to the rebbe.
Before traveling the six hours from Moscow, they went to the mikve or ritual bath. Most are fasting in preparation for visiting the site.
Lubavitch also has a more recent history. In 1941, Nazi soldiers massacred 483 Jews here, shooting them in a nearby ravine. A Holocaust memorial on the site lists the names of 74 of the victims.
The fencing of the cemetery is the latest project of the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, ESJF, which has restored more than 100 graveyards in central and eastern Europe since its creation in 2015. They estimate there are a total of 8000 Jewish cemeteries that need to be fenced off and protected. The organization is funded by both the German government with a budget of one million euros a year, and private donations.
Philip Carmel, the CEO of ESJF says the Germany funding is significant.
“The cemeteries are not protected in Europe because there aren’t any (Jewish) communities there,” Carmel said. “And the reason there aren’t any communities there is because the Nazis killed them.”
Many of these cemeteries have been targets for antisemitic vandals. In addition, the cemeteries can be built on for housing or other uses. While the Jewish cemeteries were originally built outside the city limits according to Jewish law, as these towns have expanded some of the cemeteries are now prime real estate in the center of town. Storms and other natural weather disasters can inflict damage on these ancient cemeteries.
In other cases, local villages that don’t have enough room in their cemeteries dig up the bodies from Jewish cemeteries and use the space to bury non-Jewish dead. All of this is a danger if the cemeteries are not properly fenced off.
“Even in a place like this that was so famous it wasn’t fenced and it was like the jungle we see over there,” ESJF CEO Philip Carmel said, pointing to the overgrown area around the cemetery. “For 200 years, there has been no real demarcation. I hope this is the first of a number of projects in this region. There are about 50 cemeteries in the region that require the same basic delineation.”
The gravestones have different shapes. Unlike today, Carmel says, cemetery workers simply found large boulders and carved directly on them, rather than quarrying and carving individual gravestones.
The ESJF uses a series of tools to delineate the boundaries of the cemeteries from old Czarist maps to Red Army maps to German Luftwaffe aerial photography to Jewish community records.
They hire engineers and Rabbinic inspectors to visit these far-flung cemeteries and try to save them.
In many ways this project in Lubavitch is not typical of the work that ESFJ does. It is the first cemetery in Russia that has been fenced. Perhaps because of the strong rule of Vladimir Putin, who has close ties with the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar, few cemeteries in Russia have been desecrated. In this case, a private donor, Joseph Papack, a NY-based businessman paid for the work. He donated $100,000 for the fence around the cemetery and the gate. He was also on hand for the dedication.
“It makes me feel very connected to my history and makes me very proud,” Popack told The Jerusalem Report. “I feel connected to all the people here. They lived so simply and had such spirituality.”
ESJF is hoping the publicity surrounding the fencing of the Lubavitch cemetery will increase awareness of the need to restore more cemeteries in central and eastern Europe before it is too late.
For many in ESJF, saving these cemeteries is a sacred mission.
“In all of the sources it is clearly written that we who are alive cannot survive without the dead praying for us. They actually pray for us,” Rabbi Isaac Shapira, a Tel Aviv-based businessman and philanthropist told The Jerusalem Report. “The Talmud says the rest of the soul in heaven depends on the rest of the body. If we are not looking after them they are not looking after us.”
Rabbi Shapira is also the son of former Israeli Knesset member Rabbi Avraham Shapira as well as the Chairman of the Board and a donor to ESJF. Also on the board is longtime dovish Israeli policymaker Yossi Beilin.
He said the ESFJ hopes to complete fencing for 28 more cemeteries this year in Belarus (just over the border from Lubavitch), Ukraine, Serbia and the first cemetery in the Slovak Republic.
They try to work on groups of cemeteries in one area at the same time, as many of these areas are remote and bringing the required professionals takes advance planning. So far the organization has “rescued” 102 cemeteries in the Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Belarus and Serbia.
In many of these areas, the Jewish population was wiped out in the Holocaust. ESFJ works with local authorities who commit themselves to maintain the cemetery fencing. In many cases, Carmel says, after a cemetery is fenced, gravestones that have been looted from cemeteries are returned to the cemetery.
In the case of Lubavitch, the village authorities have committed to maintain the site and are even paving some of the streets with asphalt to make it easier for visitors to access the site.
Rabbi Schapira says it is especially significant that the project in Lubavitch is being dedicated just before Rosh Hashana.
“God ends the Torah with the burial of Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) Looking after the cemeteries and ensuring they are no longer subject to risks of destruction is a sacred duty upon every Jew.”