Cemetery project helps reconnect European Jews

Communities Eastern Europe are rushing to save forgotten Jewish cemeteries from the clutches of ambitious building contractors.

jewish cemetary 224.88 (photo credit: Michael J. Jordan)
jewish cemetary 224.88
(photo credit: Michael J. Jordan)
In a campaign that is using the dead to revitalize the living, communities across Eastern Europe are rushing against the clock to save forgotten Jewish cemeteries from the clutches of ambitious building contractors. In the process, thousands of unaffiliated Jews who live in the vicinity of these graveyards are being mobilized and, in the process, reconnected to their Jewish roots. With a total of $400,000 in seed money provided by the Holocaust Claims Conference and another $100,000 raised locally, the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) has launched the second year of the Lo Tishkach [do not forget] European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative. The objective of the project is to search out Jewish cemeteries, delineate their boundaries and create a Jewish presence in a bid to protect these relics of a great Jewish past destroyed by the Holocaust from disappearing forever. So far, a database of 5,000 cemeteries, including mass graves created during the war, has been built by a team of 20 Jewish students in Europe working on a semi-voluntary basis. "There is no way that any one organization can keep track of every single Jewish cemetery in Europe," said Philip Carmel, head of International Relations for CER and director of Lo Tishkach. "We need a set of eyes watching these graveyards and lobbying local governments to keep them protected under European law." Carmel, who is based in Brussels, said that the only way to protect the cemeteries is by getting locals involved - including Jews who have no formal connection with an established Jewish community. "Many of the grave sites are located in areas in Eastern Europe where today very few Jews live. "In a way, we are reaching the living through our search for the dead." Carmel said that according to rough estimates there were about 15,000 Jewish cemeteries and mass graves that have not yet been added to the Lo Tishkach database. In the Ukraine alone there were probably about 800 mass graves, many more than the few dozen that have been found to date. The most common strategy for tracking down both marked and unmarked gravesites is by canvassing local citizens. In an attempt to reach more young people, Lo Tishkach plans to train a group of Jewish students who will visit schools to lecture on the importance of conserving the gravesites. "Sadly, cemeteries are one of the last remaining reminders of the splendor and size of the great Jewish communities of Europe. It is one of the strongest rebuttals to Holocaust deniers who claim that there were not so many Jews killed in the war."