The European Union has awarded a grant of 800,000 Euros to the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative (ESJF) to map and survey at least 1,500 Jewish cemeteries in five Eastern and South Eastern European countries whose communities were decimated in the Holocaust.
The ESJF won the EU tender to implement this preservation project after demonstrating that it was uniquely capable of undertaking such a complex and exhaustive mission on a pan-European basis due to its extensive experience and knowledge, gained over several years and after rescuing and preserving dozens of cemeteries.
The project, which will see cemeteries mapped and surveyed across Greece, Moldova, Slovakia, Lithuania and Ukraine, is set to begin this month.
The mapping process, to be undertaken using state of the art technology specially designed for the project, involves engineering drones surveying and photographing the sites from the air, following an in-depth historical research process of centuries–old records across many countries and languages.
The work has attained especial urgency with thousands of cemeteries lost over the last century through deliberate destruction by the Nazis, the Soviets and other hostile elements, as well as a general lack of care and oversight by local authorities.
“Jewish communities have made a fundamental contribution to Europe’s culture; but the virtual annihilation of the Jewish population in many countries has meant that abandoned and neglected cemeteries are often the only testimony of a Jewish presence,” said Michel Magnier, Director, European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture. “Preserving – and wherever possible restoring and maintaining – the spiritual identity and significance of those burial sites is part of our common responsibility towards Europe’s history and cultural heritage.”
“The aim of our unique and sacred mission is to rescue and preserve Jewish cemeteries, the resting place of our forefathers,” said Rabbi Isaac Schapira, Founder and Chairman of the ESJF Board. “Today, there are many different threats to these cemeteries due to deterioration, vandalism and antisemitism, but also where they are threatened for financial reasons and expanding local city planning ordinances.”
“We have already saved and preserved dozens of cemeteries across Europe that would have been lost to us if we hadn’t acted. This is perhaps the last chance to find and protect the graves of our Jewish ancestors and Jewish patrimony in parts of Europe without an existing Jewish presence.” Rabbi Schapira added.
The objective of this ESJF project is to fully survey all these sites, provide them with physical protection and to regularly monitor their condition. Moreover, the project will create ready–made and fully-costed construction models leading to physical protection projects in the coming years.
The ESJF is however conscious that physical protection in the form of walls and fences is not enough in the absence of localised Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust. A fundamental principle of the ESJF is therefore that “walls do not protect cemeteries, people do”.
This principle requires local populations engaging in “ownership” of the sites, incorporating them psychologically and physically as an integral part of their own local heritage and leading to their long-term protection. A strong collaboration with local and regional governments as well as the local population through awareness raising campaigns and educational programmes is therefore mandatory for the prevention of desecration of the holy burial sites.
“This project takes cemetery protection and the preservation of the historical record into the 21st century with the use of the engineering drones and the real-time transmission of data across the iCloud, thereby enabling all material to be fully and immediately accessible to the experts who will analyse it and utilise it for potential rescue and protection projects” said Philip Carmel, ESJF Chief Executive Officer. “We believe in complete public online access to this historical information as a key resource not only of Jewish heritage but of European heritage. The involvement of the European Union in this project is therefore a major factor in its recognition of the importance of maintaining this.”
“It is vital especially that the next generation of Europeans learn about Jewish existence to combat rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial. The cemeteries are so often the last physical proof of centuries of Jewish life in the towns and villages of Europe which were wiped out in the Shoah. There is no better proof to deny Holocaust denial.”
“The ESJF project for restoring Jewish cemeteries is of vital importance to the Greek Jewish Community and our Board hails the partnership with the European Commission,” said David Saltiel, President of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS). “Out of 30 vibrant Jewish Communities that existed before WWII at respective Greek cities, only eight survived the German occupation. The aftermath of the liberation found the Jewish community decimated – with 86% of its population exterminated- and an immense patrimony of Jewish sites scattered, abandoned, unattended, looted.”
“Today, more than 20 Jewish cemeteries around Greece need restoration in order to be saved and preserved as the remnants of maybe the oldest Jewish community in Europe dating back to the 3rd BC century.”
Building upon the European Commission’s 2018 Year of Cultural Heritage (EYCH), the ESJF will also use the project as an opportunity to encourage people to discover and engage with Europe’s diverse Jewish heritage and its preservation and to become closer and more involved in their local cultural heritage.
Since its foundation in 2015, the ESJF has rescued and protected over 120 Jewish cemeteries in seven Central and Eastern European countries, most notably in the towns and villages where Jewish communities were wiped out in the Shoah, where thousands of sites still lie neglected. A German-based international non-profit foundation, the ESJF has received annual funding from the government of the Federal Republic of Germany since 2015.
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