Before World War ll, more than seven million Jews lived in Central and Eastern Europe. Jews inhabited these towns and villages for centuries. Across the continent, Jewish burial sites provided direct physical evidence of this presence. Eighty years on, all trace of many of these cemeteries has been lost, the result of the annihilation of their communities in the Holocaust. Centuries of Jewish settlement in Central and Eastern Europe have been erased from memory, along with the artefacts bearing witness to that lineage.
The ESJF project has begun the process of physically protecting Jewish burial sites across Europe, particularly in places where Jewish communities were wiped out in the Holocaust. Moreover, it has identified resources, limitations, costs, and general practical models in order to provide the prototype for a sustainable, efficient long-term project, with the core objective of protecting and preserving every Jewish cemetery in Europe.
The European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative (ESJF) was set up as a German-based non-profit in early 2015, with the core objective of protecting and preserving Jewish cemetery sites across Europe through the accurate delineation of cemetery boundaries and the construction of walls and locking gates.
Having received a pilot grant of 1,000,000 Euros from the government of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2015, the ESJF is now involved in some 30 individual preservation projects across four European countries, all of which will be completed by the end of this year. The initiative has also set up a strong, sustainable administrative and research structure and created standardised models for engineering, halachic methodolody, and cost effectiveness, which will be applied to all future work and can now be rolled out across Europe.
There are around 10,000 known Jewish cemetery sites across the 46 member states of the Council of Europe. Roughly three quarters of these are located in Central and Eastern Europe, in what we have termed “designated areas for priority work”, which can be understood as all the members of the former Soviet bloc, as well as South-Eastern Europe.
The initial priority for this preservation work is the construction of walls with locking gates around the cemetery sites, as well as general clearance and cleaning. It is not within the remit of this project to renovate or replace gravestones.