Before World War II, 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 Jewish presence. Eighty years on, traces of many of these cemeteries have been lost, they lie overgrown and unprotected – the result of the annihilation of their communities in the Holocaust. Centuries of Jewish settlement in Central and Eastern Europe and critically, the historical witness and evidence of it, were driven from memory.
The ESJF project has begun the process of physically protecting Jewish burial sites in Europe, most 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 a prototype for a sustainable, practical and efficient long-term project with its core objective to protect and preserve all the Jewish cemeteries in Europe.
The ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative was set up as a German-based non-profit organization in early 2015 with the core objective of protecting and preserving Jewish cemetery sites across the European continent through delineation of cemetery boundaries and the construction of cemeters walls and locking gates.
Funded in 2015 through a pilot grant of 1,000,000 Euros from the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, the ESJF is now working on some 30 individual protection projects in four European countries, all of which will be completed by the end of this year. The initiative has also set up a strong and sustainable administrative and research structure and created standardised models for engineering and halachic methodology and cost effectiveness which can be rolled out in all European countries and which are applicable for all future work.
There are about 10,000 known Jewish cemetery sites across the 46 member states of the Council of Europe. Of these, around three-quarters are located in Central and Eastern Europe in what we have termed the “designated areas for priority work” – expressed as all the countries of the former Soviet bloc and including south-eastern Europe.
The initial priority for protection work involves the construction of walls around the boundaries of cemetery sites, with a placement of a locking gate within the wall structure and a general cleaning of the site. It is not within the remit of this project to renovate or replace gravestones.