A mass survey of hundreds of Jewish cemeteries in Central and Eastern Europe found that almost half of the sites in the region are in a state of severe neglect.
In the survey of sites undertaken between 2019 and 2021 by the ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative funded by the European Commission, 1,700 Jewish cemeteries across Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine were physically visited by survey teams. The results paint a deeply concerning picture, showing that only 35% of Jewish cemeteries in these countries are fenced and protected, while 44% are severely neglected and in urgent need of protection.
ESJF survey teams examine the Ożarów Jewish cemetery in Poland
On the results of the surveys, ESJF Chief Executive Officer Philip Carmel said:
“These figures are concerning, but ultimately unsurprising. Now that we finally have this comprehensive information in hand, it is clearer than ever that collective efforts must be made to ensure that these sites are protected and the legacy of the communities which they served is preserved.”
Through detailed historical research, along with an innovative combination of ground and drone photography, ESJF have been able to accurately map each of these cemeteries, trace the history of the communities behind them, and assess which are most in need of protection. Of the countries surveyed, Lithuania was found to have the highest number of at-risk sites, with around 55% of Jewish cemeteries in the country facing threats such as vandalism, tombstone theft, and demolition.
The 1,700 sites surveyed come following similar research undertaken by the ESJF in 2018/19 also funded by the European Commission, on another 1,500 sites.
The ESJF has itself been heavily involved in protection work, largely funded by the Federal Republic of Germany since 2015 and has now fenced and protected over 200 sites in eight European countries.
“With over 3,000 sites now surveyed, the concerning picture of the massive devastation and neglect of Jewish cemeteries in towns and villages where communities were destroyed in the Holocaust is now plain to see,” Carmel said.
The results of these surveys can be found in ESJF’s open-access database of Jewish cemeteries (www.esjf-surveys.org/surveys-map/) were presented at the webinar, “Protecting the Jewish Cemeteries of Europe”. Hosted by ESJF and its partners at Centropa and Foundation for Jewish Heritage, the webinar will took place via Zoom on Tuesday July 13th.
EU Vice President Margaritis Schinas praised ESJF’s survey efforts in his rousing keynote address
The event drew a variety a noteworthy speakers, with a keynote address from European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, as well as presentations from Nachman Shai, Minister of Diaspora Affairs for the State of Israel, Katharina von Schnurbein, European Commission Coordinator on Combating Antisemitism; Ariella Woitchik, Director of European Affairs at the European Jewish Congress; and Charles Goerens MEP, whose efforts were instrumental in initiating the cooperation between ESJF and the European Commission. The webinar also heard addresses from leading figures from each of the three consortium partners involved in this project: Rabbi Isaac Schapira OBE, founder and chairman of the ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative; Edward Serotta, Director of Centropa; and Dame Helen Hyde, Trustee of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage.
Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Dr. Nachman Shai emphasised the importance of global cooperation to preserve Jewish heritage
The webinar covered findings from the pilot project, such as the survey results and the outcomes of the consortium’s extensive educational projects, as well as some of the major issues surrounding Jewish heritage preservation today, such as antisemitism, Holocaust remembrance, and the importance of protecting Jewish heritage for future generations.
While the figures gathered during ESJF’s surveys highlight the vulnerability of European Jewish cemeteries today, in recording and mapping them, they are one step closer to protection. However, with the momentum gathered by the efforts of the consortium and the spirit of cooperation displayed by all of the event’s speakers, it is vital that we build upon this work and take further steps to ensure the long-term protection of these sites.
In the words of ESJF CEO Philip Carmel:
“This is the first stage in the protection process, but it is by no means the last.”