Unfinished Business: Restoring Eastern Europe’s Desecrated Jewish Cemeteries
“Now, that was appealing,” she said. “This is not something you put off. … I was turning 80, and I didn’t have a lot of time to waste.”
She linked up with her sister for the conference, after which they hired a guide to take them to Goniadz. That was the town listed on a ship’s manifest as the last residence of her paternal grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1905.
The small town, Teck said, was clean and pleasant, even picturesque. And then they arrived at the Jewish cemetery.
“Who’s responsible for this?” she asked. “This is a shanda (disgrace).”
The three-acre site was completely overgrown. Weeds taller than people obscured vine-covered matzevot, many cracked or askew.
“This reflects badly on Jewish people, not to take care of their cemetery,” Teck said. “I decided that I was very fortunate at this point in my life to have good health and physical strength, and I would devote myself to do what I can about this cemetery.”
A year later, she was back in Goniadz for a full day of hard gardening in the cemetery, aided by local residents, including the town’s mayor and some municipal workers. They were able to clear a small portion, but the rest remains to be done.
Ancestral connections such as Teck’s have motivated hundreds of individual cemetery restoration projects, but they are supported by years of broader work from scholars and historians to identify and map sites, and to lay the political and social groundwork.
Author and scholar Ruth Ellen Gruber runs the website Jewish Heritage Europe, with deep resources on Jewish monuments and heritage sites. She has documented the resurgence of interest in Jewish culture and history over three decades. After the fall of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe, she said, “People wanted to fill in the blank spaces, and Jewish heritage was one of them.”
Still, many of the estimated 11,000 existing cemeteries remain undocumented, or even undiscovered. Mass burial sites present a grim additional challenge. They are considered cemeteries deserving of protection, but they were seldom marked. Local memories of the atrocities have faded.
In Rohatyn, Ukraine, the Gestapo carried out at least two mass murders of Jews. Memorials were placed near both sites, but their actual boundaries were never marked. In 2017, and again in 2019, the nonprofit Rohatyn Jewish Heritage commissioned experts from Staffordshire University in the U.K. to survey the area with ground-penetrating radar (GPR). While the technology is more than 100 years old, it has been greatly improved in the last few decades and become more affordable. Using noninvasive electromagnetic radiation, it detects underground differences that may mark edges of pits and trenches.
The two surveys were able to reliably define borders of both sites, a first step to longer-term conservation. Plans to enclose and improve the sites have been developed, with fundraising now in progress.
With two grants from the EU totaling 1.8 million euros, the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative (ESJF), a German-based nonprofit, began in 2018 a survey of Jewish burial sites in 12 countries. Engineering drones, whose birds-eye photographs can reveal landscape margins not visible from the ground, aid the efforts. ESJF considers this technology so important that it has developed classes — currently online — on how to use the aerial photos with special software to create three-dimensional maps, a process called photogrammetry.
ESJF compiles a history of each site using local records and interviews. The goals are to build a solid wall or fence around the perimeter, develop interpretive signs and markers for visitors, and educate local residents about their own history.
That focus on local education drives efforts on many fronts.
Hatte Blejer traveled to Przerośl, Poland in 2012, expecting to visit the graves of many ancestors on her father’s side. Like Teck, she was appalled by what she found at the cemetery.
“The Catholic cemeteries were beautiful, with flowers, but this was totally overgrown, they were all in such terrible shape,” she said.
Blejer connected with Steven Reece, a Baptist minister whose Matzevah Foundation has engaged nearly 1,200 local and international volunteers since 2012 to restore Jewish cemeteries, help Christians learn about the Holocaust and work toward the reconciliation of Jews and Christians.
Reece, 65, worked in Poland for more than a decade. A chance meeting there with a Polish woman of Jewish descent opened his eyes to the condition of the cemeteries. He felt called to help. Now, from his base in Atlanta, Georgia, he coordinates three to seven projects each summer, although Covid-19 canceled all work in 2020.
Typically, he begins a project by working with town officials, and with Jewish and Polish organizations.
“We want to establish a foothold in the community, so they become engaged partners,” he said. “This is not just about gardening. The landscape is filled with challenges, animosities, wounds that are deep on both sides.”
For Blejer, 70, those connections were among the greatest rewards for three summers of work in Przerośl. She befriended Jan Wiktor Sienkiewicz, an art historian in the town, who now hosts the group with Polish cakes and tea each time it returns.
She’s made other friends there as well and said she’s grateful to local residents who join them in the cemetery with loppers and chain saws, beating back nature’s advance after every spring.
“They’re just good people and they understand that Jewish history is their history also,” she said.
Blejer has a degree in history from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin. In the summer of 2019, she worked alongside others, clearing weeds in the heat, but also taking notes on the gravestone inscriptions. She gathered with a smaller group in the evenings, combing the Polish-language Suwalki Archives website for death certificates that matched the graves, to begin a directory of the cemetery.
With so few Jews left in Eastern Europe, the cost of restoration and maintenance falls either to local municipalities, who often are cash-strapped themselves or to descendants in the diaspora.
Reece said the cost of an on-the-ground summer project is about $2,500 for 7 to 10 days, depending on the size of the cemetery. Most descendants go about fundraising by reaching into their own pockets, or those of family and friends.
Teck, who also hopes to work with the Matzevah Foundation, has obtained some funding from family and friends for the Goniadz restoration, but she also has cast a wider net.
She created two slide presentations, and gave brief talks in her home, to a multifaith group in her community of Leisure World, and for a Jewish Federation group. On Facebook, Friends of Goniadz, Poland Jewish Cemetery has more than 130 members.
Through the website jewishgen.org, she found others who were researching the same family name. Donations now total nearly $10,000, she said, but that may not be enough to complete the cleanup, border fencing and a new memorial plaque that would mark one more Nazi horror.
Local historian Arek Studniarek believes that a mass murder of Jews was perpetrated somewhere within the Goniadz cemetery. They hope to locate it using GPR but must first complete the clearing of the land. The pandemic forced postponement of a planned trip with Reece’s group until summer 2021.
The informational markers matter greatly, Teck said. Local records show that Jews in Goniadz bought the cemetery property in 1782. Today, it stands as the only evidence of more than two centuries of Jewish life — and death — in the town.
Blejer manages two Facebook pages for Przerośl, plus a separate website dedicated to the cemetery restoration project, with the requisite donation button. The online presence has helped her connect with more than 500 people whose ancestors lived in Przerośl, she said.
The Foundation for Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, known by its acronym, FODZ, works to acquire Jewish communal properties such as synagogues and cemeteries in areas of Poland outside the major cities. Director Piotr Puchta brings together local officials and others to find appropriate uses for these often-abandoned spaces. Puchta succeeds when he can connect people and organizations with mutual goals, like the Matzevah Foundation and a town mayor. If they work together, the cemetery regains its dignity, and the mayor improves a section of town, maybe even drawing a tourist or two.
In Milejczyce, site of the new solar farm, Puchta was called on to find a way to return some 40 pieces of gravestones excavated from the hidden basement. FODZ owns the town cemetery, but because it is a historical monument, he first needed permission from the local curator. And then he needed a truck.
The work of restoring and protecting Jewish heritage in Europe spans fundraising, networking, negotiating and physical logistics. Puchta estimates that about 900 cemeteries remain to be restored in Poland alone. Time is not his friend.
In Search of Lost Cemeteries
In 2003, the family of Aharon Friedman contacted the Heritage Foundation for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries, also known as Avoyseinu. The New York-based nonprofit’s mission is to restore and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Europe, and Friedman had begun to wonder about the cemetery in Ukraine where his parents were buried.
Avoyseinu “sent a young man with a notebook” to Friedman’s home in Monsey, New York, said son-in-law Mechel Tauber.
The notebook was soon filled with detail, as Friedman recalled funerals during his childhood in the small town of Guklivoe, which then was in the former Czechoslovakia. “They carried the casket on a horse and buggy, through the village, up a mountain, across the train tracks, up another mountain, and somewhere up there was the cemetery,” Tauber said.
Soon after the interview, Friedman passed away, but Avoyseinu, using Friedman’s information and local records, found the cemetery, abandoned, and now engulfed by a weedy forest of evergreens.
Avoyseinu has restored at least 330 cemeteries since 2002, according to its website. Requests come from descendants. The organization identifies the site borders by consulting old records and maps, and by looking at fence foundations and corner landmarks.
“Tragically, it’s very, very often we find part of the cemetery has been used by a neighbor, or a road,” said Assistant Director Rifky Gelbman.
In those cases, she said, Avoyseinu enters into respectful negotiations. “It belongs to the people who are buried there, so whoever took it away needs to return it,” she said. Families sometimes compensate the users for loss of the land, but she is firm that “they are not buying it.”
There have been a few impossible situations, she said. An entire shopping center was built over a cemetery in Slovakia. In Ukraine, a gas station and a sports stadium have replaced Jewish cemeteries.
In Guklivoe (now Huklyvyi), the original estimate of 50 matzevot swelled as the land was cleared, until finally, 330 matzevot were found. Among the last discovered were those of Friedman’s father and grandfather.
When the call came, Taubman said, “We were all crying. … Who would ever dream that we would see them?”
The Taubman family story has a happy ending, with a cautionary footnote. Since the restoration, they have visited half a dozen times.
On the first visit, the mountains on either side of the cemetery were similarly cloaked with trees. Within a few years, both had been razed and replaced by fields of tomatoes, cucumbers and corn. Taubman believes that if they had not acted in time, the cemetery would have been plowed under.
“Some people don’t realize how much of a risk it is,” he said. “If you don’t save it, it’s going to be gone.”