A historic Serbian Jewish cemetery that for decades has been home to hundreds of Gypsies is getting a face lift after an agreement negotiated by the head of the tiny Jewish community in the town of Nis. The cemetery, which has been at the center of a dispute between local Jews and Gypsies, or Roma, will be renovated by 30 soldiers from the Serbian Army for six hours each Saturday and Sunday in coming weeks.
In addition, the Nis municipality, which is the formal owner of the cemetery, agreed to install a drainage system to alleviate serious sanitation problems surrounding the Roma settlement of 120 homes, some of which used tombstones in their construction.
Earlier this summer, tensions between Jews and Roma grew heated over whether the Gypsy village should be officially sanctioned by the municipality or whether the Roma ought to be removed from the cemetery site.
The new moves appear to be major steps toward resolving a dispute th! at has made headlines in recent weeks in Serbia and abroad.
“The project is increasingly becoming a truly civic endeavor, involving Serbian citizens of different ethnicities and backgrounds in a common effort to reclaim an important part of their patrimony,” Yechiel Bar Chaim, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country director for Serbia, told JTA.
Roma families have lived for decades in part of the cemetery they call the “Jewish Village.” They have built homes among the tombstones and used the rest of the cemetery as a dump.
Their presence, without proper plumbing or garbage disposal, long was ignored by the Nis muncipality and other authorities.
Over the years, industry encroached on the area, and the site also was used as dump for garbage and human waste. In addition, vandals have broken open tombs, scattering bones.
Earlier this summer, the JDC helped organize the clean-up program for the section of the cemetery not occupied by the es! timated 800 Roma.
Bar Chaim said visits by Belgrade Rabbi Yitzhak Asiel and others had “confirmed for all of us that it would be completely fanciful to think that the Roma settlement was going to be moved out of its part of the cemetery anytime soon.”
The JDC channeled $18,000 from a private donor, Alfred Bader of Milwaukee, for the project. Roma rights activist Paul Polansky, of the Kosova Roma Refugee Foundation, was enlisted to oversee the project, employing workers from the Roma community living on the site.
Bar Chaim called the clean-up efforts “Herculean.”
“Working up to 10 hours a day in the sweltering heat for the past three weeks, carting out 60 tons of indescribable refuse by wheelbarrow, is no mean task,” he said.
The project will continue for another four weeks, during which an additional 60 tons of refuse will be removed, he said.
Last week, Polansky estimated that there are 500 to 600 tombs in the open area now being cleaned. Asiel visited the cemetery last Friday and said the area was the oldest part of th! e cemetery, with some tombstones now visible dating back 400 years.
All but one of the Jews who lived in Nis before World War II were killed in the Holocaust, and only a few dozen Jews now live in town. Burials were performed at the sprawling cemetery until the beginning of World War II.
The cemetery was expropriated by the communist authorities in 1948, and burials were barred in 1965. Many survivors exhumed their dead and re-interred them in Belgrade.
After the tiny Jewish community was revived during the 1990s, however, community president Jasna Ciric made it a mission to press the muncipality for action on the cemetery.
She and Davor Salom, of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, met repeatedly with local and government officials.
Last December, Ciric wrote a passionate open letter saying the historic cemetery was in serious danger of destruction.
“The Jewish cemetery in Nis today cannot be seen, examined, or photographed,” she wrote! . “It is overgrown by grass, reeds and covered by tons of debris, excr ement and rubbish. The memorial stone tablets are overgrown by grass and weeds. The brush is some two meters high. The way it looks, the cemetery has become the sore spot of the town.”
Meanwhile, Ivan Ceresnjes, former president of the Jewish Community of Sarajevo and now a researcher at the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also urged that cemetery be protected because of its unique tombstones, which are decorated with unusual carvings.
“There are tombstones decorated with a different number of carved half-spheres, human-like figures, geometrical figures and snakes, making the cemetery rather unique among about 400 cemeteries I have documented,” Ceresnjes said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.