As a 13-year-old middle school student from Sydney, Australia, Michael Perl visited Hungary for the first time in 1984 with his Hungarian-born, Holocaust survivor father. They walked around Budapest’s sprawling Kozma Street Jewish cemetery, where Perl’s great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents and “many other relatives” are buried.
The grounds, says Perl, who moved to the United States 20 years ago and works as a portfolio manager, were in good shape. “It left a deep impression on me.”
Eight years ago, Perl went back to the cemetery again. Most of the 190-acre site was now overgrown with trees and above-ground roots and weeds, and the gravestones were covered with ivy; the area was largely impenetrable. “You could not walk in most of the sections. You had to jump over trees and under bushes.
“I decided that I wanted to do something” to improve the condition of the cemetery, Perl said one recent afternoon, sitting in an office of his investment firm in Midtown.
After spending a few years balancing the needs of his business with research on the basics of cemetery renovation, Perl, now 48, kept the promise he made to himself.
Working with Marc Pinter, a Swiss-born resident of Budapest who shares his interest in the city’s Jewish cemetery, Perl arranged for the project to begin in mid-October. A group of workers — including paid employees, altruistic volunteers and a small group of Hungarian prisoners who were grateful for the opportunity to work outside — began clearing the debris and overgrowth and cleaning the gravestones of one cemetery section, using tools donated by Germany’s Stihl power equipment manufacturing firm.
They finished in seven weeks, completing renovations in three sections, in which around 5,000 people are buried — about 4 percent of the area his project hopes to cover.
With a break now for the winter, during which work would be difficult, Perl is concentrating on fundraising for the Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery (budapestjewishcemetery.com), which he founded to coordinate his volunteer work. Renovations will resume in the spring.
Perl estimates that the entire project will take three to four years, and cost nearly $1 million.
As in other countries in the region that came into communist hands after World War II, the care of Jewish cemeteries fell to local Jewish communities, which typically lacked the expertise, funds or personnel to adequately maintain the grounds, or of local and national governments, which often lacked the interest.
“Centuries of Jewish settlement in Central and Eastern Europe were driven from memory,” according to the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative.
In recent decades, especially after the fall of Communism, many governments in former communist countries have supported the renovations of Jewish cemeteries and welcomed the work of Jews from abroad; repaired Jewish cemeteries bring both image benefits and tourists.
Considered an active cemetery, Perl’s project receives no funding from the government even though there is a a government effort to support abandoned cemeteries, mostly in the countryside.
His project receives the “100 percent cooperation” of leaders of Hungarian Jewry and with an estimated Jewish population of 100,000, mostly centered in Budapest, Hungary is home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities.
For many Jews in the United States and in other lands outside of Hungary, the condition of foreign cemeteries where their families are buried still strikes an emotional chord, Perl said. Recent news stories, which indicate this ongoing interest, have described an anonymous donor restoring a small Jewish cemetery in Poland, a group of young Belgians and Germans working on a large Jewish cemetery in France and a Southern Baptist minister from Texas trimming weeds at a Jewish cemetery in Ukraine.
The International Jewish Cemetery Project, under the aegis of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, lists thousands of Jewish burial sites in two dozen Eastern European lands, from Albania to Ukraine.
While these cemeteries have largely become the concern of such organizations as the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, a wide range of American Jews, including a Manhattan journalist, a Manhattan retiree and a Westchester orthodontist have assumed responsibility for the upkeep of specific cemeteries in communities in Eastern and Central Europe where their ancestors are buried.
In recent decades, many members of the U.S. Jewish community have embarked on similar projects to repair cemeteries throughout Eastern and Central Europe, but Perl’s is by far the most ambitious. Budapest’s main Jewish cemetery, established in 1891 and a 20-minute drive from the center of the city, is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world, with some 300,000 graves.
Perl’s cemetery project is not supported by the government, Perl says, but according to the press department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, nearly 50 Jewish cemeteries do get funding. The Hungarian Jewish Heritage Foundation last year received nearly $1.7 million from the government, a ministry spokesman said in an email.
As part of his cemetery project, which includes genealogical research for people whose relatives are interred in the cemetery, Perl is coordinating the training of guides who will take school groups and other visitors through the renovated grounds, the construction of a visitors’ center there, and the development of education materials about Hungarian Jewry.
While visits to death camp sites are a standard part of many high school students’ education in Poland and Germany, Perl calls the Budapest Jewish cemetery, in a cultural sense, “the opposite of Auschwitz.” Visits there, he said, will highlight national pride, presenting Jews as proud, fully integrated members of Hungarian society, represented by the prominent artists and journalists, actors and Olympic athletes who are buried there.
Perl’s cemetery project is supported by the government, according to the press department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, one of nearly 50 Jewish cemeteries that get funding. The Hungarian Jewish Heritage Foundation last year received nearly $1.7 million from the government, a ministry spokesman said in an email.
“There is a strong political intention to continue” the cemetery funding. “By 2020 HUF 1 billion [Hungarian forints, equal to $3.5 million] is to be included in the central budget,” the spokesman said.
Eventually, Perl says, all the gravestones and mausoleums in Budapest cemetery will be repaired, and the entire area will be accessible. “If we don’t step in now, the cemetery will be destroyed within a generation. You won’t be able to get in. We want everyone to be able to walk freely amongst the stones.”
Perl took his 13-year-old son to Hungary — and naturally, the cemetery — this summer.
His project, he says, is designed to make such cemetery visits possible for future 13-year-olds. “And for the 30-year-old,” he adds. “It’s Jewish continuity.”
Further information about the Budapest Jewish cemetery is available here.