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Around the Jewish World Orthodox Preservation Group Protects Europe’s Jewish Graves

November 30, 2006
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Six years ago, angry men in long black coats and wide-brimmed black hats protested the impending fate of a medieval cemetery in Prague. These self-appointed protectors were Orthodox Jews from Europe, Israel and the United States who infuriated the Czech insurance company that sought to build its headquarters atop Jewish graves discovered on Vladislovava Street.

They questioned Czech Chief Rabbi Karel Sidon’s authority as he sought to work out a compromise, accused local officials of desecrating the dead, railed at the archaeologists who dug up Jewish remains and earned the ire of the Czech state, which ultimately paid $1.2 million to build a sarcophagus for the remaining graves and made the site a protected national monument.

Among the loudest Orthodox voices heard during the two-year cemetery fracas were those of the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe. They were determined to enforce Jewish law, or halachah, which requires that the dead not be disturbed.

Perceived by some secular Jews at the time as meddling zealots, the committee nonetheless made a name for itself in the field of halachic preservation. Now, local Jewish communities as well as governments turn to the committee to avoid being labeled as violators of Jewish heritage.

“We get Jews and non-Jews from all over asking what’s the right way to build a fence or protect a grave,” said Rabbi Abraham Ginsberg, the committee’s executive director. “We tell them we are here to offer solutions, not to cause problems.”

The committee was back in Prague this month thanks to the discovery of a 15th-century Jewish cemetery in Pilsen, some 60 miles west of the Czech capital. Construction of a 450-car parking lot is set to begin on the site in the spring.

When a Pilsen researcher told the Czech press he thought a cemetery was located on the site, the Pilsen Jewish community, Sidon, archaeologists and the Israeli-owned construction company consulted the committee.

After a few weeks it was determined that the 50 or so graves in the corner of the site would probably best be protected by building the parking lot on stilts. Preparations for excavation began Monday under the supervision of a specialist from the committee.

“Every site is different depending on the terrain, the building materials and what can be done practically to leave the graves undisturbed,” Ginsberg explained.

To determine grave locations, the committee uses divining sticks, archival documents and the input of cartographers, geologists and archaeologists.

The committee recently was given an official consulting role with the Council of European Rabbis, the umbrella group of chief rabbis of European countries. The committee has a staff of 25 volunteers and an eight-member rabbinical board that collaborates with halachic scholars worldwide.

Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich explained that because of the committee’s well-publicized demands, “there is now a much greater understanding in the Jewish and non-Jewish world of the importance of cemetery preservation. They have also gotten better over time at articulating the halachic position.”

Sam Gruber, research director of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, said he is not always comfortable with the committee’s tactics but feels its work is invaluable, as thousands of cemeteries in Europe are at risk of permanent decay.

“Sometimes in the past they have been too quick to be confrontational with both other Jews and with local authorities,” he said. “But at the same time I agree that sometimes to get results one has to be confrontational and be dramatic.”

Privately, several rabbis said they had learned from Sidon’s experience, which taught them to always consult the committee on disputes over cemetery land that a government or builder is seeking to develop, so that group members don’t read about it in the newspaper and stage a reaction.

The committee’s credibility is closely linked to that of its chief, Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, an octogenarian who has spent decades studying the preservation of Jewish graves in Israel and Europe.

Schlesinger founded the committee 16 years ago as a response to city authorities who were set to destroy Jewish graves in Hamburg, Germany, to make way for a shopping center.

“When we showed up on the site and refused to be moved, things changed,” Ginsberg said. “Can you imagine the world reaction to photos of German police dragging away white-bearded Jews?”

But it’s in the former Eastern Bloc that the committee has become most active.

Communist regimes regularly destroyed Jewish cemeteries to make way for construction. As capitalism has taken hold in the region and the pace of construction has picked up, Jewish graves have been uncovered at a remarkable rate.

The committee knows it must not come across as inflexible or as an enemy of development in a region long afflicted by poverty.

“In Lvov, Poland, we recently came up with a solution for a Norwegian firm that actually saved them money: They planned to spend about a million dollars, and our idea for grave protection cost $120,000,” Ginsberg said.

But stopping development altogether is usually not an option.

“If you couldn’t build on graves at all, there would probably be no houses in Israel,” Ginsberg said.

The committee is working on numerous projects in Europe, particularly in Ukraine and Poland, where years of neglect have put graves at risk of exposure. The committee also has teamed up with a French Catholic priest to protect and mark mass graves in Ukraine.

Ginsberg said the committee, which last year had a budget of $200,000, is funded mostly by Orthodox Jews in Europe.

But the day when city and town authorities agree to all of the committee’s demands is a long way off.

Currently there is tension over a site in Vilnius, Lithuania, slated for private development. The committee insists the development will disrupt remains it says are buried there.

In response to queries about the dispute, an assistant to Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas wrote to JTA that there was no Jewish cemetery where the city would be considering any development. He said there are “some questionable statements from some Jewish groups” about the site where a cemetery could exist some 200 years ago.

“I’d also like to make it very clear that [the] Lithuanian Jewish community doesn’t see any problems with this area at all, as it’s not clear where exactly the cemetery was,” Zuokas wrote.

The mayor’s office plans to involve the committee in deliberations over the development, and Ginsberg plans to give the mayor an earful.

“That e-mail from Vilnius to you is a complete lie,” he said. “We have proof of the cemetery, and if it goes like this, there’s going to be a big problem.”

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