Euroasian Jewish News
Nonprofit uncovers lost Jewish cemeteries to preserve heritage
Philip Decter is a descendant of Jewish immigrants who left Ukraine for the United States in the early 20th century.
This summer, the 52-year-old Bostonian made his first trip to Ukraine, along with his wife and son.
In the century that has passed since Decter’s family left what was then the Russian Empire, two world wars and more than 70 years of Soviet rule have decimated the country’s Jewish community and swept away much of the world in which Decter’s ancestors lived.
What remains is an old, neglected Jewish cemetery in Troyanivka, a remote village of 900 people 400 kilometers northwest of Kyiv.
Decter liked Troyanivka’s “beautiful farmland,” but the conditions of the cemetery where his great-great-grandmother is buried saddened him. Most of the gravestones, called matsevas, were either gone or have sunk down into the earth.
Despite the decay, Decter was glad to have a chance to see it. Now, he’s just hoping he can do something to preserve it.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many Jewish families fled anti-Semitism and poverty in Eastern Europe, seeking greener pastures in the West.
Many of those who stayed behind were massacred in the Holocaust. Thus, many Jewish communities disappeared from what are now post-Soviet countries.
In many cases, an abandoned cemetery in a remote Slavic village may be the last remaining trace of these communities. And the majority of these cemeteries are rapidly decaying due to neglect.
There’s one nonprofit, however, that helps recover and rehabilitate Jewish burial sites like these. Called the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, or ESJF for short, this nonprofit puts together a database with GPS coordinates, aerial photos, maps, and 3D models of all the Jewish cemeteries it can find in Eastern Europe. ESJF hopes to save the historical sites from dereliction and help people around the world learn more about their roots.
The precise coordinates ESJF provided on their website allowed Decter to find the half-derelict cemetery in Troyanivka, in the middle of the woods.
“I was shocked,” Decter says. “This is not a big place, Troyanivka, not a tourist center at all. They had done the legwork and had identified the spot.
And so it was very easy for someone like myself to go and find it.”
In Jewish historiography, Ukraine has not traditionally been regarded as a place hospitable to Jews. But due to Eastern Europe’s changing borders, many Jewish communities wound up in what is today modern Ukraine.
In the 18th century, many Jews moved from the Russian Empire to the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth seeking a better life. That country “tolerated” Jews better than Russia, ESJF chief historian Kate Malakhova says.
Then, at the end of the 18th century, in the Third Partition of Poland, Russia annexed a large chunk of the Commonwealth’s territories — including “a million Jews in addition,” Malakhova says. Much of that territory is now a part of western Ukraine.
Russia restricted Jews to living in the western part of its empire, a zone known as the Pale of Settlement. Very few Jews lived outside this area.
In the 19th century, the Russian Empire began undertaking population censuses. In the Pale of Settlement, Jews often made up 20 to 80 percent of the population of towns, which made them the third most populous ethnic group on these territories after Poles and Ukrainians.
What is today modern Ukraine was home to around 1,000 Jewish communities with at least 80–100 members, according to ESJF estimates. Each of these communities most certainly had a cemetery, because Jewish tradition dictates that the deceased should be buried as soon as possible, often the same day that he or she dies.
“It would have been impossible for a community of 80–100 people to live in one place and have a cemetery 100 kilometers away,” Malakhova says.
Seeking Jewish heritage
But locating such a cemetery takes a lot of work.
The search starts in the ESJF Kyiv office, where Malakhova looks into already existing databases and reads memoirs of Jewish communities. Then, she makes an educated guess of where the Jewish cemetery might lie.
After that, she types in the likely coordinates and creates tasks for research groups, which go out into the field to take photos with drones, correct coordinates, and interview locals. Eight out of ESJF’s 25 staffers do this job.
ESJF carries out its research in an mobile app which it developed itself. A staff editor then edits the information and publishes everything on the ESJF website, where it becomes available to all.
ESJF is not the only organization maintaining a database of Jewish cemeteries. The nonprofit actively uses at least seven other such databases, including those created by the U. S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, the Lo Tishkach organization, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
But Malakhova says these databases are all “shallow” and “full of mistakes.” In many cases, they have only one or two sentences of information about a cemetery and its locality. The historian thinks this is because they worked only with paper documents and didn’t use tech tools.
Nevertheless, ESJF takes that information and expands it by 25 to 50 percent. Sometimes the organization even finds previously undocumented cemeteries.
Many Jews migrated from Eastern Europe in the 1920–1930s, before World War II. As they settled in America and other countries, they formed communities and started keeping memorial books in which they recorded memories of their home villages.
“People had left a town before the war and then they tried to recollect what was there: their grandfather’s and the rabbi’s houses, the synagogue, and the river where they used to swim as children,” Malahkova says. “They drew horses, little humans — whatever they could.”
But apart from that, they drew maps. ESJF now studies them to see where a village and, consequently, a cemetery might be located.
Malakhova says that nobody had done that before ESJF. One of the reasons was that memoir maps were not easily available on the internet.
The historian seems overjoyed every time she shows off photographs from a cemetery that was previously not included in any database — especially when ESJF find gravestones with inscriptions.
“Gravestones have a large historical meaning. Cemeteries with them are high priority places,” she says. “Every time we find one of these, I feel we have done our job well.”
Malakhova takes pride in her work. She believes she is recovering information about something largely forgotten and helping those who care about it.
“When all the people died and nothing can be found in the archives, the names and numbers on the rocks remain the only things that we know about these people,” Malakhova says.
And the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, seems to agree with her. It has given ESJF 800,000 euros to cover the tech side of the research and pay salaries. The nonprofit, in turn, promised to find 1,500 Jewish cemeteries across five Eastern European countries: Slovakia, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine and Greece too. Two-thirds of them are in Ukraine.
Still, the task is so overwhelming that, for Malakhova, it is like attempting to restore the legendary submerged continent of Atlantis.
“Our Atlantis, so to speak, went down,” she says. “Now we are trying to fish at least some information out and preserve it.”
Protecting the dead
After ESJF finds a cemetery, it takes an extra step to protect it.
When a research team arrives at a site, it launches two drones into the sky above and takes aerial photos. Later, the organization puts the photos together to make 3D models of burial sites. This allows ESJF to see precisely how the place looks and also to make a diagram for those who want to invest in constructing a fence around the cemetery.
“It gives an idea of how a fence will look when it’s built,” ESJF project manager Alexander Bessarab says.
And while ESJF does not build anything, the organization documents Jewish cemeteries and connects those willing to invest in protecting them with a construction firm.
A simple fence shows that somebody cares about these cemeteries, which are “important heritage of the Jewish people,” and thus saves them from vandalism, according to Bessarab.
“Many cemeteries ‘died’ because locals took away gravestones to build sheds, steps for a staircase, footpaths and even schools,” he says. “These people are either extremely ignorant or they just didn’t care. Or both.”
If there are no donors like Philip Decter who contact ESJF to inquire about erecting a fence, the nonprofit just puts these cemeteries on the map and indicates that they are not protected.
Having seen where his great-great-grandmother is buried, Decter plans to return to Ukraine with his family next spring. He wants to put some fencing around the cemetery in Troyanivka village, do some cleaning there, and have a “rededication.”
His trip helped him understand that he can reconnect with the history of his ancestors. Now that he has done it once, he hopes others in his family in the U.S. may also want to visit Ukraine and see Troyanivka.
“I think that the challenge for American Jews from Eastern Europe is that the Holocaust is a bit of a black hole. It is very hard to look at it because of the level of trauma and pain that’s there,” Decter says. “And so getting to go to Ukraine was like putting a little light in that black hole.”
By Denys Krasnikov.