Jewish Cemeteries: Desecration and Cultural Genocide

When Jewish cemeteries are vandalised and destroyed, it is an attack at the very heart of Jewish communities.

Authored by Caroline Sturdy Colls

The heart of the community

In Jewish culture, cemeteries lie at the very heart of the community and they are known as the House of the Living due to the belief that the soul of a person is bound to their grave. Due to these beliefs, graves (and the ground above them) should not be disturbed after burial and the maintenance of cemeteries is considered to be the responsibility of all Jewish communities.

Therefore, when Jewish cemeteries are vandalised and destroyed, Jews believe this disturbs the souls of the people buried there. Damage inflicted onto matzevot (tombstones) also serves to defile the dead and often erases their names and memorials.

The Importance of a Jewish Cemetery
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Even if visiting was/is possible, if matzevot have been removed from their original location it means that visitors to cemeteries will be unaware of where their loved ones’ bodies are buried.

Bullet holes on a matzevah in Tomaszów Lubelski Jewish cemetery, Poland (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)When matzevot are reused and cemeteries put to other uses, this desecrates sacred ground. These actions often mean that Jewish communities are unable to engage in important customs like visiting the cemeteries to commemorate their ancestors.

Likewise, these acts of desecration often prohibit further burials from taking place within the cemetery grounds, thus preventing individuals from receiving traditional burial rites.

The overgrown Jewish Cemetery in Zator, Poland in 2016 (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

An act of defilement

During the Holocaust, all of these acts were carried out in an attempt to erase Jewish culture. To further humiliate and defile Jewish communities, the Nazis also often made Jews take part in the breaking up and reuse of matzevot – including making them undertake forced labour repairing roads, pavements and structures, for example, the tombstones as construction materials. Under the Soviet regime, Jewish cemeteries were also vandalised and put to alternative uses.

Matzevot that had been used to build a pavement were recovered in Lviv in June 2018 by the Lviv Volunteer Center and Rohatyn Jewish Heritage (© Marla Raucher Osborn)

In some cases, Jewish cemeteries were used as killing and burial sites by the Nazis. These sites became suitable body disposal sites because:

(1) Jewish cemeteries were often on the outskirts of towns and villages and so they were clandestine areas in which mass violence and burials could go undetected

(2) Access to the cemeteries had been prohibited as part of anti-Jewish measures

(3) The desecration of the cemetery that proceeded the killings usually involved the clearing of large areas of land

Most often it was Jewish victims who were buried in these graves but, in some cases, non-Jews were buried there as well. These acts were also another way to defile the Jewish community and they show the evolution of cultural genocide into mass violence and physical genocide.

Most of these mass graves remain unmarked in Jewish cemeteries across Europe.

Members of the “Recording Cultural Genocide and Killing Sites in Jewish Cemeteries” team reburying human remains found near a mass grave in Piaski new Jewish cemetery. The bones had been unearthed by looters (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

Continued neglect

Jewish cemeteries continue to be neglected and vandalised all over the world. This situation serves to further deepen the effects of the cultural genocide perpetrated in the past and reflects ongoing anti-Semitism in the present.

Vandalism at Herrlisheim Jewish cemetery near Strasbourg, France in December 2018 (© Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

Recognising the importance of Jewish cemeteries in Jewish culture, and suggesting that the destruction of cultural sites such as these can allow us to understand the causes and consequences of racial hatred in the past, present and future, the “Recording Cultural Genocide and Killing Sites in Jewish Cemeteries” project has sought to use a novel interdisciplinary approach to researching, documenting and restoring these sites. We also try to tackle racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the present through our education programmes.

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