It is a great honour and privilege for me to be invited here to this important interdisciplinary conference on European Jewish cemeteries, and we hope that some great achievements will come out from this conference, building on and following the successful conference held in Cracow two years ago.

This session is a discussion on "the value of a Jewish Cemetery", and to introduce you to the proper understanding of the value of Jewish cemeteries, for which I am sure many good speakers during this conference, will be able to enlighten you with their expertise, I am standing here before you as an emissary from the esteemed Grand Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger and his Rabbinical Board, to explain this matter from the perspective of Halacha-Jewish Law and Tradition.

Whilst the belief in life after death is common to many religions, its significance in the Jewish religion as taught by our great Sages is quite different to that of other faiths.

In other religions belief, the burial is merely a mark of respect for the memory of the deceased and the respect shown to a cemetery is in the nature of a memorial to those interred there, with the tombstones being of principal importance as they serve this purpose of memorial to the deceased, recording their lives and their achievements.

This common belief caused us much difficulty during the first years of our sacred work in protecting and preserving Jewish cemeteries in the destroyed European Jewish communities. The authorities could not understand our concerns, as the gravestones had been removed and no sign of the graves existed. They would argue that the cemetery no longer existed, referring to it as the site of a ‘former cemetery’.

Our traditional Jewish concept of a cemetery is quite different. The connection between the soul and the human body after death is an essential aspect of our belief in the eternity of the soul. The soul suffers when a grave is disturbed or even when disrespect is shown to what appear to us to be merely dry bones. The soul and spirit can only be at rest if the physical body in which they were located is at rest in the grave it acquired during its lifetime or which was allocated for it after death.

This belief is the basis for a different attitude to the respect and protection of graves in Jewish law and tradition. It is superfluous to say that cremation is forbidden in Jewish law, but even the removal of one single bone from its place of rest is strictly forbidden, as it would cause deep pain to the soul and spirit of the deceased. The carrying out of tests or investigations on human bones is of course also strictly forbidden.

It is not the external appearance of a cemetery that is its essential aspect; it is the guarantee of total peace for those interred there that is significant. The existence of tombstones or the lack of them is not the important point – what is essential is the assurance that the human remains within the graves are undisturbed. As long as any human remains are present, the cemetery’s status is maintained, whether or not the tombstones remain there.

It is the sacred responsibility of every Jew to preserve Jewish cemeteries. A Jewish cemetery is referred to in our tradition as a ‘House of Life’ and its sanctity is eternal. A ‘Memorial’ of any sort cannot replace the existence of a Jewish cemetery in its entirety. The idea of a memorial statue or monument has no basis in Jewish tradition. The above also explains the obligation to ensure that burial takes place at the earliest possible opportunity, so that the soul should be at rest.

As a connection is maintained between the soul and the body after death, there are particularly occasions or times of year when the soul visits the grave, such as the anniversary of death, the eve of the New Moon and when people come to pray at the grave. The physical body with which the soul fulfilled its religious obligations in this world has attained a level of sanctity and the body of a saintly person will naturally have acquired an even greater level of sanctity, resulting in the gravesite being a suitable place for prayer and seeking Divine assistance. The soul enjoys serving as a messenger to convey these prayers to G-d and a Jewish cemetery has the sanctity of a Synagogue.

Jewish Law dictates that the earth with which the grave is covered belongs to the deceased and no earth that covers the grave may be moved, as this would cause distress to the deceased and would be considered as being stolen from him/her.

All the above is more easily understood and appreciated in the light of our firm belief, which we are obliged to accept, that all those of the dead who are worthy, will come to life again at some point in the future. They will be revived and live again in the body and form in which they lived at the end of their lives and will then be cured by G-d from any ailments etc. Even if the bones of the deceased have been scattered, G-d forbid, they will be gathered together and skin and flesh will form on them as they come to life, as described by our Prophets in the reading of the Pesach festival. One who does not believe in this basic tenet of faith has excluded himself from the Community of Israel.

There is a special obligation to bury the body of a person who has nobody to ensure their burial. This obligation overrides many other obligations and even the High Priest who may not come into contact even with the dead body of his own close relatives, is obliged to involve himself with the burial of someone who has nobody to ensure his/her burial. Bones from Jewish graves that are found exposed or scattered or graves that have been opened or disturbed, fall within this category.

The above points indicate the seriousness of our obligation to ensure the protection and preservation of Jewish graves, wherever they may be located. In the same way, we are assured that the souls of the deceased are indebted to those who act for the protection of their graves and intercede on their behalf in the higher worlds.     

The destruction of Central and European Jewish Communities during the Holocaust has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Jewish graves in cemeteries across Europe, dating back over 800 years, being destroyed or abandoned. In the aftermath of World War Two, even those European Jews privileged to survive, rarely had the means to ensure the protection of ancestral graves in the deserted towns and villages, which had been their homes for hundreds of years.

Following WWII, non-democratic, totalitarian regimes in power in many European countries, frequently sadly disregarded and abused the  designated resting places purchased by, and for, the Jewish dead.

During this period, hundreds of European Jewish cemeteries were expropriated by national and local governments as well as by local individuals, ignoring their sacred nature and the fact that they were legally acquired by the Jews interred there, whose descendants cared for the graves until they themselves were murdered, often in the cemeteries, by the Nazis. The fact that in most cases, no tombstones remain, in no way affects their sacred status and the everlasting rights of ownership of the Jewish Community, and its responsibility for their upkeep.

To understand our duty and task we have in properly looking after and preserving these cemeteries, let me give you a short insight into the day to day challenges we face where mostly the problem arises through lack of proper knowledge of the existence of the cemeteries.

  • It is well known fact that nearly all cemeteries were always out of town or at least at the outskirts of the town, these areas today are becoming more and more centre town through the expansion of the city boundaries and in many cases are now prime locations for development.
  • Also these cemeteries are now in non-Jewish ownership or private ownership.
  • Very careful and responsible negotiations need to be held to explain the sensitivity of the issue of  and the Halachic requirements to preserve and maintain.
  • Another very important issue is the need to make the public aware of individuals who although they have good intentions, but when it comes to building fences and establishing boundaries, this cannot be done by individuals, and special care has to be given in establishing these boundaries and building the fence it should be done and supervised only by the official body who have the expertise and understanding, and is backed by all the leading rabbinical figures worldwide.
  • The problems with mass graves, it is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more news is coming about these mass graves and especially where Government backed research is taking place.
  • The CPJCE take special care to involve the local Jewish communities who deserve to be involved and have the responsibility over the cemeteries in their areas, this has worked very successfully in Spain, Prague, Romania, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and last but not least here in where we have excellent cooperation with the Government through the dedication and personal involvement of Mrs. Faina Kukliansky and her devoted staff, which has resulted in a special working group in close co-operation with the Government to give proper protection to over 200 cemeteries and hundreds of mass graves in Lithuania.
  • The CPJCE is the organisation who work tirelessly and solely on the field of preserving and maintaining  and have the expertise both legally, physically and with the guidance of our Rabbinical Board, and should be consulted whenever a problem arises.

Naturally, the responsibility lies with the local Jewish Communities, and until WWII they were the sole body caring for the cemeteries according to Jewish Law and Tradition.

Unfortunately, after the Holocaust, these thousands of cemeteries all over Europe were left with no active thriving Jewish Communities to care for them and those communities now re-establishing themselves all over Europe are dependent on the full co-operation of local, regional and national authorities.

Another very important issue is the recent discovery of hundreds of Mass Graves across Europe, and most worrying are the voices calling for forensic and scientific investigation into their deaths, which would involve intrusive examination. This is an issue causing renewed pain to hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide, most notably to Holocaust survivors, who are concerned that the unfortunate men, women and children who were brutally tortured, should be left to rest in peace for eternity.

Past experience has shown that through direct communication with local, regional and national authorities, we can achieve an understanding of our concerns and reach satisfactory solutions ensuring that the requirements of Jewish law and tradition are met.

We are pleased to say that the consensus amongst local and National Governments across Europe is steadily rising and improving, and there is a general understanding to preserve these cemeteries and mass graves, and we are most grateful for the Council of Europe who have this March passed a resolution on the protection of Jewish cemeteries and shouldering the responsibity  on the local authorities.

In their resolution, The COE calls on local Authorities to engage in dialogue with heritage preservation associations and the representatives of Jewish communities, to draw on the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (“Faro Convention”)

The COE has always defended the right to freedom of religion and religious expression.

The protection of human dignity and the preservation of the deceased in a manner compatible with their religion is an important part of this freedom. Local and regional authorities have a role to play in the protection, preservation, management and maintenance of these burial sites because they are also part of our history.