(ISJM) In recent years there has been an apparent increase in the number of efforts to identify and recover Jewish gravestones (matzevot) that were previously removed from cemeteries for use as building materials. In the former Soviet Union, stones were removed as early as the 1920s and sometimes used to construct the base of monuments to Lenin, or for other commemorative structures. More stones were removed during the Holocaust and used by Germans for paving roads (Radom, Poland) and courtyards (Kazimierz Dolny, Poland; Kremenets, Ukraine). Others were apparently taken by private individuals and used for farm buildings and others types of construction.
Toppled Communist monument built using Jewish gravestone fragment, recovered from the town dump in Samorin, Slovakia (photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2009)
The reasons for recent recoveries are mixed. From the Jewish perspective, there is more awareness and interest in the fate of these stones, and better local and national Jewish organization to respond when they are discovered, and to demand their return. On the public side, there is now a greater awareness among local governments and national monument authorities about the significance of these stones, and also a greater willingness to cooperate with Jewish groups when stones are uncovered. Most important, greater investment and activity in renewing infrastructure - particularly the repair and replacement of old roads - has led to a increase in the discovery of these stolen gravestones. Fro the most part, local authorities have been willing to contribute to the cost of the removal, repair and replacement of these stones when they are found in the course of municipal work or other government sponsored works. Unfortunately, private property owners have been less cooperative when gravestones have been identified in their buildings or on their properties. Though the situations vary, private owners are very likely to negotiate - essentially hold stones for ransom - demanding outright payment for the stones, or requesting payment for "removal and replacement" costs (such as the repaving of a courtyard or the rebuilding of a stairway). When these costs have been modest, many Jewish groups have paid these costs - finding payment cheaper and easier than a protracted and possibly litigated dispute.
It is time, however, for more consistent and transparent policies to be put in force to assist in the identification, recovery and care of these stolen stones. ISJM will soon put forth proposals and guidelines addressing this topic. As a sign of progress in this area, the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland announced that on April 7, 2009:
a meeting took place in Inowroclaw (kujawsko-pomorskie province) between the representatives of the Foundation… local authorities and the regional Monument Conservator. The parties discussed the matter of the matzevot used in the past to reinforce the pavements in Inowroclaw. A commission was created to inventarize the locations of the tombstones, then to remove and secure them. In near future they will be transported back to the 'new' Jewish cemetery in the town (located between the communal and Catholic cemeteries). They probably will become part of the lapidarium.