by Samuel D. Gruber
It has long been the custom for Jewish communities to hire non-Jews as custodians and maintenance workers at Jewish cemeteries. Under Communism, it was not uncommon for Jewish survivors and descendants to hire (often clandestinely) local people - often farmers- to look after Jewish cemeteries in communities where no Jew survived. The cemeteries were kept clean and secure and the custodian earned much needed cash. Over the past decades this type of arrangement has become more regularized, and many Jewish communities hire local people to regularly clean cemeteries - especially to cut weeds and other excess vegetation.
It is well known that when local (non-Jews) are involved in the care of the Jewish cemeteries the risk of vandalism decreases because the caretakers take a proprietary interest in the property, and in small towns they are likely to know anyone who trespasses. In the Czech Republic, in a small number of cases, the Federation of Jewish Communities has refurbished former caretakers' apartments situated at the edge of cemeteries, and these have been rented at reduced rates to part-time caretakers, as part of their compensation.
Another way that non-Jews have been increasingly involved in caring for Jewish cemeteries has been through the organization of occasional excursions to cemeteries by local school groups, civic groups, church groups and others. In the 1990s these cleaning projects were usually ad hoc and nearly spontaneous. More and more, however, they have been organized and the group not only do good work, but they receive instruction in the history of the Jewish community and the significance of the cemetery, and they are also taught best practices for cemetery care. There are now so many such programs - especially in Germany and Poland - that it is hard to keep track of them.
A few recent examples include secondary school students carrying out in May a second annual clean-up of the local Jewish cemetery in the German city of Lüdinghausen. As part of the project, the children received lessons about the fate of the city’s Jews during the Holocaust. Read the original article (in German).
In Poland, as I have previously reported, students of The Public Middle School No.2 in Dabrowa Tarnowska took the local Jewish cemetery under their care. Within the framework of 'To Bring Memory Back' program they regularly visit the cemetery, gather litter and clean up the matzevot.
On June19, 2009, the Foundation also signed an agreement
While some might find it uncomfortably ironic that prisoners will be used to clean cemeteries - many of which were originally pillaged by forced laborers during the Nazi occupation, the situations are not analogous. Instead, the agreement demonstrates that Jewish hertiage in Poland is increasingly included in a broad range of planning efforts for the protection and care of all national resources. It also demonstrates that those in the Jewish community in charged with the difficult task of maintaining an enormous portfolio of properties - especially of cemeteries - have to be even more creative in order to get the work done.