AFP reported on April 4, 2011 the following story of the reburial in the Jewish cemetery of Iasi, Romania, of the remains of about 40 Jewish Holocaust victims. The reburial is significant for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the victims were the first found in a mass grave in Romania since 1945 - despite the widespread belief that many such graves exist. Romania's long-standing official reluctance about pursuing Holocaust history is well known.
Elsewhere in Europe more concerted efforts are in progress to identify such graves - but these efforts, too, are often hampered by mixed local sensibilities about confronting the past and priorities about the future.
The second issue involves how to treat such graves when found. Many observant Jews prefer, and many insist, that graves be undisturbed, but marked and in some way consecrated and protected; in essence making every mass grave a Jewish cemetery. This follows Jewish law and tradition, and does not "disturb the dead."
On the other hand there are many who insist and require - for legal and historical reasons - that such graves when found be investigated, which usually mean the exhumation of the dead in order to try to describe the crime and identify the victims. Sometimes this is required to ascertain the fact that the victims were in fact Jews - or all Jews - something that in many cases, however, can never be fully known. A new field of forensic anthropology has developed in recent years specializing in such work - the result of horrific crimes in countries around the world. Following this scenario, Jewish communities usually prefer to see the exhumed remains reburied in Jewish cemeteries with other Jews in already consecrated ground, though for some Orthodox Jews the fear of interring a non-Jew in a Jewish cemetery is also a concern. Historical markers recounting the circumstances of their murders can still be placed at the mass grave site. The speed with which investigation and reburial is carried out can also become a contentious issue.
In Jewish history there are many precedents for the removal and reburial of human remains in order to protect them from destruction or to reunite them. Usually such removals and reburials follow prescribed procedures under rabbinic supervision, but truthfully, most of these are of fairly recent invention. How bodies were dealt with in the past in times of oppression and duress, and in times of communal recovery, is not fully known.
One thing that all sides agree on - is that graves of the dead need to marked in some way. Historians and archaeologists want the events of the past to be remembered. Observant Jews want to respect the dead, and also provided a warning to those (such as Cohanim) who cannot come in contact with the dead.
Dozens of Holocaust victims laid to rest in Romania
by: Isabelle Wesselingh
Rabbis from Britain and the United States bury on April 4, 2011 in the town of Iasi, 410 kms north of Bucharest, some 40 Jews killed during the Holocaust and found in November 2010 in a mass grave in the northeastern Romanian village of Popricani.
The remains of about 40 Jews killed during the Holocaust and found in a mass grave were laid to rest Monday in an emotion-filled ceremony in northeastern Romania. Five rabbis from Britain and the United States performed the funeral service under a grey and cloudy sky. Dressed in black, they carried the remains, unidentified and contained in paper bags and cardboard boxes, and put them into a single grave in the Jewish cemetery of Iasi, overlooking the city. "We have come here to help these people rest in peace. We believe it is God's will", British rabbi Meir Twersky, whose grand-parents are buried in Iasi cemetery, told AFP. "We are gathered here today to remember these men, women and children who were brutally murdered in a forest in 1941 (...) only because they were Jews", Israel's ambassador to Romania, Dan Ben-Eliezer, said during the official ceremony.
According to the Elie Wiesel National Institute, the victims were killed in the summer of 1941 at Popricani, close to Iasi, by the Romanian army, an ally of the Nazis during World War II. They were among more than 15,000 Jews killed in Iasi during pogroms in 1941. A Romanian historian, Adrian Cioflanca, found the site thanks to the testimonies of Romanians who had witnessed the killings. "We will continue the historical research in order to try to determine where the victims came from, whether it was from Iasi or the surrounding villages", the director of the Elie Wiesel Institute, Alexandru Florian, told AFP.
The exact number of victims, including women and children, has not been determined, but Cioflanca told AFP, "We found the skulls of at least 35 people but there were other body parts so we can talk about at least 40 people." The victims were buried just a few metres (yards) away from thousands more Jews killed during the pogroms. "I ask the forgiveness of the deceased for the suffering that has been brought to their holy bones", rabbi Meir Schlesinger said, referring to the belief that the remains should have been left where they were originally found. But Abraham Ghiltman, the president of the Iasi Jewish community, said it was a "relief" to see "those whose memory was forgotten" to be lying next to their fellow citizens in the Jewish cemetery. "We hope that the events we witnessed during the Holocaust will never happen again, neither in Romania nor in the rest of the world", he added.
According to an international commission of historians led by Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, himself a Romanian-born Jew, between 280,000 and 380,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews were killed in territories run by the pro-Nazi Romanian regime during 1940-1944. The Popricani mass grave is the first to be discovered since 1945, when 311 corpses were exhumed from three locations in Stanca Roznovanu, close to Iasi, according to the Wiesel Institute.