The ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative is a German-based NGO active in Central and Eastern Europe. Founded in 2015, in recognition of the thousands of Jewish cemeteries in Europe that lay neglected and threatened, the ESJF began surveying and fencing Jewish cemeteries with funding from the Federal Republic of Germany. To date, it has protected almost 200 sites in seven countries across Central and Eastern Europe.
Before World War II, more than seven million Jews lived in Central and Eastern Europe. Jews inhabited these towns and villages for centuries. Across the continent, Jewish burial sites provided direct physical evidence of this presence. Eighty years on, all trace of many of these cemeteries has been lost. They lie overgrown and unprotected – the result of the annihilation of their communities in the Holocaust. Centuries of Jewish settlement in Central and Eastern Europe have been erased from memory, as well as the artefacts bearing witness to that lineage.
The ESJF project has begun the process of physically protecting Jewish burial sites across Europe, particularly in places where Jewish communities were wiped out in the Holocaust. Moreover, it has identified resources, limitations, costs, and general practical models in order to provide the prototype for a sustainable, efficient long-term project, with the core objective of protecting and preserving every Jewish cemetery in Europe.
In November 2018, the ESJF received support from the European Union for a mass survey project of Jewish burial sites using cutting-edge drone technology. By June 2020, it will have surveyed at least 1,500 cemeteries in five countries (Greece, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, and Ukraine). The ESJF website hosts a database of the surveyed sites in these countries, with photos, maps, and descriptions to make information on Jewish cemeteries in Europe public and accessible to all.
Following on from the success of this initial pilot scheme, further funding was granted in December 2019 for a second project, entitled “Protecting the Jewish cemeteries of Europe: Continuation of the mapping process, stakeholders’ involvement and awareness raising”. Taking place between December 15th 2019 and June 15th 2021, this project will be carried out as a consortium, bringing together the renowned international Jewish education NGO Centropa, as well as the UK-based non-profit the Foundation for Jewish Heritage (FJH), who will lend their considerable expertise in education and architectural preservation to help achieve the project’s goals over the coming 18 months.
As with the initial pilot scheme, this new project involves the mapping of survey sites with the intention of compiling a comprehensive, open-source database of all Jewish cemeteries in Central and Eastern Europe, which will be stored on this site. By expanding the geographical scope of the work to seven countries (Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine), the ESJF aims to survey 1,700 cemeteries, using cutting-edge drone technology to create 3D models of the sites which can then be used in protective construction work.
The ESJF believes that mapping these Jewish cemeteries is an important step in protecting European cultural heritage, and must be carried out on a local level. To that end, it works with local authorities, residents, and Jewish communities through educational outreach projects to ensure long-term success.