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 123 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.
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.
Through ESJF’s educational outreach programmes, secondary school students are encouraged to preserve and maintain the historical memory of local Jewish communities, including cemetery sites. This is of particular importance in the areas in which, in the wake of the Holocaust, Jewish communities no longer exist, as these cemeteries may represent the last physical testament to Jewish presence.