Interview with Diána Vonnák about the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative

The ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative is a German-based non-profit organization with the core objective of protecting and preserving Jewish cemetery sites across the European continent. With the financial support of the European Commission, the ESJF started in December 2018 a full mapping process of 1,500 Jewish burial sites across five European countries. Diána Vonnák, Head Officer of Communication and Media (and a trained social anthropologist) at ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries, answered some questions for Against Antisemitism blog about this unique project.

Until its completion in June 2020, the project will carry out extensive research and survey work in five European countries: Greece, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Why did you choose those five countries?

We wanted to have a range of countries that are all important for the history of Judaism in Europe, and that encompass the diversity of European Jewish heritage. It has been a great experience to work in Sephardic and Ashkenazi cemeteries and research the differences. Another important angle is the institutional and legal diversity of these countries: the challenges have been really different: Lithuania had a comprehensive list of cemeteries, but these weren’t surveyed with the accuracy of our drone surveys, while for instance Ukraine and Moldova had no comprehensive data. In these cases it is crucial to verify the existence of cemeteries, visit any site where there’s a chance to find one: we visited 132 places in Moldova and were able to survey 70 cemeteries, but there were places nobody documented before. This work is less spectacular but it is incredibly important if we want to have a proper overview of European Jewish cemeteries. In some places, like in Slovakia, the Jewish community owns these sites, but elsewhere, as in Greece, ownership varies from site to site. By the end of this survey we will have a solid grasp of the main challenges and a greater understanding of the situations in our project countries.

In order to map burial sites, your team is using unmanned aerial vehicles commonly known as drones. How do drones facilitate your work? 

Drone technology allows us to take high resolution aerial images which has individual GPS coordinates of every image (geotag). Later we are processing those images to create a point cloud from which we can make a preliminary terrain analysis such as topography of the site. This gives us very precise information about each and every site, which serves a dual purpose: it documents the condition of every cemetery, and it is the basis of any future protective measure like fencing. We are using point cloud to create a 3D model of sites that makes it easy, cost effective and fast to plan fencing. In short, UAV made our work more faster and accurate. 

Your team travelled in Greece between 26 March and 14 April 2019, visiting 48 places and mapping 45 sites altogether. What have been the challenges and particularities of mapping Jewish cemeteries in Greece?

The geography of Greece was a challenge for our survey team: places can be remote, you have to fly, take a ferry to reach smaller islands. This is something we did not experience in other places. Greece is really divided: most sites are either demolished, or when they survive, they tend to be fenced and cared for. We classify cemeteries according to the urgency of the need for fencing and we found only three sites that would require urgent action: Argostoli and the old and new cemetery in Didymotheicho. 

Drone image of Athens 3rd Jewish cemetery, an example of a well-preserved and maintained Jewish cemetery. Photo courtesy of ESJF.
Drone image of Athens 3rd Jewish cemetery, an example of a well-preserved and maintained Jewish cemetery. Photo courtesy of ESJF.
Drone image of the old Jewish Cemetery of Didymoteicho. Both the old and new cemeteries of Didymoteicho are partially fenced, but the fence is in such a dilapidated condition that they are in urgent need of re-fencing. Courtesy of ESJF.
Drone image of the Old Jewish Cemetery of Didymoteicho. Both the old and new cemeteries of Didymoteicho are partially fenced, but the fence is in such a dilapidated condition that they are in urgent need of re-fencing. Courtesy of ESJF.

The city of Ioannina once was the center of Romaniote Jewish life. It is not well known that the Zosimaia Lyceum and a school yard are standing today on the site of the old Jewish Cemetery. How did you survey a burial site that doesn’t exist anymore?

We use old maps and historic information to establish the boundary of cemeteries. In case they are built over, as in Ioannina, Heraklion or Corfu, we still gather photographic evidence, but there is not much we can do. In Greece, this has been a sadly common situation: 43% of the sites we surveyed were demolished and overbuilt. In Thessaloniki, for instance, a university campus was built on a really old cemetery that dates back to the late 15th century. We encountered similar cases elsewhere too, e.g. in Ukraine. In these cases, memorialisation is especially important, as this remains our only chance to save these sites from oblivion. Education, awareness raising is crucial in these contexts and it takes the place of using cemeteries themselves as testimonies of a shared history, which is what ESJF would do otherwise.

The old Jewish cemetery of Ioannina was demolished and has been built over. Today, the Zosimaia Lyceum and a school yard are standing on the site. Both photos courtesy of ESJF.
The Old Jewish cemetery of Ioannina was demolished and has been built over. Today, the Zosimaia Lyceum and a school yard are standing on the site. Both photos courtesy of ESJF.

Your team also surveyed other Jewish cemeteries in the region of Epirus which are less known than the cemetery in Ioannina: Paramythia, Arta and Preveza. Which are the challenges that you faced?

Arta, Paramythia and Preveza are all demolished sites, so our work was chiefly about documentation. Arta has a sign at the former Jewish neighbourhood, and a memorial. Preveza has residential and commercial buildings over it, Paramythia is now covered by a highway and a bus stop. In these cases it is often difficult to establish the boundary accurately, that can be a huge challenge. If we step away from the challenges of survey itself, the biggest difficulty lies in keeping the memory of something invisible alive. A comprehensive database like ours helps to grasp the sheer scale of destruction, and hopefully to work against it,  to address this loss.

The Jewish Cemetery of Preveza has now residential and commercial buildings over it. Drone photo courtesy of ESJF.
The Jewish Cemetery of Preveza has now residential and commercial buildings over it. Drone photo courtesy of ESJF.

According to a recent study commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Greece, the incidents of antisemitic rhetoric and the recorded attacks against Jewish cemeteries, monuments and synagogues in Greece are disproportionately high although the numbers of Greeks of Jewish religion are, according to the Greek Census, very low (5000, i.e. 0.05% of the Greek population). How do you think that the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative can contribute to a better protection of Greek Jewish cemeteries?

ESJF believes in the importance of the engagement of communities, local authorities and the broader public in general. We always try to work with mayors, reach out to schools. We do not carry out advocacy work per se, but we believe in the power of restoring knowledge and awareness about heritage sites. Jewish heritage is part of our shared, European heritage and often, especially in the absence of a local Jewish community, gentile communities are important guardians of these sites. Our surveyors experience quite some interest from locals: people ask questions, want to know more. Building an open-access database, carrying out educational projects and engaging local leaders are the first steps to work against atrocities.

Some weeks ago, Moses Elisaf, the head of the tiny Jewish community in Ioannina and a distinguished professor of pathology, was elected the country’s first-ever Jewish mayor. What do you think about Elisaf’s victory?

Of course we welcome a political climate where the Jewishness of a candidate is not an obstacle for their success. However, the sheer emphasis that his Jewish origins receive points to the fact that Greek Jewish life hasn’t been “normalized” post-Holocaust in a way that one may hope. There is still an “us” vs. “them” logic in marking Elisaf as a Jewish mayor. We had an amazing experience with many mayors in various countries, and have seen the dramatic difference their policies can make in the fate of Jewish heritage sites. We welcome any mayor, Jewish or not, who is happy to undertake the responsibility of tending to the local Jewish heritage, engaging their entire community. ESJF’s work, through education and awareness, aims at showing that Jewish heritage is not something separate that concerns only those who identify as Jewish. Instead, it’s a common heritage. Greek Jewish history is also relevant and important for non-Jewish Greeks (and beyond that for Europe in general). We hope that ESJF’s work can be a help in normalizing and integrating Jewish presence, Jewish identity and Jewish heritage in Europe.

The new Jewish Cemetery of Ioannina.  A number of gravestones have been moved from the old demolished cemetery. Courtesy of ESJF.
The New Jewish Cemetery of Ioannina. A number of gravestones have been moved from the old demolished cemetery. Courtesy of ESJF.

The ESJF provides free access to its database of Greek cemetery sites: https://www.esjf-surveys.org/surveys-in-greece/

Greek journalist trivializes Holocaust in a tweet criticizing Opposition leader

Journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, editor of “Documento” newspaper, trivialized Holocaust in a tweet criticizing Opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his statement in favour of the ‘7day work week’. Vaxevanis in his tweet of May 12, 2019 used the inscription over the gate of Auschwitz “Arbeit Macht Frei” to comment on K. Mitsotakis.

The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) stressed in an announcement the inappropriate use of the symbols of the Holocaust:

The use of this inscription within a political controversy and a journalistic comment is unacceptable because it downgrades, minimizes and trivializes a symbol of horror and Nazi barbarism. In Auschwitz every trace of humanity was lost and inhumanity and harrowing death prevailed. Millions of people were killed there because they were either Jews or “different”.

Read full statement here.

Kostas Vaxevanis responded here.

Holocaust trivialization is a recurrent phenomenon in Greek politics. For example, a cartoon published in the leftist newspaper Efimerida ton Syntakton in July 2018 depicted the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp with the message “the 12-hour [work day] sets you free,” to protest plans for a 12-hour work day in Austria (more information).

In 2018, the Racist Violence Recording Network recorded 10 anti-Semitic attacks in Greece

LOGO-FINAL_GRK-02-300x134Athens, 19.4.2019- The Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) presented yesterday their annual report, which analyses findings of racist violence and hate crime across Greece in 2018, recorded by the 46 organizations participating in the Network.

From January to December 2018, the RVRN documented, through interviews with victims, 117 incidents of racist violence, with more than 130 victims. In 74 incidents the victims were migrants or refugees on grounds of ethnic origin, religion, colour, associations of third country nationals, human rights defenders due to their connection with refugees and migrants, as well as a memorial to the victims of shipwrecks. In six (6) incidents, Greek citizens were targeted due to their colour, foreign or ethnic origin. In nine (9) incidents, the targets were Jewish sacred or symbolic places and the Jewish community and in one (1) incident the target was a Greek citizen due to educational activity against anti-Semitism or perceived religion. In 27 incidents the targets were LGBTQI+ persons, including five (5) refugees, asylum-seekers and EU citizens. In 59 incidents more than one victim was targeted, whereas in 63 incidents the assault was committed by a group of at least two people.

For more information click here.

Excerpt from the report (p. 19):

In 2018, the RVRN recorded 9 anti-Semitic attacks. In particular, there were 6 incidents of desecration of Holocaust memorials in Athens and Thessaloniki, 2 incidents of desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Nikaia and Trikala as well as 1 incident of vandalism of the synagogue in Volos. In these incidents the perpetrators drew Nazi symbols or words and slogans referring to the Holocaust, threatening the Jewish community as a whole. Additionally, there was an incident against a teacher, who is being harassed severely due to his educational activity against anti-Semitism. According to the Fundamental Rights Agency—FRA, the challenge regarding the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide, has the following paradox: According to the most recent Eurobarometer results, while anti-Semitic behaviour is so common that it is considered a normal situation, only 36% of those who answered believe that anti-Semitism has increased. In addition, only 4 out of 10 Europeans believe that children in schools learn enough about the Holocaust*. The RVRN is aware of the many faces of anti-Semitism in Greece, which, as in other countries, is not limited to desecrations and vandalisms by groups, but it also penetrates large parts of the population and is reflected in the everyday talks. For the above, the RVRN participated, with great interest, to a meeting held by the General Secretariat of Transparency and Human Rights.

* FRA, Experiences and perceptions of antisemitism – Second survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in the EU (2018). See the relevant Eurobarometer survey: http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/survey/getsurveydetail/instruments/special/surveyky/2220

The full report is available here.

Trikala Holocaust Memorial with “goyim” graffiti vandalized

Trikala Desecration 2019

More photos at trikalanews.gr

The Holocaust Memorial at the city of Trikala, in northwestern Thessaly, was found desecrated with the inscription «ΓΚΟΪΜ» (“goyim”), just four months after its unveiling. Photos from the Greek outlet trikalanews.gr captured the vandalism.

The monument designed by the municipality, with input from Trikala’s Jewish community, is in the shape of a tear flanked by railway tracks. In the center is an olive tree and to the side is a column with an inscription in three languages: Greek, Hebrew, and English. [via tabletmag.com]

Just weeks before the unveiling ceremony in 2018, a vandal attack targeted the Jewish cemetery of Trikala. Unknown antisemites vandalized and destroyed eight tombs and tombstones – among which the two graves of the parents of the President of the Jewish Community of Trikala.

Καταγγελία για αντισημιτικό bullying στο χώρο της εκπαίδευσης

Από καθηγητή που διδάσκει εδώ και πολλά χρόνια στη Μέση Εκπαίδευση και ευαισθητοποιεί τους μαθητές του σε ζητήματα εβραϊκότητας λάβαμε και δημοσιεύουμε την ακόλουθη σοβαρή καταγγελία.

Υπηρετώ οργανικά από το 2007 σε σχολείο της Αττικής που γειτονεύει με το (ενεργό) εβραϊκό νεκροταφείο, που έχει βεβηλωθεί έκτοτε μερικές φορές.

Εξ αρχής εκπονώ πρότζεκτ εβραϊκού ενδιαφέροντος, εν μέσω θλιβερών αντιξοοτήτων εκ μέρους του σχολικού περιβάλλοντος. Τα πρότζεκτ αυτά τελεσφορούν με τη μεσολάβηση αρμοδίων συμβούλων, ενώ η σχολική καθημερινότητά μου είναι αδυσώπητη εκ μέρους της εκάστοτε διεύθυνσης που υπόκειται στην επιρροή δυο αριστερών συνδικαλιστών συναδέλφων.

Έχω εξ αρχής δεχτεί «ενημερώσεις» από τη διεύθυνση του σχολείου για ανώνυμες τηλεφωνικές καταγγελίες γονέων μαθητών σχετικές με την εβραϊκή αναφορικότητά μου στα πλαίσια των διδακτικών καθηκόντων μου.

Πέρυσι για πρώτη φορά δέχτηκα και τηλεφωνική σύσταση επώνυμου ιερέα- «πνευματικού» μαθήτριας- να μην αναφέρομαι σε Ολοκαύτωμα και Εβραίους, διότι θίγεται έτσι το θρησκευτικό αίσθημα της μαθήτριας και της οικογένειάς της. Σε αυτές τις καταγγελίες δεν υπήρξε ποτέ κάλυψη του σχολείου – διευθυντών και συναδέλφων. Ούτε από φορείς στους οποίους αναφέρθηκα αρμοδίως.

Φέτος για πρώτη φορά δέχτηκα καταγγελία εκ μέρους του συλλόγου γονέων από τον πρόεδρό του, που το περιεχόμενό της με ακύρωνε ως εκπαιδευτικό (διδάσκω 30 χρόνια) και με απειλούσε ως αντικείμενο σε πλήθος (!) γονέων. Ο διευθυντής και ο σύλλογος εννοείται ότι ένιψαν χείρας κατά τα ειωθότα.

Όπως κάθε φορά, στόχος των καταγγελιών που συμπίπτουν πάντα με την εκκίνηση των πρότζεκτ, είναι η ματαίωσή τους. Αναφέρθηκα αρμοδίως και περιμένω.

Στο μεταξύ, οι παρασκηνιακά κινούντες τα αντισημιτικά νήματα τρομοκρατούν μαθητές και γονείς ώστε να μην υπάρξει συμμετοχή στο προτεινόμενο πρότζεκτ μου για την εβραϊκή Κέρκυρα και τον Τζούλιο Καΐμη. Εκτιμώ ότι οι βεβηλώσεις του εβραϊκού νεκροταφείου ενδέχεται να σχετίζονται με το χρόνιο αντισημιτικό bullying που υφίσταμαι σε αυτό το σχολείο.

Υγ. Έχω και στο παρελθόν εκπονήσει πρότζεκτ για τον Καΐμη με βιωματικές επισκέψεις μαθητών στον τάφο του, που βανδαλίστηκε ακολούθως…

Photos of the vandalism that targeted the Jewish Cemetery of Trikala

We publish below photos of the recent desecration of the Trikala Jewish Cemetery, courtesy of Antiratsistiki Enimerosi. Jewish graves and memorials are a recurring target of vandals in Greece. Although the numbers of Greeks of Jewish religion is, according to the Greek Census, very low (5000, i.e. 0.05% of the Greek population) the incidents of antisemitic rhetoric and the recorded attacks against Jewish monuments or synagogues are disproportionately high, recent studies found.

Trikala octobre 2018

Trikala octobre 2018_5

Trikala octobre 2018_11

Trikala octobre 2018_15

Trikala octobre 2018_16

 

Vandals desecrate the Jewish Cemetery of Trikala

TRIKALA_VANDALISMOS_2018Via kis.gr

The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece expresses the dismay of the entire Greek Jewry and strongly condemns the vandal attack that once more occurred against the Jewish cemetery of Trikala.

More specifically, followers of racism and antisemitism vandalized and destroyed eight tombs and tombstones -among which the two graves of the parents of the President of the Jewish Community of Trikala.

Following the lawsuit against persons unknown, pressed by the Jewish Community of Trikala, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece calls upon law enforcement authorities to take all necessary measures for the arrest of the perpetrators and the protection of the city’s Jewish cemetery, which -apart from its sacred nature- reflects the historic course of the Jewish presence in Trikala.

We believe that the municipal authorities together with the society of Trikala will not allow the followers of hatred to harm the harmonious coexistence of all the citizens of Trikala, regardless of skin color, race or religion.

Athens, October 12, 2018

Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece

Latest antisemitic incidents in Greece

September 8: At least four banners featuring antisemitic signs were displayed by violent protesters against the Macedonia name deal in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki (h/t Leon Saltiel). They read “Talmud, Qabballah, the Enemy of the Humanity”, “Against New World Order (with a red line erasing the Star of David), “Here Greece, Here Orthodoxy. Death to Zionism” and “Rothschild, your end is coming”.

Rally against Macedonia Sept8th_2

“Rothschild, your end ist coming”: One of the antisemitic banners displayed in Thessaloniki. More signs at antisemitism.org.il

Late August: Antisemitic graffiti was sprayed on the wall of a house located in a central street of Sparta. The inscription reads “Death to the Jews” (Θάνατος στους Εβραίους), skalalakonias blog has reported.

Late August: The Ioannina section of leftist “Popular Unity” party opposed in a press release the twinning agreement between the city of Ioannina (northern Greece) and the city of Kiryat Ono calling Israel a “terrorist state”.

August 31: Hate graffiti, propaganda material and several christian symbols were found outside the construction site of a state-funded mosque in Athens, lifo.gr has reported. Some of the flyers posted outside the construction site are clearly antisemitic: “Out with the Freemasons and the Jews” and “All bank are controlled by Zionists,” they read.

August 30: An antisemitic sticker referring to the “Jews and money” stereotype with the slur “Jew dog” was found near the Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki. The sticker was posted by followers of “Father Cleomenis,” a man who dresses as a monk and posts videos of himself on social media vandalizing monuments, most recently the Holocaust memorial in the Central Greece city of Larissa (h/t Racist Crime Watch).

 

Monument in memory of the old Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki vandalized with paint

Only days after the desecration of the Thessaloniki Holocaust memorial with red paint by Greek nationalists, the monument erected on the campus of Aristotle University in memory of the old Jewish cemetery of Thessaloniki was smeared in blue paint and had a cross painted on it.

Vandalism Memorial Thessaloniki July 2018

Source: athjcom.gr

From the press release of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki:

The desecration is an insult to the Monument, which was erected to commemorate and restore to the collective memory the Jewish students of the Aristotle University who perished in the Nazi death camps. To link the current landscape of the site to its history and remind to everyone the existence of the old Jewish Cemetery destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators in 1942. At the same time this extremely sad event is an act of great disrespect for the Aristotle University Thessaloniki, an institution of Education, a place for molding the character and consciousness of the younger generation.

From the press release of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece:

The University was built upon the shattered tombs and the scattered bones of our forefathers of Thessaloniki, while the Jews of Thessaloniki where confined into ghettos pending deportation. It took 72 years for the city to assume responsibility and pay tribute to the memory of the Jewish necropolis with the erection of this monument in 2014. Today, the memory of the Jews of Thessaloniki, along with the history and the culture of the city, are struck once more, by the preachers of hatred.
There remain no other words to describe the sorrow of the Greek Jews: Shame – Shame – Shame.

Learn more about the history related to the monument erected in 2014.