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/

Advertisements

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).

 

Silent protest to be held at the Jewish Cemetery of Athens

Nikaia_2018Vandals desecrated the Jewish section of an Athens cemetery on Friday night, destroying nine marbre memorial stones. The headstones appear to have been kicked over and then smashed to pieces.

The President of the Jewish Community of Athens, Minos Moissis, described the scene as “repulsive”.

[…] This is not the first time we see the result of a degrading act at our Cemetery but it is the first time we see such act was organized and planned in part of the Cemetery that is not visible from the neighboring houses and with incredible fury. The view of the results of this abominable act causes us deep sorrow and anger.

The Jewish Community of Athens will exercise all the legal means at its disposal, the first steps have already been taken by the police authorities that immediately came to the collection of clues.

But besides the Law, we call upon all the institutions of the State and the City, the Justice, the Religious and Spiritual Authorities of the country and the Civil Society, to condemn unambiguously and without reservation this desecration and to stand with absolutely zero tolerance against such phenomena of violence and intolerance. There is no worse sign of a society’s moral decline than desecration of a Cemetery and disrespect for the dead.

It is not just an act that concerns only our Community and is recorded as one of the most violent and significant anti-Semitic events of recent years in Greece. It is about an act that brutally affects the whole of society, the values and principles of a favored state.

For these reason, we ask everybody to exhaust every effort to never allow such acts against anyone.

(announcement by the Jewish Community of Athens)

The Jewish Community of Athens is organizing a silent protest at the cemetery this Sunday, May 13th, at noon.

 

Greek Police arrest members of Nazi group “C18 Hellas”

vandalism_jewish_cemetery_athens_2015

Credit: The Jewish Community of Athens (athjcom.gr)

Greek Counter Terrorism Police arrested 11 suspected members of violent Nazi group “C18 Hellas” last week, during an operation in greater Athens and two provincial towns.

The suspects are allegedly members of the Greek branch of the extreme right wing group “Combat 18” also known as “C18”, which operates in various countries.

A 35-year-old gas station employee from Ioannina, northwestern Greece, is believed to have led the group, ekathimerini.com reports.

“C18” is responsible for bombing attacks against anarchist and migrant related targets and has ties with another violent Greek Nazi group named “Unaligned Meander Nationalists” (Greek abbreviation: AME). Many Greek news outlets failed to mention that both organisations have signed numerous desecrations of Jewish Monuments and Cemeteries in Greece:

  • Oktober 2015: The entrance of the Jewish Cemetery in Nikaia (an area outside Athens) was vandalized with threatening graffiti featuring nazi symbols. “C18 Hellas” posted pictures of the vandalism online, claiming responsibility for the action.
  • December 2014: AME members scrawled swastikas and threats on the wall of the Jewish Cemetery of Larissa, posting photos of their action online.
  • Oktober 2014: AME left its signature on the Athens Holocaust Monument.
  • Oktober 2012: Desecration of the Holocaust Memorial of the Jews of Rhodes. The monument is located in the Old City and the perpetrators painted with paint all six sides, while they painted the swastika, adding the initials AME.

The case (that led to the Greek police counter-terrorism unit acts) was filed after complaints by Greek Helsinki Monitor, based also on articles by XYZ Contagion blog.

For more information: Greece: Violent fringe Nazi groups dismantled, by Panayote Dimitras (14/3/2018, hopenothate.org.uk).

Protesters display antisemitic signs outside parliament in Athens

Hundreds of thousands of Greeks rallied outside parliament in Athens on Sunday to protest against the use of the term Macedonia in any settlement the government pursues with the ex-Yugoslav Republic to end a decades-old name row, Reuters reports.

A sea of people waved blue and white Greek flags. A photographer captured protesters outside parliament holding a banner promoting antisemitism and conspiracy theories. The banner reads “Against New World Order” and features the Star of David and a Freemason symbol in prohibition signs.

Kleanthis_Dimitris_Rally_Macedonia_2018

Photo credits: Dimitris Kleanthis / Source: Athens Voice

Athens Holocaust Memorial vandalized again

Via Minos Moissis & CFCA

The Holocaust Memorial in Athens, close to the Synagogue, was vandalized on Saturday.

The inscription in Elie Wiesel’s words at the Holocaust Memorial  was stripped by strangers, disappeared in two of its three tracks with the meaningful text in Greek and French.

The Jewish community of Athens made a public appeal (see above) if someone saw something and has filed a complaint at the police station.

Holocaust survivor and famous author Elie Wiesel wrote those lines especially for the Athens memorial, they are engraved on a plaque at the entrance of the park in 3 languages:

Pause awhile as you pass by, close your eyes and remember.
Remember the time when here,
or near here, men, women and children- our own fellow creatures- congregated in peace and trust,
only to be arrested, humiliated, deported and murdered in the
Camps that shall forever shame our Civilization.
Because they were Jewish, six million people were denied the right to be free, happy, to hope, to smile, to pray, and finally, the right to live.
Remember them, their anguish and their death. Do not recoil at such horror; do not descend into despair at man’s inhumanity to man.
Just remember.
For by remembering we honour their deaths, and we save them from dying again, in oblivion.

[via koshergreece.com]

Athens Holocaust memorial defaced with graffiti

The Holocaust memorial in Athens was defaced with graffiti probably on Friday. The graffiti reads: “Hello, my name is thanatos [death].” Photos of the vandalism were posted on the Facebook Group The Jewish Heritage in Greece (see photo below).

In recent years, the monument has suffered repeated vandalisms.

Erected in 2010, the monument commemorates the 59,000 Greek Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. It represents a broken Magen David, with each of the broken pieces representing the lost Greek Jewish communities. The names of the communities are engraved in the marble piece pointing in the direction where they once existed (via).

Gkika_Eleni_Vandalism_Athens_July_2017

Athens Holocaust memorial, 7/7/2017. Photo credit: Eleni Gkika (via The Jewish Heritage in Greece)

Supporters of schismatic monks display antisemitic banner in Thessaloniki

Around 400 supporters of the schismatic Esfigmenou monastery on Mount Athos rallied in Thessaloniki to protest the recent conviction of the monastery prior and another monk to twenty years imprisonment each for construction, possession and usage of Molotov cocktails during an eviction of the order’s administrative offices in 2013.

The protesters displayed a huge antisemitic banner reading “Judeo-Masonry wages war on Greece and Orthodoxy.” [see photo below]

antisemitic_rally_esfigmenou_2017

Antisemitic rally in Thessaloniki, 19/02/2017. Via thestival.gr

Earlier this month, protesters (zealots, football fans and Nazis) gathered outside Parliament in Athens to decry the conviction of the zealot monks chanting “Hands off the Orthodoxy” and “Jews out of Parliament.” [watch video below, 0’18’’] Golden Dawn MP Giannis Lagos was also part of the rally.

During a rally that took place at Athens’s Propylaia in February 2016, the excommunicated abbot of Esfigmenou monastery warned the Jews of a “Greek Hitler” that might come.

“Escape room” invited players to escape Auschwitz “before being turned into ash”

Via JTA

An entertainment company in Greece canceled a game in which players use clues to escape from a room themed around the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

The Rubicon agency, which is located in the northern Athens suburb of Galatsi, in recent weeks advertised the Auschwitz “escape room” on social media. Jews and non-Jews complained it was disrespectful to Holocaust victims, the left-leaning news site Protagon reported Tuesday.

[…]

Reached by Protagon, a spokesman of the firm responsible for the game said it had been scrapped and that the decision to create it did not take into account “that this could cause offense.”

Read full story here.

  • Another “escape room” in Thessaloniki called “Schindler’s List” invites players to save “the life of hundreds of innocent people.” [via]

Antisemitic banner at Syntagma Square, Athens

Athens – Supporters of The Greek Popular Association led by Artemis Sorras (Αρτέμης Σώρρας) gathered at Syntagma Square on Sunday and urged people “to sign for freedom.”

One of the signs had clear antisemitic content referring to “any Zionist ideology”, as opposed to “Greek values”. [via CFCA & Against Antisemitism blog]

The picture below shows a supporter in the middle wearing a banner which reads:

“The Greek Popular Association opposes fascism and any other kind of Zionist ideology and anything being against Greek values (freedom, justice, harmony etc.)”

The other two banners refer to the Sorras’ promise to single-handedly end Greece’s debt. [more]

sorras_plakat_athina

Source: iefimerida.gr. Photo credit: EUROKINISSI/Stelios Misinas

Also relevant: Antisemitic exclamations at an event on the Central Square of Ioannina (August 2016)