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A Walk Through Chernivtsi Jewish Cemetery

Updated: May 21, 2020

The Jewish Cemetery in Chernivtsi is the second largest Jewish cemetery in Ukraine, behind Lviv, and one of the largest in Central/Eastern Europe. Together with the even larger Christian cemetery across the street, they make up the Cemeteries at Zelena Street Historical-Cultural Preserve. It takes up 35 acres and houses 50,000 graves, with many of the graves marking the resting place of multiple people.

The first thing you will see upon entering the cemetery is the old Beit Kadishin building. It once housed the offices and archives for the cemetery, as well as the places where the bodies were prepared for burial.

Gerson Pilpel

August 4th 1896 - November 17th 1940

You were the best in our community

Lived for everyone but not for yourself

For your wife, children, and fellow human beings

We all grieve for you to the end of our lives

Rest in Peace

A notable part of the gravestones is that, in the oldest part of the cemetery, they are primarily in German. Some have no Hebrew at all. The Jewish community of Chernivtsi, especially its wealthier parts, was heavily assimilated into German culture and spoke the language of its Emperor. To help illustrate this, the year Gerson was born was the same year that Theodore Herzl, a native of Budapest, wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). One of the most important works of early Zionism was in German, and Herzl proposed German as the official language of the Jewish State.

Aside from the many marked graves, there are also four mass graves located within the cemetery and its immediate surroundings. They are for Holocaust victims, Romanian civilians from 1941-1942, Turkish soldiers from the First World War, and Jewish soldiers who served in the Austrian Army in the First World War. The photo above is of the final resting place of the Jewish soldiers who gave their lives fighting in the name of the Austrian Habsburg Emperors. WWI began as a fight between Austria and Serbia, and ended with the former dismantled into Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and parts of Romania, Italy, and Poland, while the monarchy was disbanded.

The Jews of Austria were the dual monarchy’s most loyal subjects. After being emancipated in 1867, they officially became equal to the Empire’s other citizens. They looked to their deprivation faced by the Jews on the other side of the Russian border and compared it to the multinational pluralism they were offered. The Empire’s Germans considered unification with Germany, the Hungarians jealously guarded their privileged position, while the Poles, Ukrainians, and others embraced sometimes separatist forms of nationalism. No other nationality so strongly embraced Austrianess.

20 years after the end of the war, after the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938, one of the Nazi’s first acts in their first expansion was to force the Jews of Vienna to scrub the city clean of pro-independence slogans, including the word “Austria.” The young men in that grave gave their life for a country that no longer existed, whose heartland became joined to the Nazi Empire.

One of the most prominent people buried in Chernivtsi’s cemetery is Eduard Reiss, the city’s first Jewish mayor. He held office from 1905 until his death in 1907, while Salo von Weisselberger became the second in 1914. Prior to becoming mayor, he had been vice-mayor since 1894. During his life, he received a law degree from the University of Vienna, was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Austrian army, and practiced law for many years before becoming a politician.

On the other side of Eduard Reiss’s mausoleum is the obelisk marking the burial place of the Steiner family, including its patriarch Josef Steiner. Joseph Steiner owned a brewery and used his fortune from selling beer to make inroads as a staple in the social and political life of the city. Other prominent people buried here include scientists, activists, and politicians. Among them is Eliezer Steinbarg (1880-1932), a poet, educator, and Yiddishist.

Sometimes a simple grave can tell a story on its own. Sura and Mordko Royz were a couple who shared a grave, something common enough. However, from the dates written, we see that Mordko died in 1942, the year of the deportations. Sura watched her husband die in the Holocaust and waited to be buried with him three decades later when she joined him at the age of 81.

The Chernivtsi Jewish Cemetery is still in use. These were the most recent graves I saw. While I can’t say I knew of him beforehand, this includes Max Shekler, the “Patriarch of Bukovinian Tourism.” I have since found more information about his life, including a piece on him in Deutsche Welle. Max was working in a hosiery factory when the Germans began their invasion. After being conscripted, he was a translator for captured German soldiers. While most of his surviving family eventually emigrated to Israel, he chose to remain in his hometown. He earned his moniker by marking many hiking routes through the nearby Carpathian Mountains and serving as a local historian. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 94.

Currently, the funeral parlor at the entrance to the cemetery is being rennovated and turned into a museum and memorial center, which will tell the story of the people buried here more generally, and the Holocaust specifically. Funding for the project so far has been provided by the German government, the President of the World Association of Bukovina Jews, and a private donor. It is being organized by the head of the Ukrainian Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, Joseph Zissels, who is from Chernivtsi himself.

Chernivtsi’s Jewish cemetery is one of the largest in the country, but they are found all over the country, from major cities to small villages which were once part of the network of shtetls which once dotted Eastern Europe. Some are well maintained like Chernivtsi’s, others are overgrown and in a state of disrepair. Those which are maintained typically owe their condition to small groups of locals, many of whom are non-Jewish, volunteer networks like the Lviv Volunteer Center and Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, and international groups like the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative.

According to Jewish law, good deeds are ranked by if the doer and recipient of the deed are aware of each other. Maintaining the respect of the dead through maintaining cemeteries is chesed shel emet, a good deed of truth. The recipient is in no position to know who is helping them or return the favor. Cemeteries are storehouses of history on the most personal of levels. In the case of Jewish cemeteries, they are a physical marker of a communal heritage in places where those physical markers are often gone or obscured.

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