The Jewish cemetery defines a unique rural and peri-urban landscape in twentieth-century Europe. Since ancient times and in accordance with Jewish law, Jewish cemeteries have always been located outside of the city, unlike Christian cemeteries, which were in the early Middle-Ages transferred to the centre of towns and cities and built behind churches. In the 19th centuries, the use of churchyards as burial ground was diminished and Christian cemeteries were relegated to the edges of towns and villages. Jewish cemeteries’ locations reflect the movements of Jewish populations, they also show that Jews have been present in certain regions, such as the area along the Rhine, since the Middle Ages. It is only to think of Marguerite Yourcenar’s description of the old Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam as painted by Jacob van Ruisdael.
The Jewish cemetery became a common literary theme as early as the nineteenth century, most likely because it was seen as unchanging, when the layout of Christian cemeteries continuously shifted to reflect modern sensibilities. However, Jewish cemeteries also did bear witness to changes related to emancipation, starting with their monumentalization, the inclusion of romantic symbols, and the advent of bilingual tombstone inscriptions in Hebrew and the local language, such as German or French.
What happened to these cemeteries, some of which were recent, others long established, during Nazi persecution and the Holocaust? Like all Jewish institutions, they came under attack in Germany starting in 1933. The tombstones and monuments in some sections of the Jewish cemetery in Weissensee in Berlin, for example, bear witness to the rapid decline of the economic and political status of Jews in the city. This cemetery also serves as a record of suicides, of the first deportations, and of the last few “half-bloods” and Jews who were married to Aryans who lived and died in Berlin till 1945. In 1935, Leipzig forced its Jewish community to destroy its oldest cemetery. The remains were transferred to mass graves in the new cemetery. However, even though many were desecrated, most of the Jewish cemeteries in Germany, and throughout Europe, were not destroyed by the Nazis. Why were they not systematically eradicated in the same way synagogues were? Were they maintained because they symbolized the death of the Jewish people? Did this symbol of a Jewish population’s establishment in a region not contradict the Nazi goal of complete erasure?
Yet the very ancient and old Jewish cemetery in Salonika was completely levelled. Aristotle University was built on its very site after the war.
In Poland and Eastern Europe, Jewish cemeteries are evidence of the deaths that occurred in the ghettos. While Jews who died in the ghettos were originally buried in individual tombs, such as in Lodz, they were soon after interred in mass graves. Those who were murdered in concentration camps were cremated, and victims of the Einsatzgruppen in Eastern Europe were buried in mass graves instead of individual tombs in the cities’ cemeteries. The subsequent lack of graves is, of course, striking.
During the Holocaust, Jewish cemeteries became a transitional place used for a wide range of purposes. They were places of passage and transit, such as the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, which was adjacent to the ghetto. They were places of gathering, when Jews were barred from all other locations, such as in Weissensee; and of refuge. These cemeteries were also a place to store the bodies of Jewish and Gentile victims who were refused the dignity of a decent burial. The cemeteries were transformed from places of respect for the deceased to places where bodies could be dumped and discarded. Mass graves were dug in a number of Jewish cemeteries, including in Binau, Germany, where the victims of the Neckarelz and Neckargerach camps were taken, and Obernai in annexed Alsace, where dozens of Soviet forced laborers were buried.
Jewish cemeteries were also used as a place for executions.
After the Holocaust, some of these cemeteries were used very little, if at all, because Jews no longer lived in the city. These abandoned sites bore testimony to the Jewish catastrophe. A movement emerged to re-bury the dead. Surviving family members tracked down the bodies of their beloved ones and transferred them to Jewish cemeteries. This was the case in Poland and elsewhere. A beautiful film by Ferenc Török, 1945 (2017), tells the story of this movement in Hungary: it doesn’t focus on victims’ physical bodies, which could not be found, but on their possessions.
Some Jews who were buried secretly or under a fake name in Christian cemeteries were moved, for example in the Netherlands. Corpses of Jews who died in the Drancy camp before being deported were exhumed to be placed in a Jewish burial section. In the Netherlands, Jews who died of natural causes while hiding and were buried in secret were reburied as well. The Holocaust is also clearly evidenced by the absence of graves and the space that was never used by drastically reduced communities—initially because of their extermination and later because survivors chose to emigrate.
In response to these missing graves, thousands of memorials were erected within the cemeteries themselves. This can even be considered as the first wave of Holocaust memorials. The memorials were built for the missing Jews who should have been buried in their community's cemeteries. This was the case in Strasbourg and Bagneux. Hundreds of cemeteries in Israel have such a memorial. The memorials were either built for all the communal missing corpses, or for specific individuals, the first design being not exclusive of the second one. In some cases, the memorials consisted of empty tombs, some of which contained ashes taken from a concentration camp, or plaques that were added to the gravestone of a parent or child. Some of the mass graves were turned into memorials, as well. The collective death of the Jewish people, the “wholesale death” evoked by the poet Władysław Szlengel in 1943, infiltrated the space for individual death, like a ghost wandering between family vaults... In some cemeteries located near transit camps, collective tombs were built for Jews who died in the months they were detained prior to deportation. The Nexon municipal cemetery (Haute-Vienne), located next to a French internment camp, has one such memorial.
Jewish cemeteries also have a paradoxical relationship with the Holocaust. On one hand, they are places marked by absence—the absence of those who died, unknown, in death camps as well as the absence of the individual tombs for those buried in mass graves. On the other hand, these cemeteries also contain records and traces. The tombstones of those who died too early bear witness to years of persecution, the empty spaces are a record of the dead who never arrived, and the antiquity of the graves is evidence of the extinction of entire communities. The reburials and memorials also show the will to transfer the victims of the Holocaust to the place where they rightfully belong. Jewish cemeteries are also a place of remembrance, where visitors can think about those who died during the Holocaust, regardless of when and where. They are places for visiting, filming, and dreaming.
This issue of the Revue d'histoire de la Shoah invites readers to think about the many literal and figurative aspects of these topics.
Submissions can be work by historians or focus on other human and social sciences, including literature.
The Revue d’Histoire de la Shoah is published by the Mémorial de la Shoah. It is the oldest scientific journal about the Holocaust in continuous publication. It was created in 1946 under the name Le Monde juif (The Jewish World) by a team of historians from the French Contemporary Centre of Jewish Documentation under the direction of David Knout. The two editors are Audrey Kichelewski and Jean-Marc Dreyfus.
The Revue d'histoire de la Shoah examines the history of the genocide of Jews in Europe. It also focuses on the consequences of the destruction of Jews in Europe on Jewish history. As the only journal of its kind to be published in French, its purpose is to contribute to the latest research on the Holocaust in the fields of history, other social sciences, anthropology, sociology, literature, and our collective memory. Film studies, gender studies, and the history of ideas are just some of the disciplines included in the scope of the journal. The journal is interested in an area that includes all of Europe, including countries that remained neutral during World War II, as well as colonial empires and beyond (the United States, Latin America, etc.).
Articles should be no longer than 50,000 characters and will be evaluated by two anonymous reviewers. Articles not written in French may be submitted. Following the review process, they will be translated into French by the Revue d'histoire de la Shoah.
Articles must adhere to the bibliography style guide included in the appendix.
The bibliography should appear in the footnotes. It is preferred that authors do not include an additional bibliography at the end of their article. However, this type of bibliography may be used in certain specific cases.
Authors are asked to submit a one-page abstract before writing their final article before the 15th of December 2020 .
Pauline de Ayala
Subeditor, Revue d'histoire de la Shoah, Mémorial de la Shoah (Paris)