Cemeteries provide a vividly historic chronicle of a town’s past and they’re an important part of the culture of the people interred there. But many older burial grounds, like Jewish cemeteries in central Europe, have suffered years of neglect and in some cases vandalism in the name of antisemitic sentiment. In one such cemetery in eastern Slovakia, a local genealogist has taken it upon himself to restore headstones that have fallen, fractured, and faded after years of neglect and exposure to the elements.
Prior to 1840 when the ban was lifted, the city of Košice (pronounced koh-shee-tzeh) formerly a Hungarian free royal town called Kassa, forbade Jews from establishing permanent residence. But by 1930, two major, thriving Jewish communities were fully integrated into the fabric of the town.
During World War II, between May 16 and June 5, 1944, almost all Jewish citizens of Košice were deported to Auschwitz. After the war, only a few survivors of the Shoah chose to reside in Košice. Even though some 280 Jews are living in the city today, it’s actually the second largest Jewish community in Slovakia.
Peter Absolon, owner of Jewish Genealogy Services of Slovakia, has adopted restoring the Židovský Cintorín Košice Jewish Cemetery as his personal mission. Along with a local stonemason in some cases, Peter and his small crew of volunteers have rescued markers that had been buried beneath inches of soil and vegetation for decades. Absolon has stated his goal is to eventually repair and restore all of the stone markers in the cemetery.
The cemetery, which is located in the eastern-Slovakian capital city on Rastislavova Street, opened in 1889. It is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the country and one of only two final resting places for Košice’s Jewish citizens. It is the only one still in use today. Also known as the New Jewish Cemetery, there are separate sections for Orthodox Jews and one for Neolog Hungarian Jews.
The part of the cemetery where the team has completed a majority of their restoration work is in the New Jewish Cemetery where Orthodox practitioners were laid to rest. It features a Holocaust memorial that is adorned with a star of David that once stood atop the dome of the town’s old Neolog synagogue built around 1926. Today, that building is a concert hall.
By the end of 2019, the team had refurbished more than 100 grave markers. The work entails raising fallen tombstones and entirely replacing some of their decrepit bases. The stonemason restores each of the Hebrew characters and symbols intricately etched onto every stone. Thanks to the relationship between Absolon and the stone artisan, the cost of fixing a marker with minor damage is very minimal.
Part of the crew’s work so far has been funded in honor of the Szepessi family from the Košice region. (Szepessi family members were murdered in the Holocaust.)
Primary photo: Children’s restored gravestones at a Slovakian cemetery. To support this restoration project, please visit the JGS website.