Grave Desecration: A Popular Sport

There are some things I would never do or even contemplate. I would never, for instance, desecrate a grave. It wouldn’t occur to me. There is a small town in Belarus, however, where a Jewish cemetery, dating back to the 15th century, was plowed under by local townspeople. Here my ancestors’ bones were laid but do not rest.

When my family lived there, the town was in Southern Lithuania in Vilna Province (Gubernia), in the county of Lida (Lida Uezd). A group of my landsmen, those of us sharing ancestral roots in the town of Wasiliski, was contacted by the head of the Belarussian Jewish community to see if we wanted to restore the cemetery.

Here Cattle Graze

One of us made a trip there and found that not a single legible fragment of stone remained. The mayor of the town claimed the cemetery had been plowed under to build a shopping plaza. That was some 20 years ago. Cattle graze on the tall grass there, rich and verdant grass fertilized by the bones and blood of my people.

We thought to put a fence around the area to keep the cattle out, to restore some dignity and final rest to our ancestors. We thought to put up a sign. It is easy to hire local townsmen to do such a project. Jewish genealogists have done this all through Eastern Europe. Labor is cheap and plentiful. The people there are poor and eager for work.

I consulted with an acquaintance of mine, Prof. Dov Levin, who survived WWII as a partisan in the forests surrounding his native town of Kaunas. It was Dov’s opinion that our ancestors would not want us to support the people of Vashilishok, as Wasiliski was known to the Jews. He said he doesn’t even like to fly there or stay in hotels for conferences. Dov said, “Better you should spend the money on a good cause here in Israel. That’s what your ancestors would want.”

The Lithuanians killed more Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust than did the Nazis.

Purchase Records?

Distinguished genealogist Rose Lehrer Cohen, told me she refused to purchased birth, death, and marriage records from Lithuania, though it meant she’d hit a brick wall in her family research. “Why should I pay the Lithuanian State Archives $100 a record to find out how they killed my ancestors?” she said.

A fellow researcher once told me I must purchase the book, There Once Was a World, by Prof. Yaffa Eliach, because my family is in the book. I did so and discovered that Yaffa had grown up in a town some 15 miles away from my own family’s shtetl. The Nazi slaughter of the Jews in Eisiskes, Yaffa’s town, came first. Yaffa was a little girl of 6. Her family ran to their friends in Vashilishok, the Kopelmans, my cousins, who hid them.

Later on, when the Nazi slaughter came to Vashilishok, the Kopelmans begged a non-Jewish farmer to hide them. They had known him a long time. He was an old friend.

The farmer let them sleep in his barn; a mother, father, and five children. In the middle of the night, as the Kopelmans slept, the farmer axed them to death. He fed their remains to his pigs.

The graves of my great great grandparents on the Mount of Olives, restored after 1967. (photo credit: Ephraim Kehat)

The graves of my great great grandparents on the Mount of Olives, restored after 1967. (photo credit: Ephraim Kehat)

My great grandparents were long gone from Vashilishok by then, having settled in the U.S. Two of my great grandmother’s siblings came to live in Palestine. My great grandmother bought them homes in Jerusalem, one of them quite large, so that her brother could take in my great great grandparents who came to live out their final days in Jerusalem and be buried on the Mount of Olives. They wanted to be among the first to greet the Jewish Messiah when he arrives. Next to the graves of my great great grandparents is the grave of their son Shlomo–the brother of my great grandmother–who cared for them in their old age.

My great grandmother's brother Shlomo Yanowski. (photo credit: Ephraim Kehat)

My great grandmother’s brother Shlomo Yanowski. (photo credit: Ephraim Kehat)

But Shlomo’s wife Dvora is buried elsewhere.

Occupied By Jordan

Between 1948 and 1967, you see, the Mount of Olives, the ancient burial ground of the Jews, was occupied by Jordan. No Jews could visit relatives or tend to their graves. And Shlomo’s wife, having died between the wars, was not laid to rest next to her loved one.

In 1967, my Israeli cousins discovered that the graves of Shlomo, my great grand uncle, and that of his parents, my great great grandparents, had been desecrated. The stones had been smashed to illegible fragments, just like the stones of my ancestors in Vashilishok.

There were many family members in this ancient Mount of Olives cemetery. Replacing all the stones would be costly. And so my Israeli cousins reached out to the American relatives, my cousins in NY, asking for help in replacing the stones. The NY cousins were glad to help with this important deed.

Several years ago, I went to HaPalmach St. in Jerusalem to visit the only Israeli cousin I have left in the Holy City. His name is Moshe Yanovsky. I told Moshe how I went to visit the graves of his great grandparents and that of his grandfather. He became alarmed.

It’s very dangerous, he cried. You should not go there.

He recalled that during the 70’s, a Jewish gravedigger dug a grave and as he finished, an Arab who had been waiting in secret shot him in the back so that he fell into the freshly dug grave, a grave of his own making.

I assured Moshe that we carried arms when we went to visit the family, that we were safe.

I thought of all this today, as I watched this clip of an Arab desecrating Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives as the Arabs demand that this area of Jerusalem, known as East Jerusalem, be ceded to them by the Jews to become the capital of their state.

I remembered too, the floor of a friend’s home on Mount Zion, tiled with fragments of Jewish gravestones. The Arabs had done that between ’47 and ’67, used Jewish gravestones as building materials. They also destroyed the HaHoma synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, for which one of my ancestors had obtained the building rights, by getting in good with the Turks, who had occupied the Holy Land for 400 years.

It would never occur to me to desecrate a grave. But in Eastern Europe and in East Jerusalem it is apparently a popular activity. Christian or Muslim, it appears to make no difference: disturbing dead Jews is a feel-good sport.

I remembered asking my cousin Moshe Yanovsky,

What is the point of having a Jewish State if we are not safe?

He said, “Ahhhh. The big difference is that now we have our own army. We can defend ourselves.”

I watch and wait. Our Prime Minister is about to go to Washington, where it is predicted he will cave in to Kerry’s demands and cede more of our land to our enemies. Land in which my ancestors are buried.

I watch and wait. Wendy Sherman says straight out that the U.S. believes Iran will continue to enrich uranium, even as Iranian talking heads speak of destroying Israel.

I watch and wait and wonder if my bones and blood will someday be laid to rest only to be disturbed.

I wonder if anyone will care.


Varda Epstein

A third-generation-born Pittsburgher on her mother’s mother’s side, Varda moved to Israel 36 years ago and is a crazy political animal who spams people with right wing political articles on Facebook in between raising her 12 children and writing about education as the communications writer at Kars for Kids a Guidestar gold medal charity.

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