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Ilya Bezruchko
Former editor and anchor of Jewish News 1 channel

Everything Is Illuminated: Protecting Ukraine’s Jewish Cemeteries Amidst War

Pictures provided by volunteers to the author
Pictures provided by volunteers to the author

Amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine, the preservation of cultural heritage holds even greater significance. Among the many historical sites scattered across the Ukrainian landscape are over 1,300 Jewish cemeteries, bearing witness to centuries of Jewish presence and strength. Yet, these sacred grounds face neglect, destruction, and threats of oblivion.

Map of the marked Jewish cemeteries made by UJCU COO, and provided to the author by request, specifically for the blog

The oldest recorded matzevah, or Jewish tombstone, on Ukrainian soil dates back to 1364, a testament to the enduring roots of Jewish communities in this region. However, the tragic events of the Holocaust left many of these communities decimated, with only remnants of their existence left behind. For many Jews whose families are initially from Ukraine, the sole vestige of their heritage lies in the Jewish cemetery.

Throughout history, these cemeteries have faced desecration at the hands of various oppressors. Both the Soviet regime and the Nazis perpetrated acts of destruction, using tombstones as building materials and leaving many burial sites abandoned or built over. Despite such challenges, these cemeteries serve as holy grounds and repositories of Jewish art and culture, offering glimpses into the vibrant life of the Shtetl communities of the past.

Photo provided by volunteers to the author

Recognizing the importance of preserving these sites, initiatives have emerged to safeguard Ukraine’s Jewish cemeteries. One such endeavor, initiated by the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, focuses on marking cemetery territories with memorial signs. Since 2021, the UJCU COO has visited 352 different cemeteries in 23 regions of Ukraine and personally assessed their condition and level of security and the threats to their further existence.

Actually, there is a very personal story that connects me to this project. A few years ago, I learned about it and contacted the head of the project (Vitaliy Kamozin, COO of the UJCU) to erect a memorial stone on the sight of the abandoned Jewish village Botvino in the Dnipropetrovsk region. My call caught the head of the project on his way to that area near the nonexistent nowadays village of Borvino, where he was discovering cemeteries and places of mass killings of Jews during WWII. Accidentally, my call started a series of events that helped to discover the abandoned village of Botvino that was left by settlers at the beginning of the 1970s (while no Jews left in the village after WWII).

From the personal album of the author

With the help of locals, we managed to find the well where my 13 family members, together with their friends from Jewish kolkhoz Botvino, were executed by Nazis during Holocaust. A few weeks later, together with UJCU, I sponsored and erected a memorial stone at that place. After, we marked the area of the local Jewish cemetery with another monument. Since then, we have worked on other exciting memory preservation projects and prepared another stone to mark the old Jewish cemetery in Konotop, northeast of Ukraine (around 70 km from the Ukraine-Russian border).

The importance of this initiative is highlighted by Jewish religious tradition that considers the disturbance of bones equivalent to murder. By erecting monuments at these locations, they are safeguarded from physical harm, and their historical and cultural worth is also emphasized. For the younger generation unaware of their region’s Jewish history, these markers are striking reminders of the communities that once prospered among them.

Since 2021, around 122 Monuments have been installed in Jewish cemeteries across Ukraine. Moreover, permits have been secured for 300 additional sites to set up such monuments. Nevertheless, specific challenges persist, especially in convincing local authorities to extend their support and help protect these sights that symbolize the Jewish history of Ukraine.

Funding for this project primarily comes from within Ukraine. However, I believe that it is also the way for thousands of Jews, whose ancestors immigrated from Ukraine all over the world, to find out something special about their roots and try to preserve the memory of their family.

An important decision was made not to stop there, and despite everything, to continue protecting Jewish cemeteries.

Photo provided by volunteers to the author

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of the Russian army into Ukraine, 40 memorial signs have been erected. One of them, although it does not indicate a cemetery, is notable for the fact that, for the first time, it marks the site of a mass burial of ghetto prisoners in Gvozdavka, Odessa region; about 5,000 Holocaust victims are buried here.
Another remarkable memorial sign was installed in May 2022 in Borzna, Chernihiv region, even though back from February 2022 till the end of March 2022, Borzna was under Russian occupation.

As Ukraine fights the ravages of war, preserving its cultural legacy becomes an act of defiance against the Russian army, who seek to erase Ukraine’s rich tapestry of history. By protecting these sacred sites, we honor the memory of the past and pave the way for a more enlightened future. Let us unite in safeguarding Ukraine’s Jewish heritage, ensuring that the voices of the past continue to resonate in the present and guide us towards a vibrant and peaceful tomorrow.

P.S. I assume that many TOI subscribers watched the movie or read the book by Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Everything is Illuminated.”
So, just a few weeks ago, both Jewish cemeteries in Trochimbrod, Volyn region, were designated. Only Jews lived in this shtetl; there were 3 synagogues, 4 Hasidic kloyz of different movements, and even an active Zionist group.

Provided to the author by local volunteers

During WWII, there was a ghetto in Trochimbrod where Jews from the surrounding towns were taken. After the destruction of the local Jewish population in the Holocaust, nothing remained of it: forests and fields.
The cemeteries were also destroyed and not marked in any way; rare remains of stones are found. However, everything is illuminated in February 2024, and Jews came to Trochimbrod once again during the terrible war to restore the memory of those who were wiped out from maps and books.

About the Author
Ilya Bezruchko is CEO of the co-working network in Ukraine, a blogger and the Jewish activist.
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