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The Cemetery in Berdichev:
A Crumbling Memorial to a Once-Magnificent Jewish Community


by Yael Shamir-Driver, June 2011

 

 

At the end of May, after a long period of debate and hesitation, my father, my husband and myself made it from London to Berdichev. We spent two days and two nights in Berdichev where we divided our time between locating and visiting old Jewish sites and exploring the only old surviving Jewish cemetery in the town. Below is a short description of the cemetery and the thoughts it provoked.

The Current State

Of the three old Jewish cemeteries of Berdichev, only the one housing the gravesite of Rabbi Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev (LIOB 1740-1809) has survived. The other two cemeteries have been transformed into Shavshchenko Park. The LIOB cemetery appears to house graves which date from the middle of the eighteenth century to the late 1990s.

Location

The cemetery, which is public property, is located in the northern part of the town, on the eastern side of a main road (Lenin Street) leading out of Berdichev to Zhitomir. The entrance to the cemetery is from Lenin Street, immediately after passing over a level crossing.

Size

We believe the cemetery is approximately 250 metres wide and 550 metres long. These measurements are based on an examination of an eight-year-old official town map. We further believe that there may be around 10,000 graves in the cemetery. This estimate is based on the overall area of the cemetery and the fact that some parts of this area may have few or no graves. [Please note that US Commission Report No. UA05020101, indicates up to 5,000 stones].

State

The cemetery is overgrown and resembles a wild wood rather than a cemetery - a very depressing sight (Click on photo to view full size).

Berdichev Cemetery, overgrown

Photo 1: The cemetery and wild woodland

The “centrepiece” of the cemetery is the grave of LIOB, which is housed in a locked building of brick/concrete. This building is located approximately in the middle of the cemetery. Unlike the general “wild wood” state of the cemetery, the immediate area approaching LIOB burial place [on the left] has been cleared of both trees and undergrowth. In addition, a strip of approximately 30 metres by 100 metres [leading from the LIOB’s building towards Lenin Street] has been largely cleared of trees and larger shrubs. However, lower shrubs and wild weeds are still in abundance here. (click on photo to view full size.)

LIOB Mausoleum

Photo 2: LIOB Mausoleum and stones cleared for cleaning

Stone Types

The gravestones in the cemetery are of various shapes and materials. The very old ones are usually made of oblong stone designed to stand upright. The writing on these stones is carved rather deeply. The stones dating from the mid 1880s are generally low long semi cylindrical shape stones (40 cm off the ground) also with fairly deep carving. The third type of stones - dating from 1900 onwards, appears to be of a granite type material where the carving is very narrow (almost a scratch) and not very deep. This makes such stones difficult to read. Many of these relatively recent stones have a special “boot like” shape, which appears to be a “local speciality”.

Condition of Stones

Many of the very old stones and the “sausage” type stones are covered with moss. However, when the moss is removed, it is often possible to read the writing (click on photo to view full size.) Note that in many cases, surnames are not mentioned (family names become a regular feature only towards the end of the nineteenth century). The “boot” type stones are generally clear of moss but difficult to read.

Long cylindrical gravestones

Photo 3: "Sausage" type stones after initial cleaning .

Work Done

We cleaned (with hired help) and then read about 70 stones, about half of which were situated close to the grave of LIOB (click on photos to view full size). The majority of these stones relate to persons who died during the second half of the nineteenth century, although the earliest stone that we read dates back to 1803. On a number of stones there is reference to the deceased rabbinical ancestors (Besht, LIOB, Ish-Horowitz, Rabbi Zeev of Zitomir etc.). Researchers with interest in the details of these stones are welcome to contact me [Yael Driver] at drivery@netcomuk.co.uk

Reading gravestones


Reading stones in LIOB's cemetery

The Rescue Plan

Given the importance of Berdichev [the “Jerusalem of Vohlin”] and its central place in the development of Hassidic philosophy and given that this cemetery is still in a condition which could allow meaningful restoration, a project is being nursed with the following:

  • To clear the cemetery of all the shrubbery and undergrowth which hides many of the stones.
  • To read, record and publish details of all the stones that can be read.
  • To reconstruct/reassemble to the extent possible stones which have been broken and/or overturned.
  • To establish permanent care to ensure that the restored cemetery remains in an acceptable condition.
  • With this in mind, and with some funds already pledged, we would be grateful to hear from anybody who can give help, advice and regarding the following:

  • Photographic/digital
  • Environmentally friendly plant control agrochemicals, for use as means of eradicating the shrubs and other wild growth, without negative effect on the environment.
  • Fundraising – names of potential donor both organisations and individuals that would pledge the remaining financial support required for the project.
  • Volunteers – people prepared to spend time in Berdichev to work ‘on the ground’. We are particularly looking for people experienced in reading traditional Hebrew inscriptions on gravestones.
  • Read the report of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad about this cemetery. (link will open in a new window or tab)

    Update on Berdichev Cemetery, Sept. 2001: The story continues. Read about progress made.

    Mail feedback to: drivery@netcomuk.co.uk

     

  • Last Modified: 02-20-2012
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