August 2, 2021
We are beyond excited to share with you a new initiative that just took place in Budapest. With a small grant and a great impetus from Shalom Corps, of Israel, we created a comprehensive week’s programs for 21 young Jewish volunteers from around the world including Israel, the US, Canada, Belarus and two locals. All they had to do was show up in Budapest and we would provide everything else including accommodation, meals, tours and travel. They worked for 25 hours over 5 days volunteering in the cemetery while the rest of the time was jam-packed with sightseeing tours of both the city and its Jewish sites, meetings with both young members and leaders of the community and gaining a deep appreciation for the city’s bars and clubs We spent hundreds of hours putting this program together but the wonderful outcome made it worthwhile.
Our work garnered a lot of interest from the local press and wider community. We even had Euronews, akin to the CNN of Europe, come onsite and interview us. Here is the link in English. Unfortunately though, the video does not play in some countries but it is worth a try: https://www.euronews.com/2021/07/27/in-budapest-volunteers-work-to-restore-one-of-the-world-s-largest-jewish-cemeteries
One of the volunteers, Hannah Kollan spoke eloquently and received messages on Linkedin and Facebook from viewers around the world who looked up her name and sought her out to praise the effort. One example: “I saw you on TV all the way in Boca Raton, Florida. My family is from Hungary and I remember my grandmother saying that her grandfather was the first Jewish Mayor of Budapest. I suspect he is buried in that cemetery. Thanks for doing what you did!”
While the planned programming left a strong impact, for me, it was the spontaneous moments that were almost magical. The young ladies who, while taking a break sitting at the intersection of two sections, decided to paint a heart that said “Love “ “Israel” and “22.7.21” or another volunteer who, after painting row markers in the enormous back sections of the cemetery was able to find her great-grandmother’s grave from 1933 covered by decades of ivy and mud! Lastly, we ended Shabbat with a walk to the Holocaust monument of the shoes on the Danube bank in front of the parliament. Before Havdala, the transition between the holiness of the Sabbath and the mundane week, the group broke into singing Am Yisrael Chai. I think I speak for the whole group when I say that this was a more powerful moment in helping to form a deeper Jewish identity and pride in it than any other on the trip.
The work in the cemetery consisted of a few different but vital tasks.
Our primary focus was on improving navigation. The cemetery has thousands of sandstone row markers, most of which are illegible and many of them buried under mud, vines or leaves. During the 5 days, over 1500 were dug out, cleaned and painted.
We began to install new signage for the sections. Many of the existing ones have either rusted or fallen off their pillars but a bigger problem for visitors is numbering of the graves. It is almost impossible is knowing which side of the section to begin counting from as, unfortunately - after our survey work earlier this year showed us - there is no uniform direction of grave numbers. We ordered new section signs that show the direction in which the numbering works for that particular section. Volunteers drilled these into wooden posts that had to be first partially coated in tar and bagged to ensure longevity.
The clean-up of Section 8 was led by 2 industrious volunteers, Aviv and Igor, who every day took string trimmers (weed whackers) and chainsaws to help clear it of thick brush, ivy and self-seeded trees. This is an old section with many graves from the 1890s. One day, the entire group joined them to remove extremely thick ivy over many graves, the before and after of which can be seen in the pictures below.
Finally, in some of our de-forested sections, we were able to fill many garbage bags full of litter left behind visitors who use plastic canisters as flower vases.
A great deal of gratitude goes to our volunteers who worked hard over this week and who brought respect and honor back to the level it deserves. This whole program could not have run without the hard work and dedication of Zsolt Martha, the vice-principal of the Scheiber School in Budapest who volunteered his time beforehand and for the entire week even until after midnight on a number of days. We are also deeply appreciative to Rabbis Slomo Koves, Baruch Oberlander and Shmuel Raskin Rabbi of Chabad and Rabbi Gabor Finaly too. We also thank Mr Andras Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, Mr Joco Horvath, Dan Perl, owner of JJ de Messier, our friend Miksa Winkler and finally Abel and Ben Keszler.
Thank you as always for your support,
Michael and Marc