January 17, 2024
Here is our wrap for 2023, we hope you enjoy reading it.
2023 was another strong year of progress with newly completed renovations of sections as well as a number of new initiatives. Everything we do, be it physical work onsite, tours as well as online resources, is in pursuit of one singular objective: to give due importance to one of the two largest Jewish cemeteries in the world. It is at once a resting place of around 300,000 people as well as testament to the enormous contribution of the Jewish community, as Hungarians, to turn the country into the powerhouse it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. The many beautiful mausoleums and monuments exude power and serve as a stark reminder for those of us who have moved on to other parts of the world, that there is no guarantee of permanency anywhere.
Finished three sections 30, 31 and 15 in the second half of the year, for a total of 24,866 square meters or 6.1 acres with 7,213 burials
Restored one of the main entrance gates and dedicated it in recognition of the generosity of the Munk family of Canada
Roadwork and Navigation: Repaired 10 long roads at the back of the cemetery (over 1.5 miles in total) and added much-needed turning circles at the ends. We also removed a great deal of old broken tombstone waste that blocked many roads, allowing for far better navigation
Datacard project - Volunteers needed to work from home: In conjunction with the Budapest Jewish Museum and Archives, we will begin digitazation of the approx. 200,000 cards in drawers at the cemetery office that contain accurate and helpful information for descendants. The work is easy - it just involves entering the data on the card into an online program - but some knowledge of Hungarian is required. PLEASE CONTACT US IF YOU ARE WILLING.
Maintenance matters: i) Established a campaign to bring in a subscription-style model of affordable annual contributions from many that will aim to support a new, separate maintenance team. ii) Learned that our herbicide formula to prevent weed growth was too strong for some of the large trees within sections and killed them. We spent some months fixing the problem and have adjusted this for the coming spring application
Renovating Some Beautiful Graves: Many more successful visits are taking place due to easier access. With that, come many requests for help with cleaning and/or renovating individual graves, some of which are beautiful but just need some loving care. Please see below for one outstanding example. NB. We do not use general donations for individual stones, these come from family members
CALL TO ACTION: We know that many of you just responded to our recurring annual subscription request last week but for those who have not donated for the year, we request your participation by clicking on this link: https://www.budapestjewishcemetery.com/donate
Please read further for details:
Sections 30 and 31 are among the older sections in the cemetery, with most of the 4,305 burials taking place between 1904 and 1906. In total, the area is 15,946 sq. meters or just under 4 acres. We also discovered two rows in Section 31 containing some 70 beautiful very old tombstones that come from the old Pest cemetery and that were brought here in 1905. These 70, among other individual stones, pale insignificance when compared to the mass grave of 20-30,000 remains from this cemetery that was discovered last year in the far corner of Section37. Here is the grave of Leah (Eleonora) Sachs nee Neuschloss who died in April 1873. It is an incredible example both in its beauty but more so because of the double acrostic poem. Many graves from this period contain acrostic poems using the first letters of a person's name but this is the first time we have seen this with the letter is used twice in the same line at in a uniform place.
Section 30 Before and After
This is the bottom left corner of S30 and bordering the already-cleared S29. The wide open vista is starting to look like a normal cemetery now. We took advantage of the equipment onsite to dig out 6 inches (50cm) of mud on the road to find a solid surface
Section 31 Before and After
The first seven months of 2023 began with no new work; we were told by some misinformed figures, that cutting down trees is forbidden by the local district. We knew this was patently untrue but it took us some months to find the right method and experts to deal with it. Eventually, we found the top environmental lawyer in the country, who provided us with a 10 page opinion that covered the entire gambit from national, to city to district law and regulations proving that there were no restrictions whatsoever. Moreover, under Jewish law, a cemetery is not really supposed to have any trees that interfere with graves as it brings dishonor to those buried there. After that opinion was universally accepted by the lawyers of the community body, it took some more weeks to make contractual arrangements. Finally, work began in early August. This is the main reason why our new section completion was limited, especially compared with the prior year. Two other issues - i) this stoppage forced our contractor to lay off staff and he had a hard time recruiting more workers after this and ii) we only worked with one team and not two, given the difficulty in managing resources such as the woodchipper.
Renovation of an Entrance Gate
We are proud to announce the dedication of the gate where all cars drive through to enter the cemetery proper. It will now be known as the Munk Family Gate. We quote a sentence for the Torah, Genesis 15:15 where God says to Abram "And thou shalt go to thy father in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age". This was said during the famous Covenant of the Parts " where Abram is given a great blessing. He is told that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in heaven but in "great dread" he hears that this offspring would be strangers in a land that is not theirs and eventually enslaved for 400 years. Eventually, they would go forth with great possessions and return to the promised land. Abram, though, is blessed with no more travails and a promise of peace until an old age.
This is the main gate through which cars drive into the cemetery. Here it is before renovation, somewhat rusty with an ugly left pillar
Roads and Navigation
We have worked hard to improve the navigability of the cemetery. Until now, this has mostly been through better signage showing the direction of grave numbering along with renovated row markers. Now we have tackled some of the roads, a game changer for those who struggle to walk long distances. All the eleven sections at the back have close to 90 rows and a distance from the beginning to end of some 250 metres (275 yards). While these roads have been somewhat accessible, many do not dare enter due to overgrown trees making the road too narrow in parts. Being dead ends, there was no way to turn around, forcing one to reverse all the way. In late November, we created turning circles and cleared tree stumps on 10 of those roads. Not only can cars have easy access, when it comes to future work, we will be able to take the truck and woodchipper down these roads too. Many of the smaller roads were also blocked partially by old tombstone debris that had been left either on the sides of the road or on corners. We have now cleaned up and disposed of a lot of that too. After removing the build up of debris and mud, we actually found blacktop in many places. Here are a couple of pictures. Look at the sides of the roads to see the level vs the road, this is how much we dug out. You can also see our new sign with the direction of grave numbering. You cannot see the turning circles though but they are very important.
Datacards – calling for volunteers
Over the years, many have asked us about access to the data cards that sit in the drawers in the cemetery office. Digitizing these would provide a great service to the cemetery but we were not successful at convincing them to let us go ahead and do it. I am pleased to announce that in conjunction with the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, this project will now begin. We expect that the initial step of scanning all 200,000+ existing cards will begin this month. The bigger work to follow will involve digitally indexing the cards. The cards are a combination of printed and handwritten script an example of which you can see below. WE ARE CALLING ON VOLUNTEERS TO HELP WITH THIS PROJECT -- IT CAN BE DONE FROM HOME. Some knowledge of Hungarian is required. Even a few hours a week would have an impact.
We have already been in touch regarding our new maintenance subscription program. While we have made a very good start, we need more of our supporters to sign up to this relatively small sum of US$180 a year. A small amount from the hands of many will ensure that all of the advances from painstaking work to date, reversing decades of neglect, will continue far into the future.
Neither Marc nor I have any experience in horticulture or cemetery restoration. We learn everything through speaking to others who do and also learn from experience. We discovered that our formula for herbicides was too strong and killed a number of large trees within sections. Most of these are ones we would have liked to remove in the first place but could not be easily felled due to the many graves nearby. We have spent and will spend more time cutting these down using alpine technique.
In an ideal world, we could plant grass or similar around graves but with the rows being so narrow, one cannot run even the narrowest law mower through. As a result, we spray herbicide to inhibit weed growth and the proliferation of damaging plants like ivy. This is followed up by annual weeding and blowingleaves off the top of graves.
Renovating Some Beautiful Graves
As we have made significant improvements to access, many more successful visits take place. This has resulted in a greater number of requests by descendants and friends interested in cleaning and sometimes fully restoring stones in various states of disrepair. We have helped many people with this, especially in 2023. One example is the stone of Kallai Miklos, a 19 year old who died of a sporting injury incurred while playing at a very high level. A descendant in Australia paid for a cleaning and pictures, which you can see below. We removed all the ivy and growth and cleaned up around the grave, but the end pieces had started to separate and we had a brown-looking stone. Seeing the original from 1930, we knew it could be worth power washing and fixing, and you can see the end result below. It is still spectacular, with only the bird bath missing and lies deep inside the cemetery.
In another case, we found a simple grave with a marble plaque that had eroded almost entirely. We replaced it and cleaned up the frame. It is important to note that we do not use general donations for individual stones, only specifically-directed payments.