The highest 'Mitzvot'

Shinjo, a Japanese law student, and a Finish volunteer

There are some three hundred and forty known Jewish cemeteries in the Czech lands. The thriving communities that once tended to their care were virtually wiped out during the Second World War. The ravages of time - but also vandalism - have left many Jewish burial sites here a tangled mess of cracked headstones and thick undergrowth.

Ustek's Jewish cemetery

Honouring the dead and caring for burial grounds is one of the highest Mitzvot, or good deeds, that a Jew can perform, for it is a service for someone who can never return the kindness. Most every Jewish community has an organization to care for the dead, known as a chevra kaddisha, or holy fellowship, whose members are volunteers.

"My name is Eva Geblerova, I'm a student and I decided to lead this [cemetery restoration] project because I'm very interested in Jewish culture and history - and I live in Ustek. Of course we are not the first to work on this cemetery -- there was a group of Czech people here - but we are trying to help by removing the weeds, cleaning the gravestones and trying to erect those that have fallen..."

"We are also working on the ceremonial funeral hall, as this is completely in ruins. We will try to find as many stones as we can and bring them together - and at least clean, because as you can see, it is in very bad condition."

International volunteers work to tend the graves

In the northern Bohemian town of Ustek, there is no such holy fellowship, for there are no longer any practicing Jews living there. Families with the means to do so had fled by the autumn of 1938, with Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich, and the imposition of the Nazi regime's hateful race laws throughout the territory. Nearly all who remained were sent on to the nearby concentration camp of Terezin.

So it is mainly young volunteers - most of them gentiles, and many from abroad - who now tend to the graves. I caught up with one volunteer 'brigada' on a breezy weekend afternoon.

"My name is Lukas, I am from Poland, from Warsaw, the capital. I chose this project where we are renovating a Jewish cemetery because I think - as I am Polish - I think that our cultures, Jewish and Polish, are very similar - it is connected with our history. So I want to help Jewish history to survive. I don't want people to forget about that because it is also part of my history and my traditions."

Shinjo, a Japanese law student, and a Finnish volunteer

"I am a law student from Japan. My name is Shinjo, and I came here with a group of international volunteers. I am interested in the Czech Republic and Jewish culture."

"I'm from Germany and we have a history that is not... okay. So I wanted to know more about the Jewish history with Germany and I think this is a good way to do it."

RP: Is this the first time you have done such volunteer work?

"Yes, it's the first time I've done a work camp."

RP: Once you've taken the shards of the broken headstone, here, will you piece it back together during this two-week camp?

Many gravestones have been vandalised

"Yes. We will place it on the gravestone were it fits in - where it beliongs."

Since the early 1990s, the Federation of Jewish Communities has been working to support the conservation, preservation and restoration of some 340 odd cemeteries scattered throughout Bohemia and Moravia. About 70 were destroyed during the Second World War or demolished during Communist rule.

The Ustek cemetery survived in large part because of its isolation. It lies near the top of a sloping hillside, deep in what seems an endless forest. The oldest surviving headstone dates back to 1570, but the burial site had been in use since the late 1400s. It is still strikingly idyllic.

A volunteer from Germany sorting and cleaning shards from a headstone

"I remember going to school with one Jewish girl. And then there was the order that we could not talk to them. And then they disappeared, and I never saw that girl again. The wealthy ones - the Schwarzes, the Singers - they made it to America. I remember this Singer - he was a big man, and I can remember the people spitting on him. Those people were really poor things. I felt very sorry for them. None of the old Jewish families returned, although there were quite a few running shops here."

Edeltraud Horacek was born in Ustek into a mixed Czech-German family. Her father served in the Wermarcht, the German infantry, and fought the Soviets on the eastern front. He kept a simple diary, which he sent to his young daughter in June 1942.

She began making short entries herself, which is why she can recall with such clarity the names of the deported - first the Jews, and then after the war, the ethnic Germans, forced to leave under the Benes Decrees.

But Mrs Horacek prefers to remember a simpler time, she says, when Czech and German, gentile and Jew, lived in Ustek in peace -- and respected each other's traditions.

"We were going there to the Jewish cemetery as children. There were beautiful headstones. I don't know what it looks like now, but it was a beautiful cemetery. There was a wall around it and a mortuary hall. I remember following the hearses there. I don't want to say anything against them, but the Czechs destroyed a lot -- whatever the Germans didn't manage to destroy, the Czechs finished. I remember there were these beautiful marble headstones for the Schwartz family; they were the richest family here. I went there later and saw the graves open. Maybe they were looking for gold."

The Ustek synagogue was a ruin just a few years ago

Today, there are no open, or exposed, graves at the Jewish cemetery in Ustek, but a good number of headstones have gone missing, or lay about in crumbling piles. Ingrid Augstenova, a member of the national heritage commission in nearby Usti nad Labem, says that neglect was the main culprit.

Although overgrown with weeds, the funeral hall at the Ustek site was still standing up until the 1970s and the inscription 'Love is as strong as death' - written in Hebrew and German - clearly visible above the vestibule. A change in the law on historical preservation came too late to save it.

Interior of the restored Ustek synagogue

"The ceremonial funeral hall was part of the cemetery. Thanks to the Ustek locals, it was disassembled. They took the bricks away to make a motel. The cemetery wasn't protected as a national heritage site at the time. It was put on the list in 1989, thanks to a 1987 law, by which it became easier to get that designation, as the application didn't have to be made by the owner. I only needed to send a letter to the Minister of Culture saying there was a valuable cemetery here."

Mrs Augstenova was instrumental in saving the Ustek synagogue and having the cemetery designated as a protected national heritage site. But here, like in much of the country, much has been irretrievably lost.

"People took away many of the headstones to use for different purposes. There is a monument, for example, that was built right after the war and which stands outside what is now the "Na Ruzku" restaurant. It was built in honour of the Polish army, and an expert from the Jewish Museum in Prague says it was made from the headstone of a Jewish poet."

Photo: Author