For years, Eva Fenton could not visit the grave of her uncle and grandfather, who are buried together in one plot. What prevented her was not that her loved ones are interred in Budapest, but that the gravesite’s location was so overgrown with trees, roots and weeds that she could not navigate the grounds.
“I couldn’t get in for the last few years or so because it was covered with ivy and fallen trees,” the Toronto resident told The CJN. “I couldn’t even get near it. It was in a terrible condition.”
Fenton got in touch with the New York-based Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery, which works to restore one of the world’s largest Jewish burial grounds, the Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery in the Hungarian capital.
“They cleared the section,” said Fenton, who was able to mark her 80th birthday last June with a visit to the now-unobstructed grave. “They helped me a lot.”
The experience of Peter Tolnai was somewhat different. Both his parents survived the Holocaust, but his mother’s brother perished at the age of 18 at a forced labour camp in the western Hungarian village of Hegyeshalom.
“That loss was transformative for my mother,” said the retired Toronto investor. “She never really got over it. She couldn’t talk about it. She didn’t know where his remains were. She did say there was a memorial to those who died in labour camps, but she never pursued it.”
The birth of Tolnai’s twin sons in 2017 spurred him to investigate, and he also contacted Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery. Just a month into what Tolnai called a “treasure hunt,” the organization sent him a photograph of a memorial in the Kozma Street cemetery engraved with the names of 1,400 Hungarian Jews who had died at the Hegyeshalom labour camp. His uncle, Peter Richtmann, was among them.
“I was just blown away,” Tolnai said.
A year ago, he visited the cemetery and found it “shocking how overgrown and derelict” it was, but he was equally impressed with the Friends’ “dedication and passion for this project. I deeply appreciate their commitment and help.” Seeing his uncle’s name “was a landmark moment for our family.”
Support for the Friends of the Budapest Jewish Cemetery has grown internationally, said the group’s chairman, Michael Perl. In Canada, it has raised about $50,000 since its founding in early 2017.
With mausoleums of the well-to-do and many famous Hungarians buried there, the cemetery is more like an open-air museum. It houses Holocaust-era monuments, the remains of those transferred from mass graves and burial places for Torah scrolls that were desecrated during the war years.
Restoring the landmark is a daunting task. Opened in 1891, it’s among the three largest Jewish cemeteries in the world – a sprawling 77 hectares, with more than 300,000 bodies in 180,000 graves.
Perl said most of the cemetery – about 65 per cent – is “like a jungle, with very difficult access” to graves, and he warns that if something isn’t done soon, the grounds could be swallowed up by vegetation in 20 years.
He said the project has the full support of local Jewish authorities, whose funds are too limited to attack the mess in any serious way. The Hungarian government is not involved; a few years ago, it committed about $1.4 million to the restoration of Jewish cemeteries, but only those in rural areas where there are too few Jews to tend them. Most of Hungary’s estimated 100,000 Jews are in Budapest.
The Friends’ work began last October, when a group of paid employees, some volunteers and five prisoners from a local jail who were glad for the chance to work outdoors, began clearing the debris and overgrowth using tools donated by Stihl, a German manufacturer of chainsaws, trimmers and blowers.
In seven weeks, they cleared three sections and uncovered 3,700 graves that hold the remains of 5,000 people. In some cases, mounds of dirt up to a half-metre high had to be hauled away.
The work, Perl said, represents just four per cent of the total area his organization seeks to clear. He estimates the whole project would cost nearly US$1 million and take three to four years to complete, as no labour can be done during the winter.
Perl said most of the headstones that were revealed last autumn were in decent condition. “Because we have cleared the sections, now people can come and fix up the graves if they need it,” he noted.
Now that spring is approaching, the work will start up again, with a mind “to do this on a bigger scale,” Perl said. Last fall, there was one team working. “We want to make it two teams so we can cover that much more.”
The Friends also do genealogical research, as in Tolnai’s case.
Perl, who was born in Australia, first visited the cemetery with his Hungarian-born father at age 13. He returned when he was 26 to a dramatic change and remembers jumping over branches and ducking under bushes. It left a deep impression.
“I decided I wanted to do something … to preserve a tangible link to the heritage of the large number of descendants who live across the world, many in Canada,” said the 48-year-old portfolio manager.
Retired Toronto businessman Tom Sved said he’s never had problems visiting the graves of his parents in the Kozma Street cemetery, though the graveyard was in “appalling condition, overgrown everywhere” for many years.
Sved said he supports the project for reasons of “human dignity. I feel it’s an obligation of the living to do what they can to preserve some of the dignity of the people who are buried there.”
For details, visit budapestjewishcemetery.com.