Scenes from the Project

Case Study
In September 2013, a joint high school exchange program of German and Israeli students set out to restore, renovate and document the abandoned Jewish cemetery of Bad Neustadt an der Saale, where all traces of a once thriving Jewish community vanished following the annihilation of the Jews during World War 2. The exchange program between the high schools Mikve Yisrael High School (Holon, Israel) and the Bad Neustadt Rhön Gymnasium (Bad Neustadt a.S., Germany) has existed for over twenty years. The content of the program was traditionally one of cultural exchange. The documentation program that took place was the first attempt to address the question of the past.

The student's documentation of the cemetery brought to the table new information which can be used for research. The documentation cards give us an idea of how many men, women and Children were buried. In some cases we can learn causes of death. Some leaders of the community have become evident: Teachers, doctors, people who were known to give charity etc.
From the places of birth stated on the grave we learned where people emigrated from.
By reading what people chose to engrave we can learn what they wanted to emphasise. A very interesting example are a few graves of men which mention the unit they fought in during World War One. This teaches us of the identity in regard to national affiliation.
This information needs to be treated carefully, just like any text. Questions need to be asked on motives and social structures. But with a carful analysis that cross references the documentation material with archives and local knowledge, much can be learned.

This cemetery is one of many in Bavaria that is not documented and many of the graves are already unreadable. The main initial goal of the project was to clean up and map out the cemetery and to document each grave. Already at this stage, the joint work of students proved to be a pathway to asking questions about personal and communal identity, about beliefs, preconceptions and joint values. Furthermore, the information gathered was used to expand the knowledge about the Jewish community of Bad Neustadt. History books did not pay much attention to this small peripheral community. The tombstones were able to shed light on aspects the students would not be able to learn about through other written sources.
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Conceptualizing Cemeteries

Most people's immediate association to cemeteries is personal grief, sadness and memories. But a site which embodies so many personal stories can also be a window into whole communities. Bar Levav (2002) describes Jewish cemeteries as a place where not only the dead and the living meet, but also as a meeting place of spiritual, emotional and aesthetic ideas. As a result, the cemetery is a mixture of different and contradicting perceptions. These perceptions shape the physical development of the cemetery as well as the world of those who visit it.

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Worpole (2003) sheds light on the ways in which the landscaping and planning aspects of cemeteries have importance in understanding cemeteries religious, political and social links to cultural belief systems that symbolically manifest themselves in burial grounds. For instance, in the 19th century cemeteries in Western Europe, cemeteries were designed in a well organized and beautiful fashion to demonstrate social progress. But many times the cultural beliefs being manifested in these landscapes are not singular. Cemeteries are a landscape where past and future values can be negotiated. An example of this can be found at the colonial cemeteries in India today, some of which are the earliest modern cemeteries in the world. In the present they are sites of ambivalent meaning due to the heritage of colonialism. The claim is that it is because of this ambivalence in values and heritage that the cemeteries still stand, but in a state of decay and abandonment (Chadha 2006).

By viewing cemeteries as a mosaic that embeds different kinds of information we are able to ask questions regarding communities of a more anthropological and sociological nature. For example, we can learn demographic information, social structure and gender roles (Foster, Hummel & Adamchack, 1998). From an anthropological point of view it is important to discuss burial practices as well as understand how a given culture understands death. We must ask what forces shape funerary practices and rituals. This information is twofold, we can learn about the communities of the past, but also about those visiting the cemetery in the present.

Bar Levav (2002) offers 8 models that can help understand the social and cultural functions of cemeteries in Jewish culture. Using these models enables us to think theoretically of ways we can access the wealth of information cemeteries provide. These models include analyzing the cemetery as;
A neighbourhood - analyzing social structure and of the geographic marginality of cemeteries in Jewish tradition
A gate or Portal to the world of the dead.
A communication centre with the dead and with god.
A Stage where rituals take place.
A setting or backdrop - a moral setting aimed at shaping the consciousness of the visitor.
A refuge for dubious characters or activity.
A trap where those who enter can never leave.
A centre of identity for the living.

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This project is the outcome of an earlier and important program: Journey into Jewish Heritage, aimed at documenting lesser known Jewish communities around the world.
Under the initiative of Professor
Stefan Simon, three former students, Eyal Tagar, Idit Ben Or and Tomer Appelbaum joined the Israeli and German high school students and instructed them in the methodology of documenting cemeteries.
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