Restored Jewish Cemetery Falls into Disrepair

October 6, 2010
One year after the last vestige of Jewish Pristina was officially reopened following restoration, the graveyard has returned to its unkempt state and grand plans to transform the site into a historic attraction have been dropped through lack of funding

A top Pristina’s Tauk Bahqe in the Velania neighbourhood lies a little-known site of Kosovar cultural heritage. While it has been listed as one of the 19 protected monuments in the city, few people are aware of the unmarked Jewish cemetery hidden on this unassuming hill overlooking Kosovo’s capital.

The cemetery dates from the 19th century, a time when the Jewish population in Kosovo and the region was plentiful and flourishing. Today, it is the only reminder of the once thriving Jewish life.

The younger gravestones display Hebrew engravings that are still legible, indicating the names and dates of the deceased according to the Jewish calendar, such as “3 Adar 5656” which is equivalent to 17 February 1896 in the Gregorian calendar. Just a year ago, the Jewish cemetery in Velania was hardly recognisable as a cemetery, most graves unidentifiable and covered in grass and garbage.

A project was initiated by the Czech Embassy in Kosovo to restore the site, however, to this day it is unmarked and unguarded, and is used by local youngsters for football.

The project, aimed at rehabilitating the cemetery, was cofinanced by the Czech Embassy and the Kosovo Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports and implemented by the Institute for the Protection of Monuments and the regional museum of Pristina.

The initiative came after the Czech Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs visited the site in the summer of 2008, witnessed the desolate state of the cemetery after decades of neglect, and decided that something had to be done.

The project was realised in summer of 2009 at a cost of 13,000 euro. The restoration of the cemetery was celebrated with an opening on October 26, 2009, at which the Czech Ambassador, Janina Hrebickova, as well as then Minister of Culture, Valton Beqiri, spoke on the importance of preserving and protecting a site that bears testimony to a civilization that lived in Kosovo for so long.

However, only a year after the restoration, the cemetery is again overgrown with grass, some of the stones are out of place and the site remains unmarked. Seventeen stones were moved to two rows at the top of the hill where they were placed on cement blocks at ground level, which occasionally attracts curious looks from passers-by. It is this moving of stones that also drew criticism from the local Albanian-Jewish Solidarity Association.

Jan Plesinger, deputy head at the Czech Embassy, regrets that the project could not be prolonged due to lack of funds, and regrets that funding from other sources did not materialise.

“The Czech budget for development and technical assistance was cut significantly, leaving the embassy unable to support anything but the first two stages of what had initially been planned as a four-stage project,” Plesinger explains.

Nevertheless, he also stresses that “ownership of the project is in the hands of Pristina’s Institute for Protection of Monuments,” and it would be their job to maintain the site in good condition.

Despite the poor state of the site to this day, Plesinger considers the biggest – and unexpected – success of the project the increased public awareness of Jewish history in Kosovo that the press coverage of the restoration led to.

The Albanian-Jewish Solidarity Association, founded in 2008 with the aim to further cultural exchange between the two peoples and revive Jewish culture in Kosovo, however, maintain that the work was done in an unprofessional manner.

Specifically, the fact that gravestones were moved ‘amounts to desecration’ of the site, according to its head Ruzhdi Shkodra.

The association designed a plan for restoring the neglected cemetery in Velania without moving any of the gravestones, consisting of a pathway through the cemetery and a memorial sign.

However, lack of funds put the plan on hold. In the meantime, the Institute for Protection of Monuments started work on the site.

Shkodra states that because no outside expertise on Jewish cemeteries was sought “great damage was done”. The association strongly condemned this, including in a letter to the Minister of Culture. Haxhi Mehmetaj, director of the Institute for Protection of Monuments, on the other hand, maintains that the gravestones had been moved before, possibly by a landslide, leaving the archaeologists unable to identify the graves belonging to the respective stones.

He states that while his institute was appointed to restore twenty graves, during their excavations, the team of archaeologists found a total of ninety graves, more than had been expected there.

The stones that were moved were those unidentifiable to a specific grave. They were therefore placed at the top of the hill in a row, which was perceived as more dignified.

Mehmetaj also plans to publish monographs of all the inscriptions on the gravestones, based on work by experts who studied the Hebrew inscriptions. Yet this work remains unfinished for a year now.

Meanwhile, the Albanian-Jewish Solidarity Association has focused its activities on the cultural level through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, signed earlier this month, for the eventual establishment of a Jewish cultural centre in Pristina.

The association counts a hundred members, both Albanians of Jewish heritage and others interested in promoting Jewish culture and ties between the two peoples.

Apart from promoting cultural and scientific exchange, such as arranging for collaboration between the University of Pristina and Ben Gurion University in Israel, the association also aims to institutionalize the commemoration of the Holocaust in Kosovo.

For the past two years they have organized private memorials and conferences, which were met with great interest. They aim to make the international Holocaust Remembrance Day an official remembrance day in Kosovo.

Kosovo has a long, yet little known Jewish history, culminating in the rescue of over 2,000 European Jews in Albania, many of whom found their way to the safe haven through Kosovo. There is evidence of arrival of the Jews in Kosovo in the 15th century.

During this time, the Ottoman lands became a refuge place to several waves of Jewish refugees from north and west. The biggest immigration wave came after 1492, when roughly 90,000 Jews arrived in the Balkans expelled from Spain and Portugal following the inquisition.

In the mid-19th century, there were Jewish merchants in Prizren, 600 Jews in Gjakova, and a Jewish community in Prishtina. By the end of the Ottoman period there were 305 Jews in Pristina and 3,000 Jews in the whole of Kosovo. Some of these have been buried at the cemetery in Velania.

Soon after the Serbian Montenegrin conquest in 1912 some Jews emigrated to Turkish territory, though it was the Second World War that brought an end to Jewish life in Kosovo.

During the Second World War, Albania became a remarkable safe haven for Jews, emerging from the war as the only country in Europe with a larger Jewish population than before. 2,000 European Jews found refuge in Albania, where they were hidden and protected by the local population.

Many of these found their way to Albania via Kosovo, aided by officials, including the mayors of Pristina who organised the safe passage of hundreds of Jews to Albania.

Whether or not Jewish life might be revived through the association’s activities, and despite the efforts of the Czech embassy, the cemetery on Tauk Bahqe remains poorly protected and preserved.