There Is No Tombstone There Anymore

One of the missions my ancestors recruited me for on this journey is to find the graves, or at least the cemeteries, where my great-grandparents were laid to rest, and take care of them if possible. Five out of the eight of them were laid to rest here in Odessa. My parents only knew the locations of two: great-grandparents on my mother’s side (Yakov Gershkovich Meytus and Rukhla Meytus, born Ruhkla Kogan). My mother showed me their graves when she, along with my brother and cousin, came to meet me in Odessa last autumn.

It was quite a sacred moment to visit for the first time in my life the site where my great-grandparents were laid to rest. I felt connected with them more than ever before. I never got to meet them in the flesh. They died before I was born, halfway across the world from where I was raised. I heard stories of them. I felt them in my heart. Coming to their graves was the closest experience I’ve had to meeting them in person. I was moved to tears as I fully grasped the significance of standing at the spot where their bones lay beneath the surface. I was upon the soil their physical bodies decomposed to, next to the trees and shrubs their bodies fed. I understood more clearly why many traditional cultures regard nature as the ancestors. I spoke to my great-grandparents more closely than I ever had before. I praised their lives and gave them thanks for mine. We all did in turn. It was a blessed experience that also brought our living family closer together in tenderness and connection.

The other two great-grandparents on my mother’s side are far from here. Great-grandfather Gillel Sukhotnik died in transit evacuating out of Odessa to Uzbekistan during WWII. Where he is buried is a mystery. I haven’t been able to find any records on it. I learned that great-grandmother Ida Sukhotnik (born Ida Tanzer) is buried in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I was informed that the cemetery no longer exists. Destroyed by the Soviets.

This is unfortunately an all-too-common story of cemeteries in the former Soviet Union, especially Jewish cemeteries. I began seeing first-hand the tale of this tragic history when I was in Lviv and saw the massive outdoor market built on top of virtually all of the old Jewish cemetery there.

Here in Odessa, the Jewish cemetery that is still active is the Third Jewish Cemetery of Odessa. It opened officially after the 2nd World War, but unofficially was already open some years before the war. The First Jewish Cemetery of Odessa dates back to 1792, even before the official “founding” of the city of Odessa. The Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa was opened in 1885. Unfortunately they no longer exist as cemeteries. They were destroyed by the Soviets. The first one was laid to waste in 1936, along with the adjacent Muslim and Christian cemeteries. The second one was destroyed in 1978.

My friend Kirill Nefyodov of PhotoTour_Odessa showed me the former site of the Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa. I had my camera with me and asked him if he could share a bit about the history of the cemetery:

Not even the Nazis caused the level of destruction to the 2nd Jewish cemetery that the Soviets did. The Nazis desecrated the cemetery, toppling grave stones and leaving much of the cemetery in ruins. It was, however, able to be restored after the war. (This is, of course, not to gloss over the incomprehensible horror, death, and destruction the Nazis caused).

But decades later the Soviets brought in bulldozers and wiped every trace of cemetery away. Over the first one they poured concrete and constructed buildings.

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Site of the former 1st Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

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What remains of the entrance gate to the 1st Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

Over the second is now a park that is in many spots littered with trash. There is no memorial, no plaque, nothing indicating that this was once a cemetery in which thousands were buried. No physical trace to honor this sacred site. Most of the everyday passersby have no idea they’re walking over the bones of ancestors. In all likelihood, mine (from my father’s side) included.

I mentioned in the video above that I’m searching for confirmation of which cemetery my great-grandparents from my father’s side, Srul and Rivka Minsky, were buried in. My father didn’t know where any of his grandparents were laid to rest. I was able to find the death certificate of my great-grandmother Rivka Minsky in the Odessa archives, but there is no mention of where she was buried. In 1938, the year her death record states she died, most Odessa Jewish families were still burying their deceased in the Second Jewish Cemetery (though the Third was already open, unofficially).

Unfortunately the burial records of the Second Jewish Cemetery have disappeared. No one I spoke with at the Odessa State Archives, the Third Jewish Cemetery, the Jewish Museum of Odessa, the Holocaust Museum of Odessa knows what happened to the records. Most likely they were destroyed along with the cemetery is what I was told. Which means that getting one hundred percent confirmation is unlikely. But there is no record of Rivka or Srul Minsky at the Third Jewish Cemetery, and my local sources here agree, based on the info I have, that they were most likely buried at the Second.

Walking through, I imagined what it might have looked like when it was still active and respected as a sacred burial site. I wondered where my great-grandparents might be. A tiny seed of a fantasy stirred in a corner of my mind, that their tombstones could somehow have survived here somewhere. That any tombstone could have survived here. I began to wander. A part of me was searching. I mostly found piles of garbage.

I did find a few markers that this is actually once again an active cemetery. Just not for humans. In Odessa, people use the public parks as pet cemeteries. A thorough wandering through any park here can usually result in finding at least one grave of a family’s deceased pet. Here, on this site where thousands of Odessa’s Jews were buried, I found several recent pet graves. Would the care-takers of these pets have buried them here if they knew that they were burying them on top of human remains? Would people use this land as their personal waste dumping grounds if they knew what was here before?

Cemeteries are sacred sites. Especially for those whose ancestors were laid to rest there. The graves are physical altars where we can go pay homage to those from whom we came. They are spaces that connect us most closely to the physical memory of those who’ve passed on. They are the soil which our ancestors’ bodies have become. They are places that deserve to be honored, respected, and cared for. That’s not to say that other land doesn’t deserve such honor, respect, and care. All land is sacred.

The burial sites of the ancestors are especially sacred. They have been revered as such throughout millennia. The desecration, destruction, and disappearance of such sites is tragic. I personally feel this tragedy in the realization that I don’t, and possibly never will, know the exact site where some of my great-grandparents lay. As much as I want to visit their grave sites, I can’t, because so much of our human family has, for some time now, lost touch with what is sacred. I grieve for the loss of these cultural and personal heritage sites.

The light at the end of the tunnel in this part of the story is that there are good people in Odessa doing important heritage preservation and restoration work. One Odessa Jewish Cultural Heritage preservation activist I spoke with, Pavel Kozlenko, founder and director of the Odessa Holocaust Museum, has a beautiful vision for a memorial at the site of the former Second Jewish Cemetery. I’ll write more about this and how those interested can support it when the project is ready to go. The main thing needed to make this memorial happen is funding. Hopefully, together, we can help honor the memory of the ancestors who were nearly, but need not be, forgotten.

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Archival photo of the front gate entrance to the Second Jewish Cemetery of Odessa

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One thought on “There Is No Tombstone There Anymore

  1. Pingback: Grief and Praise in the Old Shtetl of Zhmerynka | Journey to the Lands of the Ancestors

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