Deep Dive: Bringing Jewish Cemeteries to Life

British author and academic Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein spent the past year working with seven different communities across Europe to bring old Jewish cemeteries alive through new and exciting initiatives, encouraging a phenomenal revival of Jewish history

Rachel Lichtenstein
Images by Dr. Paul Darby and Piotr Banasik, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Krakow, at the Remah Cemetery, a historic necropolis with tombstones dating back to the sixteenth century, I wandered around with a group of students taking photographs. Soon after we walked to the lesser-known New Jewish Cemetery, located near a graffiti-covered underpass on the outskirts of the old town. The gated walls of the burial ground stretched over acres of land, a quiet wild space shaded by a thick canopy of trees. The air was filled with the sound of birdsong and the smell of wild garlic. Many of the graves were concealed beneath a thick covering of ivy, which gave the place an otherworldly feel. As we walked around taking photographs, I spoke to several of the Jewish studies students, many of whom spoke fluent Hebrew and Yiddish although none of them were Jewish. One young Polish woman told me that she keenly felt the void of the Jews in the streets, the constant and continuous sense of loss. She wanted to understand more about Jewish culture, the language and traditions of a people who had co-existed with the Polish community for centuries beforehand but were now unknown to her.

My name is Dr Rachel Lichtenstein, I am a British author and academic from Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K., who has spent the past year working with the Foundation for Jewish Heritage steering a range of different creative and educational activities at seven different Jewish cemeteries across Europe for the Deep Dive program. This project was part of an EU funded initiative with a consortium of international partners, that aimed to create ‘the broadest possible educational work on Jewish cemeteries in Europe’. The goal of the Deep Dive program was to demonstrate how Jewish cemeteries can be used as cultural, tourist, and heritage sites, as well as places of significance for educational purposes, whilst also honoring and remembering the Jewish communities who once lived in these places. We explored a variety of cemeteries and tested out a range of activities at seven very different Jewish burial grounds to encourage visitors from local communities and abroad, as well as school groups, to visit and learn more about these places in engaging new ways.

Image by Dr. Paul Darby, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Some of these cemeteries are historic sites that date back to the sixteenth century, while others remain as poignant memorials to those who perished in the Holocaust, as well as tangible remnants of the now largely disappeared Jewish communities who once occupied these locales for centuries. Others are satellite burial grounds, chosen for their ecological value, or due to partnerships with local teachers or communities already developed in those places. A few of these cemeteries are already frequently visited, mainly by religious pilgrims who come to pay their respects or pray at the graves of revered Rabbis and important figures in the Jewish world. Others are semi-abandoned, wild, and ruinous, and overgrown with trees. All are filled with thousands of stories about Jewish European settlement and life, and we can learn a great deal by engaging with them.

The Deep Dive program set out to explore how we can interact with these sites in a plethora of new ways, both educational and touristic. We tested a range of different initiatives to encourage local communities to develop heritage skills, as well as use these sites for educational, artistic, and touristic purposes. The activities we developed ranged from audio guides to heritage trails, digital mapping projects, films, and teacher’s packs. It was important for us to make sure that they were developed in partnership with local people, organizations, and institutions, whilst remaining respectful of these sites, their complex histories, their religious functions, and the participants involved.

Cemeteries by their very nature are full of stories of individuals and communities, past and sometimes present, and I strongly believe that our relationships to places are enriched and deepened when we engage with them directly. We need to have our feet on the ground, and explore them for ourselves, to learn about the layers of stories that exist there, particularly the histories of those who came before us. I cannot think of a more important and urgent project than the exploration of Jewish burial grounds in these places, which are so resonant with the tales of Jewish communities, now largely absent from these sites. These cemeteries are precious and utterly irreplaceable, both to the wider Jewish diaspora and the communities who live alongside them today. I truly hope that this project will encourage others to visit and learn from and about these Jewish cemeteries for themselves.

Images by Davit Mirvelashvili, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Georgia, we developed a teacher’s pack that explores Georgian Jewish history and Jewish cemeteries in that country, which are uniquely different to other burial grounds across Europe. For example, the twentieth century Soviet-era Jewish tombstones are similar in style to Georgian gravestones and often include pictures of the deceased and the inscriptions on the graves are in both Hebrew and Georgian. This project developed out of an urgent need for information, as there has long been a gap in available material for secondary school groups on Jewish cemeteries in Georgia, and many schoolteachers have only a limited knowledge of Jewish history. The development of this educational pack bridged this gap by creating a freely available resource that enables pupils and teachers alike to explore and learn about Jewish cemeteries, and therefore also about Jewish culture, life, and history. The pack is freely available in Georgian and English and has been printed and sent to many schools in Georgia as well as distributed to various libraries. The pack includes historical information, activities such as drawing symbols from Jewish tombstones and interpreting epitaphs, personal stories of Georgian Jewish figures, a quiz for students to test their knowledge, and more.

Image by Judit Sugár, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Hungary, we decided to take a different approach, as meaningful connections with local Jewish history already existed in the city we chose to work with, so our job was to deepen already established connections. Therefore, we developed a project with known local Jewish and non-Jewish partners in the city of Szombathely who have been actively engaged in preserving Jewish memory there. This city was chosen because of its rich Jewish history, still active community, and successful Jewish heritage projects there. The final outcome was ultimately created by the head of the local Jewish community, Judit Sugar, who wrote and directed a documentary which focuses on the Jewish cemetery and captures the stories of the many important personalities buried there. The film also features extensive material on the history of the community, and interviews with the mayor alongside other local people including schoolchildren. The documentary is in Hungarian but subtitled in English and explores the fate of Hungarian and Central European Jewry through the history of just one town.

Image by Gabriel Khiterer, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In each vicinity of the project, we set out to work with the local population, because it is they who are best equipped to tell us about the needs and values of their community. One example of this approach is the Deep Dive project that we carried out in Lithuania, where we collaborated with a local institution, a Jewish historian, and a writer, to encourage school children to develop creative writing pieces around their visits to a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. Local Jewish school children took guided tours to a Jewish cemetery, where they learnt about the history of the Jewish cemetery, community and stories about the individuals buried there. Following these visits, the pupils took part in creative writing workshops, with an award-winning Lithuanian writer, where they were taught how to develop their ideas into poems, stories, and pieces of flash fiction, which were subsequently made into a small publication.

Images by Zuzana Martinková, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

This wasn’t the only community in which we decided to focus on students. In Slovakia we developed a pack for primary school children which explored the history, biodiversity, and ecology, of The Old Forgotten Jewish Cemetery outside the city center of Banská Bystrica. This site is historically rich and has a great range of plant, bird, and insect life. The content for this pack was researched and produced by master’s students from the Department of Biology and Ecology at the local University.

Visits to Jewish cemeteries can of course provide an insight into the historical past of a community, but they can also speak to current ecological concerns, as neglected rural sites such as cemeteries often become places of rich biodiversity. This innovative project demonstrates how we can care for both our past and our future, and combat the negative effects of climate change by protecting these historically and ecologically important sites.

Images by Svetlana Kostetkaia, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein




In other localities, it was more important for us to develop content for the cemeteries themselves. In Moldova, we produced an AudioWalk of 10-12 minutes long, available in Romanian, English and Russian, that explores the history of the Jewish Cemetery in Moldova’s capital city of Chisinau, and stories about the individuals buried there. This project set out to create a more immersive visitor experience for those wishing to explore this extraordinary site and direct them to places of interest within the cemetery. We wanted to demonstrate how an audio guide can encourage visitors, tourists, and school groups to explore and experience a Jewish cemetery and how making a digital tool which is freely available in three different languages might expand the visitor footfall of such a site.

Images by Piotr Banasik, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Similarly, in Krakow, Poland, we developed a photographic and historical program to encourage new ways of engaging with Jewish burial sites. The innovative part of this project was to train history students in photographic and artistic techniques, to encourage them to look at familiar places and explore well-known histories in new ways. The project culminated with a launch of the resulting photographic exhibition, which showcased the history and beauty of these historic Jewish cemeteries, in June 2023.

Image by Taras Kovalchuk, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, we collectively decided that we were unable to conduct activities on the ground there, so we chose to create a digital outcome for this project. Building on the work of historian Tetiana Fedoriv from the town of Zbarazh, we developed a digital memory map of the cemetery there, which visitors can explore remotely. This interactive digital map brings the stories of 15 individuals buried there vividly to life through a combination of historical research and photographic images. We used emergent technology to geolocate Tetiana’s research before making it widely available to international scholars and other digital visitors to the site.

Our groundbreaking program bought so many kinds of people together, institutions, and organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, across seven European countries, among them educators in all fields, students, schoolteachers, tour guides, historians, university departments and lecturers, as well as museums, local community representatives and politicians. In total approximately 500 individuals have taken part in the program so far, as participants, collaborators, and partners, and many more are expected to engage with the multiple outcomes of this project. The full report of the Deep Dive program and all the outcomes are available here along with the names of all those involved in the program, including funders, organizations, partners and participants:


This article was composed as a collaboration between Rachel Lichtenstein and Mia Amran. 


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