FJC’s Jewish community of Irkutsk, Russia came together for a moment of “historical justice” as the locals called it, at the opening of a monument on the Jewish part of a destroyed city cemetery last week.
The monument is an exact replica of the one that was erected at the cemetery in1898 and later destroyed, when the cemetery, symbolically named “Jerusalem Mountain”, was vandalized and made into the city’s central park under Stalin’s orders in the 1930’s.
“The memorial was restored on community funds- everyone donated however much they could to have it completed,” said Mrs. Dorit Wagner, local community leader.
Irkutsk’s cemetery was established in the 17th century for the general city population- it had a Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, and even Buddhist plots, records show. Jews were buried there from the 18th to 20th century.
However starting in the 1930’s the cemetery was systemically vandalized, with gravestones used for building construction. It eventually became the site of Irkutsk’s Central Park of Culture and Recreation in 1957. But it didn’t thrive long – by the 1990’s the park became unkept and down-rotten and its amusement park and children’s playground were eventually moved to a different location.
In 2015 Irkutsk’s administration in close cooperation with the Jewish community and representatives of other religious confessions began converting the site into a “Jerusalem Mountain” memorial complex that would pay due justice to the area’s heritage and preserve it for future generations. The recent opening of the monument on the Jewish plot is one of the stages of the restoration process.
Located deep in Siberia, Irkutsk has a long history of Jewish presence dating back to the 18th century: some Jews arrived there as traders on the lucrative silk road to China and Mongolia, others were sent as cantonists by the Tzarist army.
Later in the 20th century, another segment of the current Jewish population came from the region’s Gulag camps. The city and surrounding area still boast a high Jewish population, although a large part of it was assimilated during the Soviet regime.