Hundreds of tombstones missing for over 70 years from the Jewish cemetery in Chernivtsi, Ukraine were returned to the local Jewish community this week by a Ukrainian military base.
The surprising development took place when a commanding officer of the local military base called the rabbi of Chernivtsi, Rabbi Menachem Glitsenstein, at the beginning of the week and disclosed to him that the tombstones stolen from the city’s Jewish cemetery around 1945-1946 were being used as floor tiles in the building.
“The base is currently undergoing renovations, the floors are being changed and the commander understood that these were more than regular tiles – he saw the Hebrew inscriptions and, thank G-d, made the decision to turn to the Jewish community and not just throw them out. He said that the army wanted to return the gravestones to the rightful place and asked us to take care of them,” Rabbi Glitsenstein said.
The rabbi, who has been overseeing the upkeep and preservation of the cemetery for years already, understood the pressing importance of the matter and acted swiftly. The community immediately hired workers and transportation to collect the gravestones from the base and transfer them to the cemetery. In the next few days the process of carefully sorting the stones and restoring them at their proper locations will begin, Rabbi Glitsenstein said. “From what we initially saw, some of the tombstones are over 140 years old, many belong to influential rabbis and great Hassidim. This is a historic and miraculous event – we did not think we’d ever get these gravestones back,” he added.
Chernivtsi, which was a vibrant and influential Jewish regional center up to World war II, has been home to many prominent Jewish religious and social figures. Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin, a famous Hassidic leader, is buried at the city’s cemetery and many visitors are expected next week for his commemoration day. The FJC Jewish community has been reviving Jewish life in the city, including the cemetery upkeep, for the last two decades.