In Historical Inter Ethnic Cooperation Roma Clean Jewish Cem

The Jewish Cemetery in Nis, a large city in Southern Serbia, is one of the most important in the region. Dating back to the 17th century, this resting place features tombstones with signs and symbols unknown anywhere else in the world. Stories point to possible links with the Kabbala (mystical numerology) but much is still shrouded in mystery. When heavy floods struck Nis some fifty years ago, the city moved the local Roma out of their riverside settlement in the center of town. Homeless and without resources, they began to settle in the Jewish cemetery. Over the ensuing decades nearly 130 of these nomadic families built their homes over and around the tombstones. Cut off from normal Municipal services, like many other Roma living in this region, these families used another part of the cemetery as a garbage dump and public toilet. In some cases, to address the practical problem of sanitation, cesspools were constructed inside the open area of the cemetery.
Despite ongoing public outcry over the desecration and neglect of the burial grounds, the problem went unaddressed for decades. But years of advocacy by Jasna Ciric, the dedicated president of Nis's 40-person Jewish Community, culminated favorably this summer. Through a special donation for Roma employment from Dr. Alfred Bader of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, JDC’s Country Director for the region, Yechiel Bar-Chaim, was able to engage the services of Roma rights activist Paul Polansky and his Kosovo Roma Relief Foundation. In close cooperation with Ms. Ciric and the Nis Municipality, Mr. Polansky organized teams of workers from the Roma settlement itself to carry out a cleanup operation.
Working at least eight hours a day for seven weeks in oppressive heat, the Roma workmen carted out some 200 tons of waste from the open part of the cemetery. And in an unprecedented degree of collaboration, soldiers from the Serbian Army also joined in the effort during weekends. Moreover, the Nis Municipality has now moved to connect the homes of the Roma families to the public sanitation system.
This groundbreaking effort, which brought a period of steady work to the participating Roma and relief to Jews upset by the desecration, helped to alleviate a decades-old source of tension between the Serbs, Roma, and Jews in a cooperative way. With the cleanup officially completed, the area will be protected from further degradation.
Now researchers can again attempt to unravel the secrets of the Jewish Cemetery of Nis.
The project has also highlighted an element at best deemed ironic. Mr. Polansky points out that the preservation of the Jewish cemetery is, in fact, a direct result of its degradation. All the other historic cemeteries of Nis – Serb, Turkish, and Roma – disappeared decades ago, vandalized by thieves who removed the tombstones for use as building materials. As startling as it may seem, it was the Roma homes and refuse that protected – and preserved under the detritus – this unique and intriguing site.
In their ongoing efforts to promote inter-cultural respect, both Polansky and Bar-Chaim visited a synagogue in Prague last week to describe the success of this extraordinary initiative.
The cemetery project is one of JDC's many non-sectarian programs through which humanitarian aid and long-term development assistance has been provided in over 45 countries. Most specifically, JDC carries out non-sectarian activities for the benefit of the Roma population in Macedonia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, and Israel.

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