The Cemeteries of Oradea
Asociatia Tikvah wants to promote the comprehensive documentation and the digital preservation of the Jewish cemeteries of Oradea.
During his lifetime Kordics Imre worked tirelessly to document and explain the memorials contained within the cemeteries of Oradea. Asociatia Tikvah worked with Imre and much of the materials which follow are a result of his work. The contents may not be reproduced without permission from Asociatia Tikvah.
Why it is important
Every old cemetery has a value through being an historical monument; a testimony of a community`s past.
They should be considered as part of the cultural heritage of the particular place, the burial custom being an aspect of the history of that community.
Therefore, the maintenance and preservation requirements are the same as for any other heritage object.
Cemeteries are one fragment of historical evidence proving the past existence of the Jewish community in that town. Overall, they represent a cultural value and serve as information sources for art history, social history or family genealogy.
Specific elements, valuable from the historical, cultural or artistic point of view can be highlighted, but the cemetery must be considered as a single entity. The practice of grave burials, and their funeral customs are little known, appreciated or understood.
It is particularly important when considering the Jewish cemeteries of Oradea to highlight the artistic value of the funeral monuments. Any monograph on the subject of Oradea’s Jewish cemeteries has to highlight all the features which contribute to the overall image.
These cemeteries are part of the common values belonging to the entire Jewish community. Today, they represent not only the place of burial, of devoutness, but also a significant part of the history of the community (especially, the Velenta closed cemetery). But also by documenting and photographing the graves we preserve their identity and the relevant funeral customs. They also reflect the fate of the community. Memories sculpted and engraved in stone are testimonies of the past. Their systematic and comprehensive research also enriches the local historiography.
Although a photographic and descriptive monograph will preserve the history in one form it does not make it any less urgent to protect and maintain the physical structures. The Jewish cemeteries in Oradea – especially the one in Velenta where burials are no longer performed – are part of the history of Oradea and deserve special protection by the local authorities.
The Jewish custom of enclosing the cemeteries has helped to preserve them in their original form, even if the necessary maintenance has not been provided and much of the history is now hidden.
These grave stones tell us much through the specific types of stones and their adornments (the dates, the language used and the architectural styles).
The Bible makes several references to the practice of erecting stones on the grave. Jacob erected headstones three times, the last time on the grave of his wife Rachel. In antiquity, the "bet hahajim" (Beth Hachaim) cemetery – "house of the living" used to resemble a garden.
The erection of gravestones initially had practical reasons: to defend the deceased from wild animals (people would put stones on graves) and to mark the place (Cohanites were forbidden to approach the deceased).
According to the Talmud rule, cemeteries were located outside the inhabited territory and were enclosed (the re-use of stones or a burial place were forbidden). Visiting the graves of ancestors is a religious, but also ethical duty. According to the ancient custom, one was not allowed to enter the cemetery bareheaded (pulling the grass, washing hands after the visit were also ancient customs).
Apart from learning about old customs (unplaned coffin, seven stops to the grave, throwing a handful of dust into the grave, the separate placing of men and women according to the Orthodox ritual, cutting the clothes of the bereaved, wearing the black ribbon according to the Neolog ritual, covering mirrors during mourning, sitting on the floor) it is important to make a comparison to the traditions of today.
In the earliest times, the expensive stone, the clothes for the deceased, the funeral expenses, represented a burden for the inhabitants. That is why, over time, people moved to simpler customs: the deceased was dressed in cloth or was coated in linens, while a palm was laid on the grave.
In traditional Jewish environments, vegetation in the cemetery is not trimmed, only access roads are cleared. When referring to the use of stones instead of flowers, we should note that over the last two decades, funeral monuments have been made with flower vases (not the initial decor). However, there are some places where flowers are laid at graves.
The historical record of the Chevra Kadisha institution and the way in which it functions today are separate aspects of the Jewish funeral tradition (the orderly and renovated burial houses reflect the interest in religious life).
A detailed monograph of the Jewish cemeteries could tell us much about the history of the Jewish people of Oradea.
The oldest grave from 1773
The possible content of a detailed monograph would include:
- A summary of Jewish burial traditions.
- A coherent chronological journey through the three cemeteries of Oradea.
- The study of the graves of rabbis and of the leaders of the Jewish community of Oradea and linking (in the case of Orthodox communities with the establishment of separate burial places for women and men) with common graves of the spouses.
- The graves of Cohanites and Levites.
- The graves of notable contributors to the life and culture of Oradea.
- Commentary and explanation about inscriptions, architectural features and motifs.
- Age, style and size, also reflecting the Neolog movement.
- Identification of damage and restoration needs both for stones and wrought iron architecture.
Examples for the monograph
We are providing some examples from the cemeteries of Oradea which could be included within a detailed monograph.
The most important part of gravestones are inscriptions, but adornment also bears a message. Hebrew letters sculpted with artistry and carefully arranged create a decorative ornamental field. The beginning and ending phrase, the shortened year are widespread. The most ancient Jewish symbols – Menorah and the Star of David – do not appear on old gravestones in Oradea cemeteries. Simple vine branches or floral motifs were carved on those erected at the beginning of the 19th century. During the first half of the century, the most widespread motif was the willow (sadness and mourning, the symbol of the autumn bouquet and the reference to the servitude in Babylon).
It is important to mention that, instead of the menorah, the two-branched symbol of Shabbat or the five-branched symbol of the Temple, there was, at the beginning of the 19th century, the three-branched menorah symbolising family life.
But generally it was the symbol of soul and life.
At the beginning of the 19th century, affiliation to a Cohanite or a Levite family was illustrated with a cup , a blessing hand and other symbols.
Or in this case the hands are supplemented with a Torah Curtain and the Torah scroll. The two lions symbolising the guarding of the Torah, the religious life and the noble origin.
Besides the lion, the deer is rarely found in Oradea cemeteries.
The pigeon adorns the graves of women
The coffin (the existence of the afterlife), the joined hands (the faithfulness of the spouses), the Torah roll (religiousness) and the palm (exemplary life) appear very rarely.
More often there is the Urn as a symbol of the universe, as well as the so-called Italian crown (infinite existence). Gravestones in the shape of the Books of Moses were already being used from the beginning of the 19th century, as a symbol of family unity.
Masonic symbols, soldierly symbols are of particular note, as is the more recent communist motif.
Tracing the graves of notable figures (from all the fields of life) would create a valuable history and family album. Here is the grave of Fehér Dezső the noted writer and newspaper editor.
Or the grave of the Rabbi Kecskeméti Lipót.
The horror of the 1944 deportation is recalled by the memorial rows, commemorative plaques and the so-called "empty graves". "A stone cries from the wall" (Habakuk 2:11)
The First Jewish Cemetery of Oradea
Translated by: Susan Geroe
The first reference to the Oradea Jewish cemetery is found in the petition submitted to the Oradea City Council, dated March 21, 1766, documented in the anniversary album of the Chevra Kadisha. "From the records, we can not determine exactly where this first cemetery lay, however a few points in the petition suggest that it was the same as the graveyard evacuated in 1860 from Hattyu Street and resettled in the Velence cemetery," continues the chronicle.
To understand the situation, one must be familiar with the expansion of the city at the time. In those days, Oradea included roughly the built in residential area known until the Holocaust as the zone between Kossuth, Kapucinus, Magyar, and Teleki Streets. They called this sector "Vorstadt" and Ujvaros, and later, the districts of Olaszi, Varalja, and Katonavaros were linked to it. In the first decades of the 1700s, Jews lived in Ujvaros and some in Olaszi. The Varalja district was established only in 1784. Given that Ujvaros formed the core of the city, naturally, the cemetery had to be situated on the outskirts of the city. This area seems to have been in the neighborhood of Hattyu Street. Another fact that validates this point is the expansion of the city ever more in the direction of Hattyu Street, which had been built in with homes. As this took place, it became necessary to move the cemetery to another area outside city boundaries – Velence in this case.
In 5575/1815, the community wanted to surround the Hattyu Street cemetery with a stone fence, and collected for this purpose the sum of 6000 Forints. However, the Church as patron would permit only a wooden fence, which cost twice as much as the collected sum, and the contributors asked back for their donations. Reb Joszef Rosenfeld, Rabbi of Oradea addressed the question to the Chatam Szofer, which responded in the same year that the purpose for which the funds were to be used could not be changed, it should strictly be used to build a fence around the cemetery. All the more, it was not excluded that after all, a permit to build a stone fence would be issued. Since all monetary contribution had to be used towards holy purpose, the decision of the Pozsony Rabbi admonished to hire from the interest income a Talmud specialist who could study the Holy Books for the spiritual salvation of the deceased. The Oradea Jews lay to rest in the Hattyu Street cemetery Reb Naftali Cvi Lipchowitz, known to us as Oradea's second rabbi. According to the data on the memorial marker, which is separately inscribed with a background history, he died in 6633/1773.
In those days, the part of the city where the Hattyu Street cemetery was located was a flood plain, exposed to the constant whims of the River Cris. Already in 1766, Jews complained to the City that "due to the shallow and wet grounds" pigs could nuzzle up the graves, and present danger to the urban population by spreading the plague. Thus, they demanded the employment of a Gentile guard and a permit to construct a small home for him on the premises. In the years that followed, the 6000 Forint stone fence would have served the same purpose: build a dam against the waves of the overflowing River Cris. Oradea Jews used the Hattyu Street cemetery for burial for nearly a hundred years, yet the problem was never solved. Time and again, the flooding waters overturned the gravestones and the grazing pigs nuzzled up the graves. That was the situation until 1860, when the cemetery was evacuated.
During one of the floods, Rabbi Lipchowitz's grave also fell over. When they evacuated the cemetery, there was no one to complain against it. At the beginning of the 20th century, they discovered by chance in the courtyard of a house on Uri Street that they used the back of this gravestone for a bench. The Chevra Kadisha handled the case and they transported the monument to the mortuary in the Velence or Velenta Cemetery, where it is guarded to this day.
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Susan Geroe and Jewishgen
The Velenta cemetery
Velenta cemetery is situated to the East of the city of Oradea at Razboieni Street 88-90.
It was established in 1775 as a multi-faith cemetery, but the land was purchased by the local Jewish community in 1800 with the first Jewish burial taking place in 1801. It was an Orthodox cemetery.
As indicated in the first article in this section a number of the gravestones to be found in the Velenta cemetery originate from the Hattyu Street (now Lebedei Street) cemetery.
Although this cemetery is now inactive, with the last burial taking place in 1952, it is accessible to view.
In 2005, 30 students from Israel travelled from Arad to Oradea to obtain experience of the culture of their forefathers. They had special insights into synagogues and they helped clear the Velenta cemetery of undergrowth. To see a video of their trip look at their Journey into Jewish Heritage.
Actively used Jewish cemeteries in Oradea
There are two Jewish cemeteries in current use, one orthodox dating from 1876 (in Toamnei Street) and one neolog, established in 1881 (in Umbrei Street). They are quite close together and integral to the main burial ground of the city of Oradea.
Gates of the Neolog cemetery
As can be seen from our Home Page the sale of Jewish neolog cemetery land in 2010 is a poignant reminder of the atrocity of 1944, which robbed the city and the Jewish community of future generations, who might have expected to die in Oradea, rather than in extermination camps.
The Heritage Foundation of Jewish Cemeteries has done some valuable restoration and fencing in Oradea cemeteries.
Information about other Bihor Jewish cemeteries
The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) embarked upon a truly ambitious project to document every Jewish burial site in the world. Called the International Jewish Cemetery Project it has for many years been working in Bihor.It is a remarkable and admirable venture and is essential for those who wish to trace back their family line.
To illustrate the type of analysis that is undertaken we are showing below an extract of the entry for Alesd.
It is not thought that the town currently has any Jewish population.The 1880 Jewish population by census was 94, by 1900 census was 227, and in 1930 was 372 Jewish inhabitants.
In May 1944, approximately 50 Jews from Alesd were gathered in the Oradea ghetto and on May 23, 25, 28-30, and June 1-5, 27 were deported to Auschwitz. The unlandmarked Orthodox and Neolog cemetery was established in second half of 19th century. Noteworthy individuals buried in the cemetery: Cohanim: Terebesy Samu (Smuel Ben Shlomo Hacohen 1864-1942); Kohn Jozsef (Slomo Eliezer Hacohen 1870-1916); and Lustig Jeno (Iaacov Ben Chaim 1913-1961). Last known burial was 1979.The isolated urban hill has no sign or marker. Reached by a public road, access is open with permission. A fence with a gate that locks surrounds the site. Approximate pre- and post-WWII size is 110 x 60 m. 100-500 stones are visible. 100-500 stones are in original location.
20-100 stones are not in original location. Location of stones removed from the cemetery is unknown. Vegetation overgrowth in the cemetery is a seasonal problem preventing access.
Water drainage is good all year.
The cemetery has special sections for men, rabbis, Cohanim, and women who died in childbirth. The oldest known gravestone dates from second half of the 19th century. The 19th and 20th century marble, granite, limestone, sandstone, and concrete, and local stone sculpted monuments have Hebrew and Hungarian inscriptions. Some have metal fences around graves.
No known mass graves. The local Jewish community owns the property used for Jewish cemetery only. Adjacent properties are agricultural. Rarely, private Jewish or non-Jewish visitors stop. The cemetery was vandalized occasionally in the last ten years. Maintenance has been re-erection of stones, patching broken stones, and clearing vegetation by local non-Jewish residents in 1984. Current care is regular caretaker paid by the Jewish community of Oradea. No structures.
Ursutiu Claudia visited the site and completed the survey on 6 July 2000.
The Lo Tishkach initiative
The Lo Tishkach European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative was established in 2006 as a joint project of the Conference of European Rabbis and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Lo Tishkach means ‘do not forget’ in Hebrew and the organisation is establishing a comprehensive publicly-accessible database of all Jewish burial grounds in Europe, currently featuring details on over 9,000 cemeteries and mass graves. The project is also producing an analysis of the different national and international laws relating to these sites, so as obtain better protection and preservation of Europe’s Jewish heritage.