In two weeks, Irish-Americans will honor their heritage as they march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. As winter turns to spring and then summer, immigrant pride will be on display nearly every week at a variety of parades and events honoring the homelands from which each group emigrated to make the US the melting pot that it is.
Recognizing that its population is comprised mostly of immigrants and their descendants – proud Americans with a strong sense of their historical cultures – the US government has taken an interest in preserving foreign sites, which are an important part of its citizens’ heritage. Tasked with achieving that goal is the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, an independent government agency, established in 1985 to restore, preserve and memorialize cultural heritage properties, including cemeteries, monuments and historic buildings.
This week, its Chair, Lesley Weiss visited North Brooklyn, joining The United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (UJO), local elected officials and Jewish leaders to discuss the Commission’s work. Weiss, a President Obama appointee, is charged with protecting Jewish cemeteries and holy sites abroad. The Commission has a history of working with UJO to preserve Jewish cemeteries in Europe, including most recently in Kalisz, Sublice, Vinnitsiya and a mass grave in Kremmnetz.
“The preservation of Jewish cemeteries cuts across all communities,” said Rabbi David Niederman, Executive Director of UJO. “A Jewish cemetery does not lose its holiness with the passage of time or because vandals destroy the tombstones. The cemetery belongs to its inhabitants who purchased their plots to rest in peace, undisturbed, even for the most noble of purposes.”
The Holocaust annihilated much of Europe’s Jewish population, leaving no one to care for the communal properties that were an integral part of the Jewish religion. The destruction and deterioration of properties under the Nazis persisted under subsequent atheistic Communist regimes.
“Congress and the President originally established the Commission because Orthodox Jewish leaders, like those I was privileged to meet in Brooklyn, feared that cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe would be lost in the aftermath of European Jewry’s destruction,” Weiss explained. “While the Commission’s work isn’t limited to cemeteries or to Jewish sites, addressing that original concern remains its priority mission.”
Most of the Commission’s projects are funded by private sources and some receive assistance from the government where the site is located. Notable projects include the construction of a memorial on the section of the Nazis’ Buchenwald Concentration Camp, known as the “Little Camp” and a Holocaust memorial in Brailov, Ukraine dedicated to 3,000 people massacred by the Nazis on a single day in 1942 The restoration of a pre-burial house at a historic Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in what was known as “Sniper’s Alley” during the 1992-1995 War, is nearing completion.
The late Williamsburg Congressman Stephen Solarz, who served from the 1970s to 1990s, led the Congressional efforts to establish the Commission. At last week’s meeting the community’s local elected officials, Assemblyman Joe Lentol, State Senator Daniel Squadron and Councilmember Steve Levin joined Weiss, Niederman and the other leaders in support of the Commission’s work and its efforts on behalf of the Jewish community.
“The work [Weiss] does to preserve the historical and religious sanctity of many generations is admirable,” Lentol said. “We must look back to be able to successfully look forward and protecting the holiness of a cemetery takes direct aim at honoring these sanctuaries.”
For more information on the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad mission and work visit www.heritageabroad.gov.
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