At first, news this week of the theft of the infamous iron sign at the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp that read “Arbeit macht frei” was somewhat puzzling. What would anyone want with it? What kind of ghoulish souvenir-hunting is in vogue these days among neo-Nazis?
But on brief reflection, it was no puzzle at all. The incident is of a piece with the ongoing desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and other holy sites around the world, often perpetrated in the dead of night. Today, anything that symbolizes Jewish suffering or the eternal spirit of the Jewish people is a target.
Dachau, of course, is a cemetery; it is the first Nazi concentration camp, set up in 1933, where over 40,000 people were murdered. As for the souvenir-hunting aspect — well, they might figure, when they can’t rob the graves or smash the headstones, at least they can snatch a sign.
In Brest, Belarus, they didn’t smash the headstones; they used them for construction purposes. It was reported, also this week, that some 1,500 headstones from Jewish cemeteries have been discovered all over Brest in the construction of both private and public buildings. Hundreds were found in the construction of a supermarket earlier this year. The horrifying desecration has apparently been going on for the last six years.
In the Jewish cemetery of Trondheim, northern Norway, a more conventional desecration took place last week. Headstones were vandalized with purple paint, and “Der Fuhrer” was painted on a nearby building.
Dachau, Brest and Trondheim are only the latest incidents in a global trend. In July, the U.S. passed the Protect Cemeteries Act amending the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The bill’s sponsors cited cemetery desecrations in 2013 in a number of countries, including the Netherlands, Hungary, Russia, Poland, France, Germany, Georgia, Moldova and Argentina.
And then there is Israel.
There has been considerable discussion lately about a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Some say it’s already started. But because it has not reached the proportions of previous waves of anti-Jewish violence and is limited mostly to rock-throwing and vandalism, others have taken to calling it the “silent intifada” — even though the sounds of stone on glass and metal and the accompanying shouts, jeers and curses against Israel and the Jews by Palestinian mobs are quite audible. And although the frightful din of exploding rockets and broken glass has been heard all over Israel in recent months, there are nevertheless aspects of the attacks that remain more or less silent there, too.
In the Bnei Shimon Regional Council in the northern Negev, for example, cemeteries are routinely desecrated. Over the past two months, dozens of headstones were damaged at Kibbutz Beit Kama. During Sukkos, 35 graves were desecrated and five burned at Kibbutz Mishmar HaNegev.
Yet, who has heard about it? “We feel like orphans,” said Mirta Snir, the mother of a fallen soldier whose grave was vandalized. One local resident noted “parties with eating and drinking at the cemetery,” and that “cars are washed with water from the cemetery…”
While the global media is full of Palestinian rioting and threats of holy war over the purported Jewish violations of Har Habayis, the daily attacks on Jewish visitors and graves on Har Hazeisim get little attention outside a few Jewish outlets like Hamodia.
Even the burial of terrorist victim Karen Mosquera, Hy”d, on Har Hazeisim a week ago at the family’s request did nothing to focus media attention on the unspeakable desecrations at one of Judaism’s most venerated sites.
However, as grim and disturbing as the picture is, none of this means to say that nothing positive is being done.
Despite the general helplessness of the police, now and then they do apprehend a culprit. Rahat station commander Shlomi Ben-Shushan noted that three Arab minors were arrested last April for vandalism at the Mishmar HaNegev cemetery. They confessed and charges were brought against them.
Money is being raised to preserve the headstones in Brest, and police are searching for the culprits in the Dachau theft.
The Protect Cemeteries Act enables the U.S. government to penalize countries that obstruct religious freedom by cutting foreign aid to them, imposing trade sanctions, and canceling cultural and scientific exchanges.
“It will be a new and critical tool to combat the desecration of cemeteries, and provide a much-needed boost towards promoting preservation, tolerance and respect for cemeteries across the globe,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), who introduced it in the House.
Protests over the failure of Israeli authorities to protect Har Hazeism will continue until the outrages cease.
Today, thousands of people are expected to converge at Kever Rochel in Beit Lechem on the yahrtzeit of the Matriarch. Thousands of years of persecution and suffering have not effaced her memory. Nor will the despicable acts of hate-filled vandals and terrorists destroy our heritage or our spirit.