“Jewish cemetery in the outskirts of Leningrad. A crooked fence made of rotten wood. Behind the fence they rest together – Actors and traders, musicians and revolutionaries.”> Joseph Brodsky, Nobel Prize winner in literature
During the years that have passed since Brodsky wrote this poem, the city outgrew its former borders, and now the cemetery is inside the city limits. Even so, it is a fairly complicated destination to reach. For foreigners, it can be especially frustrating, as cab drivers don’t always know how to find it. However, the bravest and most adventurous tourists who go there will not regret.
For a long time, Petersburg Jews did not have their own cemetery, for the same reason they could not have a synagogue – if Jews were not allowed to live in the capital, why would they need a place to be buried?
In 1802 they finally got a piece of land for use as a cemetery. It was acquired through the Lutheran community, next to the Volkovo Lutheran cemetery, and served Jewish community for sixty years. In 1870 the congregation filed a petition requesting land to organize their own cemetery. In 1872, jurisdiction over all city cemeteries was transferred to the City Council. It was decided to dedicate a new piece of land where both Christians and non-Christians could be buried, but this new cemetery was to be outside the city limits, on the 10th mile of the Nikolaev Railway. To the right of the railroad, the Russian Orthodox would be buried; to the left, non-Christians. The cemetery should be called Preobrazhenskoye (Transfiguration), as the church with that name was built on the Orthodox side. After the October Revolution of 1917, the Russian Orthodox part of the cemetery was re-named Cemetery of the Victims of January 9 (those killed during the massacre of 01/09/1905 were buried there), and from that time on the Christian term Preobrazhenskoye (Transfiguration) is used to identify only the Jewish section.
Preobrazhenskoye was a real Jewish cemetery, well organized and managed by the congregation. It was known for its cleanliness and order. There was a staff architect to supervise all construction and architectural works at the cemetery. The Hevrah Kadisha consisted of twelve elected members. Each district of the city had its own specially appointed executives (gaboim). Their responsibilities included, in case of the death of a Jew, informing the city authorities and arranging the funeral. Burial of the poor people was financed by the community; plots for wealthy people’s burial were given out for a fee. People who deserved special respect of the Jewish community had the right to be buried for free at places of honor.
The oldest graves on the cemetery date back to 1874. There is no chronological order. Many wealthy people bought plots of land and built family vaults while they were still alive. Later, when there was no space left, some other people were buried in former walkways, leaving only narrow paths.
In summer you will appreciate cool shade, the romanticism and chaos of the old cemetery. If you enter the inner yard of the U-shaped building, you may feel for a moment that you are in Granada or Cordoba. The stone archways are supported by thin, elegant columns, with Hebrew inscriptions carved above them. The cemetery synagogue is built in Moorish style, just like the Choral Synagogue in the city. It was designed by Yakov Gewirtz, who was the community architect. The synagogue was inaugurated in 1912.
The Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg is very different from Jewish cemeteries in other cities.
Walk cautiously, trying not to step on the graves. You will see old and new tombs, with inscriptions in Hebrew, then in German, and finally in Russian. Sound out the names on the gravestones, and you may even find a relative.
For Soviet Jews, a visit to the cemetery was one of the few chances they had to feel connected to their Jewish heritage. We are breaking traditions. There is no land to bury our deceased and we cremate them, to put their rest in the old tombs of ancestors. We are placing photographs on their matzevot, and instead of bringing pebbles we are growing flowers and trees on their graves. But we always remember them, and this is the most important thing – “a groise maile is der zikorn” as says a Yiddish proverb, memory is a big asset.