For a pensioner living in Budapest, Miksa Winkler is very busy. To date, he’s helped restore around a dozen Jewish cemeteries in rural Hungary that were forgotten, neglected or abandoned, and in most cases, decayed to a depressing state. He has plans for hundreds more.
Winkler, 67, not only works with Jewish organizations, both foreign and domestic, and with rural towns and villages, but actually gets his hands dirty with landscaping, building new fences and pathways, as well as fixing and cleaning broken, toppled gravestones – some of them 200 years old.
For the full-time volunteer, this is a mission. “I think it’s more than a mitzvah, more than a hobby,” Winkler told The CJN during a recent stop in Toronto. “It’s a very important thing.”
A former sales executive, he knows he has his work cut out: there are some 1,600 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary, the vast majority of them outside the major cities of Budapest, Debrecen, Szeged and other large centres that have Jewish communities to care for the graveyards.
“The forgotten cemeteries in the countryside are another story,” Winkler said.
In Hungary, as elsewhere in eastern Europe, Jewish burial sites in rural areas have fallen into disrepair because there’s no one left to tend to them. Hungary’s countryside was virtually emptied of Jews during the Holocaust, when, between May and July 1944, some 440,000 of them were shipped to Auschwitz.
Winkler sees himself as someone who makes connections between mayors of rural towns and villages, families of the deceased (if any), the Hungarian government and Jewish organizations. “I am a volunteer co-ordinator,” he said.
Small villages, he said, don’t have money for repairing Jewish cemeteries, but often contribute a labourer or two to help with the work.
For Winkler, this calling began 15 years ago, when he made contact with two Hungarian Jewish families living in London, England, after they visited a cemetery in western Hungary and wondered how it could be renovated. Coincidentally, Winkler’s grandfather is buried there.
“It was a forest,” he recalled of the graveyard’s condition. “It was a big thing to do something together.”
The families paid for the renovation, which involved fixing graves, cleaning headstones and building a new fence, with help from Maszihisz, a Hungarian Jewish umbrella group that oversees the upkeep of Jewish cemeteries in the country.
But Winkler said that the group’s limited funding means that only about 600 to 650 of rural Hungary’s estimated 1,500 Jewish cemeteries receive financial help with renovations.
I think it’s more than a mitzvah, more than a hobby.
– Miksa Winkler
In some cases, Maszihisz purchases lawn mowers and weed trimmers.
However, there are other sources of money, he pointed out.
The Hungarian government, following a 2012 resolution passed by the Council of Europe on the need to maintain and preserve Jewish cemeteries, committed a one-time grant of 400-million forints ($1.84 million) to the task.
Winkler helps villages and towns apply for the funds. The maximum individual grant is 20 million forints ($92,000), but most places receive much less, often below what they need.
He also taps into funds available from the New York-based Heritage Foundation for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries, which to date has repaired 400 graveyards across eastern Europe.
Once a cemetery is restored to its best possible state, Winkler works with other volunteers to prepare a computerized registry with names, GPS co-ordinates of the graveyard and photographs of headstones. “But many stones are unreadable,” he lamented.
He’s motivated by three factors: to show respect for the dead, a religious obligation to tend the graves of fellow Jews “and to show the next generation that there were Jews here once.”
Winkler may be contacted at [email protected].