Bernard Haddad was elated to be returning to his native Algeria. He found his old house, his school, even his headmaster. But euphoria soon turned to deep disenchantment when he arrived at the cemetery of Annaba, his home town in Eastern Algeria. David Thompson of Liberation writes on the parlous state of Algeria's Jewish cemeteries.
The scene that greeted the 67-year-old Haddad was apocalyptic. Tombs had been disembowelled, overturned, smothered in graffiti, with bones exposed to the air. " I was not able to find the graves of my brother and grandparents," he lamented. The cemetery, abandoned in 1962, had never been maintained. Some graves had served as arms caches, but today the cemetery is a drug-addicts' squat.
Haddad's experience was similar to that of scores of 'pied-noirs' (Algerian French) who had returned as the civil war abated in the 1990s. The country has 523 French cemeteries - both Christian and Jewish, with some 400,000 graves. There had been 620 before 1962, but some had disappeared or been turned into football pitches. Most of these abandoned sites were in an advanced state of disrepair. Many had been vandalised, especially the Jewish ones.
"In Morocco where there is still a strong Jewish community, the Jewish cemeteries are protected," says Nicole Bricq, a senator and member of the Bone remembrance society (Annaba's old name). " But in Algeria, as soon as there are problems further East (in Palestine), the Jewish tombs are vandalised."
Surrounded by high-rise council estates, the Jewish cemetery is in a hostile environment. "People (many of them bearded) were taunting us when we arrived. I was very scared," says Haddad, who is the founder of the Bone remembrance society. We only have 60 members because Jews are afraid to return to Algeria due to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I always say Arab-Israeli conflict, and not Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because the Jews of Algeria felt the repercussions of this conflict between Arabs and Jews."
France got involved in 2003. During his triumphant visit to Algiers, (president) Jacques Chirac announced an Franco-Algerian agreement and launched a massive 1.4 million Euro rehabilitation plan for the major urban cemeteries, as well as 62 cemeteries not easily transferable to ossuaries, under the direction of the French ministry of foreign affairs, with local authorities handling maintenance. Official re-interment ceremonies have been held. Commemorative monuments have been erected at the behest of groups of French-Algerian expatriates, horrified that the French presence in Algeria might end up being denied.
To-date, Jewish graves could not be dealt with in this manner, as orthodox Judaism does not permit exhumation and transfer of mortal remains. "Jean Kahn, the president of the Consistoire, the representative body of French Jewry, was crystal-clear: one cannot move Jewish graves," says Bernard Haddad. (I am not sure this is a hard-and-fast rule in Judaism. After all, some remains of the sages buried in the central cemetery in Tunis were moved to Israel in the 1950s, and the Jewish settlers took their relatives' remains with them when they left Gaza in 2005 - Ed)
All parties agree that the cemeteries need restoring, but it is not clear whose responsibility it is to rehabilitate, restore and maintain the graves. It's a game of ping-pong. "Everyone is scandalised by the state of the Jewish cemeteries," Nicole Bricq affirms." But their maintenance is the councils' job." The French Foreign ministry says that they are private property, and it's the Jewish organisations' job to restore them. Not so, says a pied-noir activist, the French have their hands full with the Christian cemeteries, they cannot be bothered with the Jewish ones too. But our dead were buried on French soil! "
These last weeks, some progress has been observed. Thanks to the 2003 bilateral agreement, a protective wall has been built by the Algerian authorities around the Jewish cemetery of Annaba. Some 30 graves have been restored with French foreign ministry money. Haddad hopes that his society will persuade France to restore each one of the 2,000 graves.
Read article in full (French)
Photographs of cemeteries in Algeria (with thanks: a reader)