Serbian Gypsies and Jews In Dispute Over Cemetery

In the city of Nis, in Serbia and Montenegro, the Gypsy quarter crowds in 800 people on just over two acres, a little enclave that has grown in a haphazard fashion as the city’s Jewish population has dwindled.

But the Jews of Nis left behind a cemetery hundreds of years old, now neglected and lying squarely under the Gypsy quarter. Large rectangular gravestones jut out from beneath the Gypsies’ buildings, some of them carved with Hebrew inscriptions.

Since the 1960’s, when the construction of this housing began, the city authorities and central government have turned a blind eye to conditions here; in fact, the Gypsies never had formal permission to settle here. In the past decades, two generations of Gypsy, or Roma, families have grown up alongside and on top of the tombs.

The large stone slabs have been incorporated into the walls of houses, and in some cases cover makeshift drains. One sarcophagus has provided a family with a smooth surface for washing clothes. The raised marble slab, the tomb of an 18th-century rabbi, also doubles as a dining table.

Half of the cemetery is still intact but has been used as a dump site for the community’s trash. Horse manure, scraps of metal and plastic bags full of rubbish have piled up over the years.

”Nobody cared,” explained Davor Salom, secretary of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia and Montenegro, describing to a visiting reporter what happened to the graveyard.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, when Yugoslavia was still under the grip of Communism, the country was officially atheistic and people’s sensitivities to religious monuments and buildings had been numbed, Mr. Salom said. In another part of the city, the Jewish community of Nis even sold its own synagogue, though the City Council now has plans to turn it into a museum.

Ignoring the Gypsies, the local authorities never gave the residents the right to put in a sewage system.

Consequently, raw sewage flows down the alleyways of the quarter. But lately, things are changing, and awakening old sensitivities.

Last October, the City Council gave the go-ahead for pipes to be laid. That stirred the once indifferent Jewish population to action, and provoked a debate about the Gypsy quarter’s existence.

Work on the sewers was stopped in January after objections were raised by Jewish leaders in Belgrade, who were concerned that the digging would irreversibly damage what remained of the graveyard.

”This is an illegal settlement,” Mr. Salom said. ”We never gave them approval to start the sewage system or build houses.” In Nis, a city of about 300,000 people, only 36 consider themselves part of the Jewish population, according to local leaders, although the majority of them are actually Serbian Orthodox who married into Jewish families.

They contend that the cemetery is more than just a graveyard. It is testimony, they say, to the presence of several thousand Jews who lived in this community for more than 300 years, a population destroyed by the Holocaust. (Just one of Nis’s Jewish inhabitants returned to the city after World War II.)

With the Jewish population now dwindling, they say, the cemetery could soon be the only evidence that it existed at all.

”It has to be preserved,” Erna Caligalovic, 53, one of the few remaining Jews here, said in an interview. ”Otherwise we shall all assimilate and there will be nothing left.”

Passions over the fate of the cemetery appeared increasingly heated earlier this summer, as Mr. Salom called on the city authorities to remove the Gypsies from the site. The dispute has attracted interest from Gypsy and Jewish rights groups further afield, and it now seems that a solution is starting to take shape.

Late in July, a Jewish-American charity, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, donated $20,000 for clearance of the half of the graveyard that remains intact but buried under rubbish. Since then, a Gypsy charity, the Kosova Roma Refugee Foundation, working with the Jewish group, has begun removing refuse from the site. They plan to fence off the area and recruit a security guard from the Gypsy quarter.

To date, teams of 20 men from the community, working in shifts, have removed 60 tons of rubbish and earth, according to the charities’ head of mission, Paul Polansky. The Serbia and Montenegro Army has also agreed to help the teams remove rubbish at weekends.

Mr. Polansky has managed to convince City Council officials and the Jewish population of the need to link at least part of the community to the local sewage system.

”We are now flirting with a typhus epidemic if we don’t sort out the open trench sewage ditches and cesspits in the cemetery,” Mr. Polansky wrote in an e-mail message. ”I’ve already lost several Romany workers through sickness since we began work around these makeshift sewage systems.”

Four Gypsy houses from which sewage flowed into the cemetery may now be connected to city drains, and city officials say it may be possible to link the rest of the neighborhood to the sewage network. In the long term, however, the city officials say the Gypsy community cannot stay, and plans have been drawn up to set aside a new area for the Gypsies to move to.

The city budget has allocated about $117,000 to prepare the land for building. But it is unclear where money will come from to build the houses.

Several families said they would be more than happy to be moved into homes elsewhere. ”We would like to leave this place and have proper living conditions,” said Djema Abdulavic, whose family uses the raised marble sarcophagus as a dinner table.

Their home is the building where rabbis washed bodies before burial.

But city officials say that a relocation is not yet possible, because they do not have the money. Moreover, with tens of thousands of Serbian refugees displaced by the Balkan wars of the 1990’s still in need of places to live, construction of new houses for the Gypsies would not be popular with the rest of Nis’s population.

”We would have some kind of nationalist reaction if you have 100 houses built for Roma, and in seven or eight years we haven’t been able to build a single house for Serbs who have fled Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo,” said Osman Balic, a member of the City Council and a representative of the Gypsy population.

A spokesman for the Nis City Council, Ninoslav Krstic, said, however, that there were few refugees left in the area in need of housing. Mr. Krstic said he hoped that the city gradually might be able to find funds to build new houses for the Gypsies, but that the project might take a decade. In the meantime, he said, they will have to remain where they are.


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