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Slovakia Jews Cope With Desecration

November 16, 2002

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KOSICE, Slovakia _ Dozens of tombstones, some bearing the names of Jews killed in Nazi-run concentration camps, lie toppled on the ground in a tranquil cemetery _ the work of young vandals whose act of desecration stunned this Slovakian city.

Seven months after the 135 graves were vandalized, Kosice’s tiny Jewish community says donations, and more importantly, words of comfort, have poured in from the United States and elsewhere as they struggle to repair the cemetery.

``People suddenly reacted in solidarity ... and we felt that the world feels our pain,″ Pavol Sitar, a local Jewish leader, told The Associated Press.

Police traced the vandalism to three schoolboys who tore down or broke scores of grave markers and damaged tombs in the Jewish cemetery. Jewish leaders alleged that the boys were using the stones for karate practice; one boy later told police they were also looking for gold. Because of their youth, the boys were not charged.

Jews have lived in Kosice for the past 160 years. Before World War II, there were about 14,000 Jews in the eastern city, but only 2,000 survived the war. Most of Slovakia’s Jews perished.

Only about 500 remain in Kosice, and they form one of just 13 Jewish communities left in Slovakia. The country served as a puppet state to Nazi Germany during the war, and its leaders actively participated in the transport of Jews to concentration camps.

Damage to the cemetery initially was estimated at $72,290, an amount far beyond the means of the Jewish community. The damage later was recalculated at $35,660, and donations _ including $17,280 from Americans _ will cover the cost of repairs.

``We were surprised how people from the whole world were helping us,″ said the community’s rabbi, Jossi Steiner, who said Slovaks also contributed.

The city of Kosice, which quickly condemned the attack, let the Jewish community post on its Web site a list of damaged tombs with the names of those buried there and the extent of the damage.

The families of the three boys, aged 10 to 12, have not given any money toward the repairs, Sitar said.

``I spoke to their parents,″ he said. ``Their reactions were primitive. Each argued that their son was less responsible than the others ... they have not even shown a sign of sorrow.″

Sitar said the Jewish community would demand at least a symbolic compensation of $240 from the families.

The rabbi has visited the boys’ primary school to speak about Judaism _ a relatively unknown religion in this country, as the former communist leaders kept its existence secret for decades. He also talked of the importance of respecting cemeteries and the dead.

The cemetery soon should be back to normal, but the rabbi and others are still perplexed why the boys vandalized the Jewish cemetery while ignoring a neighboring municipal cemetery.

``Loved ones don’t have rest even after their deaths,″ Sitar said.

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