3 Israeli families leading crusade to save Gallipoli’s Jewish cemetery
By Daniel Santacruz
In 2008, two couples, Ilan and Miriam Guy, and David and Ruth Elazar, visited Gallipoli’s old Jewish neighborhood, where Miriam's father and David's grandmother were born and lived.
The houses and buildings of this Turkish town, including the synagogue, were crumbling as a result of years of neglect.
But what they saw at the cemetery proved especially heartbreaking for the two couples.
Its main entrance was turned into garbage dump, and the graves of Miriam’s great-great grandfather, Shimon Ibn Habib, and great-grandfather, Jehuda Ibn Habib, and David's great-grandfather, Abraham Hag'i Aboulafia, were covered by mud, overgrown grass and bushes. The other graves, 835 in total, many with Ladino inscriptions, were in similar condition. The oldest dates from 1540. “When we saw the condition of the cemetery, we decided to do something about it.” In November of this year, the Guys, who live in Ashdod, and the Elazars, who live in Rishon Letzion, and another Israeli family, Sara and David Kara, residents of Petach Tikvah,” said Guy in an e-mail.
Thus, upon their return to Israel, he built a website, www.gallipoli.org.il, to tell the plight of the cemetery and to enlist the help of former Gallipoli residents or their descendants to restore it.
The website, which is in English, tells the history of the town and spells out the goals for the restoration. It also has a table with the names of 110 individuals from Gallipoli and its vicinity who entered the United States through Ellis Island between 1906 and1923. He also created a Facebook group called The Jewish Heritage of Gallipoli.
The Karas were born in Gallipoli and moved to Israel in the 1970s. The three families have created a non-profit organization, The Association for the Jewish Heritage of Gallipoli, to raise funds for the restoration of the cemetery.
Centuries of Jewish life Located in the European part of Turkey, Gallipoli, which is also called Gelibolu, has had a Jewish presence since the 12th century.
The community grew after 1492 with the arrival of exiles expelled from Spain, followed a few years later by exiles from Portugal. Ladino was widely spoken in the town. The community produced several illustrious rabbis, among them Meir di Boton, born in Salonika in 1575, author of a book of responsa. Its population dwindled over the years, due to immigration to the United States, South America, Europe and Israel.
The last Jews to leave Gallipoli were the Sivag'is, formerly Passi, Solomon and Roza, who settled in Israel in the 1970s and now live in Ashdod. Rami Sivag'i, the couple’s son, is the only Jew left in Gallipoli.
News about the cemetery has gotten worse. Rami Sivag'i told Guy a few months ago that the Gallipoli municipality seized a large part of the cemetery to build a girls’ dormitory and a park, which prompted Guy to immediately contact the office of the chief rabbi of Istanbul. “They sent a lawyer to Gallipoli, but the mayor told the lawyer that the land belongs by law to the municipality and nothing will stop them from building there,” Guy said.
According to Guy, last year bulldozers plowed a third of the cemetery for a construction project, destroying about 200 graves. The headstones were thrown on a pile of debris.
A U.S.-educated engineer who worked for 30 years for Israel Aircraft Industries, Guy was born in Tel Aviv in 1940 to parents with roots in Russia and Poland. Miriam Guy, a retired teacher, was born in Jerusalem in 1943 to a Sefardic mother whose family settled in Jerusalem 15 generations ago.
Miriam Guy’s father, Bechor Jehuda Habib, traces his roots to Zamora, Spain, and is related to rabbi Yaakov Ibn Habib, author of Ein Yaakov, a compendium of the non-legal material of the Talmud. Following are excerpts from the interview with Guy. Kolsefardim: What are the goals of The Association for the Jewish Heritage of Gallipoli? Ilan Guy: First of all, we want to put a stop to the plans of the Gallipoli municipality, which is considering to develop the cemetery in the future. We will achieve that by restoring the site to show that we, the descendants of the dead, do care. And also, by conducting a massive public relations campaign and lobbying both in Turkey and around the world.
We want to repair the wall and the fence to enclose what was left of the original site, clear the weeds and thorns, remove garbage, and clean dirt, weeds, fungus and moss from all tombstones. Also, find the tombstones that are strewn around, place them on the proper graves, and mark the graves that don’t have tombstones.
A survey conducted by professor Minna Rozen, an expert on Ottoman Jewry, 10 years ago will provide needed information. There are plans to build a memorial wall as well.
KS: How is the restoration of the cemetery going to be executed? IG: We already contacted contractors [in Gallipoli] and received estimates for the job. For example, it will cost $5,000 to clear weeds and bushes from the cemetery. In total, we estimate that we will need about $40,000 for the entire job. The yearly upkeep will cost $10,000.
KS: How are you going to do the fundraising? IG: We hope we will be able to raise the basic $40,000 from family and friends. We will have to come up with ideas and plan how to raise money from other sources, like Jewish organizations, governments and private funds. We are now negotiating with the Istanbul-based Jewish Organization of Turkey and the Gallipoli municipality to finance the repair of the surrounding wall and replacing the parts of the wall that are missing. We realize that the Gallipoli municipality is not rich, but hope they will take responsibility for the cemetery as a protected holy site.
KS: How long do you think the restoration will last? IG: We estimate that we can finish in one year, but we need to maintain the cemetery in good shape for years to come. © Daniel Santacruz December 2013