Jewish Cemeteries Are Threatened. These People Are Guarding Them.

The cemeteries have become easy targets for vandals in Alsace, a region with an uneasy relationship to a troubled wartime past and a penchant for voting far right.

Robert Tornare helps protect the 200-year-old Jewish cemetery in Wintzenheim in eastern France. Credit...Kasia Strek for The New York Times

WESTHOFFEN, France — Some of the forgotten tombstones in the old Jewish cemetery look suspiciously whitened. It took vigorous scrubbing to get rid of the swastikas.

The defacing in December of gravestones in the cemetery in Westhoffen, a sleepy village in Alsace, was not isolated. In the absence of actual Jews in the Alsace countryside, their tombs have become easy targets in a region with an uneasy relationship to a troubled wartime past and a penchant for voting far right.

Last year there were 50 similar incidents targeting Jews in Alsace, a historical cradle of French Judaism, where Jews have lived since the Middle Ages. Cemeteries, schools and village walls were daubed with swastikas or obscure references to the Third Reich.

In Westhoffen’s cemetery, 107 tombstones were defaced; in the one in Quatzenheim, a village to the east, 96 were.

Eighty years ago, Alsace was incorporated into Nazi Germany, and wartime local officials did the Nazis’ bidding. The swastika was everywhere. Jews were expelled, deported and killed.

The daily evening service for Colmar’s Jewish community. Credit...Kasia Strek for The New York Times

But today’s local authorities found intolerable the image of old Jewish graves in contemporary France being defaced with the Nazi symbol.

So they took an unusual step: organizing volunteers to patrol Alsace’s 67 threatened rural Jewish cemeteries, protecting some of these neglected vestiges of a time when Jews, excluded from the city, were forced to flourish in the Alsatian countryside.

There are 20 volunteers — retired teachers, farmers, housewives and students. That none are Jewish heightens the interfaith symbolism.

Each is equipped with a big badge that reads “Guardians of Memory.”

“In the face of these acts, it’s important for me to not just say something, but to do something, to act concretely to fight this, to try to stop it, and to pass the message that these acts actually reinforce civil society,” said Axel Imhof, a 28-year-old Protestant pastor who has signed up as a guardian in his village, Lauterbourg.

Even before the official imprimatur, some of the “Guardians,” a few of them living next to the cemeteries, had already been keeping an eye on them.

“I had friends whose parents didn’t come back” after the war, said Lise Tornare, 75, explaining why she and her husband, Robert, are committed to protecting the 200-year-old Jewish cemetery at their doorstep in Wintzenheim, outside the city of Colmar.

The old town of Colmar. In 1940, Alsace was incorporated into Nazi Germany, and local officials did the Nazis’ bidding. Credit...Kasia Strek for The New York Times

The patrol is a symbolic effort, flecked with ambiguities. Nobody pretends the volunteers will prevent the next “profanation,” as these recurring episodes are referred to by locals.

Some of these vulnerable old cemeteries exist isolated in the middle of the Alsatian forest. The authorities have never found the perpetrators of last year’s incidents.