Sudan’s Only Jewish Cemetery Restored: ‘I Kept Thinking That These Were People’s Families, Aunts, Uncles, and Parents’
“I kept thinking that these were people’s families, aunts, uncles and parents,” said Chaim Motzen of Sudan’s only Jewish cemetery, which he rediscovered and has successfully restored following decades of neglect and desecration.
The cemetery is located in Khartoum, where there was once a small but thriving Jewish community mostly composed of Jews from Muslim countries.
But after an eruption of antisemitism across the Muslim world following Israel’s creation in 1948 forced the Jews out, the cemetery was over time all but destroyed, and turned into something both garbage dump and public toilet.
British daily The Telegraph reported Sunday that Motzen, who works on renewable energy projects in Africa, rediscovered the cemetery in the mid-2000s, and leapt at the chance to restore the site after Sudan’s hardline Islamist regime was overthrown by a revolution in 2019. The revolution led to a wave of liberalization and, a year later, a normalization deal with the State of Israel.
Sudan’s new Minister of Religious Affairs, Nasr Eldeen Mofarih, granted permission to restore the cemetery in Jan. 2020, and Motzen personally paid for an archeologist and workers to help do so. They removed tons of garbage, litter, and insects from the site, and then reconstructed as many of the headstones from the 71 graves as possible.
One grave of infant Diana Yacoub Ades, who had died at eight months old, eventually led Motzen to hunt down the deceased’s cousin, 88-year-old Albert Iskenazi, who now lives in London.
“I remember Diana well. She died suddenly of a fever. It made me feel very happy that he found the gravestone. Now we can mourn her properly,” Iskenazi told The Telegraph.
Daisy Abboudi, who is descended from Sudanese Jews and founded a research project on the community, remarked, “It’s absolutely amazing,” and said that Motzen “found fragments of my great grandmother’s gravestone, as well as other graves of family members. There is something about the physicality of graves which is so important to people.”
“When I visited in January 2020, I assumed that physical link to my history was lost to time,” she said. “There was nothing people could point to and say my ancestors were here. And then suddenly there is. It’s very powerful.”
Yacoub Mohammed Yacoub, who owns a store near the cemetery, remarked, “Everyone around here is happier. Many people said this place looks so beautiful now. We stay here and we’re going to protect the cemetery.”
“The graveyard shows that Jews used to live peacefully alongside Muslims,” Motzen said. “It’s an example of what Sudan was and what it could become – and what it is becoming.”
Motzen hopes that the site will serve to remind young Sudanese of their complex heritage and history.