Passerby, do not tread on my grave. Remember, you are a guest here, and I am at home.
(Inscription on a tombstone in Kutaisi’s Jewish cemetery)
We think of graveyards as the resting place for the dead; in fact, they exist primarily for the living. This is where those who remain grieve, perform rituals, and where memories become tangible as graves and tombstones. Mourning for loved ones who have left us is universal and creating spaces to preserve their memory transcends different cultures and faiths.
Kutaisi’s Jewish graveyard is one such space for what remains of Georgia’s Jewish community. The cemetery sits on Holy Trinity Street (Tsminda Samebis Kucha), and is separated from an adjacent Christian graveyard by a recently built wall. Until a few years ago, cows grazed freely in between the two areas.
On a regular weekday, silence reigns, broken only by the bells of the Georgian Orthodox church at the cemetery’s main entrance and the banging from a workshop which manufactures cemetery fences and metalwork.
For centuries, Kutaisi was home to a large number of Georgia’s Jewish community, which is one of the world’s oldest, boasting a 2,600-year-long history.
In January 1897, the Russian Empire’s first comprehensive census recorded 7,006 Hebrew-speakers in Kutaisi out of an estimated total population of over 1 million. Today, that number has dwindled to about 200, according to community leaders.
Both Georgia and Kutaisi’s Jewish population started to decline in the 1970s, picking up pace in the 1990s as the Soviet Union’s meltdown increased migration to Israel. Consequently, synagogues stopped functioning, and cemeteries fell into neglect.
“At the beginning, [people] would send money to their neighbors for them to care for the graves of their relatives,” explains one Kutaisi taxi driver who gives his name as Levan. “But over time, that stopped.”
Kutaisi’s Jewish cemetery reportedly started functioning in 1895, but, today, the oldest dates visible on tombstones date back to the early 20th century.
Weather and time have taken their toll - inscriptions on the horizontal tombstones have faded, becoming illegible in most cases, and only a concrete pathway allows visitors to avoid stepping on them.
Kutaisi’s Jewish cemetery is perhaps not that different from other century-old graveyards around the country -- a stark reminder that people and cultures can slowly fall into oblivion.