European leaders have launched an “unprecedented” initiative to save thousands of sites of historical Jewish significance across the continent.

It comes after a Council of Europe meeting to plan the preservation of Jewish cemeteries in towns and villages once home to thousands of Jews, before whole communities were decimated during the Holocaust.

Germany has been a cheerleader, worried by the threat posed by the absence of Jewish communities in these areas today, and the lack of cemetery boundaries or protection. Hundreds of cemetery walls and gates need urgent work.

In attendance on Wednesday, Israel’s justice minister argued that the sites’ preservation would contribute to education and tourism, and enhance the cultural and religious significance of the towns and villages concerned.

“People in Israel and outside are worrying about Jewish cemeteries in Europe,” said Yossi Beilin. “The picture we have is of their disappearance. We call you to contribute to our join remembrance.”

Leaders will now cost the ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, the first pan-European effort to preserve Jewish heritage. The German ambassador said it was “for the common history of Europe” and that his country had “a special responsibility”.

Dozens of graveyards in Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Belarus, Serbia and Moldova have already been maintained through the scheme, and project leader Philip Carmel said it was important to do more.

“The cemetery is often the last physical proof in these towns and villages of the presence of those Jewish communities for hundreds of years and therefore an important reminder of the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust,” he said. “It is also a key reminder of where the dangers of racism and intolerance can lead.”