The Jewish cemetery I know best is the one near Vineland, New Jersey, where my husband Julius’ father is buried. Whenever we visited Jolan, his widowed stepmother, in Vineland we took her there. The three of us would stand about, reading the stones. Jolan would then stroll slowly, placing pebbles on headstones to show that somebody came, somebody remembered. On one visit, shortly after Memorial Day, American flags decorated many of the graves, including that of Julius’ father. When I questioned this, his stepmother said that the flags were for veterans and that Hugo had been a veteran. True enough. He was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Now he lies among his former enemies in a quiet place with mild South Jersey air.
Reading W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants has reminded me of other Jewish cemeteries, also quiet but in a more disturbing way. On a visit to Kissingen in Germany, where there are no living Jews, Sebald’s narrator seeks out the cemetery where Max Ferber’s parents would have been buried, had they not been deported.
What I saw had little to do with cemeteries as one thinks of them; instead, before me lay a wilderness of graves, neglected for years, crumbling and gradually sinking into the ground amidst tall grass and wild flowers under the shade of trees, which trembled in the slight movement of the air. Here and there a stone placed on the top of a grave witnessed that somewhat must have visited one of the dead – who could say how long ago.
We saw cemeteries like that on our road trip in the summer of 1989. Just months before the Berlin Wall came down, Julius and I, accompanied by three American-born cousins, started in Prague, drove in a great arc through the then-single country of Czechoslovakia into eastern Hungary and west again to Budapest. In Prague, all the tourists go to the Old Jewish Cemetery. They are always impressed by the tall and tilting stones, the ground so compressed beneath the visiting feet.
The Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague
Those Jews were buried centuries ago, and their resting place is well maintained. We also visited the “New” Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Its most famous inhabitant is Franz Kafka, and they are still burying Jews there. We visited the grave of Aunt Rozicka who had died the year before. She is buried in the new section of this new cemetery. The older parts are more interesting, with stones engraved in Hebrew, in German, and in Czech. The trees growing up among the graves are well established now and no one comes to cut them down. On the wall, near the entrance are memorial plaques for those who, like Max Ferber’s parents, left no bodies to be interred.
The New Jewish Cemetery, Prague
To Prague a few Jews did return, some like Aunt Rozicka to grow old and die in hospital, and others only to set a plaque for those who did not return. In the Slovak village from which Cousin Henry’s parents emigrated we found no living Jews, little evidence of the dead ones, and certainly no plaques. Unlike the cemeteries in Kissingen and Prague, no wall protects the site. The ground is so lumpy with broken stones and clumps of grass that it is difficult to walk, impossible to identify any specific grave.
In Saraspatak in eastern Hungary, where Julius and Gabor, his Hungarian cousin, were born and lived until 1944, the cemetery is surrounded by a sturdy wall; the gate has a key. The grass is uncut and the graves are overgrown with weeds and invading field flowers, but the stones are mostly intact. We watched as Gabor cleared his parents’ grave. They knew too much, Gabor’s parents. When the gendarmes came to take them away they committed suicide. Gabor was bereft but, because his parents died before the deportation, he has a grave to tend. Julius can only visit the memorial inscription for his mother and brother, engraved on the back of Gabor’s parents’ stone.
Gabor clearing his parents’ grave in Saraspatak. The inscription memorializes Julius’ mother and brother.
Sebald’s narrator had a similar experience in the untended cemetery in Kissengen. He found evidence of those who had lived but not died there, also linked to the relative who chose to die at home.
I stayed in the Jewish cemetery till the afternoon, walking up and down the rows of graves, reading the names of the dead, but it was only when I was about to leave that I discovered a more recent gravestone, not far from the locked gate, on which were the names of Lily and Lazarus Lanzburg, and of Fritz and Luisa Ferber. I assume Ferber’s Uncle Leo had had it erected there. The inscription says that Lazarus Lanzburg died in Theresienstadt in 1942, and that Fritz and Luisa were deported, their fate unknown, in November 1941. Only Lily, who took her own life, lies in that grave. I stood before it for some time, not knowing what I should think; but before I left I placed a stone on the grave, according to custom.
For more about Julius and his family, see Hungarian Memories.