Visiting a Jewish cemetery in Europe, and particularly in East-Central Europe, can be an emotional experience.
This holds true whether you go there as a volunteer helping clean up an abandoned cemetery overgrown by weeds and trees, or as someone on a roots trip looking for a long-lost, or long-forgotten, family grave, or as a "straight" tourist interested in history or the powerful imagery of tombstone art.
In the introductory chapter of Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe I addressed these emotions, describing how I myself felt when I began exploring these sites.
I became absolutely mesmerized, even a little obsessed with what I was seeing. I wanted to visit, touch, see, feel as many places as I could. I almost felt it a duty. As I entered broken gates or climbed over broken walls into cemeteries where a Jew may not have set foot in years, I wanted to spread my arms and embrace them all, embrace all the tombstones, all the people buried there, all the memories.In the first editions of the book, I added a further sentence, describing how I projected my thoughts toward these all so often forgotten places: I'm here, I told them mentally; SOMEONE is here.
Back then, my trips were voyages of discovery. Everything was new; there was little literature on the subject, few visitors had made their way to such sites, and there were few efforts to preserve, maintain or restore them. But even today, after scholars and genealogists and tour guides have studied and mapped and documented almost everything -- I still feel the pull.
An eloquent expression of the power of this pull -- one that in many ways mirrors my own feelings -- was recently published in the Jerusalem Post. It's an article called "The Other Side," by Jonathan Gillis, who had taken part in a project to restore the Jewish cemetery in Czestochowa, Poland. The article is a tribute to the late Aryeh Geiger, the founder and head of the Reut School in Jerusalem, who also instituted the school's project to restore Jewish cemeteries in Poland. I did not know Geiger, who died at the end of 2008.
Gillis describes working to find stones hidden by ivy and undergrowth and heaving to right them and turn them over. And he describes reading a letter, originally composed by Geiger, that imagines how the individual people whose lives are marked by the individual stones might address the strangers who had suddenly come into their midst to seek them out, restore them to light and, thus, restore them also to memory:
I chose a tombstone quite near to the main path running through the cemetery. It was one I'd uncovered myself that morning, as I'd searched about under the ivy with my metal bar: the tombstone of an avrech - a young unmarried man stricken down in the prime of his youth. His name, which looked like Ya'acov, had been partly chipped off the stone, though the name of his father, Naftali, was clearly there, and also the date he had died.
I sat down on the ground next to the grave and lit the candle, and then opened the folded-up paper and, by the candlelight in the gathering gloom, read the letter Aryeh had once written in his own hand: "Dear Friend," it read, "First of all I wanted to say thank you to you for coming to visit me from the Holy Land. When you all entered my little fortress by the gateway, I was sure I was hallucinating and that my mind was deceiving me. Of course I don't have eyes or a body, and quite possibly my bones have long since disintegrated... however my spirit and soul are very much here and alive in this cemetery.
"I don't know why you came to me now. I know that you have cleaned me and restored me and my friends, and we all feel as if our spirits have been splendidly brought back to life by this.
"You know I too was alive once, breathed the air, loved, hiked, prayed; I was also once a very proud Jew. Then, after I left the world, it made me sad when the undergrowth came and hid me. I felt neglected and abandoned. And then, suddenly, you appeared, reconnected with my soul and 'revived' me.
"If you don't mind, I would like to ask you a few questions - from 'the other side' as it were... from behind the screen - the world that you call 'the world of truth' (though my soul is actually present right here this evening) - just a few questions from me to you: Who are you really?
"What brought you to me and what was it really that made you decide to visit me and revive me? How beautiful is the Land of Israel - is it important to you that you are an Israeli?
"Do you gain satisfaction from being Jewish?
"For as long as you're on 'the other side,' what is it you want to do with your life?
"Will you remember me when you leave here?
"What is it in your view that gives life value?
"I do hope you'll think about these questions because I would like you to continue talking with me. Even if you leave me here, I'd still like to stay in touch. I'd like you to remember me always, and always feel free to talk with me (a dialogue of souls).
"On behalf of myself and all my friends, I am very grateful. Now my soul really does dwell in the realm of life.
"With love, and thanks, your tombstone."
Back in 1991, while researching the first edition of Jewish Heritage Travel, I had an almost mystical experience in the old Jewish cemetery in Nazna, near Targu Mures, Romania. Here, in a sort of clearing in the center, I found one stone shaped almost like a human being; its back even curved like the back of a living person. I somehow felt a living presence. Not that the stone was "alive", but that it embodied a strong, surviving spirit. A man, a mentsch. I was very reluctant to leave. The man buried here was named Moses, son of Israel. His epitaph tells us that he was a man of integrity; the carved decoration represents a crown, and an upside-down heart pierced by an arrow.
I keep a picture of me and the stone tacked to the bulletin board above my desk -- the stone stood upright, almost as tall as I am. It was early early spring; barren and still chill.
When I visited Nazna again, 15 years later, I was as excited to revisit that stone as I would have been to revisit a friend I hadn't seen in that long a time...This time it was summer, and the fruit trees planted since I had last been there made a rich, green, leafy bower. The stone seemed to be more tilted over, as if by added age. Its carved decoration, too, was more blurred. Still, the connection was there. I felt the same spirit, only a little older perhaps, like me. It was still a man, a mentsch. And it was great to see him.