The following story was written by Miriam Spiegel Raskin and shared as part of the Memory Project.
I don’t visit cemeteries any more than necessity, or convention, demands. I go to occasional funerals of people close to me, but visiting an established grave to pay, as we say, my respects is not my practice. Still, given the rare opportunity to visit for the first and probably only time the grave of my great-grandfather, I utilized it. I had to. Missing a chance like this would have been heartless, and I am not altogether callous. After all, I still carry around memories of him alive and perky during my childhood, and I might eas¬ily have attended his burial in 1937 if I hadn’t had overly protective parents who kept me at home from what became the very last funeral in my family for five decades.
I was across the world in Hamburg, Germany, the city of my birth, on a week-long visit for surviving expatriates who had been forced out during the Nazi reign for now well-known reasons. The trip was sponsored and arranged in exquisite detail by the current local govern¬ment, seemingly intent on making what amends it can make. We were honored at a stately luncheon in the government center, wined and dined as cherished guests, and toured throughout the beautiful city and its harbor so we could enjoy the city’s many splendors. We visited the Jewish Quarter, toured the remaining Jewish institutions, and saw remnants of syn¬agogues that did not survive. We saw botanical gardens and lush parks, museums and gov¬ernment buildings, fine restaurants and shops, and wide, wide boulevards. All, of course, on schedule.
The well-constructed agenda also included an optional visit to the Ohlsdorf Cemetery, the largest non-military cemetery in the world, where, if we chose, we could visit the graves of rel¬atives. So it was that on a crisp Monday morning in September, a comfortable chartered bus drove our group to and through the cemetery. After riding over what seemed to be miles of cemetery traffic lanes, we came to the Jewish section, which is itself extensive. It is now home to many coffins originally interred elsewhere and relocated here some years ago. Whether our graves were in their original locations or not, I had no way of knowing.
In any case, a diligent and delightful government staffer had done the legwork for us in ad¬vance of our visit and was willing and able to lead us directly to the graves of my great-grand¬parents, and, to our surprise, also to the grave of one of their daughters, a great-aunt I had not known. The stone on the latter grave had sunk partly into the ground, and its inscriptions were obscured. My sister, who was traveling with me and who is as unsentimental about graves as I am, saw the need for action. We squatted on the ground and used our bare hands to pull away vines and leafy branches until the inscription was once again visible and legible.
We stood up and silently savored the effect of our labors. Without a spoken word, we each felt the closeness of family, far and near, dead and alive. It was a lovely moment, almost holy, and I was touched by the good fortune that had brought me to this enchanting spot where I could stand in the shadow of enormous old trees and feel connected to the lives once lived by the occupants of these lonely graves. My sister and I stole furtive glances at one another to check for tears. There were none. We two could have been taken for stone monuments, so little did we betray any feeling whatsoever. We are alike in that. We feel everything, and we feel nothing. We know the pain that is inherent in every life but unconsciously bar ourselves from feeling it. We are afraid, perhaps, of being overcome by the intensity of our feelings. And so we stood together, silently sensing the connection between us and the last of our relatives to die a normal death for many decades.
In no time, the spell was broken; the peace-filled moments ended by the need to return to our scheduled activities. Soon we were enjoying a riverboat cruise down the city’s Alster River, along with some cheer¬ful young German students of the Holocaust who spoke the perfect English they were eager to demonstrate. Their teacher undoubtedly believed that they could learn something valuable from the company of these visiting old-timers who had learned about the Holocaust through bitter experience and, more, through many long years of thinking and re-thinking about it. It was all mutually beneficial: they learned a thing or two about Jews, and we had our spirits lifted in the process. There is nothing better than conversing with young minds to refocus one’s own mind on life instead of death.
And so, the day ended as a good day, despite sad memories it had evoked.
Thanks for your post. I have been researching my late father’s German-Jewish family (he was born in Hamburg) and find I have many ancestors buried in Ohlsdorf (some moved over from the former Jewish cemetery in Grindel during the Nazi regime.