VINELAND, NJ (May. 6)
“We saw our parents, our children–their only funeral was the moments we saw their ashes and smoke rise over the crematoria. Today, finally, we bring them to rest in this holy Jewish ground.”
With these words, Rabbi Murray Kohn, survivor of Auschwitz, raised a spade to bury the human bone fragments and ash found beside the site of the ovens at Auschwitz. The day of the burial was Yom Hashoah last month, the place was the historic Alliance Cemetery in Norma, New Jersey.
The bones had been found by participants of a Jewish community mission to Poland and Israel. “Perhaps because we had with us a survivor of Auschwitz, Magda Hafter, we were particularly attuned to where we were,” explained Cy Baltus, mission participant and past president of the Jewish Federation of Cumberland County (NJ). “We thought, like so many tourists, to bring home a piece of that place for our community’s Holocaust Archive. We reached into a pile of debris beside the crematorium and were shocked to find a mound filled with fragments of bone and ash.”
Baltus said “It was evident from the placement of the mound that this was material that had been shoveled out of the building. Behind the building was a recessed area that the local guide referred to as a pit for incompletely burned body fragments. Had we looked longer, I’m sure we would have found more. In fact, there are shots in the film Shoah of the precise building and mound where we found the fragments.”
COMMUNITY IS TRAUMATIZED
The arrival of the bones in the community proved very traumatic. “In Cumberland County we have one of the largest per capita groups of survivors in the country. Many of their children and grandchildren continue to reside here,” said Ron Macon, president of the Jewish Federation. “The presence of these bones became a troubling issue needing resolution for all of us.”
Then Murray Hafter, Magda’s husband, had the idea of a formal burial in the Jewish cemetery. “Murray went to get permission from Rabbi Kohn, who was quite shocked about the bone fragments, as was everyone. But this time we could see that this event had unearthed terrible pain for many of the survivors,” explained Baltus.
During discussions at the cemetery it became quite apparent that bringing the fragments back was quite a controversial issue. There were those who felt strongly it had been wrong to bring the fragments back, and those who wished in retrospect it had not been done, due to the strong reaction. There were also some who doubted the halachic propriety of the burial.
Kohn’s response was that regardless of these reactions, the remains were present in the community and had to be dealt with: “Here they are before us, we must handle the matter with dignity and love.” Murray Hafter expressed the consensus of the community: “We now know these bones will finally rest in peace in a Jewish cemetery. We did what we did in love. We feel we have the holiest of the holy among us.”
A tiny hand-fashioned casket was made in accordance with tradition by Larry Benson, a member of the community. Hafter consulted with the local rabbis on details of cloth for the lining. “When it came to a covering, this became a very important symbolic matter. We covered it with a gray and white striped cloth, reminiscent of the concentration camp uniforms emblazoned with the yellow Star of David.”
Kohn focused his ceremony on first consecrating the ground in front of the community’s Holocaust Memorial Monument, which is in the shape of a truncated tree with its branches hewn off. This area within the Jewish Alliance Cemetery had not previously been sanctified as burial ground, but now it became a separate sanctified area.
AN EMOTION-LADEN TALK
Kohn incorporated Ezekiel’s Vision of the Dry Bones into the powerful, emotion-laden talk he gave after the traditional ceremony. He declared those present to be the appearance of the flesh on the bones in the vision and charged them to “live the lives of which those who perished were robbed . . . lives of tzedakah, love, creativity and Yiddishkeit.” He then called upon each person who had lost family in the death camps to fulfill the mitzvah of burial by placing a handful of earth into the grave.
Community members were also divided over whether it would be appropriate for subsequent mission groups visiting Auschwitz to also bring back fragments to their communities for burial. Some suggested a Beth Din be gathered to deal with the matter.
Murray Hafter expressed the sentiments of many: “Perhaps it would be an exceptional act if each community gathered some of these ashes of our people and brought them home.”