When I was embarking on my first-ever international trip as an independent adult, a teacher counseled my friend and me to go a cemetery in every place we visited. We would learn the most about a community by doing so, he said. Although we didn’t intentionally pursue his advice, it worked out that we found cemeteries along every stop in our journey.
Kever Avot, the custom of visiting our ancestors’ graves, especially ahead of Yom Kippur, is deeply rooted in Judaism, stretching all the way back to biblical times. Tombs — the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb — are a cornerstone of our Jewish identity, and our connection to the Land of Israel.
Maybe it was hardwired into my Jewish DNA, or maybe it was that teacher’s advice, but I gravitate toward cemeteries. I’ve visited numerous WW I cemeteries in France and Belgium; made a pilgrimage to the resting place in Hungary of my great-grandmother for whom I’m named; in college one of my dorm rooms even overlooked a small church cemetery.
In cemeteries sensations of peace, sadness and connection comingle, imbued with a sense of other worldliness. When it’s a relative’s headstone one is visiting, suddenly that person, even an ancestor one has never met, feels tangible, almost, ironically, corporeal.
My journey to Hungary led to a virtual journey to Israel, to a woman who, then a pre-teen, had known my great-grandmother and her daughter, my great aunt, with whom my great-grandmother had lived. Ever since, I have remained in contact with this woman, now in her nineties, through her daughter.
Recently she shared a photograph of a marker to the Klein family of Tiszabábolna, the Klein family she is a part of — and that my great-aunt married into. On it, etched into stone, are the names of my great-aunt, her husband and their four children, their names written in the diminutive — all of whom, aside from my great uncle who died at Buchenwald, were murdered at Auschwitz.
To see their names memorialized, permanently remembered when a regime sought to erase their existence from this earth — and succeeded in doing so physically — reminded me in a visceral way that these people were real individuals who lived and walked this earth, not only names from the past.
This headstone was the physical evidence of the inextricable ties that exist between myself and the Klein family and to our common ancestors who were brutalized in the most despicable ways.
It was a Kever Avot like no other.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at [email protected]