On the left is the image of the headstones from a Jewish cemetery in Kosno, Poland. The picture was taken in 1946 and clearly the intent was to erase the graveyard from memory by pulling the gravemarkers down and destroying them.. Or perhaps, to be more insulting, to pave sidewalks with the reminders of those who once lived within the city, paid their hateful Jew taxes and tried to survive alongside their neighbors.
In places where written records were burned, descendants uprooted and ordered away, often the graves are the only evidence that preserves the names of the people who lived there, tells us a bit about their occupations, their families and their stature in the community. In this blog and a few to follow, I will present facts about the symbols found on older Jewish gravestones and what they can tell us about the people they memorialize.
A few things to remember: Jews were influenced by the customs of the countries in which they settled. As some became more affluent or as communities allowed the Jews full citizenship, styles of gravemarkers came more and more to reflect the general styles of the culture the Jews lived within. Therefore, gravemarkers of English Jews will be quite different in style from those of Polish Jews and the gravemarkers of the rich will be more au courant than those of the poor.
I was in Krakow a few days before Easter three years ago. I visited the "new" Jewish cemetery and found it quite busy as people descended on it to clean the graves with dust brooms, to turn on battery-powered lamps (reminiscent of the Yahrzeit candle?) and to lay floral wreaths on the grave along with the stone symbolizing the visit of family members.
The wreaths were being sold by roadside florists all over the city so it was clearly a widespread Polish custom at that time of the year. And the lamps? Votive candles or yahrzeit lamps? In my family, cemetery visits were held most often right before the High Holy Days in the fall and we never brought flowers or lamps to the graves. How much of the ritual was Polish Catholic and how much was Polish Jewish?
One woman explained that she was a Catholic her whole life but was there to honor the grandparents she never knew she had until recently. They had died before she was born and until her own father told her, she never knew she had Jewish ancestors. Now she visits the graves of the grandparents she never met and honors them in the same way she honors her mother's parents, her Catholic grandparents.
She asked me abouit the symbols on the grave: the two hands opened in a V gesture. I told her that her grandfather believed he was a descendent of Moses' brother Aaron, the High Priest, a Cohan, and that the High Priests blessed the congregation with the Priestly Blessing. I recited it in Hebrew at her request and translated into the words she had heard in church and had always thought had been invented by the Roman Catholic clergy("Like me," she said. "Even the prayers have Jewish roots but they have been hidden from us.").:
May the LORD bless you and guard you –יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ(Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā ...)
May the LORD make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you –יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ("Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viḥunnékkā ...)
May the LORD lift up His face unto you and give you peace –יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm.")
"Peace?" she sighed. "How wonderful to pray that people should have peace. And how hard it is to find in the world."
She smiled, thanked me for the information and turned back to the work of tidying the grave so that the names of her Jewish grandparents could be honored and remembered just like her Catholic ones.