When my cousin Jody called and asked me where Zayda, Kalman Litwak, was buried I could not give her the answer. I did not know. That’s pretty pathetic since I knew Zayda, who died when I was 17. I had attended his funeral and burial. In the many intervening decades since his death everyone else had died, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my father at age 97. I was now the eldest surviving Litwak. That was a mighty big pill to swallow since I had never thought of it quite that way. With the thrust of my responsibility as the senior family member I was determined to remember the location of his grave. This time, my once more nimble brain, rose to the occasion and, with the able assistance of Google, I located the cemetery where Zayda was, presumably, resting in peace. It was in North Arlington NJ, a mere twenty minutes from our New Jersey home, and pretty much the same distance from Jody’s.
We made a date for a few days later and, accompanied by my husband, Alvin, we went to the cemetery and met despair head on. The only living occupants whom we encountered were one snake and one rabbit. The rabbit ignored us. The snake took a look and slithered back to his hole. Caretakers: there were none. Office: the same. Not even running water so that we could wash our hands before leaving. The former office building was sinking into oblivion, as were many of the graves. A cursory look was enough to reveal that a large number of graves were in such horrible condition that it was actually possible to see into them.
We more or less expected a neglected place. Our family had reluctantly joined the Jewish exodus from Newark which included new homes, new schools, new shuls and new cemeteries. And like many I suppose I never gave much thought to the graves of my ancestors in America, in North Arlington NJ to be precise.
In Poland, however, years earlier, Alvin and I had searched out ancestral graves in the shtetls around Bialystok where both our families had lived for centuries. There we found what we knew we would. Destruction. Overturned markers. Stones removed. Trampled grounds. A complete disregard for hallowed places. And yet we knew that those buried there had been lucky enough to have been buried. Had they survived another few decades they would have been memorialized at a world full of holocaust memorials……dead with no graves at all. Ever.
My parents, on the other hand, lie together in their peaceful plots at the Herzliya Cemetery. This is a cemetery with a life of its own. There are always visitors. The grounds are immaculate. The names on the stones reflect the life and story of Eretz Yisrael. It is a true kibbutz galuyot with the etched names of Jews from around the world. There are those who died old, like my parents, and those who died young, especially in the military section. There are fresh flowers and even a basketball hoop on the grave of a young athlete . Names in Hebrew, Russian, English and a host of other languages. This is dignity. This is respect. This is how it should be.
Back in North Arlington we had to search for Zayda’s grave. The old maps were rendered obsolete due to the neglect. We three climbed and searched. Although a small cemetery it loomed large that day as we read gravestone after gravestone, determined to recite El Mole Rachamim at Zayda’s grave. The cemetery was hilly and we became exhausted. Finally, giving up, I leaned backwards on a large stone, only to hear my husband exclaim: Read the stone! It said Kalman Litwak. It was mystical. I couldn’t find Zayda so he found me!
And so we recited the El Mole Rachamim and left the cemetery.