The other side

Writer's unique experience clearing debris from Jewish cemetery in Poland.

By JONATHAN GILLIS
January 5, 2009 20:35
The other side

poland graveyard 248 88. (photo credit: Dani Kahn and Dina Weiner)

 
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There they were still, on some of the tombstones, traces of the colored chalk we'd used to help us read the inscriptions - yellow, lilac and orange, chalk that hadn't been rubbed off by last winter's snows. It gave me a thrill to see that. In truth, in my mind I had hardly left this place. Over the past year, I would recall myself here, prodding about with a metal bar in the undergrowth of this vast cemetery, as though searching for buried treasure, which I was in a way. Or with the lifters, four or five of us gathered around one of those huge slabs of stone, yelling in unison, "Ahad, shtayim, shalooooosh," grunting, straining with the enormous weight of it, somehow managing to heave it from out of the soft earth where it had lain for years after falling, face down, with its secrets hidden. And then again with another tombstone. And another. Those inscriptions suddenly revealed, those names, in their beautiful Hebrew calligraphy, letters carved into marble, words, whole worlds. Remembering the elation of it, each time it happened, the thrill of a discovery shared, the feeling as if together we had just reclaimed a life. Aryeh had been there in everything we did on that trip, even though for much of the time he hadn't actually been with us, because he couldn't be. Yet he was there in spirit, and you were never in any doubt that this was still his brainchild. He was the reason I'd come, and the reason many of the rest of the group were there too. His sudden appearance on the Friday afternoon at the hotel in Lodz had amazed us. It had scarcely seemed possible, given what we knew then, yet there he was, suddenly, with his beaming smile, at the entrance to the hotel, welcoming his students as they got down from the bus; their sheer delight at seeing him, the surprise, as well as the love just then passing back and forth between them, which was palpable. I recalled his demeanor then. It was a look he had - as if to say, all was fine now and there was nothing more to worry about. And why should there be? Here, after all, was a memorable Shabbat to be spent in Poland with his beloved students, and who knew how many more of those there'd be? And that one brief interchange I'd had with him - a precious, all too brief interchange - as I'd been waiting for the lift in the Grand Hotel in Lodz that same Friday afternoon. "How's it been with the students?" he'd asked, searching my face at the same time, anxious. "Amazing," I'd answered, truthfully, struggling to come up with something more original. "They've been wonderful. I've never met a group like them." "Ah good," he'd said, his face creasing into a huge smile, "I'm glad it's worked out," then adding, still smiling, "I love them you know." "Yes," I'd said, before the doors of the lift had closed. THE CLOSING ceremony this time wasn't actually a ceremony at all - more of an activity. I was handed a folded-up letter, a candle and a lighter, and asked to go off and sit by the tombstone of my choice, light the candle and read the letter in silence, then come back to the path and rejoin the group for a closing. I'd heard about this activity before - something Aryeh himself had initiated once with the students on one of the earlier Gidonim trips, and then instituted as a regular feature, though we hadn't done it last time. Maybe because of that I was a little suspicious. I didn't much go in for emotional gimmicks, which is what this felt like. But there I was, with the letter and candle and lighter in my hand, and there was no reason not to try. I chose a tombstone quite near to the main path running through the cemetery. It was one I'd uncovered myself that morning, as I'd searched about under the ivy with my metal bar: the tombstone of an avrech - a young unmarried man stricken down in the prime of his youth. His name, which looked like Ya'acov, had been partly chipped off the stone, though the name of his father, Naftali, was clearly there, and also the date he had died. I sat down on the ground next to the grave and lit the candle, and then opened the folded-up paper and, by the candlelight in the gathering gloom, read the letter Aryeh had once written in his own hand: "Dear Friend," it read, "First of all I wanted to say thank you to you for coming to visit me from the Holy Land. When you all entered my little fortress by the gateway, I was sure I was hallucinating and that my mind was deceiving me. Of course I don't have eyes or a body, and quite possibly my bones have long since disintegrated... however my spirit and soul are very much here and alive in this cemetery. "I don't know why you came to me now. I know that you have cleaned me and restored me and my friends, and we all feel as if our spirits have been splendidly brought back to life by this. "You know I too was alive once, breathed the air, loved, hiked, prayed; I was also once a very proud Jew. Then, after I left the world, it made me sad when the undergrowth came and hid me. I felt neglected and abandoned. And then, suddenly, you appeared, reconnected with my soul and 'revived' me. "If you don't mind, I would like to ask you a few questions - from 'the other side' as it were... from behind the screen - the world that you call 'the world of truth' (though my soul is actually present right here this evening) - just a few questions from me to you: Who are you really? "What brought you to me and what was it really that made you decide to visit me and revive me? How beautiful is the Land of Israel - is it important to you that you are an Israeli? "Do you gain satisfaction from being Jewish? "For as long as you're on 'the other side,' what is it you want to do with your life? "Will you remember me when you leave here? "What is it in your view that gives life value? "I do hope you'll think about these questions because I would like you to continue talking with me. Even if you leave me here, I'd still like to stay in touch. I'd like you to remember me always, and always feel free to talk with me (a dialogue of souls). "On behalf of myself and all my friends, I am very grateful. Now my soul really does dwell in the realm of life. "With love, and thanks, your tombstone." I continued sitting on the ground by the tombstone, completely immersed in the world this letter had so mysteriously evoked, but most of all in the presence of Aryeh himself it had conjured up. He was suddenly there. This was his voice, his imagination, his humor. I wanted to linger over it then, to read it over again, to cherish the tone it had. But we'd run out of time. The flame of the candle was already bright now against the murky darkness of the dense wood. I could hear the rest of the group, who'd gathered together on the path near where I was sitting, starting up a song together, in lieu of their "closing ceremony." So I got up then, blew out the candle, and went off to join them. A tribute to Aryeh Geiger, the founder and head of the Reut School in Jerusalem, who passed away just over a month ago. It describes a return to the Czestechowa Jewish cemetery as part of the 'Gidonim' - the school's remarkable project for the renovation of Jewish cemeteries in Poland - a project instituted by Aryeh himself.

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