A walk among the tombstones of my family’s history in Krakow - notebook

The 'Jerusalem Post's reporter searched and found what’s believed to be her ancestors graves in the city’s Jewish cemetery.

Jerusalem Post reporter Ilanit Chernick kneels next to what's believed to be her great-great-great grandparents graves in the New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow, Poland. (photo credit: JONNY DANIELS)
Jerusalem Post reporter Ilanit Chernick kneels next to what's believed to be her great-great-great grandparents graves in the New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow, Poland.
(photo credit: JONNY DANIELS)
KRAKOW/JERUSALEM - I was itching with anticipation as we chatted in the car.
I couldn't help but fidget.
Most people don't look forward to or get excited about going to a cemetery, but for me, this is one of those rare occasions where I was. Call me crazy.
For over 130 years, no one from my family had stepped through the gates of the New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow. I was about to be the first.
Inside the story: The New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow was established in 1800 and has over 20 sections.Inside the story: The New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow was established in 1800 and has over 20 sections.
The cemetery was established in about 1800 and is located in the historical Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz. At the time, the city was part of the Austrian Empire, and records show that my family identified themselves as Austrian and spoke German (and Yiddish).
The youngest son of a well-known jeweler family in the city, my great-great-grandfather Majer Izrael Seltzer, otherwise known as Isidore, left Krakow for England in the late 1870s.
His parents and older siblings remained behind in Krakow, continuing their lives in the majestic city; two later moved to Budapest. Most of the descendants who stayed eventually perished in the Holocaust.
Isidore settled in Liverpool, and in 1879 married Mary-Anne Aarons. The couple moved to London and had several children – my great-grandfather among them.
Isidore learned the family business and census records from the UK also list him as a jeweler working and living in the upper class neighborhoods of White Chapel and Islington.
Eventually the family – who are my paternal grandmother's family – made their way to South Africa.
Ten years ago, I knew none of this. I didn't know that my family was originally from Krakow.
We've always had some yekke customs, and we have old German-Hebrew prayer books from my great-grandparents' home, which date back to 1900. I've always had this insane need to be on time, and we've always kept three hours between milk and meat.
After a trip to Poland with Midreshet Harova in 2010, my interest in tracing my family roots was sparked, and it has just gathered steam as the years passed.
So, when, at the beginning of last year, I found records that my great-great-great grandparents Schulim and Scheindel Seltzer, their siblings and some of their other children were buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow, I caught the genealogy bug and became determined to get back there.
I had the exact number, row and section of the graves. And although I knew there was a chance the grave stones were very old, unreadable, missing or damaged badly during the Holocaust, I had to try.

THE NAZIS had done a good job trying to desecrate the cemetery. They even used it as a shooting range during their occupation of Poland, and sold some of its most valuable stonework.
Stones had been taken from the cemetery to pave areas and supply roads, as well as the courtyard of Amon Goethe's home next to the Plaszow Concentration Camp.
When I discovered I'd be in Krakow to attend the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, I made it my mission to get to the cemetery. I had to pay respect and honor the long-standing, but up until now dormant, relationship my family has with Krakow.
On Monday morning, I headed out with From the Depths founder Jonny Daniels, who warmly offered to help me on my search of the cemetery.
While there, we spoke to the caretaker, who showed us a map of each of the sections and where each begins.
This was the hard part. As Daniels explained, for a Jewish cemetery, which made it through the war in Poland, "it's well kept… it’s not as bad as people think" – although many of the headstones were very weather beaten and covered in moss and ivy.
But, he pointed out, a cemetery like this is a very expensive place to maintain, especially since many families are no longer here to help care for their families' headstones.
With the cemetery being some 220 years old, it was no surprise that the writing on many of the stones was also difficult to decipher.
Yet, there was something so beautiful and peaceful about this place.
Daniels pointed out some interesting observations as well, showing me how several headstones ”are written only in Polish, others in Polish and Yiddish, some in just Hebrew and many with both Polish and Hebrew.”
We even spotted a stone with engravings only in German, which is not surprising because of Krakow’s history.
“There’s also something that I’ve only spotted in Jewish cemeteries in Krakow and southern Poland,” he said, pointing to a metal piece on top of one of the stones. “Pre-war, they put a metal sheet on top to stop rain and stuff affecting the tombstone, which has enabled us to see that little bit of writing even 150 years later.”

AFTER FINDING the right section, we began to count. We were looking for row 10, graves 18 and 19 in Section 1.
After doing several counts, calculations, and asking advice from the caretaker – and even going to one of the synagogues nearby, in Old Town, to see if they could give us a clearer idea – we finally traipsed into what we believed was row 10. And we were right; I found a grave marked with the numbers on its side, "10-10" – meaning row 10, grave 10.
From there we counted to 18 – and there they were, in the exact geographical spot: extremely old and totally unreadable, but with identical headstones standing next to each other, as graves belonging to a couple would have been placed.
The only readable part we could see were the Hebrew letters "Pay" and "Shin" marked right at the top, the letters signaling the words “here lies.”
Daniels and I looked at each other; tears welled in my eyes.
"We can't be 100% certain because there's no writing, but geographically this is where it should be – and an educated guess would be that it’s here. It's two graves standing extremely close together made of the exact same stone so the chances are..." Daniels said.
Tears began to fall as I kneeled down and touched the stones. Schulim and Scheindel, my great-great-great grandparents were here in this place – with me.
In my head, I said a small memorial prayer for them, making it clear that they haven't been forgotten by their loved ones, despite the many oceans and generations that have separated us. Then, according to Jewish tradition, I placed a small stone on each grave. I reminded myself again that I was probably the first family member to visit their graves in over 100 years.
We tried to find other members of my family buried in other parts of the cemetery, but as we cleaned off ivy and tried to fight the brush, we were not as successful as I'd hoped. Where the grave of a great-great uncle should have been, there was no stone at all. Only a mound of dirt signifying that it was a grave.
"This is what stones from that time would have looked like: like sandstone," he said, pointing to a stone next to it.
It was emotional and raw to be there. A mass of feelings overwhelmed me as I realized that I was walking in the footsteps of my beloved ancestors, who had roamed these streets for hundreds of years – and as Daniels pointed out, most probably prayed in the synagogues that we visited.
I was reminded of the famous words of writer and poet Linda Hogan: “Walking. I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
The writer was a guest of the World Jewish Congress and The Jerusalem Press Club.