199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die came out four years ago today. My encyclopedia of graveyards, tombs, and burial places spanned the US and circled the globe. It never stood a chance at being comprehensive, but I tried to make it as wide-ranging as possible.
I’m not sure if it’s obvious to anyone but me, but 199 Cemeteries is my most intentionally political book. From the start, I didn’t want it to be a collection of stories about dead White men, so I knew I would include Black History, Native American heroes, and Suffragettes. The real turning point for me, though, came the morning after the 2016 election.
Powazaki Cemetery of Poland, whose records were destroyed during World War II
In the fall of 2016, I joined a group called Shut Up & Write that met on Wednesday mornings at the Borderlands Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. We sat down at the big tables in the back of the cafe and everyone said their name and what they intended to work on that morning. Then we put our heads down over our own writing and silently worked for several hours.
By November, I’d learned most of everyone’s names and their recurring projects, but I hadn’t really gotten to know any of them. We were pleasant acquaintances, nothing more. Still, when I’d gone to bed on election day, Hillary Clinton was winning. When I got up the next morning, I could not believe the news. I thought about taking the day off but, to be honest, I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to bury myself in work. And, election or no, I had a deadline to complete 199 Cemeteries by the end of January. I couldn’t afford to get depressed.
The Jewish Cemetery of Chernivitsi, Ukraine
In a daze, frightened for my kid and my friends, I packed up my laptop and notes and went to Borderlands. Z’ev, the cafe manager, was kind. I settled at the table in the back and watched the other writers drift in. We all talked briefly about our disappointment and shock, our sense of betrayal by the rest of the country. I discovered how much more we had in common than just our creative pursuits.
As the writing session progressed, people wept silently. We passed a box of tissues back and forth. Some of them were simply journaling. Others were writing letters to the editor or outlining articles or penning essays. I sat there with my cemetery notes, wondering how I could possibly make sense of what had just happened…and became increasingly angry.
The Soul-Consoling tower at the Manzanar concentration camp.
My inclusive table of contents morphed. I believe fiercely that humans have more in common than we have differences. I believe that we are all in this together, all of us around the world. We have to get along right here, care for each other right here, and care for the earth. We have one planet. There is nowhere for us to go.
So my table of contents expanded. I wanted to include the Islamic prophets and the artists of Russia, the Apartheid martyrs of South Africa, the world’s indigenous cultures, if they welcomed visitors to their burial grounds. I wanted to examine the legacies of genocide and racism and war. I wanted to make the point — 199 times — that we are all going to end up dead. What matters, what will be remembered, is what we do right here, right now.
My contribution to making the world a better place, as small as it might be, is 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die.
Monument to the Native warriors killed at the Little Bighorn National Monument, placed more than a century after the battle.
Robert Pinsky’s introduction to this collection of David Goberman’s gravestone photography is poetic and devastating. Pinsky speaks of these gravestones as not only recording the lives whose names they bear but also as markers that memorialize the death of a world that no longer exists, wiped out by World War II and Stalin.
Starting in the 1930s, David Goberman photographed the Jewish graveyards beyond the Pale of Russia. In this so-called Pale of Settlement, Jews made up almost twelve percent of the population. A million and a half Jews lived in some 700 towns and cities that had Jewish majorities. In some cases, they had lived there for centuries. Some of the grave markers are no better than folk art: lions carved by someone who has only ever seen a lion pictured in a book. Others are wonderful, complex works of art, combining typography and symbolism to reveal the lives of the people buried below.
This is a beautiful book and lovingly produced. The only reason I’ve taken one star off is because it paints such a dire picture unnecessarily. Yes, much is gone: the communities, their culture, the graveyards themselves. However, some does survive: the large, lovely graveyard at Chernivitsi in the Western Ukraine still exists and still welcomes heritage tourists.
This is not to say that what graveyards do survive are not endangered. These days, more than ever, it seems that we are called on to protect the relics of the past, to remember the lessons they teach us.
This book is really cheap on Amazon and you should have a copy for your cemetery book collection: http://amzn.to/2lxy48Z
Holding hands inside my coat pocket, Mason and I strolled through the Marais district and enjoyed the watery yellow sunshine. Paris in January was cold. We paused beside a worn brick wall to read the plaque bolted there. Struggling with my imperfect French, I translated the plaque as saying the pockmarks on the wall were bullet holes, left behind when the Nazis shot martyrs.
Our guidebook added that the Nazis and Vichy French dragged 75,000 Jews down this same street on their way to concentration camps.
I was 28 and had no reference for what had happened there, other than a trace of World History in high school. Jews had seemed exotic in the small Michigan farming community where I grew up. Until I met Mason, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t, in some vague way, Christian.
Mason endured his Bar Mitzvah to placate his grandmother. That same grandmother still refused to allow anything of Japanese or German manufacture into her home. She’d disowned Mason for marrying me — without ever meeting me — even though I’d offered to convert. My blood wasn’t Jewish, so our children would not be Jewish. That mattered to her more than her relationship to her only grandson.
Being ostracized was hard for me to understand, harder still to accept. I would never be one of them. Love could not transform me.
It amazed me that Mason loved me enough to cause a rift in his family.
Afterward, to my disappointment, I found that prejudice ran both ways. My Presbyterian mother said that she didn’t care that I was marrying a Jew, but she would have preferred that he at least practiced his religion. My Baptist grandmother sniffed, “At least he isn’t Black,” but raised no objections at the wedding.
I’d grown up so sheltered; I hadn’t seen the prejudice in my own family. Visiting Europe for the first time opened my eyes to the scope of bigotry against the Jews.
Rue des Rosiers, the street we strolled, had served as the main artery of the historic Jewish quarter of Paris. The quarter had been created in the thirteenth century when King Phillipe Auguste “invited” the Jewish merchants living in front of Notre-Dame to move outside the newly built city wall. The name Rosiers referred to the rosebushes that grew against the outside of the wall. I admired people who found beauty, despite their exile from the safety of the city.
After some consultation of the map, Mason led us to Jo Goldenberg’s deli. Paris Access reported that on August 9, 1982, masked gunmen threw a grenade into the deli, then opened fire as people fled. They injured twenty-two customers and killed six. The PLO took credit for the murders. The gunmen remain unknown.
While we were in Paris, the First Gulf War tore apart Iraq. Throughout Paris, armed soldiers guarded the national treasures. Mason and I read the Herald Tribune each day, dreading the news that Iraq had unleashed germ warfare against Israel. Half-convinced that Jews and those who loved them were safe nowhere, I feared entering the deli.
Added to that, I’d only been in one deli in my life: Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, which my mother-in-law proclaimed was as good as those she’d grown up with in Brooklyn. In big, dark Zingerman’s, I’d kept to familiar foods like egg salad. I daringly ordered it on pumpernickel, which I’d confused with rye bread. In my defense, I’d had a purely white bread childhood. While I explored knishes and hamentashen and Doctor Brown’s cream soda at Zingerman’s, I remained a Presbyterian-raised girl only a couple of years off the farm. I didn’t know corned beef from pastrami. I just thought I didn’t like it.
Goldenberg’s deli was huge and bright inside. The people behind the counter bustled around in spotless white aprons. Their middle-aged patrons filled string shopping bags with packages handed over the counter wrapped in white paper.
Mason and I nudged each other forward. He wanted me to order, in my fractured French. I wanted him to do it, because I felt like such an outsider.
While he negotiated with the counterman, I wandered around the fringes of the salesroom, looking over the merchandise. I didn’t recognize most of it. What was matzo, or gefilte fish? Nothing had prices that I could see. I chose a bottle of wine that I hoped would be both inexpensive and palatable, a vin table rouge. I slipped it onto the counter as Mason got ready to pay.
“You want this too?” the man behind the counter asked in English.
I nodded, too shy to speak.
Mason and I stopped to eat in the little park behind Notre-Dame. We huddled together on a green bench. The buttery orange late afternoon sunlight gave little warmth. It flared from the stained glass windows of the great cathedral.
Nearby stood the Deportation Memorial, which honors the 200,000 French men and women of all races and religions murdered by the Nazis in World War II. One wall of the memorial is starred with 200,000 backlit crystals: one burning for each life snuffed out. Visiting the memorial the previous day had been the first time I’d encountered the command to “Forgive, but never forget.”
How could you forgive?
How could you live without forgiving?
Mason unwrapped the sandwich and handed half to me. The pastrami piled so high I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to bite it. Instead, I contented myself with nibbling. The pastrami had a marvelous metallic tang beneath its mouthwateringly salty flavor. The caraway seeds in the rye bread burst between my teeth. I laid my head against Mason’s shoulder and swooned, chewing with eyes closed in order to savor. I’d never had a sandwich so delicious.
We ate until we were thirsty, but Mason wasn’t comfortable swigging from the bottle of wine in the park. We decided to cross the Petit Pont back to our hotel in the Latin Quarter.
The Hotel Esmeralda dates from 1640. Huge yellow boulders, mortared together, formed the outside walls. We laughed that such a place would never survive an earthquake. A single steep, narrow stairway wound up from the lobby to the warren of rooms. We saw no such thing as a smoke detector or a fire escape. We found the place charming.
In our little room, I’d been reading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I’d read the book as a child, but it came so much more alive for me now, in a hotel named for the Gypsy dancing girl across the river from the cathedral. Still, I’d had to put the book down in a moment of horror when I reached the crones gossiping over the Foundling’s Bed. On viewing the child Quasimodo, one of the women said, “I should guess that it’s a beast, an animal — the offspring of a Jew and a sow — something, at any rate, which is not Christian.”
My God, I thought. How could people have said such a thing, and meant it? I know that fiction does not equal reality, but twentieth-century bigotry had been so much worse than Victor Hugo could have imagined.
That frosty January evening, our small steam-heated room remained chilly. Mason and I snuggled together in our clothes on the soft bed, pulling the blankets up over our knees. We each drank deeply from the bottle of wine, which turned out to be the perfect complement to the sandwich: rich and thick and slightly sweet. It chased the robust flavors of pastrami on rye across my tongue and touched a flush to my cheeks. We rested the wine bottle on the rickety nightstand and held the remainders of the sandwich carefully, so that pastrami did not slip between our fingers.
I thought I was in heaven, even before Mason produced dessert. Generally, I don’t like cheesecake. Mason regarded this, with amused resignation, as a character flaw. I agreed to sample a bite of this cheesecake, only a bite, when he held it toward me on his fork.
Jo Goldenberg’s was like no other cheesecake I’d ever sampled. It melted inside my mouth, exquisitely sweet and creamy. It tasted not too rich, not at all cloying. The texture was just dense enough to be solid, but not gummy like the cheesecake my mom made from a box. The subtle aftertaste of lemon lingered on my tongue.
I found it impossible not to watch as the fork traveled from the dwindling slice in the small white box to Mason’s mouth. He laughed and fed me the final bite.
And then I was in heaven: safe in the arms of the man I loved, cozy and sated in an old hotel in Paris, tasting the trace of sweetness on my husband’s lips.
“Pastrami in Paris” was originally published on Trip Lit in January 2003. It was reprinted in 2014 as part of All You Need is Morbid on Wattpad.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am getting ready to finish the Death’s Garden project. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch SOON. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
Home of Peace (Navai Shalome)
1299 El Camino Real
Colma, California 94014
Telephone: (650) 755-4700 Established: January 1, 1888 Size: 20 “graciously landscaped” acres at the foot of the San Bruno Mountains, according to the cemetery’s website. Number of interments: More than 20,000 (according to A Self-Guided Tour of Colma Cemeteries by Frances Liston, undated) Open: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday through Friday. Closed on Saturdays, major Jewish Holy Days, and secular holidays.
As early as 1848, Jewish settlers in San Francisco set aside land bounded by Vallejo, Broadway, Franklin, and Gough Streets in the current Pacific Heights neighborhood (then on the edge of town) for a graveyard called the Emanuel Hart Cemetery. In the early days of the Gold Rush, if a Jewish miner died in the diggings, it was important that his friends send his body to San Francisco to be buried with other Jews.
Traders and merchants from Bavaria founded Congregation Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco in 1850. Many of the members had come west for the Gold Rush, but found the money was better if they served the burgeoning populace providing hats, boots, and clothing, as well as importing dry goods from relatives on the East Coast.
After the population exploded in the 1850s, the edges of the city of San Francisco encroached on the Jewish pioneers’ graveyard. The bodies of early Jewish settlers were exhumed in 1860 and moved to a new two-acre graveyard, called Home of Peace, near the old Mission. It was bounded by 18th and 19th Streets and Church and Dolores, where Dolores Park is now. Photographs of the era show a beautiful sloping cemetery full of bright white marble monuments. Historian Michael Svanevik said in City of Souls that this Home of Peace became “San Francisco’s most prestigious Hebrew burial ground.”
Whether due to the pressure of an ever-expanding population or to anti-Semitic vandalism (as Svanevik suggested in a lecture given at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in August 2001, the congregation of Temple Emanu-El began to look for a permanent burial ground. In 1888, Temple president Martin Heller arranged to buy 73 acres of land in northern San Mateo County from the Catholic Archbishop Patrick Riordan. The area would later become known as Colma.
As soon as the original deed of purchase was signed in 1887, bodies began to be moved from the Dolores Park cemetery to this new Home of Peace. All of the bodies and headstones were carefully moved. Each corpse was reburied in an individual grave, as opposed to the mass reburials in the Gentile graveyards. In all, an estimated 13,000 pioneers were reburied, although many of them no longer had markers. The original markers that did survive are still visible in the back of Home of Peace, where families were buried together whenever possible. The final body was reinterred in 1910 and the former cemetery land in San Francisco was sold for development. The city turned it into Dolores Park.
Home of Peace in Colma is the largest Jewish cemetery in Northern California, founded by the largest Jewish congregation in Northern California. The cemetery contains some of the most beautiful private family tombs in Colma.
Levi Strauss’s mausoleum
After he made his fortune selling rivet-strengthened blue denim trousers to the Forty-Niners, Levi Strauss built a beautiful white-domed tomb, valued at $48,000, in 1908. It features a bust of Fanny Stern, his mother, which is said to have been commissioned from Auguste Rodin.
San Francisco’s 21st mayor, philanthropist “Silver King” Adolph Sutro — who gave the city the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights, and eucalyptus-covered Mount Sutro behind the University of California San Francisco campus on Parnassus — built a massive underground vault in Home of Peace for his estranged wife Leah and other members of his family. His ashes, as well as those of his daughter Emma were buried on the grounds of his home at Point Lobos, now called Sutro Heights Park. Judy Edmonson, General Manager of Home of Peace Cemetery, said in a tour in 2008 that Sutro’s ashes had recently been located during repair work on the Heights. The website Found SF reports that the urn full of ashes had been removed from the hillside and now resides with a family member.
The grave of Adolph Sutro’s family
Other important San Franciscans buried in Home of Peace include Isais Wolf Hellman (one of the founders of Wells Fargo Bank), members of the Zellerbach family (of Crown Zellerbach Corporation, the second largest wood pulp and paper business in the world), Aaron Fleishhacker (who came out during the Gold Rush and found his fortune manufacturing boxes), Ignatz Steinhart (a philanthropist for whom the aquarium in Golden Gate Park is named), and Walter Wanger, a Hollywood movie director who started the careers of Rudolph Valentino, Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. Alice B. Toklas’s parents are buried here, too.
The Home of Peace mausoleum opened in 1936, designed in the Byzantine Revival style by Wayne S. Hertzka (also buried there) and William E. Knowles. The mausoleum’s red-tiled dome, marble interior, and torpedo-globed chandeliers evoke Congregation Emanu-El’s temple at the corner of Lake Street and Arguello Boulevard in San Francisco, which had been inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The mausoleum and its chapel were remodeled by Mae and Benjamin H. Swig in the 1980s.
Home of Peace is “dedicated to serving all families of the Jewish faith.” One didn’t — and doesn’t — need to be a member of the congregation of Temple Emanu-El to be buried there. In fact, the graveyard provides burial sections for Congregation Beth Shalom, Peninsula Temple Sholom of Burlingame, and World War II veterans from the former Soviet Union.
Some of the cemetery’s un-landscaped area is used to grow organic produce for the San Francisco Food Bank. According to the Images of America book Jewish San Francisco, the Peah Garden donated 30,000 pounds of vegetables to the Food Bank in 2005, the largest contribution of fresh produce that year.
National Cemetery of Terezin
Národní Hrbitov v Terezíne
Terezin, Czech Republic Dedicated: September 16, 1945 Number of graves: 2386 Number of interments: About 10,000. Only 1133 bodies buried here could be identified. Open: The Small Fortress is open daily November to March from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and from April to October from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: A ticket to enter both the Ghetto Museum and Small Fortress costs 200Kc for adults, 150Kc for children. For more information or reservations for guided tours, call tel. 416-782-225 or go to the Terezin Memorial page.
About an hour outside of Prague stands Terezin, formerly a garrison town built by Emperor Joseph II in the 1790s. Gavrilo Princip was held at the Small Fortress after he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, setting off World War I. During World War II, the Nazis converted the town of Terezin — which they called Theresienstandt — into a Jewish ghetto. They used the nearby fortress as a concentration camp.
During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the villagers of Terezin were evicted from their homes so that Hitler could turn the entire town into a Jewish ghetto. The Nazis called Terezin Hitler’s gift to the Jews, in an attempt to refute the world’s suspicion that Germany had Jewish blood on its hands. Jews from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union were herded into the village, where the Gestapo demanded they “govern” themselves. The town council, elected by the Nazis, was forced to draw up lists—to fulfill Nazi quotas—of Jews to be sent over the border into Poland to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In 1944, the Danish Red Cross visited the ghetto. They pronounced Theresienstadt a model for the care of political prisoners. As they toured, a jazz band (called The Ghetto Swingers) played a catchy tune. Shop windows displayed formal wear. Everyone ate at an outdoor cantina. Money filled the bank. Prisoners wore street clothes, rather than striped uniforms. Everyone had shoes and hats and overcoats. Behind the façade lay reality, which the Red Cross did not examine. Over 85% percent of the 140,000 people who passed through Terezin died. Three hundred inmates died each day from “natural causes.” Trains carried 87,000 people o Auschwitz-Birkenau. Barely 4,000 “citizens” of Terezin survived the war.
Coffins after the war, awaiting burial.
Down the road at the Little Fortress, conditions were even worse. Of the 32,000 people imprisoned in the Little Fortress during the war, 2500 died of their mistreatment. Another 5,000 were sent on to die in the extermination camps. After the Soviets liberated the rest in May 1945, 500 more former prisoners died of malnutrition and typhoid.
Inside the Little Fortress stands a tunnel that served as a mortuary, where corpses of tortured prisoners piled up until survivors could transport them to the nearby crematorium. During the last three years of the war, the crematorium’s four trolley-fed ovens burned night and day, disposing of 30,000 bodies from the Fortress, the ghetto, and Flossenbürg work camp over the border in Bavaria. We saw the wall where firing squads executed prisoners. 601 of their victims had been buried in shallow graves until after the war, when they were exhumed and reburied with ceremony outside the Fortress’s front gate.
After the war, all the graves were marked with little wooden crosses.
The Národní Hrbitov v Terezíne, the National Cemetery of Terezin, was designed to honor the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. Immediately after the war, at the prodding of survivors, the vicinity of the prison was excavated to recover all the bodies. Gradually, between 1945 and 1958, some 10,000 victims from the Small Fortress, the ghetto of Terezin, and Flossenbürg work camp were reburied in the National Cemetery. Of those, fewer than 1200 lie in individual, named graves. The rest remain nameless. Perhaps one day genetic testing will discover who they were, if they have any relatives left with which to compare them.
A tall cross with a ring of barbed wire at the intersection of its arms towers above the graves. It was erected in 1992. In response, a smaller Star of David was raised closer to the prison wall in 1995. More poignant to me were the uncountable stones marked only by numbers of victims in the mass graves below my feet. Not even the years of death could be guessed or recorded. A low granite tablet with the number 10 000 remembered those who vanished into the crematorium.
From the Czech guidebook to the cemetery, a view of the graveyard from the road.
It’s possible to take a local bus out of Prague to Terezin and walk from the modern town back to the Small Fortress. That’s much cheaper than taking a guided tour, but I was so exhausted by the stories we heard on our tour that I was glad to collapse into our air-conditioned coach and not have to worry about getting myself back to Prague. Your mileage may vary.
Trailer for the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life, about Alice Herz Sommer, the world’s oldest living survivor of the Holocaust, who died earlier this year. She was interned in the ghetto at Terezin and survived by playing in the orchestra. The Nazis ordered them to play as the trains were being loaded to take people to the extermination camps.
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