We clustered in twos and threes beneath a leaden sky, light mist settling on the nearby tombstones. Before us loomed a newly-erected stone monolith, upon which was carved “al eileh ani bochiyah – over these do I weep.”
That September afternoon, all in attendance witnessed a great cross-communal moment as we stood united in our task: laying the decades-old remains of unidentified Holocaust victims to rest.
Several months prior, the Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education in Rockland County, N.Y., made an unprecedented discovery while staff members organized its artifact collection in advance of a new multimillion dollar exhibition.
It was a smallish plexiglass box, labeled “ashes from Chelmno” with a question mark.
“We were astonished, and more than a little doubtful,” says museum curator Julie Golding. “Like most museums, we have a policy against displaying human remains, so there was little reason to believe the twigs and dirt inside the box were anything more than they seemed.”
The item’s provenance was ambiguous as well: museum staffers only knew that it had been part of a larger collection of artifacts donated to the museum in the early 2000s.
“Our immediate responsibility was to verify whether the box indeed contained human remains,” says Abigail Miller, the museum’s director of education. “We brought the box to a crematorium in New Jersey for analysis, and they confirmed it.”
Further research revealed that the condition of the remains matched the method of cremation used at Chelmno, located in Poland. But it was impossible for experts to determine if the box contained the remains of five, 50, or 500 people, let alone identify who they were.
As the first Nazi extermination camp, Chelmno was an experiment in mass murder. Jews were herded into vans with exhaust pipes that had been diverted into the sealed cabins, creating a mobile gas chamber. Their bodies were tossed into mass graves or burned in a nearby forest. By conservative estimates, approximately 172,000 people were murdered at Chelmno, but other figures almost double that.
“Without warning, we found ourselves in an extremely complex situation,” says Golding. “Our find had major religious, historical, legal, and emotional implications – all of which needed to be considered before deciding what to do with the ashes.”
Jewish law treats human remains with considerable respect, in accordance with a view of the body as the erstwhile dwelling of the soul. As such, museum staff wished to provide a dignified burial for the ashes, but this plan had inherent complications. Cremation is forbidden by Jewish law, and if a Jew is cremated at will he may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But what about Holocaust victims who were gassed and cremated by force?
“We consulted with several rabbis,” says Golding. “They ruled that since the cremation was involuntary, the remains should be buried in a Jewish cemetery.”
Museum staff also reached out to Polish authorities, Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, and the chief rabbi of Poland for help with legal issues and to gain their support.
All involved note the uniqueness of the event. There has only been one other similar: several months ago, the Imperial War Museum in England turned over the bones of six Auschwitz victims to the Jewish community for burial.
Of the millions who perished in the Holocaust, very few received proper interment. This made last month’s burial event an extraordinary opportunity for the Jewish community: a chance to provide fellow religionists the respect denied them even in death.
And the community responded in measure to the opportunity. “We were met with overwhelming support for our burial effort from Jews and non-Jews alike,” says Miller. “People felt a sense of common humanity, a wish to provide some sort of dignity, perhaps the tiniest bit of closure.” Donations for the event came in swiftly.
Polish authorities were likewise supportive. “It is our duty to pay homage to the victims of the Holocaust – an unimaginable crime against mankind,” a representative of the Polish Consul General of New York wrote in an email. “We appreciate the museum’s efforts to grant these victims a public and respectful burial.”
A large plot in the Monsey Jewish cemetery was donated by Congregation Sons of Israel of Spring Valley for this purpose. “Hearing of the discovery of these ashes was very humbling,” says its leader Rabbi Moshe Dick. “Seventy-five years later and thousands of miles away, suddenly it was on our community to bury these remains.”
The project was acutely personal for Paul Galan, co-president of the museum and a child survivor. “I keep thinking that those ashes could have been mine,” he says. “I might have ended up in a mass grave.” Galan and his family had been part of a group destined for transport to almost certain death – he remembers lining up for the trains. They escaped by a miracle.
Miller, who is not Jewish, views events like this one through a global lens. “To me, they’re about using the lessons of the past to create a more just and perfect world,” she says. “More community and coalition, less division and violence.”
What stood out for Golding through all this was the Holocaust’s blunt reality. “I’ve dedicated my life to educating people about the Holocaust, and suddenly here I am, sitting at a sterile table in 2019 with the remains of its victims before me,” she says. “The story of the Holocaust isn’t over.”
Indeed, a page was added to that blood-spattered chronicle this year a few days before Rosh Hashanah. On a grave-strewn hill in Rockland County converged a somber assemblage of people, intent on honoring their unknown dead even as they touted the triumph of their national revival.
I arrived with a family member, but found myself drifting away. This was something to experience alone. I had visited Chelmno, now a barren landscape with little to tell of the atrocities committed there. And now I stood here, a numb spectator, a silent mourner, a proud Jew.
The event began with speeches by the museum’s president and several rabbis. We were reminded of what happened to six million over six impossibly dark years, and of the very real individuals who made up that sum. We were told of the great merit we had in laying these remains to rest, within a Jewish community, within a civilized world.
The coffin containing the ashes was lowered into the earth’s gaping mouth. I was reminded of the words from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: adam yesodo me’afar v’sofo l’afar – man’s origin is from dust and his end is to dust. Could the liturgists have imagined this would one day be so literal?
For 93-year-old Alan Moskin, the burial evoked memories of arriving at a concentration camp as an American liberator. “I still think about it all the time – the piles of bodies, the stench, the walking skeletons,” he says. “It’s something I can’t forget, that I don’t want to forget, that I don’t want anybody to forget.”
His words echo those of the museum’s president. “Do a good job with this story,” Galan had instructed me. “The world needs to know.”