The Biggest Cemetery in the World

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

Yesterday, Joshua Cohen told us how to write a book like Coney Island. His new novel, Witz, is now available.

This second blogpost is about two experiences with two “cemeteries.” The first made it into my novel, Witz.

Years ago I was living in Prague — I was 21 — not quite earning a living writing articles for a Jewish newspaper about Jews in Eastern Europe. Problem was, there weren’t any Jews in Eastern Europe, besides: Russians who moved west to defraud with import-export; Hasidic emissaries from New Jersey and Brooklyn; and old people (Holocaust survivors). I was writing about the Holocaust, about the Holocaust’s legacy, approximately six decades later but for an insatiably interested public. I told an editor I needed new business cards. She suggested a new title, “Dead Jews Correspondent.”

I covered the memorials and monuments, the synagogues rebuilt after the fall of communism with money from Long Island, democratically elected governments that destroyed cemeteries — clearing land for hockey stadiums and hospitals.

One day a man I’d interviewed for an article about Holocaust survivors and healthcare — a very kind and understandably strange man who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and who offered me tea and his granddaughter’s email address — died. I went the next afternoon to his funeral; then, on the way out of the cemetery, stopped by the grave of Franz Kafka. Why not? This is what you do when you’re at the New Jewish Cemetery at Želivského.

I stood facing the grave and read the inscription — the headstone is not the original; the original is rumored to have been stolen and sold to the West by Czechoslovak communist functionaries and remains lost to this day — I noted the plaque that memorialized Kafka’s three sisters (Gabriela, Valerie, Otilie), who died in the camps. I can’t remember any thoughts — I’ve never had a thought in a cemetery.

After a moment an Asian tourist approached the grave and stood alongside me snapping photos. Then without saying a word he handed me something plastic and white.

He said, in English, “For head.”

He was making me wear a yarmulke.

He touched his head, touched my head.

I’d already taken my yarmulke off, stuffed it in a pocket.

I felt like explaining that I was a Cohen — of the caste of priests, who must keep pure for future service in the rebuilt Temple. Forget not wearing a yarmulke, my biggest transgression was being in a cemetery at all. I was being defiled, technically speaking. I wanted to yell at him, “I am being defiled, technically speaking!”

I went home.

The next week I wrote a section of Witz that treats Kafka’s grave to a Kafkan fiction. A man tries to gain entrance to the cemetery that holds the grave but is prevented, at every opportunity delayed and rebuffed. I called the section “The Grave.” At the end I say the stones that mourners place atop headstones — to mark their visit, to memorialize concern — are, in effect, the yarmulkes of headstones.

Last year, back in the States, I took a bikeride on the boardwalk, from Brighton Beach to Seagate.

On the pier at Coney, a huddled group. They stood at the edge, about to empty ashes into the water.

Afterward a few hung around.

I asked a man what happened and he said his friend—the man in the urn—killed himself two weeks ago.

I didn’t ask for details but Marco said, “He was a lifeguard. He loved swimming and movies.”

He said, “The ocean is the biggest cemetery in the world.”

As I turned to leave he repeated, “Biggest cemetery in the world, biggest cemetery in the world.”

All life comes from water. And if you don’t believe science you at least believe that water was created before Man—wasn’t actually created but divided: the waters above separated from the waters below…. What was most depressing about living in Europe—in Europe’s east—was being so far from an ocean. But I disagree with Marco. Europe is the biggest cemetery in the world.

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Authors Blog series. Visit his official website here.

Posted on June 2, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

8 thoughts on “The Biggest Cemetery in the World

  1. Douglas Deakin

    This article was poorly written no facts about the ocean or
    land grave sites. Great interesting topic however just not
    interesting.

  2. Rena

    The biggest cemetary in the world is not the sea
    it’s not eastern europe.
    The biggest cemetary in the world is an empty soul…..

  3. Marta

    Mr. Cohen,
    I enjoyed reading your article, and specially reading about your experiences in Prague, I felt it touched a familial chord.
    I was born in the former Czechoslovakia, after WWII, and I am
    a daughter of Holocaust survivors. I grew up in a city of 25000 people in South Slovakia, called Lucenec. Before the war it had
    a vibrant community of few thousand Jews. After the war there were maybe 100 Jews left in the city. As a child, I remember listening to the stories of the survivors who came to visit my parents.No matter how mundane were the topics at the start of their conversations, they all ended with stories from the camps. I thought it was normal that most of these survivors had tatoos on their arms.Looking back, I realize how emotionally damaged these people were. This year I went on a “March of the Living” and I felt as if I have been in Auschwitz before. I suppose
    I have been there through the countless stories of the survivors.
    I strongly agree Europe is the biggest cemetery in the world.
    Sincerely,
    Marta Srulovicz

  4. Loren Estes

    All the comments. This critique, that praise. These comments are what is boring. Mr. Cohen, I study many subjects. Of course I gave up thoroughness because of my limited time, however, I have studied for more then 30 years and I have made conclusions to what I’ve studied. Thank you for sharing with us. I take your point and have placed it in my memory.

  5. meyer zvi

    I am a Cohen too.My dad survived.Its important to personalize stories like these.I found the grave of my great grad-father who is buried in Italy.Unfortunately not a clue as to if any remains are to be found in cemeteries in Poland or Greece.To connect with the dead is important.I grew up with few relatives not knowing when they were killed until recently.Having no place to visit relatives is a bummer.Weather or not your standing next to a loved one’s grave,or visiting a former concentration camp standing on top of a marker with 45,000 people underneath your feet has its moments.

  6. katerinewilson

    i think its wrong too up rute graves and. to marta you are someone i would like to meet.you have lived in the middle of somthing horrable and you have a lot of history you carry with you. dont let it go to wast.write it down the storys you remmeber. you know some people think the holocaust never happend and i am not one of them.i know that it did. mrs.wilson

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