The Biggest Cemetery in the World

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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.

Posted on June 2, 2010
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