Searching For Meaning After A Jewish Cemetery Is Desecrated

Mar 16, 2017
Originally published on March 17, 2017 9:56 am

One morning in early March, I got into my car and drove to see the Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia. The graveyard is 20 minutes from my house. It's filled with the remains of Jewish Philadelphians, the majority of them from the 19th century.

Though authorities couldn't be sure exactly when, more than 100 of its gravestones had been overturned by vandals sometime late in February. In the same month a similar desecration of a Jewish graveyard took place in St. Louis.

For the first 38 years of my life, if I wanted to see a dramatically desecrated Jewish cemetery, I had to fly to Eastern Europe. And like many Jews of my generation, I did — to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary. As I was driving home from Mount Carmel that morning it occurred to me that a surprising number of trips I took in my young life included visits to Jewish cemeteries.

In 1990, when I was 12, my parents took me to Budapest, Hungary. My father was born there. We drove 60 kilometers north to Gyöngyös, the small city where my grandfather grew up. On the outskirts of town we found a walled graveyard. My father boosted me over the walls and into grasses that rose above my head. We picked our way over beer bottles and cigarette butts.

On headstones throughout the place we saw graffiti, the painful evidence of kids who'd come to hang out there, defacing graves and drinking. Under the weeds we found the names of my great grandparents, who had been deported to death camps during World War II. My father explained that my great-grandparents' bodies weren't actually buried there. They'd never been recovered. The family had put these markers up to commemorate their lives: to consecrate them.

Their bodies were not what was sacred. The stones we'd put up to remember them were. Now they were covered in weeds. Those headstones had been desecrated by a mix of animosity, lack of attention and time, and by the fact that there were no Jews left there.

The opposite of desecration is consecration: the act of making something sacred. It is a thing we do ourselves. We choose to give holiness and sanctity to our dead. In making their resting places sacred we lend them meaning. I have been wondering what it means when people vandalize a cemetery, whether it is in Philadelphia, or in Eastern Europe.

Two years ago, the cemetery in Gyöngyös was vandalized so badly it drew international attention. Vandals smashed headstones and scattered the remains of disinterred bodies. Of course those remains couldn't have belonged to my great-grandparents. Maybe some of them were the remains of my father's aunts and uncles. I have not been back to witness the damage myself. Hungary has been suffering a wave of right-wing nationalism of a variety they haven't seen since World War II.

We've seen our own brand of right-wing nationalism lately ourselves. The morning I went to see Mount Carmel Cemetery, I was overcome by a familiar feeling, one I'd had in Hungary at that graveyard. Now I was feeling it in the city where I live. In 2017.

That morning I joined a group of volunteers who were helping clean up. It was early March, but it had hardly snowed all winter. People raked leaves that should have decomposed by now.

There wasn't a reliable record of the graves in Mount Carmel and people had been calling, wondering if their relatives' headstones had been vandalized. Someone explained we would not be working to right the headstones — one look at them made clear they would be too heavy to lift.

Substantial funds had been collected to have them repaired by professionals. Headstones lay toppled, some so weathered you could barely make out writing. Others were etched in dark Hebrew. Some were more than 100 years old — but others were new, polished. It must have taken some force, and time, to knock them over. They looked like ruins, like walking though Stonehenge. "Ruin" is a forceful word, equally implying its noun and verb forms. Like the "being" half of human being.

I got back into my car and made a U-turn. As I passed Mount Carmel I noticed something: In every direction at the crossroads where the Jewish cemetery sat were other cemeteries. To my right was a sign for North Cedar Hill. On the other side of the intersection were East Cedar Hill and Cedar Hill. I discovered they, too, are filled mostly with 19th-century Philadelphians. All of them are Christian. That cemetery hadn't been vandalized.

I put my eyes to the road and headed home, with Mount Carmel on my left and the North Cedar Hill cemetery on my right. I was at the crossroads dividing them. I turned right. The headstones in the Cedar Hill cemetery had not been disturbed. But I still had to wonder if in some way they hadn't been left violated by what happened across the street.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When writer Daniel Torday heard that a Jewish cemetery in his city, Philadelphia, had been vandalized, it brought back memories of his trips visiting Jewish cemeteries in Europe, especially the family graveyard in Hungary. Torday was a guest on FRESH AIR when his novel "The Last Flight Of Poxl West" was published. He teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. Here's his reflections about the vandalizing of cemeteries.

DANIEL TORDAY: One morning in early March, I got into my car and drove to see the Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in northeast Philadelphia. The graveyard is 20 minutes from my house. It's filled with the remains of Jewish Philadelphians, the majority of them from the 19th century. Though authorities couldn't be sure exactly when, more than a hundred of its gravestones had been overturned by vandals sometime late the previous months.

Last month, a similar desecration of a Jewish graveyard took place in St. Louis. For the first 38 years of my life, if I wanted to see a dramatically desecrated Jewish cemetery, I had to fly to Eastern Europe. And like many Jews of my generation, I did - to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary. As I was driving home from Mount Carmel that morning, it occurred to me that a surprising number of trips I took in my young life included visits to Jewish cemeteries.

In 1990, when I was 12, my parents took me to Budapest. My father was born there. We drove 60 kilometers north to Gyongyos, the small city where my grandfather grew up. On the outskirts of town, we found a walled graveyard. My father boosted me over the walls and into grasses that rose above my head. We picked our way over beer bottles and cigarette butts. On headstones throughout the place, we saw graffiti, the painful evidence of kids who'd come to hang out there, defacing graves and drinking. Under the weeds, we found the names of my great grandparents, who had been deported to death camps. My father explained that my great grandparents' bodies weren't actually buried there. They'd never been recovered. The family had put these markers up to commemorate their lives, to consecrate them. Their bodies were not what was sacred. The stones we put up to remember them were.

Now they were covered in weeds. Those headstones had been desecrated by a mix of animosity, lack of attention and time and by the fact that there were no Jews left there. The opposite of desecration is consecration, the act of making something sacred. It is a thing we do ourselves. We choose to give holiness and sanctity to our dead. And making the resting place as sacred, we lend them meaning. I've been wondering what it means when people vandalize a cemetery whether it is in Philadelphia or in Eastern Europe.

Two years ago, the cemetery in Gyongyos was vandalized so badly it drew international attention. Vandals smashed headstones and scattered the remains of disinterred bodies. Of course, those remains couldn't have belonged to my great grandparents. Maybe some of them were the remains of my fathers' aunts and uncles. I've not been back to witness the damage myself. Hungary has been suffering a wave of right-wing nationalism of a variety they haven't seen since World War II. We've seen our own brand of right-wing nationalism lately ourselves.

The morning I went to see Mount Carmel Cemetery, I was overcome by a familiar feeling, one I'd had in Hungary at that graveyard. Now I was feeling it in the city where I live in 2017. That morning, I joined a group of volunteers who were helping clean up. It was early March, but it had hardly snowed all winter. People raked leaves that should have decomposed by now. There wasn't a reliable record of the graves in Mount Carmel, and people had been calling wondering if their relatives' headstones had been vandalized. Someone explained we would not be working to write the headstones. One look at them made clear they would be too heavy to lift.

Substantial funds had been collected to have them repaired by professionals. Headstones they toppled, some so weathered you could barely make out writing. Others were etched in dark Hebrew. Some were over 100 years old, but others were new, polished. It must have taken some force and time to knock them over. They looked like ruins, like walking through Stonehenge. Ruin is a forceful word, equally implying its noun and verb forms like the being half of human being. I got back into my car and made a U-turn.

As I passed Mount Carmel, I noticed something. In every direction at the crossroads where the Jewish cemetery sat were other cemeteries. To my right was a sign for North Cedar Hill. On the other side of the intersection were East Cedar Hill and Cedar Hill. I discovered they, too, are filled mostly with 19th-Century Philadelphians. All of them are Christian. That cemetery hadn't been vandalized. I put my eyes to the road and headed home with Mount Carmel on my left and the North Cedar Hill Cemetery on my right. I was at the crossroads dividing them. I turned right.

The headstones in the Cedar Hill Cemetery had not been disturbed, but I still had to wonder if in some way, they hadn't been left violated by what happened across the street.

GROSS: Daniel Torday is a novelist living in Philadelphia. His novel "The Last Flight Of Poxl West" was the winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for fiction. He teaches at Bryn Mawr College. After we take a short break, Milo Miles has an album to recommend by Sxip Shirey. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.