I wish I had brought a stone with me, but I didn’t know.
As a small town, Sulzburg has few tourist attractions besides fresh air and hiking trails. However, it is known for its synagogue and Jewish cemetery, both no longer in use. Well, the cemetery is still there. So is the synagogue. It is used for the occasional concert and is open to visitors two hours a month. We haven’t made it there yet, but did get to the cemetery this week.
We had walked by it before, but it was the Sabbath and it wasn’t officially open. I didn’t check to see if the gate was actually locked that day; I knew there would be other opportunities.
Earlier this week we walked past again (the cemetery is on the outskirts of town) and took the time to visit. I plan on writing more about that visit in the future, but wanted to share some first impressions.
There were at least 500 graves, most of them older, as the cemetery was established in the 18th century when about a third of the population of Sulzburg was Jewish. The tombstones are weathered and most are illegible, even if you read Hebrew – which is the language of most of the inscriptions. There has been only one burial since the last of the town’s Jews were sent to concentration camps in 1940. There’s a story behind that one, from 1980, but I think it belongs to a post about the synagogue.
As I looked at the graves this week I thought about those people taken away to concentration camps, about the evil that lies behind genocide. And I thought about the Yazidi people I met in Iraq, driven from their homes as advancing ISIS troops sought to destroy them as a people. My mind went also to the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar who have had to flee for their lives in the past few months. Times change; evil doesn’t. Those who are different face persecution and death.
As we wandered through the graves I noted that many of the tombstones had rocks placed on top. Some were covered with moss and had obviously been there a long time. I wondered what the significance was.
My wife knew. There is a Jewish tradition of placing stones on the tombs of the deceased, as a symbol of remembrance, to show that the deceased has not been forgotten by the living.
If I had known I would have brought a stone – and I intend to for my next visit. I need to remember, we all need to remember, the atrocities of the past. This cemetery is a reminder of what happens when evil is allowed to flourish. When we don’t stand for what is right, we are left with an empty synagogue and a cemetery with no new graves. There are thousands of Yazidis who still cannot go home and many more Rohingya who face an uncertain future.
The world was shocked in 1945 when the extent of the Holocaust became known. We aren’t as easily shocked anymore, which allows evil to flourish. It is too easy to turn a blind eye to what is happening “over there.”
Next time I will bring a stone, as a sign of remembrance. And as a token. Resisting evil is not something that can be delegated to someone else. It is my responsibility. And yours. I hope we are equal to the challenge.
We encountered this in Prague. Since the burial section there is fenced off, the tombstones closest to the barrier contained large numbers of them. A tour guide claimed — and this may have been more stereotype than fact — that statistically, the largest number of the stones were brought by Jewish tourists from New York City. Once you know the background, the presence of the stones definitely adds to the solemnity of the visit.