Forgotten by the unburied

Engrave their names on a wall

A Jewish cemetery in Central Europe, early 21st century. More than half of the stones are in disrepair. Some are slanted, others are broken. Many are covered in the undergrowth.

There is a sense of finality in the death of those buried here. They were forgotten because no one was left to remember. Those who could remember didn’t choose to forget. No: almost an entire generation was wiped out in forced labor and in death camps – or on the way.

It’s alarming how our fortunes can change overnight. My paternal grandfather was lost on the battlefield between Russia and the Ukraine in 1943. As a Jew, he was taken to forced labor service, without any means to defend himself. He perished when the front line collapsed under the pressure from Soviet forces.

We have but fragments of memories of him. Like a few letters he wrote from school in 1926. We see a happy engineering student, partying and skiing away, living the life of a middle-class 21-year-old. Seventeen years later, he dies as a pariah, punished by his own government for being a Jew. This is not a life anyone would plan for. This is not a life – and a death – anyone would choose.

He was lost. His loved ones could not properly grieve for hime or bury him.

In the cemetery, there is a memorial. It’s a long row of walls, engraved with an endless list of names. Names of people who died a death they didn’t choose. Names of people who couldn’t be buried. Yet the love and remembrance of the survivors brought them back – not to life, but to this world. In a way.

Names have immense power. They bring things to the world. They make things happen. As long as we remember the name of someone, they are not entirely dead.

The tragedy isn’t over. Those in power seem to have an endless capacity and an endless yearning for genocide and oppression. Take Aleppo, or take Yemen: thousands died there and cannot be buried – and even their memory may be lost under the rubble.

UNICEF reports that, at the end of 2016, half a billion (billion!) children (children!) live in war zones or in places where their lives are in constant danger. Under the peril of hunger and disease, or simply being bombed out of existence. They are not allowed to wake up from their nightmare.

We who still live in relative safety – we who don’t have the power or the will to bomb and kill – we are responsible for saving their memory. We may be unable to save their lives, to save them from the danger – but we can engrave their names on a wall, and shove it in the face of the murderers. We must never let them forget what they did, what they are continuously doing.

There should not be a power that can bomb hospitals, children, neighborhoods, cities. There should not be a power that can make an entire nation hate immigrants, Jews, Muslims, foreigners – so that they watch on with hostile indifference while thousands are being murdered. We must do everything to bring down any such power – even if it is impossible.

When we name the victims, they will not be forgotten entirely. When we name the victims, we take away some of the power of the murderers and hatemongers because they will not be able to cover their tracks.

It will take a lot of time and hard work to collect the names and engrave them where everyone can see. But, again, this should not stop us. My grandfather perished in 1943. It was seventy-three years later that we learned where and how that happened. We even know that in Russia, there is a monument and maybe a mass grave that covers his remains. That gives us hope.

Let’s show them that names, language, and the human memory are greater powers than bombs and machine-guns.

This is a pledge. I don’t know yet how or when, but I want to make this happen, or help in making it happen.

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This post was inspired by the Jewish cemetery in Kozma utca, Budapest. Here it is on the map if you want to find it: https://goo.gl/maps/RipTqiea7Vn. If you visit Budapest, you must see that cemetery at least once, however much it is off the beaten track.

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