There are some things that most of us cannot imagine.
We cannot imagine enduring the Holocaust, surviving the depravity and horror, the nightmarish deaths of everyone we’d loved, of everyone we’d known, of the world as we’d hoped it to be.
We cannot imagine going back to the death camp where the rest of our family and town had been imprisoned, tortured, murdered, and burnt to ash, digging up some of those ashes, and then bringing them across the Atlantic to a new life in the United States.
We are very lucky, that vast majority of us, in that our imaginations stop at the end of that pit.
But that is what someone — a donor whose name is known to the museum but whose family has decided to keep it private — did. And then, along with the other objects he gave the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education in Suffern, he included those ashes.
And there they sat, in a box inside a bag inside another box, until just a few months ago, when a major renovation of the museum’s facility, along with the availability of new archiving software, made administrators realize that now was the time to go through their holdings — something that hadn’t been done since the 1980s, and even then by volunteers — combine the early digital lists from the earlier, handwritten ones, and decide what to display. The museum plans to have a digitized list of its holdings, accessible both in terminals in the museum and online, open to the world.
And then they came across the box.
It’s small, cigar-box in its shape and dimensions, made of a clear plastic that looks like Lucite; it’s dirty, and the reason that it was so packaged was because it had begun to leak its contents, which seemed to be dirt mixed with larger pieces of ash.
“The box apparently was given to the museum many years ago, as part of a larger collection of very important items,” Julie Golding, the museum’s curator and Jewish learning specialist, said. “The donor had been in the Lodz ghetto and in Auschwitz; he gave us a number of items that he’d gotten after the war.” They include such homely objects as utensils and a pitcher, things that prisoners used to keep themselves barely alive, a pair of scissors, and a chain whose use the museum administrators can only guess at. The donor also gave bricks from the Warsaw ghetto. “He probably went back after the war to get them,” Ms. Golding said. “The city was in rubble.” He’d just have had to pick them up.
The museum opened in 1981. That was early; before there were many local Holocaust museums, before the museum in Washington or the one in New York. “It was pretty much a novel concept then,” Ms. Golding said. There also were a lot of survivors and their children in the area. “People would drop things off.” Sometimes they’d be dropped off anonymously. People didn’t know what else to do with them — it would be sacrilegious to throw them out, but they didn’t really want to hang onto them either. It brings to mind an overwhelmed unmarried 19th century mother dropping her unwanted baby off at a hospital or a convent. This box, though, was not anonymous to the museum, although it is to the public.
The museum hired Layman Design, a Skokie, Illinois-based firm that has worked on Holocaust museums ranging from the one in its hometown to one in Washington, as well as the September 11 memorial in Manhattan, to do its renovations. In January, a team made up of people from Layman and the museum decided that it was time to look at what the museum had.
There are very real emotions evoked by touching Holocaust artifacts, Ms. Miller said. “We don’t think about material culture a lot, most of the time. We engage with things and then leave them behind. We don’t start thinking about them until we have lost loved ones, and then the things they touched start to become precious to us.
“It is something to consider, the way we engage with the world around us, with the weight and the personality of the objects we carry around with us.”
If that is true of mere objects —of the pitchers and the trays and the utensils, even more of the clothing and the shoes — how much more is it true of human remains.
“It is a very emotionally charged issue,” Ms. Miller said. “It is not something that we can take lightly.”
The box was among the museum’s holdings, and it had been there for some time. “It’s in the paper collection list,” Abigail Miller, the museum’s education director and in-house historian, said. “I believe that the list says that it’s a box of dirt and ashes, with a question mark. Nobody had opened it. Nobody wanted to touch it.
“But we had to figure out what it was. We had to know if it was human remains, and if it was human remains, we had to figure out what to do with it. Should we bury it? Should we return it to Poland?” One thing that was out of bounds, Ms. Miller said, was to display it. “I’ve been in this field for some time now, and I have looked at a lot of memorial sites,” she said. “Very few of them actively display or engage with human remains; there are a few sites in Poland that do.”
There’s a good reason for that, she said. It would be wrong. “These are human remains. These were people.”
The first step was to authenticate the ashes, as a gift from the donor, and as human.
“They reached out to the family to verify if that is what it was” — the donor himself had died — “and they told us that yes, their father had been a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, and that his whole family had been murdered at Chelmno, and that he had gone back to Chelmno after the war.”
Their father and grandfather had not had anything else, the family said. There were no prewar family photographs. No documents. Nothing. This was his only connection. “There is a phenomenon of Holocaust survivors wanting to take any sort of memorial they could,” Ms. Miller said. “So much had been lost. It might seem morbid, but they wanted something; they didn’t have a home or a family. It was an exceptional circumstance.”
The next step was verifying that these remains once had been part of human bodies.
Ms. Miller and Andrea Winograd, the museum’s executive director, took the ashes to a crematorium in New Jersey. “The technicians were very respectful, and they did determine that these were human remains,” Ms. Miller said. “And they noted some inconsistencies with current practices. There were large bone fragments.”
It’s not possible to know how many people those ashes came from, much less who they were. There is no DNA left in the char, and no other clues either.
Chelmno is considered to be the Nazis’ first real extermination camp. Although it’s not clear how many people were murdered there, conservative estimates put it at least 152,000, but “the estimates range up to two and a half times as many,” Ms. Miller said. At first, she continued, “they just buried the bodies, but they ran out of room, and the smell bothered people in the neighboring towns, so they dug up the bodies and burned them. They did it in open air.” That means that the fires weren’t as hot and the pieces left over were relatively large. It also means, she said, that the neighbors would have smelled it. “They knew,” she said.
The people at the crematorium also put the ashes into an urn. “We still have the box, but the remains now are housed in a more respectful way,” Ms. Miller said.
The box probably dated to the 1970s or ’80s, Lucite’s heyday, she added. The survivor would have brought the ashes to the United States in some other receptacle and reboxed them later.
Once it was clear that the ashes were human, the museum had to decide what to do next. Should they bury the ashes? Could they?
The answer seemed to be yes, but any decision had to be reached cautiously.
“Julie consulted with rabbis, Andrea did the research to see if there were any legal implications, and I researched to see if there were any precedents,” Ms. Miller said.
The legal issues were the easier to resolve. “We were advised to get the proper permission from the memorial museum at Chelmno, to make sure that they wouldn’t make any claims to remains from their site,” Ms. Winograd said. “They agreed. And we also got permission from the Polish consul general.” Chelmno was a Nazi death camp, but it was in Poland.
“And Julie also reached out to the chief rabbi of Poland,” Michael Schudrich. “He’s a New Yorker,” she added parenthetically. “He too gave his blessing, and a letter to be read at the funeral.”
Ms. Miller said that “there is nowhere in the United States where this has happened. There are no remains of Holocaust victims buried in the United States, as far as we know.” That does not preclude private burials, she said; other survivors might have brought home ashes and buried them quietly. We don’t know.
But there was a precedent in England. “In January, the Imperial War Museum had a similar case,” Ms. Miller said. “They discovered bones of six people who had been in Auschwitz — five adults and one child. They had a public burial in England.”
There were differences between here and there; bones in England instead of ashes here. But both sets of remains had been hidden in archives and rediscovered within the last few years.
The last set of questions involved halacha. Jewish law. What could or should be done with the ashes?
“I talked to the rabbis and it was a unanimous decision,” Ms. Golding said. “We consulted with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis.”
Jews are not allowed to cremate bodies, and bodies that are cremated often cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries, she said. But this is different. The victims had not requested cremation, nor had their survivors chosen it. They were murdered and then their bodies were defiled.
“There is a whole genre of Jewish responsa” — answers, based on Jewish law, to specific questions — “about the Holocaust. After Kristallnacht, in 1938, 30,000 Jews were taken to concentration camps and murdered, and the Nazis cremated their remains and sent them back to their families in urns.” (That degree of punctiliousness once the Jews actually were murdered did not last, needless to say.) “The questions were posed about what to do with those remains. The answers provide an interesting precedent.
“They were given a proper funeral. They were treated with the utmost respect. They were buried with a tallit, to indicate that their remains will be included in the resurrection. The rabbis wanted to give comfort to the families.
“So we basically will do what the rabbis did in 1939.”
There was the question of what to do with the ashes until the burial, which is scheduled for September 26. (See box.)
Ms. Miller, alone among the three museum administrators, is not Jewish. “The remains are in my home, because we were concerned about what would happen should any kohanim come on campus,” she said. According to Jewish law, kohanim — priests — cannot be in the same place as dead bodies; the concept of “same place” can be understood in many ways. And the museum is on the campus of Rockland Community College.
“They have been with me for some time now, and it is something that I do not take lightly. It is very much with me.
Overall, “it is a heavy emotional load to bear, but it is a great honor to have the chance to do a final act of justice, of respect, of dignity,” Ms. Miller said. “Nothing was done right for these people in their too-short lives. We have the opportunity to do what is right.”
Rabbi David Berkman leads the New City Jewish Center, which is Conservative.
The need to bury the ashes is less halachic — because they are no longer identifiably human —”than it is emotional,” he said. “There is a fair amount written about this kind of situation, because there were so many remains, and they were not limited just to ashes. There were all sorts of other human remains the disposition of which needed to be addressed. That included parts of the human body — skin for lampshades, soap made out of bodies. From the halachic point of view, the question was what is the obligation for burial.
“Ashes are somewhat unique because they do not constitute a body that would need to be buried in a halachic sense. There is no longer the chiuv — the obligation — to bury it because it is no longer recognizable. If a body is burned completely, the ashes are considered to be something that there is not an obligation to bury.
“Another complication is that we don’t really know to whom these ashes belonged. We know they’re human, but we don’t know anything else. We don’t even know if they’re Jewish.” (It seems highly unlikely that they’d be anything other than Jewish, given Chelmno’s statistics and history, but there is no way to test that scientifically.)
“But the bottom line is that although there might not be a chiuv to bury, burial nonetheless is the opinion of most of the rabbis who write about it, both for kavod hamet” — honoring the dead — “and also honoring the living.
“Ashes are symbolic,” Rabbi Berkman said. “But what do you do with them? You bury them, out of respect for the martyrs of the Shoah.”
Rabbi Moshe Dick leads the Orthodox Congregation Sons of Israel in Spring Valley.
One of the most cherished obligations in our Jewish tradition is to bring our beloved who died to ‘kever Yisroel,’ a Jewish burial,” he wrote in an email explaining why he believes the ashes must be buried. “This is based on our belief in ‘techiyas hameisim,’ the raising of the dead and World to Come, when one day, we will meet our loved ones again. This obligation rests upon all of us and impels us to do the utmost to bring our dead to a Jewish burial, even the smallest remains.
“In our most recent tragic catastrophe, the Holocaust, six million of our brothers and sisters were brutally murdered by the cursed Nazis and were never given a Jewish burial; hence, it is an even bigger commandment, a bigger mitzvah, to bring any remains of our holy brothers and sisters to a ‘kever Yisroel.’ The remains we are burying today were gathered from Chelmno, a notorious death camp. It is our sacred duty to bring these remains of our murdered brothers and sisters to ‘kever Yisroel,’ a Jewish burial. In such a way, we can honor their memories and give them the honor that they deserve.”
What: The ashes discovered in the archives of the Holocaust Museum in Suffern will be buried, and a memorial reception will follow.
When is the burial: On Thursday, September 26, at 6 p.m.
Where is the burial: At the Monsey Jewish Cemetery, 290 Rt. 306, Monsey
When is the reception: at 7:30, after the burial
Where is the reception: At the Holocaust Museum in the lower level of Rockland Community College Campus Library, 145 College Road, Suffern
Who is invited: The entire community
For more information: Call the museum at (845) 574-4099.