Honouring the dead

Author: Emeritus Professor Konrad Kwiet, Resident Historian

Jews follow religious laws and traditional rites of burying and honouring the dead. The deceased are thoroughly washed as an act of ritual purification, wrapped in a shroud and buried in a simple pine coffin without delay in Jewish cemeteries. The body is watched over by a member of the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish Burial Society) from the moment of death until the burial. Just before a funeral begins, immediate relatives of the deceased tear a piece of their garment allowing pain to be expressed symbolically. At the end of the funeral earth is shovelled onto the coffin by the mourners and Kaddish – the mourner’s prayer is recited. Close relatives sit Shiva at the family home for seven days, during which time friends and family join them every evening for Minyanim, so that the mourners can continue to recite prayers and Kaddish. All mirrors and pictures are covered; it is a duty of those sitting shiva to focus on grief and mourning rather than on themselves or on any human image. Up to 11 months following death, a headstone is erected at the gravesite at a consecration service. The anniversary of the passing – the Yahrzeit – is remembered annually; a candle is lit and Kaddish is again recited, honouring the deceased but affirming life.

Photograph of Jewish cemetery

This sequence of laws and rites did not and could not have applied to Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The German genocide unleashed against the Jews was designed not only to kill all Jews, but also to eradicate the “Jewish spirit”, i.e. Jewish traditions and ideas. The architects of the “final solution” firmly believed, that the “Jewish spirit” had shaped humanism and liberal democracy, socialism and communism. Furthermore, Hitler’s popular dictatorship decreed norms of behaviour for the Jews in keeping with the aims envisaged at various stages of the persecution process. Jews were meekly to obeying orders and accepting defamation, exclusion, expulsion, deportation and annihilation.

Yet, Jews stood up against the German genocide, practising what is called in Hebrew “Amidah”. The old image, still prevalent today that they went ‘like lambs to the slaughter’ falls into the realm of historical legend. Jews fought as soldiers in all theatres of war and participated as partisans and anti-Fascists in the organised underground movements in Hitler’s empire. Protests, escape and suicide were other acts of defiance. Uprisings in ghettos and concentration camps were desperate and heroic acts to resist annihilation. Jews sought refuge from the onslaught in the tradition of their forefathers. Kaddish and other prayers were recited, Jewish festivals remembered and celebrated. Jews on their short journeys to the murder sites mourned quietly to themselves, sang, or recited prayers. Right to the end they maintained their traditional attitude of faith, practising Kiddush Hashem, ‘sanctifying the name of G_d. At the end, facing murder, one prayer was often recited. The final words before death: Sh’ma Israel – O-Hear Israel!

More than 2 million Jews were shot in broad daylight by mobile or stationary units of the SS, police, army and local collaborators in German-occupied countries or by fascist regimes. Raul Hilberg, the doyen of Holocaust studies, spoke of the practice of open-air shootings. The French Catholic priest and Holocaust scholar Father Patrick Desbois coined the term Holocaust by Bullets. From the summer of 1941 mass executions were carried out in Eastern Europe, as a rule, in close proximity to the villages occupied by Jews. Dunes, river banks, hillsides, trenches, ravines and forests were the most suitable and preferred landscape formations for the Judenaktionen – “actions” taken against the Jews.

Photograph of unearthing a mass grave at Serniki

Photograph of the unearthing of a mass grave at Serniki. Photographer David Hughes, Detective Inspector, Forensic Services Group, NSW Police, Serniki, 1990. Sydney Jewish Museum Collection.

The Jews were driven to the sealed off killing fields, separated into groups and forced to either take up positions at the edge of the pit or to jump into the pit. Marksmen opened fire with rifles and pistols, at some places with machine pistols, machine guns and hand grenades. After each round further layers of corpses were stacked on top of lifeless forms. The pits were covered with sand, initially mixed with lime. If this chemical was unavailable or considered unnecessary, little time passed before neighbouring villagers detected the tell-tale smell of rapidly decomposing flesh. Neighbours witnessed the departure of the Jews. Many heard the salvos of shots and the screaming of victims. Some saw the flow of blood reaching and colouring pathways, rivers and ponds. Others heard quakes – earth movements of the graves, sparked by the fragmentation of the bodies in the ground. Following slaughter or even after the war, neighbours, local grave robbers hastened to inspect the murder and burial sites. Encouraged by the myth of “Jewish money”, they were searching for coins, notes or jewellery. Such desecration was carried out throughout Eastern Europe – a “Golden Harvest” at many sites where the “Final Solution” had been implemented by bullets or by gas. To put it differently, Jews were robbed prior to, during and after the Holocaust. As it happened, a handful of Jews, still clinging to life, managed to disentangle themselves from the mass of corpses and emerged in an agonising stupor from the pits. If caught, they were immediately shot and hastily re-interred.

When in the summer of 1942 the news about the unfolding “Jewish catastrophe” made international headlines, the Germans began to erase the evidence of their heinous crimes. A new SS special taskforce was entrusted with the task of excavating the murder sites, cremating the remains and dispersing the ashes.  The worst of the work was left to Jewish slave labourers, who were then murdered and unceremoniously buried.

To date 573 towns, dispersed throughout the former occupied territories of the Soviet Union have been identified as the sites of murder of more than 500 Jews. In Latvia all murder sites are known and marked by a memorial. In Lithuania many are similarly marked, whereas in Belarus and the Ukraine by contrast there are only a few such markings. In the early 1990s the Australian War Crimes Commission excavated three grave sites in the Ukraine in order to present the forensic evidence to the court in Adelaide of the murder of the Jews in the tiny villages of Serniki, Gnivan and Izraylovka. Once the pits were re-levelled, memorial plaques were erected. At the ceremony in Serniki a Rabbi recited the Kaddish – the mourner’s prayer honouring the dead.

Photograph of unearthing a mass grave at Serniki

Photograph of the unearthing of a mass grave at Serniki. Photographer David Hughes, Detective Inspector, Forensic Services Group, NSW Police, Serniki, 1990. Sydney Jewish Museum Collection.

Thousands of Jews refused to wear the Yellow Star and to follow the order to embark on the journeys to the East which were disguised as transports for “resettlement” or “labour deployment”. They escaped into the underground. Some non-Jews risked their lives by offering shelter. Some Jews died in hiding. Little is known about how the dead were removed, mainly at night. In Amsterdam corpses were thrown into the city canals. In university cities they were placed in front of the anatomy building.  At many places they were transported to the outskirts of the town and buried at the edge of forests or other secluded sites. The sites were vividly remembered by those who buried them and returned after liberation. The grave sites were exhumed, the remains were removed and buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Most Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and destroyed during the Holocaust. As long as they were not closed, they served as traditional burial ground. Jews incarcerated in ghettos lived a life on borrowed time, at least 800,000 perished. Corpses were collected in streets and from homes, hospitals and other places. Loaded onto carts, they were transported to and thrown into open mass graves. It was left to the Judenrat (Jewish Council) to dispose of the dead.

More than 150,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt set up as a transit camp and concentration camp as well as a ghetto and show case of Nazi propaganda. 33,500 prisoners perished there. Old age, disease, starvation, suicide and killings took their toll. Up until August 1943 the dead were buried in single coffins. Afterwards 36 coffins were buried in one mass grave. Once the gravesites were exhausted, the bodies were cremated and the ashes deposited in cardboard boxes. In November 1944 the SS began to erase the evidence of their crimes. The urns were transported to the nearby river Elbe to be emptied. A special Jewish Sonderkommando, termed Urnenkommando, was entrusted with the gruesome task. After the war an artificial Jewish cemetery was set up marked with bronze grave plates. In 2008 the memorial site was desecrated and some 400 valuable plates stolen.

Photograph of storage place at Thereseinstadt for urns containing ashes of cremated Jews

Photograph of the storage place (Kolumbarium) at Theresienstadt for the urns containing ashes of cremated Jews. Memorial set up by Terezin Memorial.

Almost 3 million Jews were murdered in stationary and mobile gassing facilities. In Chelmno / Kulmhof groups were squeezed into a gas van. After a short drive to a near-by forest, the entangled corpses were thrown into a mass grave. In Auschwitz and other extermination camps, “new arrivals” were selected at the “Rampe” – the railway platform. Those to be murdered immediately, were driven into undressing rooms and then locked up in gas chambers. Jewish Sonderkommandos assisted the German killers in moving the corpses to the Crematoria and afterwards in dispersing the ashes in ponds or waste dumping grounds.

Death marches were the final act of the German genocide. Some 250,000 Jewish and non-Jewish concentration camp prisoners perished in the last chaotic months of the war – in open cattle trains, on roads, in barns and other places. One third were Jews. If the exhausted and emaciated prisoners could not keep up, they were shot or beaten to death by guards. Others died of starvation or froze to death. Some were killed by German civilians. Corpses were collected by locals and hastily buried. After the war grave sites were exhumed and the remains re-interred.

On 8 May 1945 the victorious Allied powers achieved their ultimate war aim in Europe: the unconditional surrender of Germany. This historic date has been selected to declare in legal terms Jews officially dead whose exact date of murder could not be established. It can be assumed that no Jew adopted this day to commemorate Yahrzeit. Jews preferred to use the tenth day of the Hebrew month Tevet – a day of fasting, mourning and repentance, or Yom Kippur – the holiest day in the year in Judaism. Some Jews chose important dates marking their family history. Since 1951 Yom HaShoah – the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nisan – is the official Holocaust Remembrance Day, honouring the dead. Every year on Yom HaShoah members of the Jewish community gather to read the names of their families murdered during the Holocaust. If all 6 million victims were to be remembered, it would take 25,000 hours – nearly three years – to read all their names.

At the Sydney Jewish Museum we remember and honour them every day.

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