Reclaiming Cemeteries

Benjamin B. Ferencz

It came about that, beginning around 1949, I became the custodian of several hundred Jewish cemeteries located throughout the Federal Republic of Germany. I did not own them personally, of course, but they fell into the category of properties previously owned by Jewish congregations that had been dissolved by Nazi decree. By virtue of the U.S. Military Government restitution law, the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization became the lawful title holder. The truth is that, never having been an occupant thereof, I knew very little about the management of cemeteries. Cognizant of my ignorance in this delicate field, I was relieved when I managed to persuade a committee of three distinguished rabbinical scholars, including the Chief Rabbi of Israel, to advise me on all religious practices and prohibitions concerning such holy plots.

Little did I realize what lay in store, if I may use such terminology. First, it was essential to learn precisely what was permissible or impermissible regarding the ancient burial grounds for religious congregations that no longer existed. It was not something taught in my Property class at Harvard, as unfortunately, the Talmud was not assigned reading. My rabbinical council made clear that very special rules apply: once a cemetery, always a cemetery; no flowers can be placed on the casket or grave; if a tombstone falls, it must be left lying where it fell; nothing can ever be done to profane the bodies or memory of the deceased. Honoring these ancient traditions seemed simple enough, but it soon became apparent that dealing with the dead can make life quite complicated for the living.

The ancient German city of Fulda is noted for its large Benedictine Abbey that for centuries helped spread Christianity throughout the land. Catholic Bishops met there regularly to honor the memory of St. Boniface who is buried in its beautiful baroque cathedral. Although Jews had lived in Fulda for many generations, their burial grounds were not nearly as impressive. Soon after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they completely desecrated the old Jewish cemetery. Following the defeat of Adolf Hitler, a new Jewish community, composed mostly of a handful of refugees from Eastern Europe, again took root there. Mortuary records revealed that a sizeable area of the cemetery had never been used. Since it seemed most unlikely that it would ever be needed by the few Jewish settlers in the Fulda area, the question arose whether the unused grounds could be sold to raise funds for needy survivors of Hitler’s persecutions.

Of course, I referred the question to the rabbinical council. The answer came back that an area that never contained any bodies could not be considered a cemetery. If a wall could be erected to enclose the former burial grounds then the unoccupied portion outside the wall might be sold, providing it was not used for any profane purpose. As the former victims needed money desperately, we were pleased when the local government expressed an interest in purchasing the unused land adjacent to the old Jewish cemetery. To erect an office building to be used by their customs authorities, the Zollamt, city officials were easily persuaded to also build a little park on the site that had been desecrated and to add a plaque to commemorate those who had perished.

Hardly a year had passed when I received an alarming telegram while attending a JRSO Board meeting in New York. A story had appeared in the German press that, while digging the foundation for the parking lot for the new custom house in Fulda, a number of bones, presumed to be from the bodies of Jews, had been disinterred. I cabled my office to seek an immediate injunction to stop all construction. I took the next plane back to Germany. At a meeting with the local Jewish community leaders and the officials of the city of Fulda, it was pointed out that the terms of the sales contract had been clearly violated. Having recently prosecuted SS leaders who had murdered over a million Jews, I was in no mood to tolerate the desecration of Jewish graves by any Germans. I demanded that the building, which was already five stories high and near completion, be torn down immediately and the area restored.

The leaders of the new Jewish community in Fulda asked to speak with me privately. They implored me not to take such a harsh position. They noted that they had to live in Fulda, that the city officials were anti-Nazis who had been most accommodating to the new Jewish settlers, that it was only a small area that had been trespassed, and there was even no certainty that the bones that had been dug up belonged to humans. They argued that their lives in Fulda would be made unbearable if I forced the city to tear down the expensive building. I reluctantly agreed to refer the entire file to the rabbinical council in Jerusalem for its recommendation.

The three learned scholars cited the provisions of the Talmud about respecting the memory and body of the dead and noting particularly that no building of any kind could be placed on top of a Jewish cemetery. Trying to be helpful, they suggested that it would be acceptable if the building could be elevated so that it did not touch the holy ground. How that was to be done was not made clear. It was obvious that the Talmud did not teach engineering. Since no one knew how to raise a five story building, a second opinion seemed called for. To this day, I do not know which brilliant mind gave birth to a solution to our grave problem.

The genius who found the solution noted that only one type of structure was permissible on a Jewish cemetery: a chapel where prayers for the dead could be said. There was apparently nothing in the Talmud that prohibited any structure from being built on top of such a chapel. If therefore, it would be possible to build a chapel under the corner of the building that trespassed on the old cemetery, that corner of the building would not be resting on the cemetery itself, but only on the roof of the newly constructed little synagogue in the cellar. Since that would be Kosher—so to speak—that’s exactly what we did.

Under a tip of the Zollamt, we arranged for the construction of a dignified triangular room no larger than about 15 feet in any direction. A Hebrew inscription, composed in Israel, adorns the wall. Small stained glass windows near the ceiling provide a strained glimpse of the parking lot. Above it stands a monumental five-story office building. None of the drivers who park their cars on the corner of the parking lot has any idea that they are placing their vehicle on the roof of a holy place of eternal worship.

About 10 years later, while traveling in the area, I decided to see what had happened to our rather unique chapel. I found the customs house with no trouble. I walked up to the reception window and asked the young receptionist if I could see the synagogue. She replied politely that the Jewish synagogue was located about two blocks down the road, turn right. I explained that I meant the synagogue in the building. “You must be mistaken” she replied, “this is the Zollamt.” I replied rudely that there had better be a chapel in their cellar or there would be real trouble. The rather startled young lady phoned the building superintendent and reported that an American was at her window insisting that he wanted to visit a Jewish synagogue in the basement. The superintendent said he’d be right down.

Shortly thereafter, an elderly gent came down jangling a bunch of keys. He introduced himself and explained that he had been there when the building was constructed. Yes, there was indeed a Jewish prayer room in the cellar. He led me out to the parking lot, and then down some steps.... He kicked away some cardboard cartons blocking the entrance and unlocked the heavy door. Lo and behold—there was my little synagogue, a bit dusty but quite intact. I asked him if anyone had every visited the room since it was built. “Not to my knowledge,” he said.

If you ever visit Fulda, ask for the old Zollamt. Beneath a large office building that was the old custom house you may find the smallest and most unknown and unused Jewish prayer house in the world. It shall remain in perpetuity as a tribute to Jewish creativity or ingenuity—or something.

While I am on the deadly subject of cemeteries, allow me to interject another story that I hope may be sufficiently morbid to justify the intrusion. It relates to a few small bones that I picked up while visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland around 1958. I was invited to visit that charnel house by the Polish Government and the Polish Red Cross as their token of appreciation for my assistance in obtaining compensation for young Polish Catholic women who had been victims of Nazi medical experiments. It was a heartwarming moment when my plane touched down in Warsaw. A small group of young Polish women had been waiting at the airport in pouring rain to present me with a bouquet of drenched flowers. It was their way of saying “Thank you.” It was more precious to me than gold.

As a former Nuremberg Prosecutor, I was provided with a car and driver and accorded every courtesy. I asked only to be allowed to pay my respects at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz/Birkenau that had been liberated by the Red Army. What was left of the Auschwitz camp was preserved as a museum. The Museum’s Director, K. Smolen, was a non-Jewish survivor of the camp with a typical Polish unpronounceable and unforgettable first name that I can’t remember. He gave me a detailed tour of the grounds and exhibits, and showed me secret documents that were helpful to the Claims Conference negotiation with the IG Farben company that had built Auschwitz as an unlimited source of expendable slave labor. We walked together along the ramp leading from the freight trains that had once been jammed with helpless prisoners on their last journey. Those who looked strong and healthy had been selected by Nazi doctors, such as Kurt Mengele, to be worked there to death. (As a war crimes investigator at Nuremberg I had pursued the escaped Mengele in vain.) Those who appeared unfit for hard labor—the old, the children and infirm—were hounded directly into the waiting gas chambers. Behind the adjacent crematorium was a large grassy knoll composed of the ashes from the burned bodies, which first had the fat drained off for use as soap marked with the letter “J” for “Jew.”

I wandered alone across the field and wet the ground with my tears. In my anger and despair, I kicked over a large clump of wild grass. In the shallow hole, I noticed a number of small bones that might have come from the fingers of babies. I scooped up the cluster and put it in my pocket. I wanted that gruesome remnant to be a close and constant reminder of why I had to continue the work I was doing. For several years, I carried those little bones with me, in an envelope taken from the luxurious hotel Frankfurter Hof. I did not know that these few unidentified bones would one day prove to be of great value.

Not too long thereafter, I attended a meeting in Bonn with representatives of the West German Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Social Affairs. I was joined by Dr. Ernst Katzenstein, one of my deputies, who was a friendly and jovial person who enjoyed an excellent reputation with the German authorities. The main item on the agenda was to reach an accord regarding the care and maintenance of unused Jewish cemeteries.

Municipalities in Germany traditionally provide burial plots for their local inhabitants in a municipal cemetery. Every citizen has the right to be buried there and to have a tombstone of limited size over the grave. Municipal burials take place next to each other in chronological sequence. After 20 years, the stone must be removed and the same plot is made available for newcomers. This seems quite a sensible arrangement since it serves to limit the mourning period and make effective use of limited space. As far as I know, there have been no complaints from the inhabitants. Jewish burial practices are more sentimental, less orderly, and more enduring. It might have been anticipated that these differences would lead to a clash.

When discussions commenced, the German negotiators were polite and friendly. They readily acknowledged that their predecessor government was responsible for the fact that Jewish cemeteries were burned and desecrated, and that many of the small Jewish communities that had existed in Germany for centuries had disappeared. Sorry about that. They were prepared, within their means as a divided nation that had been impoverished and ruined by war, to see that the grass was cut and the Jewish graves tended in areas where the Jews were all gone. They would receive the same benefits and rights that were accorded to their own German gravesites. Obviously, they had never read the Talmud.

Katzenstein expressed appreciation for their willingness to respect the memory of the dear departed Jewish residents. I explained, as politely as I could, that their offer was understandable and I was grateful for their efforts to reinstate the conditions that would have existed had the wrong not occurred. I noted, however, that the Jewish tradition that had to be respected called for the maintenance of a Jewish cemetery not only for 20 years, but in perpetuity. They rebutted quietly with the argument that we couldn’t really expect the German taxpayers to assume an indefinite burden for Jews that they didn’t even give to their own German citizens. That did it. I exploded! The wrath of Ferencz was upon them!

I shouted at them that if they hadn’t murdered the Jews and driven them out, they would not have any problem with Jewish cemeteries. It was only because of the horrendous Nazi crimes that the subject had to be discussed. I pulled from my pocket the small packet of bones I had picked up at Auschwitz and slammed them on the table. Shaking with anger, I screamed, “Who shall pay? Shall these pay? Then you go and ask them!” Katzenstein, fearing that we would come to blows, ran from the room. The Chairman called a recess and also left the room. I cannot recall any other time in my life when I gave way to such an outburst of anger. It was unjustified. Our negotiating partners were not the ones who committed the crimes, and I regretfully do not recall that I even offered an apology. When the parties reassembled, some 20 minutes later, the German representatives quietly said that they would accept the obligation to honor the Jewish traditions. That meant that the former Jewish cemeteries would be cared for and maintained at German government’s expense forever.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. When I passed the age of 75, I began to suspect that I was probably not immortal. My home in New Rochelle was filled with files and books dealing with my experiences as a war-crimes investigator during the war, as a Nuremberg Prosecutor thereafter, and many hundreds of books and articles covering my years in search of a more humane and peaceful world. Rather than having my heirs deposit this somewhat messy mass into the nearest dumpster, I decided to organize it a bit and donate much of it to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington to be part of the official archives of the U.S. government.

The archivists were delighted and promptly designated some of the files as “national treasures.” I did not consider a few old and unidentified bones to be a treasure--even though they may have played an important role in saving a fortune for Jewish communities. So I threw them in with my other materials; with a brief explanation. I was aware that collecting Jewish bones was not the way for a nice Jewish boy to behave, but I have described the unusual circumstances and the outcome and hope I will be forgiven by whoever makes such judgments. Strict adherence to Jewish ritual was mandatory at the Holocaust Museum. One day I received a letter asking my permission to dispose of the digits. I replied immediately that all of my rights had been given away and they could do with “my bones” whatever they thought was right. And so, much to my unhappy consternation, my precious bones were sent back to the former concentration camp at Auschwitz where they were reburied. I hope they will rest in peace forever. Amen!