Barbara J. Boothby
Haunted By Names
I am haunted by names: thousands of names carved in stone, jumbled outside a building in Eastern Europe. They haunt me, but less so than the ones arranged in neat lines on the walls inside of the same building. . . .
My husband and I visited Prague one November close to Thanksgiving. Milan had been chilly and damp; Vienna crisp with a crusted layer of snow on the ground. There was no snow in Prague, but the city was shrouded in a blanket of deep cold that seemed to emanate up from the ground and lie still across the chilled earth, pressed down firmly against it by skies heavy with yellow coal smoke.
The names of the places our train had passed suffered from a paucity of vowelsat least in the numbers I had been raised to believe were minimally necessary to form genuine words. Odd accents and curlicues appeared above some of the letters on the signboards announcing our arrival in each tired-looking town. Brno. Svetla (upside down caret over the "e"). Havlickuv Brod (upside down caret over the "c", little circle over the "u"). Prague, littered with billboards, street signs, and the names of businesses, gave us alphabet soup. To my untrained eye the oddly accented Roman alphabet used in Eastern Europeeven with all its exotic additionswas still far more familiar than the Hebrew I was to encounter in the city of Prague; the Hebrew Aleph-Bet, formed with strange brush strokes, elegant and foreign.
There is a section of Prague called the Jewish Quarter. It is a place of paradox; as Hitler systematically exterminated the Jews, he also stole their belongings with the idea of turning Pragues ghetto into a "Museum of the Extinct Race." He gathered these treasures with care, and left the synagogues in Prague virtually untouched while the rest of Europes synagogues were smashed, burned, destroyed, turned into warehouses. The greatest paradox of all is this: while Hitler was busy collecting items for his museum, the Prague ghetto was saved from the ravages of the Nazis. When the war was over and Hitler was the one who was exterminated, many beautiful and sacred objects that would otherwise have been destroyed were saved for the future generations to consider in the synagogues that became the Jewish Quarters living museums.
On the edge of the Jewish Quarter is the Pinkas Synagogue, and behind it is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Rambling over about half an acre, its boundaries are marked by the straight, soaring sides of buildings, and a zigging, zagging stone fence which threads its crumbling way around the perimeter. In this graveyard there are 12,000 tombstones carved in Hebrew and Roman scripts. The oldest stone dates from 1439. Until burials in this tiny cemetery ceased 350 years after that, over 100,000 people were buried there. Layer after layer of earth was brought in as the burial ground filled with bodies. Existing graves were covered over and new space made for more. Today, the ancient gravestones tumble over hills of earth and tree roots, and stand stacked almost one on top of another like cards hastily jumbled into a Rolodex. The cemetery is pregnant with human and natural history; it overflows with hills of earth, trees, grasses and names.
Traditionally, the Jews believed the body should be buried. Convention holds that the corpus is needed for the day the Messiah comes and all are resurrected. Many modern Jews object to cremation for its association with the Holocaust ovens. The bodies of over 100,000 Jews still exist in that cemetery, bathed and shrouded as tradition requires. Carefully, properly buried, they silently wait.
The Pinkas Synagogue is no longer used for services but serves instead as a museum. It is a beautiful old building with arches and plaster walls. Its vast sanctuary is empty of objects but for a simple, many armed candelabra. In the center of the sanctuary is the raised bima with its bare pulpit. There is no Ark, no Torah scrolls, no Rabbis chair. The airy upstairs room where the women would have worshiped is also empty.
What the synagogue is full of, are names: the names of 77,297 people who disappeared from Czechoslovakia during the Nazi exterminations. In one-inch high lettering, thousands upon thousands of names are written. Line after line. Name after name. One after another. By village, by family, by date of disappearancefloor to ceiling in every room. Children, parents, old and young. The names march around and around the building, covering every single inch of the vast plaster walls. This mute memorial to what was a thriving Jewish society is echoed off the walls as a quiet, recorded voice slowly speaks the name of every person inscribed in the lines of script encircling those rooms.
The people are ash. They have no gravestones. Their bodies no longer exist for the time of the resurrection.
I toured this place with my husband, a Jew whose family witnessed World War II from the relative safety of Cairo. Three generations before the War, his fathers family had come to Egypt from Eastern EuropeRomaniaand it is possible there is a branch of the family tree growing in Czechoslovakia. He and I moved separately through the rooms of the Pinkas Synagogue, each of us caught in a sort of thrall at what we were seeing. He paused often to blankly stare at an invisible point just in front of his eyes.
Dazed by the circling ribbons of names on the walls, I lost my head for a moment and I thought brightly, "Lets see if we can find any Leboviches!" I bounded across the room to search for my husbands relatives. Mid-stride, I stoppedstill as the stones outside the buildingas I became aware of the shocking lack of regard I was showing for this place and its names. All around me, people searched the walls for the names of loved ones. Tears overflowed their eyes as they methodically circled the room, and in the midst of all this sorrow, I had skipped off looking for some sort of Disneyland-esque, its-a-small-world-after-all connection to my husbands past, thinking, "Hey! They are here, and we are here, too!"
Sobered, I began my own search of the walls, but those names began to bear down on me with more weight than I could endure, and I had to step back, walk away from them. We did find some Lebovics (little smile over the "c") listed there, and it is possible that they are relatives of my husband, but who will ever be able to tell us? Not any of those whose names are written on the wallsthose who died alone, and who are memorialized there together.
I wonder: Do the people who search and find a name in the lines of script on the walls find succor? And what of those who seek but never find? Is there ever an end to their search, or are they forced to sift elsewhere for a tiny bit of evidence to support the existence of someone gone to ash, anonymous and naked, when something so simple as a name is missing from a wall?
There are those lines and lines and lines of names on the walls of the roomsthe forgotten, remembered, lost and foundthey whirl through my mind, those disembodied specters of names and names and names.
I am haunted by those names.