As it is Holocaust Memorial Day, it seemed appropriate to continue with the theme of gravestones and remembering the dead. I did not think that, traditionally, Jews approved of depicting human figures and I thought this would be even more strictly censored in a cemetery, where complex beliefs about body and soul come into play. I remembered seeing Jewish mediaeval manuscripts with intricate patterns of plants and animals, but, after looking again at fantastic online collections like the British library’s, I found that humans were also portrayed.
Haggadah, Italy, late 16th century
Online images of Jewish cemeteries and gravestones often focus on vandalism and destruction, although rarely are faces actually destroyed.
Kiev defaced gravestone
Some gravestones, especially in Belarus, where most of the cemeteries were destroyed by the Nazis or the Soviets, appear to be the simplest of markers, rough stones with writing, although it is sometimes difficult to tell whether the stone has been broken. In some cases the writing seems to neatly fit into the shape of the rough stone. It is a Jewish tradition that gravestones should be very simple so that everyone is equal in death. Gravestones were seen primarily as a marker, before cemeteries were formalised, not as a memorial. One explanation of why Jews put pebbles on gravestones when they visit is that, originally, Jewish bodies were buried in an open plot or field without a casket or gravestone, and stones were put on the site as markers and to protect the site from animals. People would bring more stones when they visited to make sure the grave was still marked and, in that way, a larger stone might become a permanent marker. There is a website of over 300 images of gravestones being replaced in the Jewish cemetery in Novogrudok, where my grandmother was born, and many seem to be very simple rocks with writing (https://sites.google.com/site/jewishnovogrudok/ ).
Novogrudok, Belarus gravestones
The two Hebrew letters at the top of these gravestones mean ‘Here lies’, so it is clear that the tops of the stones have not been broken. Most Jewish gravestones, however, are cut into rounded or angled shapes and often have intricate carving of patterns and symbolic images, stars of David, menorahs, candlesticks, blessing hands, animals and broken trees (for those whose lives were cut short).
Jewish cemetery, Lesko, Poland
There is a beautiful webpage on the gravestones of the Jewish cemetery in Lesko, southern Poland (http://riowang.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/lesko-jewish-cemetery.html), and, in fact, this entire travel blog which includes many Jewish sites in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Ukraine, including Odessa, is filled with magnificent photographs and stories.
Wondering if the Feld family had been influenced by gravestones in Berdichev, I looked at images of old and new sections of the Berdichev cemetery, but it was difficult to tell at what point photographs had begun being used.
I next turned to Jewish cemeteries in America to see when and how often they used photographs on gravestones and found that the idea had been brought to America by Eastern European Jews in the early 1900s and photographs were used mainly after 1915 when the technology for putting them on enamel or ceramic became more readily available. This cemetery in Los Angeles had many photographs on gravestones on the Find a grave website (http://www.findagrave.com/).
Mount Zion Cemetery, Los Angeles, 1917 and 1921
At one of the oldest Jewish cemetery in New York, Bayside Cemetery, where a great-aunt of mine was buried after her suicide in 1897, age 32, photographs on graves are not obvious but there are some.
Bayside Cemetery, Queens, New York
Studying the photographs that did appear on gravestones, I began to think that people might most feel the need of a photograph for a child or young adult, as there would have been so little time to build up memories of the person changing through time. This might be why, even though there were no portraits at the Riverview Cemetery, one was chosen for Norma Field. Many of those who died in the pogrom were also young people from the age of 15-25, who did not have a grave or marker, so this digression into photographs on gravestones is a small memorial to them.
young Jewish girl
In 2001, a photographer, John Yang produced a photographic exhibition and book of gravestone portraits from the largest Jewish cemetery in New York, Mount Zion Cemetery, concentrating on the photographs that had weathered away leaving only the ghosts of the graves. In a way, these young people grow older as their images break, crack or wear away.
Immortal Portraits John Yang
I continued to puzzle over the hooks in the empty hole on Norma’s gravestone and tried to find other damaged gravestones that might have made their use clear. There were screws holding metal covers or metal frames for the photographs, but no hooks. I only found one gravestone with a similar but less deep gaping space.
Norma Field, Riverview Cemetery, Dayton 1917
Bayside Cemetery, NY Montefiore Cemetery, NY
Most photographs were oval-shaped, unlike the large round circle on Norma Field’s gravestone, but this small, but haunting, photograph of a young woman in a Lutheran Cemetery in Minnesota, who died in 1918 possibly in the flu epidemic, was the first Protestant photograph I had seen, and the first round one.
Possibly because I was brought up in a family where our Russian past or any past did not exist, cemeteries did not exist, I did not know about pebbles on graves, and I had no idea where family members were buried, whether in neat manicured cemeteries or mass graves, I am always trying to make up for this gap, endlessly putting metaphorical pebbles on graves. While searching through images of people immortalised by enamel photographs on gravestones, many of which have remained remarkably clear over time, I could not help perusing other striking images of graves and memorials online. Particularly, I came upon this marking of a mass grave from Stalingrad and was intrigued by the fence made from iron bedsteads, springs and other bits and pieces.
Stalingrad 1942 Georgii Zelma
I had noticed that some family plots in Russian cemeteries have metal fences marking their area, quite different from cemeteries designed as open fields dotted with stones, as they may have originally been. I then found this photograph of the Jewish section of the Bishkek Ala-Archa Cemetery in Kyrgyzstan, in which each plot has its own metal fencing, a striking image against the branches of the winter trees in the distance.
My first thought was that the fence was to delineate and protect a family plot, but then when I began searching for more images, I found many fenced plots in rural western America, in the desert or mountains, where the cemetery itself was not fenced and the fences may have been filling a need for some delineation or protection from animals. I remembered that in very unpopulated areas, like the Kentucky Appalachians, there were tiny family graveyards dotted on the hillsides and I did find photographs of iron fences there too.
child’s grave, Utah family cemetery, Kentucky
Virginia City, Nevada
The series of photographs at the Colorado cemetery included several images of brilliant orange lichen, one of which included this monument with a destroyed photograph, again quite different from the hole on Norma Field’s. Like many with photographs, this is the gravestone of a child, symbolised by the lamb (https://rprtphoto.wordpress.com/tag/headstone/).
A few weeks before finding Norma Field’s gravestone with its missing photograph, I saved this image from a BBC television programme on the 1941 siege of Leningrad. I don’t know how organised this memorial was, but people made enamelled photographs of family members who died in the siege and were buried in mass graves, and attached them to trees in a forest near Leningrad as a very haunting and beautiful memorial.
Leningrad siege memorial
It is not only during wars and genocide that there are unmarked mass graves. Quietly, silently, people have preferred not to think about Potters Fields, unmarked mass graves, supposedly for unknown people, but, at New York City’s Hart Island City Cemetery, there are mass graves and meticulous records for known paupers and newborn infants. Most or all other early Porters Fields in America have been built over or become parks. Only in the past 10 years have people begun to fight against the fact that there has been no way to find out where people were buried and no public access to the island. Hart Island, just over 100 acres, is run by the City Correction Department and maintained by prisoners from nearby Riker Island. It has been the resting place of about 800,000 paupers and infants from 1869 to the present. The tiny flat bleak island has only small white markers for each mass grave and a few derelict buildings which once housed military prisoners, Civil War POWs, World War II POWs, TB patients, psychiatric patients, a reformatory and drug addicts. Everything society has feared most has been hidden away at some point on this island. I discovered the island, in the way many people have recently, through the words ‘City Cemetery’ written on a death certificate, the death certificate of my eldest brother, born in New York City during the war, who died shortly after birth. There are no known resting places or photographs for the infants and many others on this island. Now there is a searchable database of Hart Island records from 1980 and a map of the related markers (https://www.hartisland.net/).
Hart Island infant coffins
Hart Island infant grave markers: each marker represents 1000 graves
Returning to photographs, on the day of Auschwitz’s liberation, I came upon these images from the Okopowa St Cemetery in Warsaw of photographs and pebbles remembering children who died in the Holocaust. It seems incredible that this cemetery survived when most of Warsaw was destroyed.
Warsaw Okopowa St Cemetery
And to end with a photograph which particularly symbolises the forgotten victims of the pogrom – on the Yad Vashem website is one of only two post-war online photographs of the Odessa monument to the 1905 pogrom victims in its original position which is labelled ‘Odessa, Ukraine, Postwar, The gate to the Jewish cemetery’. Yad Vashem, which memorialises victims of the Holocaust with its incredible database, research, education and exhibitions, is unaware that this photograph is a monument to 300 victims of the largest 1905 pogrom in Russia.
Monument to the victims of the 1905 Odessa pogrom