Extending the Mitzvah of Chesed Shel Emet: The Work of Alan Reinitz

by | in Jewish Living

imageWhen a family member passes away, we follow the Torah’s guidelines for the proper burial of the body. The interment of a body and the erecting of a headstone are important for the deceased, but they are also important for the survivors. It is vital for family members to be able to visit a grave, maintaining a connection with the person who was once such a significant part of their lives. A generation or more later, headstones often provide crucial information about family history that might otherwise have gotten lost.

But what if the graves themselves fall into ruin? The chesed we extend to the deceased when we prepare them for burial usually extends into assuring that the gravesite itself is kept up. But in some cases, for one reason or another, the upkeep cannot be maintained for years, and when that happens, an extra dose of chesed shel emet is required.

Such is the chesed that Alan Reinitz, the middle-aged executive director of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland, has taken upon himself. The child of Holocaust survivors, Reinitz has single-handedly undertaken to restore and maintain numerous Jewish cemeteries in and around northern Hungary, many of them in small villages whose Jewish communities were completely wiped out by the Holocaust.

“I got into this for selfish reasons,” says Reinitz, who worked for years in special education before devoting himself entirely to community work. “As a child, I heard stories about the War, which affected me deeply. My father escaped Hungary with counterfeit papers, but the rest of his family perished. My mother, who used fake papers to smuggle herself into a convent in Hamburg, survived, as did a sister who was sent to Mauthausen, but her brothers were all killed.”

Most of Reinitz’s large Chassidic, rabbinic family, who had lived in small villages and cities throughout Hungary, were murdered between 1944 and 1945.

“I developed an intense interest in reconstructing my family history, knowing there was almost nobody left to tell the tale,” says Reinitz. At twenty-one, he went off to Hungary on a genealogical scavenger hunt, even though, he admits, his mother was not particularly anxious for him to go.

“Given the fact that the cemeteries I oversee are hundreds of years old, the passing of each season causes new problems.”

Reinitz’s immediate family came mostly from Balkany and Hegyalja-Mad. “I started my research in Budapest, and then expanded into the countryside,” says Reinitz. When he first arrived in Hungary nearly three decades ago, he was shocked by what he saw. “I found cemeteries that were virtual forests after years of neglect. The grass was waist-high; trees had begun to grow between the headstones. Some of the headstones had been completely turned over. It was almost impossible to walk into the cemeteries, and once in, it was extremely difficult to see or find any headstones.”

Appalled by the disgraceful condition of the cemeteries, he went to the equivalent of the mayors of each village and asked for names of contractors who would be appropriate for this kind of work. Reinitz identified his family’s graves and had the workers clean them up. Over time, he developed relationships with people in the various villages, and found his own caretakers and contractors.

After several years of flying to Hungary to oversee the repair and maintenance of family graves, it occurred to Reinitz that it wasn’t right to only take care of his family members. “Probably most of the other people buried there either had no descendents or none who were aware of them,” says Reinitz.

One thing led to another, and before he knew it, he was taking care of a whole group of cemeteries, flying to Hungary two or three times a year, for a week at a time, to pursue his mission. After several years of major clean-up projects, Reinitz became still more ambitious. “I’ve had to deal with hiring contractors to repair the grounds and caretakers to look after them, all of which I pay for out of my own budget,” he says.

Reinitz tries to address the particular repairs that are needed in each cemetery. “Anything that you can possibly think of that is needed to maintain and preserve a cemetery is on my to-do list,” says Reinitz. At times, headstones need to be turned upright or replaced; other times, fences need to be replaced or repaired and walkways need to be paved so that one can walk through.

Because prior to World War II, travel for Jewish villagers was difficult and expensive, most villages maintained their own cemeteries. Thus, there are hundreds of small, little-known Jewish cemeteries scattered throughout Eastern Europe. “In each cemetery I had a plaque made up that states the day on which the Jews were deported from that town,” Reinitz says. Indeed, each forgotten cemetery is a sad reminder of the rich, vibrant Jewish life that once flourished in these villages and towns, but now is no more.

After thirty years of traveling back and forth, Reinitz speaks Hungarian fluently. Each year, when he returns, he discovers new problems and new repairs that are necessary. “Given the fact that the cemeteries I oversee are hundreds of years old, the passing of each season causes new problems,” says Reinitz. “From season to season, year to year, the status of each cemetery never remains the same.”. Because each trip lasts a week, and he can’t work on Shabbat, Reinitz usually has no more than five days to travel to each location, determine the needs and find the necessary tradesperson. “The maintenance for each cemetery is never-ending,” he says.

When asked if he works with other organizations, Reinitz laughs. “There are organizations that do this kind of work,” he says, “but many of them do it as a profit-making venture. And they do it primarily in the larger cities, whereas I’ve been working in small, forgotten villages. In fact, sometimes it’s a problem when I need particular supplies or services, which are only available in the larger towns. It’s kind of a thankless job, but I feel it is important to maintain a Jewish vestige in these places.”

The maintenance for each cemetery is never-ending.Rabbi Joel M. Tessler, rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom, says that for years nobody had any idea how Reinitz was spending his vacations, even though after a while it became clear that he kept going back to the same places in Europe over and over again. “Then one day we heard him speaking Hungarian over the phone, and began asking him more about his project.

“Alan is like the angel in our community,” says Rabbi Tessler. “He hears all the complaints in the shul—well, he gets the compliments, too—and for him, all the 500 families of our synagogue are his family. People don’t have a clue as to how much time he gives to others, how much he gets involved in all facets of our congregants’ lives. I was once told, ‘You can be a great rabbi if you have a great executive director,’ and now I see how true that is. I’m a better rabbi because Alan is here.”

Perhaps Reinitz’s personable demeanor and superb interpersonal skills help account for the fact that, contrary to expectations, he has encountered no anti-Semitism during the years he has spent restoring Jewish cemeteries. This is in spite of the fact that he wears a yarmulke and comes with a mission to preserve Jewish history. “The villagers see that I am serious, and I pay my workers their salaries,” he said. “I come back again and again, and I have made the effort to master their language.”

However, Reinitz claims that even before the War, Hungary was less anti-Semitic than countries like Austria or Poland. Jews were admitted to universities and into various professions, and tended to be highly knowledgeable in both religious and secular subjects. They were even represented in the Hungarian parliament, and Jewish schools received government funding on a par with Catholic and other religious schools. “From the time Hungary was under Communist control until the present, I have never experienced any difficulty in working with the local municipalities,” says Reinitz. “When I first began my work in Hungary, I frequently encountered situations where abandoned cemetery property was taken over by non-Jewish neighbors. In petitioning the municipalities, I always received help and succeeded in having the property returned.”

With the depletion of the Hungarian Jewish population during the War and again after the Communist takeover of 1956, today there are just under 50,000 Jews living in Hungary. (There were just over 700,000 Jews in Hungary prior to the Holocaust.)

The most moving illustration of pro-Jewish Hungarian feeling was evident when Reinitz, together with the mayor of Balkany, the town where his mother was born, organized a public Holocaust recognition program. Attended by forty Jews and several hundred non-Jews, the program even attracted a few survivors from Balkany and their families—who currently live in other parts of Hungary as well as in France, Israel and Sweden. The hours-long ceremony included speeches by a pastor, a priest, several school headmasters, the presidents of the two local Jewish communities as well as the chief rabbi and the chief cantor of Hungary. It also included the affixing of a granite plaque commemorating the deportation of 644 Jews at the post office (which at the time was the town’s synagogue and the place where the Jews were gathered for deportation to Auschwitz). “In all of the villages I visit, I have never found any commemorative plaques dedicated to the Jewish men, women and children who were murdered,” says Reinitz. “This … has always greatly pained me.”

The program also included a choir by local schoolchildren. “[The town] had schoolchildren come and perform songs for us—in Hebrew!” Reinitz recounts. “They actually learned the Hebrew! It was a deeply rewarding experience, and I would love to do similar programs in other towns.” The program also included the recitation of the name and age of every child murdered in 1944 and 1945. Additionally, Kaddish and Kel Maleh Rachamim were recited, and “Hatikvah” was sung.

Reinitz’ biggest concern is what will happen when he’s not around to see to it that the cemeteries are preserved. “Although I return to Hungary several times a year, I never have enough time or financial resources to do all that I would like to do for each cemetery,” Reinitz says. “Furthermore, it is never easy for me to find long-term caretakers or contractors to do the various kinds of repairs. In the past, I was able to attend to eight communal cemeteries. Now, I can only attend to two village community cemeteries and small sections of cemeteries in Budapest, Debrecen, Miskolc, Nagykallo and Ujfeherto. Besides these issues, emotionally, it is difficult to accept that I cannot protect the sanctity of all of the cemeteries.”

“I haven’t as yet put anything into place [for] when I won’t be able to do it any longer,” says Reinitz. “There are foundations that support [Jewish] institutions in Hungary, and help provide kosher food, but I hope they or someone else will one day take over this job as well. In these small villages, where there are no Jews, we badly need people to keep the history and heritage of Hungarian Jewry alive.”

For now, at least Reinitz has the satisfaction of knowing that he’s done his part to preserve the last traces of Jewish history in places where there are no longer any Jews.

Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a university instructor and a social worker, and currently writes for Jewish newspapers and magazines. Her novel, A New Song, was published by Targum Press last June. She lives with her husband and six children in Brooklyn.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2007.

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