I never met my Aunt Gerty who died in 1933, years before I was born. Nonetheless, I recently encountered her, and this left a profound impact on my soul.
Years ago, my Mother, of blessed memory, told me that she had an older sister, Gerty, who died of pneumonia at age 13, and my grandparents never recovered from her demise. On occasion, I would think about my Aunt Gerty and feel a tinge of pain and sadness.
My grandparents, Nachman and Ettel Basch, died before I was twenty-one years old. Though they were buried near my home in the Mount Hebron Cemetery, in Queens, New York, my parents never took me to visit the graves of my grandparents. I assume that my parents wanted to spare me the harsh reality of death.
In my capacity as a practicing Rabbi, I had been to most cemeteries in the New York/New Jersey area, but it was not until recently that I visited Mount Hebron Cemetery while officiating at the funeral of a congregant’s parent. When the burial ended, I quickly made my way to the cemetery office and inquired where Nachman and Ettel Basch were buried.
My heart raced as I drove my car through the cemetery towards their plots. It was more than thirty and forty years respectively since my grandfather and grandmother passed away, and visiting their graves would allow me to rendezvous with their souls.
I arrived at the area where my grandparents were interred. Two parallel pillars announced my grandparent’s burial society: Chevra Anshe Marmaros. Mount Hebron is an old established cemetery with tombstones that date back to the turn of the last century. The monotony of 217,000 graves that densely cover the otherwise barren landscape is only broken by the many austere pillars, engraved with names of hundreds of burial societies. As I drove past endless rows of tombstones, I thought of the scores of communities buried in these somber grounds. Here sleep in eternal respite friends and relatives who once upon a time built homes for their families, prayed together in synagogues and established businesses in their neighborhoods. All that remained of lifetimes of memories were the mute tombstones that stood erect in perpetual immobility with but sparse information etched upon their cold surfaces.
I scanned some of the older stones. “Sophie Miller died July 21, 1924.” I wondered if anyone alive today knew who Sophie was. “Arthur Greenberger died August 17, 1914.” What did Arthur do for a living; where did he live; does he have grandchildren who are alive today? In the still silence of the Mount Hebron cemetery these questions remained unanswered.
I walked up and down the rows until I spotted their two stones, majestically standing next to each other. As I stood at the foot of their graves, I vividly recalled the Shabbos of shiva when my grandmother passed away at the end of August 1959. With children and grandchildren surrounding my grandfather at the Shabbos table, he attempted to recite kiddush. My Zaidie made it halfway through and then broke down in uncontrollable sobs. Later, he took me aside and explained why he was so emotional. “Yankie, this is the first time in more than fifty years that Bobbie is not at my side to hear my kiddush.” Here in Mount Hebron Cemetery my Bobbie and Zaidy were reunited.
I recited Tehillim and shed tears. I loved my grandparents and now I was standing in their presence.
Finally, it was time to say farewell, but I wanted to first locate my aunt’s grave. I assumed she was buried at my grandparent’s side, but her tombstone was nowhere in sight. I walked up and down the rows, scanning the names and looking for her grave. I was now six rows away from my grandparents and just about gave up hope when suddenly I saw her name. It was on a small stone, much lower than the others, shaped in the form of a heart. On top of the stone was an image of a tree, with the top branches severed and falling to the ground. Shivers ran down my spine as I read the simple inscription:
But what moved me the most was the loneliness and isolation. My Aunt Gerty was all alone, her small stone sandwiched between two strangers, Laura Mishkowits and Rose Elyovitz. How sad that this little girl, my aunt, will spend eternity by herself, separated even in death from her loving father and mother.
I placed a rock on the tombstone out of respect, as is customary, to demonstrate that the deceased is not forgotten. Apparently no one had visited for some time, as there were no other stones on the grave. It then occurred to me that I might be Aunt Gerty’s last visitor.
I was intrigued about the life of my aunt. I recalled one old picture of my aunt with her four sisters. Though she was a young girl, there was intensity in her facial expression. What sort of personality did she have? Where did she go to school? Who were her friends? There is no one left to ask.
My thoughts became more unsettled. My aunt died only seventy years ago, and almost all the details of her short life were now lost and forgotten. No doubt, in one hundred years or so, our own generation will suffer the same fate and disappear in the dustbin of the past. Consider the following: Besides a few famous Torah scholars, kings and queens, politicians, authors and bards, do we know anyone of the billion or so people who lived in the 19th century? How many of us know our ancestors who lived more than three generations ago?
It is painful to think about such matters. It is almost inconceivable for us to imagine a world in which we will cease to exist and be completely forgotten. As we move through life we naively believe we are building a permanent legacy, but in reality our efforts are futile. At the conclusion of a burial, we recite tziduk hadin, which captures the ephemeral nature of human existence. “If man is one year old or he lives a thousand years, of what consequence is it for him? (When he dies) He will be as if he never was.” Is not all mankind destined to endure the same tragic end of Korach and his entourage, who were swallowed by the earth with not a single trace left behind?
It was in this state of reflection and contemplation that I had a revelation. No, I did not have Divine prophecy, nor did I see angels floating in the air. Rather, it was a moment of clarity, like a flash of lightning dispelling darkness and confusion.
I heard these works ringing in my ears: “Yizkor Elokim, the Almighty will remember”, and I was consoled.
Yizkor is recited at the end of every Yom Tov. Isn’t Yizkor, a memorial prayer for the deceased, incongruous with the joyous spirit of Yom Tov? Perhaps not.
Yom Tov has a dual character. Initially, as it begins, it is a time of promise and hope. At the very onset of the holiday, we recognize G-d’s kindness in allowing us to celebrate another Yom Tov by reciting “Shehechiyanu”, that He has kept us alive. Yet as the Yom Tov draws to an end, we recognize that it also is a marker of time gone by. Another cycle has concluded, never to return again. G-d Himself proclaims, with a sense of nostalgia, “Kosheh alai preidaschem”, it is difficult for Me to say farewell. Appropriately, towards the conclusion of Yom Tov, we recall the souls of the dearly departed who will never walk the face of the earth again.
When a loved one passes away, we desperately cling to memories, for what is left after a person’s demise if not the recollection of years gone by. In particular, we recall the good times spent together; the excitement of a simcha, a quiet walk along a lake or a visit together to a close friend. Alas, as hard as we try, these efforts are for naught. As the months go by and the seasons change, the details of the lives of departed souls recede into the distant past and are ultimately forgotten. We are only left with emptiness and pain.
Yizkor addresses this existential crisis. Rather than being a melancholy memorial, as it is often perceived, Yizkor is a powerful statement of comfort and hope. Yizkor proclaims that if the value of life is contingent on the memory of mortal man, then we are all doomed to extinction. Like sand dunes on a beach that will surely be washed away by the incessant tide, the memories of a life will not withstand the relentless passage of time. If, however, we are linked to the Divine, then our lives achieve immortal value. Yes, man forgets, but G-d’s memory is for eternity.
Thinking about my Aunt Gerty I was inspired. Every morning we recite Uva litzion in our prayers and thank G-d for giving us His Torah and implanting chayai olum, eternal life, in our midst. We then proceed to request sheloh nigah larik, that we not toil in vain. Each moment of our lives, we must choose between these two poles of chayai olum (eternal life) and yegiah larik (toiling in vain). These decisions carry profound consequences. Do we exist for the moment or do we live for eternity? When our lives eventually come to an end, will we disappear forever, with only a solitary stone indicating that below this spot lay the temporal remains of a person who lived a few score and is now completely forgotten? Or will G-d Himself remember us for eternity? If life is short and transient, then each day is precious and must not be squandered and wasted. There is so much to do, so much to accomplish.
I looked again at the small lonely tombstone of my aunt standing alone among the sea of graves in Mount Hebron Cemetery. Undoubtedly, there will be a time when no one in the world will know who Gerty Basch was, but I am no longer perturbed. I addressed my aunt and whispered a quiet prayer.
“Aunt Gerty, your short life was not in vain. More than 70 years have passed since your untimely death. There are no longer any stories to relate about your short sweet life, and no one is left to visit your grave. Yet you will not be forgotten. Yizkor Elokim es nishmas Leah Gittel bas Nachman. May the Almighty G-d remember your forgotten soul, my dear aunt, Leah Gittel, young daughter of my beloved grandfather, Rav Nachman. And this will be until the end of time.”
Rabbi Yaakov Luban is the Executive Rabbinic Coordinator of the Kashruth Department at the Orthodox Union. He is the Rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, NJ.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.