This story starts about a week ago, with this picture:
Actually, it’s a picture of a picture. My dad emailed it to me, with a request that I go find the grave and see what it looks like today. In a city filled with cemeteries, he was kind enough to give me a plot number and the cemetery I’d find it in: Olšansky Hřibitov. A quick google search took me to a Wikipedia page, which told me I’d find approximately 65,000 graves there. Good thing I had a plot number. So I found a map of the cemetery online, looked for the spot I’d find my ancestors, and came up empty. Well, not empty, actually. I found three possibilities, each a ½ mile apart. In addition, I found a “find-the-grave-site” site, claiming my family could be found at a completely different plot number. So was it 20-4-18 or 2ob-16-82oh? I now had four possibilities and a headache. But I was done with classes, and it was only mid-afternoon, so I prepared for my 45 minute metro journey, stopping to buy flowers on the way.
When I said this story started a week ago, I lied. It actually started 6 years ago, when my grandparents brought us all on a family trip to Prague. (Okay, it actually started 100-ish years ago when my relatives died, but we’re talking about my part in this story.)
There are only a handful of moments I really remember from that trip. I mean remember – smells, sounds, everything. Our trip to the cemetery was one of them. I remembered the gravel paths and the ivy-covered headstones and the ornamental gate. I remember that we showed up too late in the day to get in, but Babi and Deda convinced them to let us in anyway. Not a big picture, to be sure, but enough details to know that where I was was wrong:
Sure, the paths could have been paved in the last half decade, and certainly things change everyday, even in a cemetery. But Olšansky hřibitov was too colorful, too big, and felt too new. Nonetheless, I wandered through for hours, checking off one possible spot after the next. With no luck. No Voticky. No ivy. Nope.
I came out the other side of the cemetery, unsure of what to do. I didn’t want to disappoint my dad and send him the email, “I couldn’t find it.” But more than that, I didn’t want to lose that spot. Deda isn’t going to be telling us where to find it – Babi is too old to get back to Prague. A big reason I came to Prague was to preserve, at least for one more generation, my family’s history. Something unspoken pulled me to Prague this year, and the same thing told me to keep looking. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there. The New Jewish Cemetery, just across the street from Olšansky, had the ornamental gate I remember and, even more promisingly, it was closed. When I looked through the gate, and saw the trees covered in ivy, the grounds covered in ivy, the graves covered in ivy, I knew it was the right spot.
Actually, that’s not how it happened at all. As soon as I rounded the corner, I saw the metro stop Želivského. I recognized it right away. Like a puzzle piece I didn’t know what missing, that image fit right in. All of a sudden, I remembered being 14 years old, coming out of that metro station, looking around, and being absolutely convinced the long trip had not been worth it. (To my 14-year-old self, this turned out to be true. To my 20-year-old self, not true.) Then, I looked through the gate, saw the gravel path and the ivy covered stones, and knew I’d found the right place. Of course, at this point, I was a little cold, a lot hungry, and tired of carrying those damn tulips around. Plus, the gates were shut, the lady locking them as I showed up. I know enough Czech to know she told me “the cemetery is closed.” But I don’t speak enough Czech to beg her to let us in. All I could do was look at the flowers in my hand, at the watch on my wrist, and at the back of her head as she walked away. It was like déjà vu, but with a different ending. So I went home.
This story ends today. Or at least, that’s what happens for now. I don’t have classes on Thursdays, so I left the house this morning and went back across town, once again stopping for flowers on the way. This time, I knew where I was going, it would be a cinch. The cemetery was open; I found the section easily. But the rows? Where did they start? Which one was one? And which plot in each row was the first? I quickly realized that, once again, I had 4 options. So I walked up and down, reading name after name, feeling more disheartened each moment. I was ready to give up, and then I realized, I remembered.
I said earlier that this moment was one of the few I really remembered. So I let my memory tell me where to go. I retraced the steps we had taken oh, so long ago, with Babi leaning on my arm, Deda leading the way. I followed my memory to the end of the section, followed us as we turned left up the rows. I stopped, as we had once stopped, about halfway up. I walked down the row, looking to my right. The grave wasn’t far in, that I knew. And there it is. Success.
Unsurprisingly, the grave has withstood the test of time.
They tend to do that.
As I sit here, having laid my rock and flowers before my ancestors, I think I’ve found my favorite place in Prague. Years ago, Mom told me her favorite study spot was a cemetery near her apartment, and I thought she was crazy. But sitting her, I kind of understand. It’s quiet. I hear the birds in the trees and the crunching of leaves whenever I take a step. If I try, I can hear the distinctive squeal of the trams as they round the corner – the same corner I walked around when I knew where I was. I can hear other people; there aren’t many. But Franz Kafka’s grave is just over there, and Arnost Lustig, who died only two years ago, is buried here too. There is something incredible about the way things work in here. Most of these graves were first dug about 100 years ago, as Jewish soldiers died in WWI. Some, of course, are much older. But almost every one has the extra names of family members killed during the Holocaust. Just names, no dates. But the ivy and the trees don’t care. They grow over every plot: new, old, and in between. The test of time knocks some headstones over, but most survive. The living come here to pay their respects, but the real life in a place like this is what we can’t see. Except in time. The plants that prosper, the memories that survive, the ghosts that I hear in the whisper of the wind. Today is a cloudy day, dreary. But sitting here, with the family I never met, I feel like the clouds are just there. There is nothing ominous about the white sky I look up at. Somehow it seems that blue sky wouldn’t really fit the day – today is all about greens and greys.
(It may surprise some readers that there is nothing in this post about the names on the bottom of this stone. I couldn’t possibly write about all that again, especially since I’m going back to Terezin tomorrow. If you want to read about it, check out my post about my last trip to Terezin here.)