On Friday, the first day of my trip to Poland, we visited Auschwitz – the most well-known of the Nazi death camps during World War II. Last winter I taught a course on History and Memory of the Holocaust. After that experience, I felt it was important to see this site. It was a moving experience and I’d like to share a few impressions with you.
There were flowers on many of the plaques but also these small stones. It seems that this might be a specifically Jewish custom but I am not familiar with it.
I found the standing chimneys that are all that remain of the barracks in Birkenau (Auschwitz II) much more haunting than the preserved barracks. Auschwitz itself was disturbing because it could almost be old brick dorms on a college campus. I was also struck by the sign Arbeit Mach Frei (Work Makes One Free) over the entrance gate to Auschwitz. It is always photographed from an angle that makes it seem so big — and it looms so large in our historical consciousness — that I was surprised to see a small gate and sign.
This small wire artwork stands on the train tracks on which the cattle cars arrived at the death camp with Jews and others from all over Europe.
September 26th, 2014 at 10:24 pm
Hi Amanda ,
I became curious and found this:
One idea is discussed in the Talmud (Eidiot 5:6): “Elazar Ben Hanoch was excommunicated. When he died, the court laid a stone on his coffin. From here we learn that if any man dies while under excommunication, they put a stone on his coffin.” The Talmud (Smachot 5:11) also says: “An excommunicated person who dies is worthy of stoning. But not that they placed a heap of rocks upon him, rather a messenger of the court places a stone upon his coffin – in order to fulfill the mitzvah of stoning.”
But I think in today’s time, we follow a second reason for putting a stone a grave. Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi writes in Be’er Heitev, his 18th century commentary on the Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 224:8), that the custom of placing stones on the grave is for the honor of the deceased person by marking the fact that his grave had been visited.