No one can know whose ashes were buried Sunday at the Durham Hebrew Cemetery. No one can know even how many individuals’ ashes are there.
What is known, though, is that they came to rest after a long and extraordinary journey: a cake of ashes, small enough to fit inside a cigarette case, given to an American GI 69 years ago by an inmate of the Dachau concentration camp, who told him: “Remember what happened here.”
Sunday morning, that GI’s son watched as the ashes were at last interred, by Jewish people in soil sanctified by and for Jews.
“I wanted to help my dad keep his promise,” Joseph Corsbie said, gulping back a sob.
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“This is not something people will see in their lifetimes again,” said Steven Schauder, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill.
Corsbie was among about 200 people on hand for the hourlong ceremony. Some had come from as far off as Ohio and Georgia, including some who were themselves concentration camp survivors.
Rebecca Hauser of Chapel Hill, 91, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and her daughter Bonnie approached Corsbie to thank him when the service was over.
“You,” Bonnie Hauser told him, “created the memorial she never had.”
In May 1945, Corsbie’s father, Walter, was in a U.S. Army unit in southern Germany. Sent on an errand to the Dachau camp, near Munich, he encountered one of the recently liberated Jewish prisoners, who gave him the lump of human ashes collected from one of the camp’s crematoria.
Corsbie never revealed why the prisoner chose him to have the ashes, and he never spoke of the encounter to anyone until, near death in 1986, he told his son. Joseph Corsbie, a Christian minister in Dobson, N.C., kept them tucked away as well.
Realizing his own advancing age and declining health in 2012, Joseph Corsbie wondered what to do with the ashes and told the story to relatives. A cousin, Mirinda Kossoff of Durham, gave the ashes to Sharon Halperin of Chapel Hill, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who had helped organize a Holocaust Speakers Bureau.
Halperin’s husband, Edward, is chancellor of the New York Medical College. He had the ashes analyzed by that city’s medical examiner, who confirmed that they were human remains. With Corsbie’s consent, arrangements were made for their interment in a Jewish cemetery.
Rabbis Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue and Jen Feldman of the Chapel Hill Kehillah led Sunday’s ceremony, which was scheduled in conjunction with Memorial Day, and a particular invitation had been extended to veterans.
“We thank you for honoring us with your presence ... to help bring these ashes to their resting place,” Greyber said to the veterans. “A patch of soil in a Jewish cemetery in America – a country that has offered Jews freedom and equality unparalleled in thousands of years of Jewish history.”
The ashes, inside a wooden box with a Star of David on its lid, stood on a black-draped table under a U.S. flag that two veterans carefully folded and presented to Corsbie during the ceremony. He was also given a copy of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, and a yellow candle to light on the annual Day of Remembrance for Holocaust victims.
“It’s been a humbling experience,” Corsbie said.
“I wonder,” Sharon Halperin said, “how did the ashes we will bury today from Dachau, Germany end up in Durham, North Carolina? Is it fate or divine intervention? God works in mysterious ways, in miraculous ways.”
The Durham Jewish community established the Hebrew Cemetery, at the southeast corner of the city’s Maplewood Cemetery, in the 1880s, and the ashes’ interment there is a concrete connection for the Durham Jewish community with other Jews worldwide, said Kay Alexander, a member of the Jewish burial society.
“They’ll be resting in a place that other Jews have sanctified,” she said.
“We take this very, very seriously,” Alexander said. Cremation, such as was done with bodies at Dachau and other Nazi camps, “was absolute violation of any kind of Jewish tradition. A terrible, terrible violation,” she said.
Jewish funerals typically include a eulogy, Feldman said. Sunday, it was replaced with a time of silence.
“How can we eulogize in this moment?” she said. “We do not know if before us are the ashes of someone’s mother or father, or a small child or a grandparent. We do not know if they are the ashes of a scholar or a silversmith, a homemaker or a physician. Their identity or identities, the stories of their life or their lives, are silent to us.”
After traditional readings and prayers, the box with the ashes was lowered into a grave and those attending filed past, each tossing a handful of earth onto them.
“The Torah tells us that when Abraham died ... he was gathered to his people,” Greyber said. “Today, those who died so many years ago, whose remains traveled ... will finally be laid to rest. They will be gathered to their people.
“Today we bury the ashes of one or two or 10 people we do not know. But each of them was a world. For it was not just them who was taken from us, but their children and their grandchildren and their ancestors for all eternity,” Greyber said.