Bury my ashes at Auschwitz

When you’re a reporter heading for a war zone, as I was when I flew to Afghanistan several years ago, you prepare for the possibility that you won’t return. The lawyer who helped me revise my will said I should also include my wishes for the disposal of my remains. 

I’d thought about this now and then, as we all do, in a speculative, sometimes playful way. Famed novelist Philip Roth once walked through a few cemeteries looking for a burial spot, rejecting one because “I won’t be happy. Who will I talk to?” and another because “there was no leg room.” 

I liked the idea of a green burial, with no chemicals or barriers to prevent the body from dissolving gradually into the earth, but there was no place offering that option near my home. My next choice was cremation. 

Although fire made me squeamish, it was pleasant to imagine my ashes being scattered from a peak in the Rocky Mountains or from a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean, returning nutrients to the earth or sea. But Jewish law prohibits cremation. While I’m not Orthodox, I celebrate the rituals and love the tradition. Reform Judaism does permit cremation, but I needed to know why it’s been forbidden for more than 2,000 years.

I turned to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 89, who was ordained in the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn and co-founded the Jewish Renewal movement. He said that from a historical perspective, in the rabbinic period, around 70 A.D., wood was scarce in the holy land and if bodies had been burned, the land would have been denuded of trees.  

The theological explanation, he said, is that the soul comes from above, but the body was formed of dust from the ground and must be returned to the ground intact. The body, made in God’s image, is a temporary gift to the individual, who is obliged to care for it. Jewish law forbids mutilating a corpse, so cremation is seen as an act of desecration. But the most common reason given for banning cremation, Zalman said, is that “when the Messiah comes, God will resurrect all the bodies of the dead. The bones need to be preserved so they can be reconstituted.” 

Zalman had accepted this view until he visited Auschwitz in 1976. His father fled with his wife and children from the Nazis in Vienna, but his other relatives did not. “I stood in front of the ovens where my uncle and cousins were burned and thought, how come I was so lucky?” Zalman said. “Why wasn’t I among them? I felt that kinship and I began to think that when the time comes, why should I take up precious space in the earth? Wouldn’t it make more sense, ecologically, to be returned to ashes? Then I could have mine sent to Auschwitz and joined with theirs.”  

He removed his glasses, rubbing his eyes. “I started to speak out, saying that cremation is the right thing to do, not a sin. I was quoted in a Jewish newspaper in Detroit, and you should see the trouble I had after that!”

Members of Chabad, as the Lubavitcher community is also known, called Zalman and demanded that he recant what the newspaper quoted. He refused.

Later, he went to pray with a different sect in Brooklyn and heard two young men behind him discussing Zalman’s heresy. “Why should we have to wait till he dies?” one said. “Let’s burn him now.”

After praying, an Orthodox man stopped Zalman on the street, warning him that if he insists on cremation, “You won’t be resurrected.”

Zalman nodded, thinking back to Vienna in 1938. His family was from rural Poland but had moved to Vienna for work. As Hitler rose to power, Zalman’s father had a strong instinct to flee with his family to the West. His brother, Akiva, who was also working in Vienna, wanted to return to Poland. “He thought he’d be safe there because it wasn’t under Hitler yet,” Zalman recalled. “My father told him, ‘No, we go west, we don’t go to Poland. I’ll share everything I have, every bite of food with you, but please, don’t go back there.’ ”  

Nevertheless, Akiva returned to Oswiecim, Poland, where he was later arrested and forced to build concentration camps in the town, which the Germans renamed Auschwitz. Akiva and his family were among the first to be gassed.

Zalman returned his attention to the Orthodox man on the street in Brooklyn. “OK,” he said. “If God decides not to resurrect the people who were burned at Auschwitz, He can leave me out of it, too.”

That settled it for me. I could see fire as an act of solidarity. And because an increasing number of Jewish cemeteries are accepting ashes for burial, I could, if I wished, rest with my ancestors. 

Adapted from Davidson’s most recent book, “The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery.” To read more, visit saradavidson.com.  


Helen Daniels, Barrier Breaker, Dies at 85

Dedicated volunteer and former social worker Helen Daniels died Sept. 28 at age 85 of metastatic cancer.

She was born in Brookline, Mass., and was the only child of Joseph Ettinger and Eva Frutman. After her mother’s death when she was 6 years old, she was raised by her father, aunt and grandparents.

She remained in the Boston area through college at Wellesley and her marriage to her late husband, Everett, 63 years ago. In 1952, the couple moved across the country to Los Angeles, had two children and built a home in Brentwood, where they lived for more than 20 years. Helen and Everett eventually moved to Laurel Canyon, where she lived for the next 30 years.

After Everett died 11 years ago, Helen continued all her good works. In 2001 she met Jack Atkins, who died in February 2007.

During her funeral, Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood made the following observations about Daniels’ life:

“Helen was a gutsy lady. As a young girl and woman Helen never allowed convention to stand in her way. She got a paying job as a Los Angeles County social worker, and because of her affability, intelligence and work ethic she quickly moved up the ranks, applied for a promotion to an administrative position and was told flatly by the interviewer, ‘No woman has ever had this position before.’ But you guessed it, Helen got the job anyway.

“She went wherever she wanted to go, whether anyone had been there before or not. At graduation from college, Helen interviewed for a job as a stockbroker, even knowing that brokerage firms weren’t hiring women professionals, and still women are in the minority.

“She was active from an early age in the League of Women Voters and eventually rose to become the vice president. In that role she professionalized the organization’s activities and she convinced local utilities to include league literature in their billing notices, urging people to register to vote.

“After Everett’s death, Helen endowed [Temple Israel of Hollywood’s] Everett Daniels Back to Basics Jewish education course because she and Everett so believed in the importance of education. She got personally involved in all the classes over the years and made many new friends of the teachers and students alike.

“In a word, Helen’s was a full, engaged, exciting, interesting and, most importantly, a significant life. She is one of those people who I sense had much less t’shuvah to perform each year than most of us, for she was one of those remarkable women whose heart, ethics, will, kindness, generosity, humility and gratitude for all the gifts of which she was blessed defined her.”

She is survived by her son, Stephen (Maygene); daughter, Eve (Jerry) Lerman; four grandchildren; and stepsister, Judy. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for contributions to be made to Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90046.

Sidney Baskin died Sept. 24 at 88.He is survived by his wife, Ruth; son, James; and friend, June Shabsis. Mount Sinai

Ida Finn Berger died Oct. 2 at 86. She is survived by her husband, Addy; daughters, Marsha and Leslie; brother, Sam Finn; and sister, Lillian Bevski. Mount Sinai

Cynthia Bernath died Sept. 22 at 35. She is survived by her parents, Michael and Mary Ann; brother, Brett (Maite); grandparents James Brown and Ruth; and one nephew. Malinow and Silverman

Seymour Block died Sept. 26 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Sylvia; daughter, Linda (Jack Nadler); son, Joseph (Caron); sisters, Alice Siegel and Lenora (Jake) Spiegel; brother, Harold (Jeanette); and four grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Sol Davidow died Sept. 23 at 92. He is survived by his sons, Dr. Mark and Robert. Malinow and Silverman

Helen Dorn died Sept. 26 at 96. She is survived by her daughter, Joy (Malcolm) Brook; five grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and sister, Theresa Rubinson. Mount Sinai

Lorraine (Lorry) Dorn died Sept. 23 at age 73. She is survived by her son, Jory Weintraub; daughter, Allison Bainbridge; four grandchildren; and many friends.

Frances Marlene Kleinberg died Sept. 23 at 84. She is survived by her son, Lester (Nancy) Kleinberg; and grandchildren, Rachel and Sarah Kleinberg. Mount Sinai

Max Gerchik died Sept. 21 at 97. He is survived by his wife, Reca; son, Dan; and daughters, Lisa Baltazar and Julie. Mount Sinai

David Jay Harrison died Sept. 28 at 60. He is survived by his wife, Elaine; sons, Aaron and Jamie (Laura); granddaughter, Kayla; and brother, Stan (Jane). Mount Sinai

William Hymes died Sept. 28 at 94. He is survived by his wife, Caryle; daughter, Lynda (John) Egress; son, Gary (Laura Albert); and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Rayna Gabin died Sept. 29 at 53. She is survived by her son, Jarred (fiancee, Heidi); daughter, Katie; sister, Bene (Anthony) Kay; and former husband, Kenneth. Mount Sinai

Irving Isaacs died Sept. 25 at 92. He is survived by his son, David (Lesley); and three grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Jaacov Jaacovi died Sept. 24 at 63. He is survived by his daughter, Esther (Larry) Barajas; sons, Jourdan and Alexander; three grandchildren; and sister, Avigail. Mount Sinai

Frances Krasner died Sept. 27 at 91. She is survived by her daughters, Deedy (Dennis) Oberman and Iris (Pete) Sperling; by four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Morris Lehrer died Sept. 24 at 97. He is survived by his sons, Eban and Daniel. Mount Sinai

Cecile Levin died Sept. 25 at 77. She is survived by her daughter, Robyne (Mark) Savel; and grandchildren, Rachel and Brett. Mount Sinai

Lillian Levy died Sept. 24 at 86. She is survived by her daughter, Elsa (Mark) Gerard; and three grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Ida Marcus died Oct. 2 at 87. She is survived by her son, Paul (Joy); three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Elizabeth Anne (Gordon) Morgan died Sept. 2 at 40. She is survived by her husband, Jack; daughter, Tabitha; son, Brett; parents, Joni and Monte Gordon; and brother, John Gordon. Hillside

Israel Portney died Sept. 17 at 95. He is survived by his daughters, Janice (Carl) Osborne, Elaine (Bob) Steinberg and Marlene Fisher; eight grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren; brother, Bernard. Malinow and Silverman

Egan J. Rattin died Sept. 26 at 100. He is survived by his cousin, Kitty. Groman

Abram Singer died Sept. 20 at 50. He is survived by his sister, Mollie. Malinow and Silverman

Allen Herman Stein died Sept. 27 at 81. He is survived by his son, Leonard; daughter, Debra; two grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Groman

Ruth Brodsky Stein died Oct. 1 at 80. She is survived by her daughters, Andrea Silvey and Sheri (John) Campbell; three grandchildren; and brother, Jack (Sandra) Soll. Mount Sinai

Irma H. Strumpf died Oct. 3 at 97. She is survived by her sons, Fred and Kenneth (Sherry) Sherman; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Lee Swartz died Sept. 22 at 89. She is survived by her son, Howard (Lynn) Hellar; daughter, Linda Rosenthal; three grandchildren; one great-granddaughter; sisters, Pauline Levy and Ryna (Bob) Cardillo; and brother, Lester (Marlene) Morris. Mount Sinai

Julius Title died Sept. 21 at 93. He is survived by his wife, Rita; daughters, Barbara; Susan (Sol Meller); son, David (Sylvaine); and three grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Rachel Weiner died Sept. 23 at 91. She is survived by her daughter, Rosalie Young; and son, Nick Goff. Malinow and Silverman

Rose Wolf died Sept. 29 at 87. She is survived by her son, Perry; daughter, Beverly; and three grandchildren. Groman

Haskell Zuckman died Oct. 2 at 75. He is survived by his daughter, Nicki (David) Bianchi; sons, Scott ( Valerie) and Curtis (Shellie); seven grandchildren; brother, Jerry; and sister, Florrie Alpert. Mount Sinai

Mom’s final resting places — a cremation story

If you are offended either by the idea of cremation or humor about the dead, you may want to stop reading. It's OK.

Maybe you weren't raised (as I was) by a woman who had no short-term memory for several years before she died, but retained a sharp and sick sense of humor — including about her death.

Mom passed away June 13, 2006.

Over the years, Mom made sure my sister Sue and I knew that she didn't want to be kept alive by artificial means or buried in a casket.

“Make sure I'm cremated,” she'd say.

And then the three of us would brainstorm about where to scatter her ashes. We'd get silly and think of ridiculous places and we'd laugh together, not completely accepting the reality of Mom someday being gone.

Mom was, indeed, cremated, and the company that did so divided her ashes into two urns, so that Sue could have Mom there, in North Carolina, and I could have Mom here.

I was going to visit Sue in a few months, so I just took her share of the ashes with me. Although the plane was delayed and the suitcase with Mom's urn almost didn't make it, I finally handed my sister her share of our mother's remains. I think the container is still in Sue's closet, along with the ashes of five beloved dogs.

Back home, I thought about scattering Mom's ashes along a trail where I hike regularly, thinking that she would have loved the trees. My hiking friends and I laughed about attaching bags of the ashes inside our pants' legs and slowly letting the dust pour out while we hiked, hoping not to be caught performing this illegal act.

Although I always thought it was odd when people selected a cemetery plot, saying, “Oh, Grandma will love the view from here,” once my mother died, I understood the idea of finding a place she would enjoy. None of my ideas for Mom's ashes seemed quite right, and they remained in the plastic urn for a year.

The following June, I was swimming laps in our pool and I thought about Mom, who was a great swimmer. I missed her. And I suddenly had an urge to talk with her.

How to start?

I just dove in, so to speak: “Mom, are you there?”

There was a pause and then I heard that familiar voice. “Ellie-bell, I've been waiting to hear from you! How are you, darling?”

Although I was definitely astonished, it also seemed completely natural to talk with my invisible mother — almost like the many years of long-distance phone calls between Ohio and California.

I kept swimming, and my mother asked her usual questions — “How's Ben?” “How are the dogs?” and “How's that lovely man of yours?”

Mom offered her consistently sound, albeit unsolicited, advice: “Don't you think Ben should….?” “Why don't you try….?” “You're not working too hard, are you?”

We laughed about her worrying.

We were silent for a few moments, and then I heard myself asking, “Where exactly are you, Mom?”

She answered immediately: “Oh, I'm every place I've ever loved!”

It's hard to describe how I felt hearing this: Relieved. Elated. Hopeful.

She apparently had something else to do, because she said we'd talk again and was gone. I felt a mixture of sadness and contentment.

That afternoon, I finally opened the urn, took out some of Mom's ashes and scattered them in my garden. Mom, who was quite the gardener, would have loved it among the pansies and geraniums, her favorite flowers.

A few months later, I was going to Ohio to visit my father with my 16-year-old son, Ben, and my boyfriend, Vince. I poured half of Mom's remaining ashes into several Ziplock bags to take with me, since Cleveland was Mom's birthplace.

My father was delighted to accompany us on our expedition to visit all of Mom's homes and leave some of her ashes at each. Dad served as tour guide, reminiscing about his family and growing up in Cleveland.

Mom's favorite home was the house where Sue and I had spent many happy hours and nights, visiting my grandparents. The home sat on a tiny lake where my mother skated in the winter and canoed in the summer. I recalled Mom's favorite story about canoeing there with a boyfriend when she was 16: the canoe suddenly tipped over, the young man swam for his life to the shore, and Mom stood up in knee-deep water and pulled the canoe in. Mom couldn't get through the story, even in later years, without laughing hysterically.

Dad showed us where, in 1943, he and my mother had their first home — a tiny shack in the woods. Dad barely had time to build a shower, before leaving to serve in the army.

Our last stop was the house where I'd lived until I was 9, when my parents divorced. In that driveway, Mom had used a shovel to remove snow piled on top of her Chevy convertible. We couldn't use the car for the rest of the winter because of the rip she made in the soft-top roof.

The day was wonderful — showing Ben where I grew up, recalling my own childhood and listening to Dad's stories. It was also another chance to remember and celebrate my mother as I left her ashes in gardens and curbside lawns.

My mother's favorite place in the world was Italy. After her first visit there in 1964, she surrounded herself with all things Italian — playing the operas over and over, taking Italian lessons and arranging for an Italian exchange student.

As it happened, last October, Vince and I went to Italy. And Mom went with us.

We stayed in Rome for five days, and at the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, I had a little conversation with Mom about the sights and deposited some of her ashes.

We rented a car and drove to Assisi, one of Mom's favorite Italian cities. She always had a statue of Saint Francis in her garden, to protect the birds and squirrels — and now Saint Francis has Mom's ashes in the garden outside his church.

Our last stop was Venice, which Mom adored. Near the apartment we rented, I sat on a tiny dock overlooking the Grand Canal. I thought about my mother, about her singing — loudly and off-key– “La Donna e Mobile” from “Rigoletto.” I watched the gondolas go by, and thought also about our very complex relationship — the love, the challenges, the laughter, and the years when our roles were reversed, as she became more dependent and less aware of the world around her. She still remembered me, thank goodness, and still loved Italian operas.

Then I took out the last bag of my mother's remains, turned it upside down between the wooden planks, and let the ashes fall to the water below. I sat for a moment, just breathing, listening to the birds, and looking out over the water, thinking about Mom.

Suddenly, from under the dock, came a large gray film of ash, floating on top of the water, out into the canal, alarmingly visible against the dark water.

I held my breath, waiting for someone to notice how I'd polluted the Grand Canal with the last of my dear mother.

Then a gondola approached the gray film, and the singing gondolier, eyes focused on his passengers and vice versa, scattered my mother's ashes to the fish below.

And my mother was, indeed, in all of the places she most loved.

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, founder of Living Legacies, at www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com, and president of the nonprofit Living Legacies Historical Foundation. She can be reached at ekzmail@gmail.com.