It’s October 16, 2018. I am walking behind Beth on a path covered with fallen leaves. The midmorning air is cool and damp. On our right is a high red brick wall, on our left, what looks like a forest full of gravestones. We are in the New Jewish Cemetery in Kraków. The cemetery, which opened in 1800, covers 4.5 hectares, about 11 acres, and contains more than 10,000 graves. We are looking for one of them, the burial place of Beth’s great-great-uncle, Jakob Leimann.¹ The last ten years of his life, Jakob lived in Kraków.
Beth is reviewing instructions from her cousin, Rabbi Shnayer Leiman, about how to locate Jakob’s grave. We are looking for a very high smokestack on our right, close to the wall, but outside the cemetery. When we see it, we take the first path on our left. After walking a few yards, Beth says, pointing to her right, “There. I think that’s it.” She’s right. The grave sits beneath some tall trees. Smaller markers are on its right and left. A stone slab is embedded in its flat horizontal surface.
Beth begins taking pictures. Then we look for a couple of stones to place on the marker. In Why Jews Put Stones on Graves, Rabbi David Wolpe provides some explanations of this peculiar Jewish custom. In the end, he suggests that what all of the reasons have in common is this: stones represent the permanence of memory. Stones do not die, neither should our memory. We remember, and we ask God to remember, the souls of our departed.
Another way we remember our departed is in the naming of our children. The name we choose for a child reflects, we hope, not only what the child will be, but also where the child comes from. In his article “Naming a Baby,” Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes, “Ashkenazi Jews have the custom of naming a child after a relative who has passed away. This keeps the name and memory alive, and in a metaphysical way forms a bond between the soul of the baby and the deceased relative.” How did this play out concerning Jakob Leimann?
Jakob was Beth’s great-great-uncle. He died in 1913. His Hebrew name was Yaakov; his father’s name was Moshe Yehuda. Beth had an uncle Moishe, a descendant of Jakob. His Hebrew name was Moshe Yaakov.² He was born in 1913, five months after the death of Jakob Leimann. The assumption is that he was named Yaakov after his great uncle, Jakob Leimann, and Moshe, after Jakob Leimann’s father.
Beth’s son was born in 1995. Guess what his name is: Moshe Yaakov after her uncle; the Yaakov apparently going back to Yaakov Leiman and the Moshe to Moshe Yehuda Leiman, Beth’s great-great-grandfather.
When I write about the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, I will have something to say about one of the names on the Holocaust plaque lying flat on Jakob Leimann’s grave.
We wash our hands before leaving the cemetery. As we pass through the gates, a sense of peace comes over me. We had just connected some dots. I feel as though I had met a friend after a long separation and told him that we are all right, that all is well with us, and that we remember him.
Next time some words about a man who taught me how to put on my shoes. Until then, “do widzenia.”
¹The family now spells its last name, Leiman.
²Originally his name was Yaakov Moshe; the family reversed these names during an illness–a common practice to confuse the Angel of Death.
Photos © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.