French Kvod Hames

The story is told about a comment made by the Bluzhever Rebbe, zy”a, when he went to be menachem avel Reb Shneur Kotler, zt”l, on the loss of his son, the young talmid chacham, Meir Kotler, zt”l. He looked at him and said, “Ich bin aych mekaneh — I’m jealous of you.” After receiving incredulous glances, the Rebbe explained, “You at least have a kever to visit. Of my family who were killed by the Nazis, yimach shemam, I don’t even have a place that I can go to and mourn.”

Once at an Agudah Mission to Washington, Michael Lewan, a former aide to Congressman Steven Solarz and at that time the Chairman of the United States Commission on the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad, was asked why he, a non-Jew, should be so dedicated to preserving the Jewish cemeteries in Europe. He emotionally described his visit to his ancestral burial places and how it gave him a better understanding and appreciation of his roots. He ached for the children of the victims of the Holocaust who have lost that opportunity. In response, he committed a good part of his life to maintaining and preserving the remnants of the cemeteries that remained.

Both of these are expressions of the pain one feels when there are no bodily remains left of someone here on earth. There is, however, a third factor which I believe overrides the other two. That third factor is kvod hames.

A Kohen, who is commanded in parashas Emor to be careful not to defile himself by contact with a dead body except for his closest relatives, is told that there is an exception: a mes mitzvah — a dead body that lies unburied and there is no one to bury him. Even a Kohen Gadol — who is not even allowed to go to the funeral of his closest relatives — is told to defile himself in order not to allow bizui hames.

Chazal tell us that since we are a tzelem Elokim, the disgrace of our bodies is as much a desecration of Hashem as the desecration of a statue of a king would be to a king. It is especially a crime when we are talking about a body that was a vessel which, through its lifetime, served Hakadosh Baruch Hu with Torah and mitzvos.

That is why it was disturbing to hear from Rabbi Nosson Kahn, who has long been active in the issue of kvod hames in France, about a recent incident which typifies that situation in France.

Recently, an American Jew approached the Agudas Yisrael in Belgium and asked for help in tracking the final resting place of his grandmother Taube Nebenzahl, who died in 1940 and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. They found no record of a Nebenzahl but there was a Halberstam (her maiden name) buried on April 11, 1940. Hoping that she might have been buried under her maiden name, they proceeded to research further. What they found was shocking. The body of Halberstam had been removed from the grave and been, Rachmana litzlan, cremated. When the officials of the cemetery were approached, their reaction was no less shocking. They said, “Well, it had been a long time already, hadn’t it?”

Perhaps the only place in the civilized world (certainly where Jews live) that the authorities have the right after a number of years to exhume and cremate buried bodies is in western France. It began after the French Revolution, when they wanted to minimize any influence of religion, and continues today. It isn’t any wonder that Harav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, who spent his last two years in Paris being mekarev university students, moved from France when he felt ill and informed his close associates that France was not a place to die.

Community pressure has sometimes been helpful. The Jews of Lyons, Marseilles, Strasbourg and much of the eastern section of France were so concerned in the early years that they pressured their local communities and were able to secure respect of their gravesites. Most of France though, remains unprotected.

Rabbi Kahn has instituted a project called “Kovod Hameth” with the intention of informing the public as to the seriousness of the problem and urging anyone whose relative dies in western France to inter the niftar in Eretz Yisrael. He is, as well, informing anyone who can still locate ancestors buried in France to check with Rabbanim to discuss the possibility of properly exhuming the mes and reburying in Eretz Yisrael.

Recently someone asked Harav Chaim Kanievsky whether he should be buried in Yerushalayim or in his family plot in Bet Shemesh and he told him to be buried on Har Hazeisim. When asked why, he answered that techiyas hameisim will begin from there. The Mabit in Beis Elokim teaches us that even if someone’s body is completely burned, it doesn’t preclude Hakadosh Baruch Hu from giving him a new life and body at techiyas hameisim, but that certainly is something that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants us to preclude. May we live to see soon the return of all the neshamos to this world to techiyas hameisim.

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