In the first days after the liberation of Dachau, a US soldier and a wounded survivor chanced to meet on the grounds of that infamous concentration camp. The now liberated prisoner thrust upon the soldier a cake of compacted ashes from the camp’s crematorium: Take this, he said to young Walter Corsbie, so that you will remember what happened here. The young soldier placed the ashes in a cigarette tin that he carried.
Corsbie’s moral reflex was to take the ashes, sacrificing precious cigarettes to protect his charge. He could not have thought through the implications of remembering and its responsibilities: Was this memory for him alone? Who was the you that should remember? Was he obliged to tell the story? To preserve the ashes? Measuring the depth and breadth of remembering would take more than Walter’s lifetime.
Walter Corsbie, from North Carolina, began the war as a bombardier. But he had recently been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and reassigned as a courier. The ironies should not be lost: The courier with an undependable heart had the heart to accept and carry a charge almost beyond bearing.
Walter returned home with only a few possessions. He put photos, medals, dog tags, induction and discharge papers—and a cigarette tin full of ashes—into the night table drawer by his bed. Official markers of coming, going, and identity, along with the one relic that transformed coming, going, and identity, would for decades stand as wakeful sentries by his bed.
When his son, Joseph, became angry that his “pencil pusher” father had no war stories to match those told by fathers of his friends, Walter pulled out the contents of his night table drawer. The single item of interest was the one about which his father could not speak. Joseph’s questions rendered him tearful and shaking. “Leave him alone,” Joseph’s mother said. “He can’t stand to talk about it!” The uncharacteristically tearful silence sufficed for young Joseph. His father’s war story was something that could not be told.
Just before Walter’s death, the faithful courier entrusted his son with the story—and the ashes. “It’s like I became the guardian of memory,” Joseph would say later. “I had to make sure they weren’t forgotten. They were innocents.” For Joseph, as for his father, intimations of mortality made him consider what to do with the ashes. What now were the implications and responsibilities of remembering? Joseph had no descendants. It was time to consider what vehicle of memory would carry forward from the courier, honoring and fulfilling the urgent charge: Take this so that you will remember.
The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, reflected upon the realities of remembering for two generations and then beyond:
Now two generations of forgetting have passed
and the first generation of remembering has arrived. Woe to us that already
we have arrived at remembering, for memories are the hard shell of an empty heart.
For two generations, forgetting is an element of living memory. “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know,” is the rueful and confident assertion of one who remembers with senses and muscle. Such remembering is not compromised by the omission of a detail.
Imagine Joseph at the white-hot moment that he became the guardian of memory: Seeing the prisoner’s gaze reflected in his father’s eyes; feeling in the palm of his own hand the urgent thrust of that desperate survivor, a tremor that trembled still from survivor, to father, to son. Were he to forget his father’s words, the taste and truth of the living moment would endure in the second generation.
But, woe to us that already we have arrived at remembering, for memories are the hard shell of an empty heart.
In the third generation, the luxury of forgetting becomes the responsibility for remembering. Forgetting sculpts memory. The worn rock wholly fits the landscape. But the remembering that is readied for the long journey needs a durable and dependable structure that resists nature’s erosions.
Joseph, a Christian minister, felt that Jewish collective memory would be the most fitting custodian of the ashes and their story, carrying forward the most and leaving behind the least. He entrusted the ashes to a Jewish cousin in North Carolina who would know how to proceed. That cousin contacted a local rabbi, who, in turn, called the director of the North Carolina Holocaust Speakers Bureau. A child of Holocaust survivors, the director oversees a project dedicated to carrying survivors’ stories forward towards the horizon of the critical second generation, and beyond.
How will the third generation remember? In a little while, the poet says, memory will depend upon evidence re-collected and re-presented “by the book:”
In a little while people will walk through fields and cities
with something like nature lovers’ plant guides in hand
now person guides. And they will call to one another,
here I found it, no mistake, here are the signs, here is the characteristic color
of the eyes and hair, here is the well-known smile, this is its fragrance,
and this is its name, this was a friend, friend of a friend, this a woman
of long ago, this one is the image of my father and this the image of me and of you,
when you will flower and when you will wilt, this is the scientific
name, and this is the common name between lovers and friends,
and this is a name with no person and this is a person with no name.
And this is how it was.
A field guide to human beings presents characteristics, but not characters. The book—be it data, story, poem, or prayer—translates and fixes a framework of memory for generations going forward. Each artful structure is a shell that, when held to the ear, offers its own resonance—and no other.
The new carriers of the Dachau ashes explored various shells of Jewish memory by contacting The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as contacting the synagogue that is the custodian of a small Jewish cemetery in Durham, NC, 120 miles from where Joseph Corsbie was living.
The journey from forgetting to remembering, from personal to public stewardship was not without its difficult crossing. The poet was right in saying, woe to us that already we have arrived at remembering.
Among other difficulties, the passage into institutionalied memory required a question previously unasked (at least) aloud. A museum will not put human remains on display. The Jewish cemetery must also remain true to its mission and its ancient rules. Both curating and caring require submitting truth to the scrutiny of fact. Were the ashes, indeed, human remains?
The Holocaust Speakers Bureau director, in the new circle of those carrying the ashes, is married to a physician-scientist who had the means to mobilize forensic science to identify the nature of the ashes.
On the border of a new genertion, on the brink of new insights, it was time to reflect anew on the prisoner’s charge to Walter:
Take this so that you will remember what happened here.
What happened—an act of inhumanity beyond speaking. So that you will remember—an act of humanity beyond words. Take this—the
ashes presumed to be human remains.
That presumption now made each procedural step of scientific inquiry into its own allegory: Should the cigarette tin to be transported to the lab packed in a suitcase and stowed in baggage? What surviving kin was entitled to give permission to examine the ashes? What would become of a cigarette tin that proved to be an ash can and not a coffin? And what would become of the ashes? What would become of the truth carried by a Jewish prisoner, a soldier-courier, his son, and others? Breath caught in the throat awaiting the test results; everyone—and no one—wanted to know.
Initial x-rays and scans showed that the ash contained no DNA and no bone fragments.
Before the destruction of the World Trade Towers, there existed no technology to pursue the matter further. Before 2001, no human material would have been detected in the ash cake. What then would have happened to the ashes? What would have happened to the truth of two generations in the light of the facts as they would have been known in that day?
But the tragedy of September 11 made for finer tools with which to identify human remains among the ashes. At the next level of testing, with virtually no room for doubt, proteins confirmed human presence.
…no mistake, here are the signs… this is a person with no name…
These were the remains of persons, certainly many, with no name[s], who were not necessarily Jewish; many others died at Dachau. But now Jewish memory would become the carrier of human tragedy and dignity.
A grave was prepared in the small Jewish cemetery in Durham, North Carolina, a two-hour drive from Joseph Corsbie’s home in the small town of Dobson. A local craftsman fashioned a coffin. Joseph’s cousin carried it to the iron gate of the cemetery. Members of the local burial society carried the remains over the last distance, laying them beneath a sculpture fashioned by a local artist.
On May 25, 2014, Holocaust survivors and their children covered the small coffin, drawing almost 70 years of carrying into the discernable line of a funeral procession. A large crowd, including many of the third generation, watched the burial, taking in for themselves a white-hot moment that even in their forgetting they would remember.
And this is how it was.