Dr. Uri Kaufmann led us from the street down the walking path, dug in his pocket and found the key to Essen’s Jewish cemetery.
He turned the lock and opened the door.
We entered a space that looked like an enchanted forest with air that smelled like redwoods. Shards of light shimmered through the pine and other trees that enveloped the space like a cocoon.
About 200 graves stood in six rows. The place had a hint not so much of disrepair, but of natural overgrowth. Many of the graves had moss on them, with plants like ferns and rhodedendrons growing around them.
A German shepherd loomed in the distance above the tallest wall.
About six feet tall, with clear blue eyes, Kaufmann wore a light blue shirt and black shoes and had ridden his bicycle to the cemetery. Recently appointed to his post as director of the Essen Synagogue, he often turned his wrist to check his watch.
He started the tour.
The cemetery opened in the mid-19th century, he said. Each of the graves was designed by Christians because Jews were not allowed in that guild of workers. Their influence was notable in the stone urns that were atop some of the graves. Most were in German, with few in Hebrew.
I had seen the cemetery with Mr. and Mrs. G. in 2004.
Indeed, the death notice of my great-grandmother Clara printed by Mr. G’s father, was the first page in a notebook in which the couple had compiled more than 65 years of correspondence between our two families.
But I hadn’t been able to enter.
Kaufmann informed us that he did his doctoral work on Jewish and Christian cattlemen in the 19th century before telling us that our ancestors were probably cattle herders.
I had always heard we came from a famous line of rabbis, I answered, before remembering that was Mom’s side, not Dad’s.
Well, perhaps it was both, he replied crisply.
Although I had known about Clara being there in her final resting place, I didn’t realize we had other relatives in the cemetery.
Four of them, in fact.
Their burial sites illustrated the changing fortunes of the Jewish community in the town and country as a whole.
Moses and Amalie, who we later learned owned a large farm called Hemmerhof in a more rural part of the city and who died in the early part of the 20th century, had the largest grave. Covered with a canopy of rhododendron, it was shaped like an obelisk. Dr. Kaufmann looked on with horror as Jon and I pushed through the plants to photograph and take notes.
Clara, who died in 1931, shortly before the Nazis came to power, had a smaller burial site with a dark headstone that somehow had had the inscription removed.
And Fanny Lowenstein, a cousin who died in 1940, just had a stone in the ground.
A half dozen soccer balls apparently kicked over the wall by area children sat like oversized Easter eggs, a reminder of the world outside the enclave.
And for all the growth of greenery, the graves looked remarkably intact, I commented to Hoffman.
They were preserved, he said, because even during the Nazi era, people in the surrounding area at least seemed to have a basic religious sense that kept them from desecrating graves.
Lee said the German shepherd, an animal the Nazis transformed from an animal herder to a vicious symbol of racial purity, was watching over us.
I didn’t know about that, but he did seem to be following our movements.
Kaufmann, checked his watch again.
We thanked him.
He nodded and said he would see us at the ceremony the next day before getting back on his bike and pedaling away as if he were late for his next appointment.
I stood there for a minute with my family in the late morning sun, wondering what happens when we add layers of knowledge and understanding to a past that was previously blank, when we go to a sacred place of permanent rest that, though overgrown, somehow survived the most horrific of genocidal regimes and is still here.
I didn’t know the answers.
But I did know that I was grateful to have the chance to find out.
We piled into our white Nissan mini-van and drove back to the hotel.