Graveyards, Marked and Unmarked

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by Ayelet Waldman

I'm writing this sitting in a country graveyard in New England, the place where I buried the fictional bride and groom in my last novel. It's a perfect Maine afternoon. The sun is bright, but there's a breeze off the water and air smells of ocean and pine trees. Many of the Nevins and Hinkleys and Tetherlys who are buried here died in the 19th Century, some in the civil war, others "at sea." I walked by an elderly couple placing flowers (plastic!) on one of those 19th Century graves. Descendants, I assume.

I've been thinking a lot about graveyards lately, marked and unmarked. Where would I go if I wanted to place plastic flowers on the grave of one of my ancestors? To the Ukraine and to Belarus, to the cities and villages of vanished Jewish Europe. When my husband went in search of his family's shtetl in Lithuania a number of years ago, he found a tumbledown cemetery in the woods, the marked graves of, perhaps, his own ancestors. A few miles away lay the anonymous pit where his grandparents and parents might have ended up, but for the lucky accident of immigration.

The novel I'm working on now takes place, in part, in Salzburg in 1945, immediately after the end of the war. It revolves around the story of the Hungarian Gold Train, 37 cars of plunder taken from the Jews of Hungary. It took Eichmann only 200 SS officers and 54 days to murder nearly half a million Hungarian Jews. He had plenty help; the Hungarian Arrow Cross was only too eager to participate in the slaughter, and the architects of Auschwitz worked tirelessly to renovate the crematoria to handle the increased load. What I find most remarkable about this is Eichmann's efficiency (as trite as it is to comment on that particular German characteristic) and the moment at which it took place, spring of 1944, when the war was clearly lost, the Russians fast approaching the Hungarian border. This novel is going to take at least another year or two complete, and I wonder how much of that time I'll be spending lurking in graveyards.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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