Ellen wants to take me to the Broken Hill cemetery. There are Jewish graves there that are neglected, and Ellen frets about them. She wants to use my masculine muscle to put the graves to rights.
I wonder what exactly is the problem and what does she see me doing to correct it. In any event my lineage will disqualify me from close proximity to any grave: members of the Jewish priestly caste avoid contact with the dead. We cohanim go to the graveside only at the funeral of a first degree relative.
Seven years ago, I went for my father; three years ago for Dennis, my older brother. Then last year for Mum. I’ve run out of older people: I am next in line.
I break the news to Ellen: “The next time I visit a grave it will be a one-way trip. I am not going to be your grave fixer, Ellen. I’m sorry.”
Ellen is troubled: “The graves are under constant attack. They are disappearing…”
“What do you mean? Who’s attacking them?”
“No-one. It’s windblown sand that’s doing the damage. The sand banks up on the graves and it damages the inscriptions. I’m afraid that the memorials will be lost.”
Ellen comes to a stop, ponders, then says: ”You wouldn’t have to go near other graves. The Jewish section is at the farthest edge of the cemetery. There should be a way.”
She seems to have forgotten that I won’t be getting close to any graves. I won’t be the tomb rescuer she needs.
We drive, park in a deserted side road, then bush bash through some remarkably verdant growth until we have impaled ourselves on some barbed wire, emplaced there to deter grave robbers and illegal tourists.
We trudge through mud, then loam, then sand, duck beneath boughs, push aside branches that smack the face whoever of us is following, climb a bank, plunge down into the muddy floor of the creek bed, climb again, and stop.
Ahead of us and below stretch the vistas of the dead. All those who came to Broken Hill for fortune, for the silver; for adventure or for escape; to save themselves or to save others; everyone who came and who stayed – from about 1860 – lies here, at rest.
Ellen gets her bearings and points. “There, at that edge. Do you see?”
I don’t think I do see, but I nod and we set off, skirting the suburbs of the dead in their denominated areas. Here lie veterans of the First War, here a few of the war before it, the Boer War. Then the veterans of later wars of the late, terrible century. Here are Anglicans, here Catholics, there anachronistic Methodists, Presbyterians: Christendom lying in its battalions.
And beyond all of these, a triangular section with a curved perimeter, an outlier shaped like a slice of camembert: the sign reads MAHOMMEDAN SECTION. The sons of the Prophet are relatively few. Their names, defiantly unockerized, bravely declare to the ages ‘here lies one who kept the faith.’
Just beyond the Mahommedans, in an irregular quadrilateral of peripheral land, lie the Jews.
Ellen and I have kept ourselves at a good remove from all of the graves. By dint of dirt and mud, of trudge and tumble and sweat and blood, I have avoided priestly impurity. Now, like Moses on the hills of Moab, I stand and look down and across to the land allotted to the Jews.
The patch is small, but for all that, it is not crowded, for the Jewish graves are few. Standing at my Mosaic remove, I can make out little detail. Ellen is my scout. She reads the inscriptions aloud, citing dates from the nineteenth century to the 21st. One family is represented in its generations, across those three centuries.
Ellen returns to my side, a little out of breath. She has been kicking, hefting, scraping away with a stick the sand and windblown detritus accumulating hard against the graves. She points to decaying headstones: “Those inscriptions are getting harder to read with every year that passes. There are no Jewish people here to look after them.”
From my height I can see a couple of smaller plots. Ellen investigates these for me and confirms my thoughts. These are the graves of young children. Dead now for a century, they have their names still, in English and in Hebrew. Those who buried and wept for them are now long dead. All lie in their quiet obscurity, alongside the Mahommedans.
Because Ellen cannot let their memory die, their dates, their names and lineage all live. She has her dream, which she confides, as a plea, almost as prayer: ”The synagogue in Broken Hill is a Jewish place. It must be rescued: one day, when Jewish people redeem it and own it again, they will care for these Jewish remains.”
Copyright, howard goldenberg, 28 september, 2010