Human remains from Dachau will receive a Jewish burial in Durham, North Carolina this Memorial Day Weekend, sixty-nine years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp.
Hundreds of people, including some from out of state, are expected to attend the ceremony Sunday morning at the historical Durham Hebrew Cemetery. Durham mayor Bill Bell will be among the dignitaries and members of the public on hand to witness the internment of a cake of ashes given to an American soldier by a Dachau survivor in 1945. The ceremony will include Memorial Day commemorations, as well as Jewish funeral rites.
The cremated remains were given to David Walter Corsbie, Jr., then a US Army soldier, within weeks of the camp’s liberation.
When Corsbie was discharged, he returned home to his wife Martha and their children — and took the ashes with him. He kept them in a metal cigarette case and did not speak about or show them to anyone for decades.
Eventually, he passed them to his son, Joseph Corsbie, who placed them in a small yellow plastic container and tucked them away in a dresser drawer in his trailer home in Dobson, NC.
As reported in The New York Times in April, the elder Corsbie could not bring himself to tell his son about the ashes until shortly before he died in 1986. He had shown them to him years earlier, but was unable to do anything but shake and cry when the son asked about them.
“Stop it. He doesn’t want to talk about it,” Martha Corsbie had admonished her then-teenage son.
Joseph Corsbie decided in late 2012 that it was time to tell the story of the ashes and to share the responsibility of safeguarding this horrifying reminder of the slaughter in Dachau. In ill health after two heart attacks and without any descendants of his own, he wanted to act quickly to ensure that the remains were buried with dignity and according to Jewish tradition.
Corsbie, an ordained minister who has worked as a security guard, store cashier and department store Santa Claus, showed the ashes to his cousin, Martha Kossoff, who has Jewish relatives on her father’s side and lives near Washington, DC. She turned to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in the nation’s capital, but was told that it did not deal with human remains.
After attempts to contact the museum on Dachau’s grounds failed, Kossoff enlisted the help of her sister Mirinda, who lives in the Chapel Hill, NC area. Mirinda Kossoff reached out to Rabbi Jennifer Feldman, leader of the Kehillah Synagogue.
“When I received the email from Mirinda, I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to carry this through,” Feldman told The Times of Israel.
In turn, Feldman sought the assistance of Sharon Halperin, who is deeply involved in Holocaust remembrance and education as director of the Holocaust Speakers Bureau in North Carolina.
Approximately eight months ago, Halperin met Mirinda Kossoff at a local Starbucks café, where Kossoff took out the yellow plastic container given to her by her cousin.
“I was incredulous at first that I was holding something from Dachau,” Halperin recounted. “I felt uncomfortable touching it. Here before me was a piece of evidence of what happened to my people.”
However moved, Halperin still needed something that could corroborate the story that Kossoff told her. Her husband, Dr. Edward C. Halperin, the chancellor of New York Medical College, submitted the ashes to the New York City medical examiner’s office for evaluation. Test results indicated that the object resembling a rock was in fact human remains.
“At first, they just tested the outside layer. But the question came up as to whether the human proteins found could have come from the people who have handled it,” Halperin explained.
Further testing, this time of material from the inside of the cake, verified that it was composed throughout of human remains.
At that point, Halperin and Feldman began working on plans for the Jewish burial. They brought Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham in on the effort.
Durham Hebrew Cemetery, where the internment will take place, is associated with Greyber’s congregation.
“I feel very honored to be part of this,” said Greyber. “We are thinking of this as a long-delayed funeral, a fulfillment of a mitzvah.”
He speaks of the burial of the ashes in biblical terms. “It’s a gathering of the ashes to their people. These are the ashes of our people that have traveled thousands of miles and many decades to a little spot of consecrated ground in North Carolina.”
According to Feldman, the decision to have the ceremony follow the traditional structure of a Jewish funeral was obvious. “A Jewish funeral is what was denied this person, or these people,” she said, referencing the unanswered question as to whether the remains are of one individual, or of many.
Although halacha, or Jewish law, does not allow for the burial of cremated human remains in a Jewish cemetery, an exception is made for those of “martyrs” of the Holocaust.
“The prohibition on burial does not apply when the victim was murdered and cremated against his or her will,” said Feldman, who researched scholarly writings on the interring of Holocaust ashes in Israel in the 1950s.
Joseph Corsbie plans on making the trip from his home to Durham for the ceremony. At the cemetery, he will present the ashes to the Beth El hevrah kadishah (Jewish burial society), whose members will place them in a small wooden casket. Traditional Jewish funeral prayers will be chanted and Corsbie will be the first to shovel dirt in to the grave.
The rabbis and Halperin decided that a moment of silence will replace the customary eulogy. “We will have silence instead of words of praise,” explained Feldman. “This is the appropriate narrative for a life—or lives—that have been stolen from us.”
In keeping with Jewish tradition, a permanent monument will be erected 11 months following the burial. A temporary grave marker will be placed in the meantime. It will read, in part:
Wars cast very long shadows. Almost seventy years after the US Army liberated Dachau in April 1945, these victims of Nazi atrocities have finally found a resting place in Durham, North Carolina. Let this memorial serve as a vivid reminder of humanity’s potential for destruction. We are both the keepers of the past and the guardians of the future, ever responsible for safeguarding this memory.
The scheduling of the internment for Memorial Day Weekend was intentional. Greyber noted that the date’s coinciding with the weekly Torah portion of “Bamidbar” (Numbers) is also very significant.
“This week’s parasha is about numbering. The Nazis gave Jews numbers to make then anonymous, to dehumanize them. But in the Torah, the numbering is the opposite. It is about the uniqueness and the infinity within each individual,” he reflected.
“With this unique funeral, we move away from dehumanizing and the mechanization of death to the restoring of humanity.”
Halperin is astounded by the huge amount of attention Sunday’s planned ceremony is receiving.
“This clearly resonates for a lot of people, and not only for Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren,” she said. “This is a powerful piece of ash.”