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Lives Of Contention, Stones Of Unity

Aharon Granevich-Granot

It should be a stop on every tour of Jewish cemeteries in Europe. After the heavy, rusted locks on the gates of the Koenigstrasse Cemetery in Altona, Germany, are opened, Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz, Rav Yaakov Emden, Rav Tzvi Hirsch of Zamos, Rav Refael HaKohein, and dozens of other Torah geniuses of the past seem to come to life. But instead of being crowded with history buffs and Jewish tourists, the cemetery of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek is deserted and neglected.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Altona, Germany

      Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky's hand trembles as he opens the lock of the ancient cemetery in Koenigstrasse, Altona.

      The gate creaks open, and in an instant, we feel as though we've been transported back 300 years, to the shining days of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek — or as they're known in Jewish history, the Kehillos AHW, from which sprouted forth hundreds of dayanim and rabbanim. The joint rabbinical court of the three communities wrote dozens of seforim and produced tens of thousands of halachic rulings — all lost in the oblivion of the Holocaust.

      Autumn leaves cover the dusty headstones. Torah scholars of enduring stature. Even the blurred letters of the headstones conceal a glorious Torah world that produced such mighty forces as Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz and his spiritual rival, Rav Yaakov Emden. The lettering is blurred with age, difficult to decipher. If not for our guide, Hamburg shaliach Rabbi Bistritzky, for whom the paths of the cemetery are as familiar as the streets of his native Tzfas, we could not have located the gravesites. It's been centuries since anyone was buried here, and virtually no one visits, either. The keys are in the hands of the Jewish community, and visitors rarely ask for them, although almost every day of the year marks the yahrtzeit of one of the great Torah leaders interred here.

      We're in the very heart of the “Land of Altona,” near Hamburg, an important focal point of Jewish history; great men who left their mark on our people lived here. Altona was both the name of the city and the German municipal district within the greater Hamburg metropolis. The city was founded in 1535 as a fishing village. In 1664, it received township status from the king of Denmark; in 1867, it became part of Prussia; and in 1938, it was incorporated, along with a number of other towns, into the city of Hamburg.  

A Dispute for the Sake of Heaven

      A Jewish community already existed in Altona in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1671, the Jews of Altona united with the Ashkenazic community of Hamburg, joined by the Wandsbek community in 1674. The communities succeeded in preserving their shared community framework throughout the next century. They kept their organizational independence, but they had a joint rabbi and rabbinical court that met in Altona. In 1811, after Napoleon conquered the region, he compelled the Jews to disband the union. From then on, Altona existed as its own community.

      We walk among the cemetery headstones, many lying cracked and broken on the ground.

      “Here you can find many vestiges of historical events that took place right here in Hamburg and in Altona,” Rabbi Bistritzky relates. “Some of these headstones have been restored and righted by students of Hamburg University. They were doing some peripheral research on the cemetery and on those interred here, and took the opportunity to restore the stones somewhat.”

      For some reason, though, the cemetery hasn't caught the attention of many Jewish visitors. Hamburg is an industrial city, below the tourist radar. Nevertheless, Rabbi Bistritzky has made a mission of bringing more people to this spot, where so much Jewish history is buried.

      In the middle of the cemetery, side by side, with only four headstones separating them, are the gravesites of the renowned Torah giants Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz and Rav Yaakov Emden, who was the son of the Rav of Altona, the Chacham Tzvi. This is the greatest treat of all: to see these two famous tzaddikim, so well-known for their lifetime dispute l'sheim Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, buried side by side.

      How did this unusual placement occur? Before his passing, the members of the chevra kadisha saw Rav Yaakov greeting his departed relatives, exactly as it says in the holy seforim — that a person's relatives come to greet him before he enters the World of Truth.

      “Shalom aleicha, my father, my teacher!” Rav Yaakov said, smiling. And then, to the astonishment of the chevra kadisha, they heard him say, “Shalom aleicha, Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz!” The person with whom he'd had the greatest conflict of his life, who had passed away twelve years earlier, had come to welcome him.

      This was considered a great wonder, and the Noda b'Yehudah, Rav Yechezkel Landau, later rav of Prague, directed the chevra kadisha to seek out a gravesite near Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz, since their dispute had been solely l'sheim Shamayim.

      Later, a Torah leader of the time related that he saw the two tzaddikim in a dream, learning Torah together in Gan Eden, but that their disciples who incited the quarrel were in Gehinnom.

      We're standing beside the headstones of these great tzaddikim, sensing the rustling of the wings of history. When will someone come to daven at their gravesites? When was the last time the sweet words of Tehillim were recited here beside them? When will Kaddish be said in this holy place? And why do so many of the tour organizers who travel to graves of tzaddikim skip this cemetery, among the most important in Europe?  


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