From Dachau to Durham
It is very small, just an inch wide. It is solid. It fit in a cigarette case for decades. Then it was placed in a small plastic box and passed on to those who could usher it to where it belongs – a cemetery.
During Memorial Day weekend, a crematorium tag that is also an ash cake, the result of one of world history’s atrocities – the Holocaust – will be buried. The ashes are human remains from the Dachau concentration camp where Jewish people were murdered over and over throughout World War II. Six million people perished during the Holocaust. At some point, those who were killed in the crematoriums at Dachau were accounted for with round numbered tags. The tags looked like clay, but they are not.
Sharon Halperin, co-founder of The Holocaust Speakers’ Bureau, wasn’t surprised that the Germans were meticulous record-keepers, she said. But she was surprised when approached by a Durham woman with a small item and a story about a late World War II veteran. She did some research and found that the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. has another such crematorium tag, donated by a family member who also retrieved it from Dachau.
These compacted ashes, held reverently by Halperin until they are buried May 25 in a small wooden coffin in Beth El Synagogue’s cemetery on Morehead Avenue, came from war to North Carolina about 69 years ago.
U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Walter Corsbie brought it home in a German cigarette case. Before his death, he told his son Joseph Corsbie the story of the ashes, given to him by a survivor at Dachau at the end of World War II in 1945. In time, Corsbie, who lives in Dobson, asked extended family to find a final place for the small object. He turned to a cousin, who turned to her sister, Mirinda Kossoff, who lives in Durham.
Kossoff is herself the daughter of a World War II veteran. Her father was Jewish, but converted to Christianity when he married his Southern bride. Mirinda Kossoff was raised Baptist but still felt a connection to her Jewish heritage that was not appreciated by her mother, she said. Kossoff was close to her paternal grandparents Herman and Sadye Kossoff. Kossoff hasn’t been close to her mother’s side of the family – which includes Walter and Joseph Corsbie – but she feels it is her responsibility to complete this task.
Kossoff started contacting Jewish friends and was eventually referred to Rabbi Jen Feldman of the Chapel Hill Kehillah, who contacted Halperin, who lives in Chapel Hill. Halperin’s husband, chancellor of the School of Medicine at New York Medical College, did not hear back from the museum in Dachau but was able to have the crematorium tag tested in New York for human remains. An edge was tested, then a center spot verified it, Sharon Halperin said.
Kossoff said that being part of the burial of ashes from a victim – or victims -- of the Holocaust feels like she’s coming full circle.
“They made a long journey over 69 years,” Kossoff said.
Emotionally, her role in ushering the ashes to burial brings up all kinds of things. She never found a resolution for the internal conflict of being a Christian and Jew growing up. Her three siblings are all still Christian, she said, but she left religion. Kossoff was disappointed her father gave up his Jewish heritage and identity. She recalled anti-Semitism growing up in Danville, Va., and her father, even though he was a church deacon, being referred to as “that Yankee Jew.” Kossoff was a daddy’s girl, she said. She wears his WWII dog tags. He sang songs from the war era to her instead of lullabies.
“When these ashes came to me, I was honored to have them. I’m the one who should be doing this,” Kossoff said. “It’s very meaningful to me in that way.”
The funeral in Durham will include Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue and Rabbi Jen Feldman of the Chapel Hill Kehillah. The Chapel Hill Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9100 has also been invited, as are other veterans. Joseph Corsbie and Mirinda Kossoff will attend. The coffin, though the size of a shoe box, will be treated as if full-sized. It will have pallbearers and be lowered into a grave. As is custom at a Jewish funeral, Halperin said, people will be able to take a handful of dirt and add it to the grave.
After nearly seven decades, the ashes will be laid to rest with a proper burial.
For information, contact Beth El at 919-682-1238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.