A Sign Points to the Grave

Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during World War II, was buried in Jerusalem. His grave has become a popular destination for thousands of people from all over the world.

Steven Spielberg's famous film turned German industrialist Oskar Schindler into the most famous Righteous Gentile and into an icon of quasi-holiness. Schindler died in Germany in 1974 at the age of 66, and at his request was buried in Jerusalem. The funeral service was held in a church in Jerusalem's Old City, which was attended by several hundred of the 1,200 Jewish survivors who had been on Schindler's list.

His name was known back then already, although to a more limited number of people, mainly thanks to the survivors who had recommended that he be declared a Righteous Among the Nations. Schindler was buried in the Catholic cemetery on Mt. Zion, in a relatively new area south of the road that surrounds the mountain (which was once called the Pope's Road because it was paved in 1961 to enable Pope Paul VI to visit the mountain).

For about 20 years following his death, Schindler's grave was more or less forgotten. Hardly anyone visited it. But since Spielberg's famous film "Schindler's List," which came out in 1993 and is based on the eponymous script and book by Thomas Keneally, the grave has become a popular pilgrimage site.

There is no shortage of graves in Jerusalem that attract thousands of visitors every year. Some are holy graves from ancient times, and some are the resting places of Israel's leaders, located on Mt. Herzl and the Mt. of Olives. There are also the graves of famous tzaddikim (righteous men) and rabbis. It is a traditional Jewish practice to place small stones on gravestones - and the piles of stones on Schindler's grave attest to a large number of visitors.

There are several cemeteries on Mt. Zion, most of which belong to the Christian denominations that purchased burial plots in the 19th century. Opposite Zion Gate is the Armenian cemetery, and next to it are the Catholic and Greek-Orthodox cemeteries. On Mt. Zion's western slope lies the famous Protestant cemetery. In his book, "City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem," Dr. Meron Benvenisti describes Jerusalem's cemeteries, focusing on the graves of celebrities of the city's recent past.

Among them are church leaders, European aristocrats, patriarchs, the first European consuls, as well as famous scholars and builders from the city's veteran Christian communities.

The Christian cemeteries are surrounded by walls, and most of them can be visited with an appropriate permit. None of them have signs directing visitors to a specific grave. This type of sign appears only above the entrance gate to the Catholic cemetery. It says (in English): "To the grave of Oskar Schindler."

After 1948 the Catholic cemetery, which is maintained by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem (the post is currently held by Michel Sabbah), was located in the no-man's-land between the lines of the Arab Legion (the Jordanian army), which controlled the mountain's eastern slopes, and the outposts of the Israel Defense Forces, which reached up to Dormition Abbey and King David's Tomb, just opposite the cemetery's gate. No burials were held in these cemeteries from 1948 until the 1967 Six-Day War, either because they were cut off from the Christian Arab communities in the city's east, or because the army had installed outposts and laid minefields inside them. After 1967 some of the cemeteries were renovated, and burials resumed.

The Catholic cemetery mainly serves the Catholic Arab families of Jerusalem. On its grounds, one can find large, old family tombstones, as well as small, new tombstones of the Seniora, Albina, Marom, Sabla and Sapiya clans, all of them veteran Arab families that are well-known in Jerusalem. Some of them have a family tree dating back to the days of the Crusader Kingdom in Jerusalem, almost 1,000 years ago. There are graves of monks and nuns from the city's Catholic orders, who were buried in the high stone walls built like terraces on the mountain's steep southern slope. Next to them are the graves of the small Armenian community, a few more recent graves of Russian Catholics, and an orderly row of graves of British soldiers and policemen from the British Mandate period. Most of the British who died during the Mandate were Anglicans; they were buried in the Protestant cemetery on Mt. Zion's western side. Those who were Catholics (usually of Irish descent) were buried in the Catholic cemetery.

Near Schindler's grave is a row of several dozen gravestones also connected to World War II. These are the graves of Polish soldiers and a few civilians, Catholics of course, who died here during the war. Most of the soldiers had served in the Polish army of General Anders (Menachem Begin served in that army and arrived in Palestine with his unit during the war). The Polish embassy in Israel takes care of these graves; a year ago it put up a memorial column with the following words engraved in Polish and English: "A sign of appreciation to the soldiers and civilians from the army of Lieutenant General Wladyslaw Anders of the Second Polish Corps, who died during the war years on their way to their homeland. Poland remembers you! Warsaw, Jerusalem 2006."

Ibrahim, the veteran Arab guardian of the cemeteries, says that for years people have been visiting Schindler's grave almost every day. Most of the visitors are tourists who come after visiting Yad Vashem, where they saw the avenue and the markers in honor of the Righteous Among the Nations, identified the name of Oskar Schindler and asked how to get to his grave. Some arrive in buses with organized tours, while others come alone. The visitors include Jews in skullcaps and Christians wearing crosses. Ibrahim says that we who live on the face of the earth quarrel and fight all the time. Members of all the world's religions and nations cannot manage to live in peace. But in the graves, beneath the earth, everyone is the same; they don't fight one another and they maintain peace and quiet.

He directs the visitors to Schindler's grave, which is on the cemetery's slope, at a spot overlooking a beautiful view of Jerusalem's southern neighborhoods of Abu-Tor and Armon Hanatziv. Beyond the cemetery's southern wall is an archaeological dig exposing a wall that once surrounded the city. The area around it contains a spacious park with paved paths. Below, in Gai Ben Hinnom, one can see the small Orthodox monastery Hakeldama (Field of Blood, which according to Christian tradition was purchased with the money of Judas Iscariot). West of it lie the remains of an ancient Karaite cemetery.

The piles of stones and wreaths of dried flowers that have been placed on Oskar Schindler's simple gravestone conceal part of the inscription. It mentions that he is a Righteous Gentile who rescued 1,200 Jews. On top of the pile of stones this week was a small shard on which someone had written in ink: "Toda, Gracias, Danke, the Jews remember and do not forget," signed: Mark Holtz, Baltimore, U.S.A.