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Waikumete Cemetery: Perhaps our most historic place. Part 2

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The indignity of it all

Getting to the new cemetery by train wasn’t either cheap or elegant.

There were two types of funeral train, the ordinary train with a special carriage for passengers and a van for the coffins or a special train just for the funeral.

The Government regulations covering the operation of funeral trains (published in 1886) stated that the city treasurer had to give notice in writing to the Railways District Traffic Manager when funeral trains were required and, he had to pay all the charges, which the council charged on to the mourners. If a special train was needed, no less than 12 hours notice had to be given.

In the indelicate language of the day: “Corpses must be loaded at Auckland, Newmarket and Mt Eden, 20 minutes before the time of departure of the train.” According to the Auckland Star of 19 March 1886, the regulations said: “The charge for a special train for the corpse will be eight pounds five shillings. The charge per corpse (on the ordinary train) will be 10 shillings.”

For one body and one mourner, the cost of transportation alone would have been about one third of the weekly wage. Then there would be the cost of getting the body to the departure station while at Waikomiti, the sexton would probably turn up with a wheelbarrow to help move coffins into the cemetery.

It’s not surprising that at least some letters to the editor of the day thundered outrage by this arrangement and its costs.

Poignant reminder of the Holocaust

Of all the history associated with this 128 year old taonga, surely none is more awe inspiring than the event commemorated by a small plaque at the foot of the Holocaust Memorial. Beneath the plaque lie something utterly sacred; ashes from a cremator at Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

TombstoneThe Memorial itself, an imposing slab of black granite is polished to a mirror shine on one side and remains rough hewn on the back, with the grooves for the explosive sticks used to break it from its parent rock, clearly evident. While horizontal, these grooves are fittingly, reminiscent of jail bars and captivity. It is a powerfully moving sentinel dedicated to ensuring there will never be a repeat.

At its foot is the plaque that sits over a small casket with the ashes from Auschwitz. They were buried there on 23 November 1997.

Auschwitz survivors Armin Glanz and Karel Beran returned to their native Prague after being released from the death camp. Because so many bodies were cremated at any given time, it wasn’t possible to know who’s ashes were who’s, and so Karel and Armin were sent back by the Czech government to gather a casket of ashes to be buried at Prague to represent all the victims. This was a variation on the traditional “Tomb of the Unknown Warrior”.

It was only after his release that Karel discovered his own mother and father had been murdered at Auschwitz and so he gathered a second casket of ashes and kept it with him for the next 52 years. By now an Auckland resident and knowing that he himself was not going to live forever, he decided to place the ashes into the care of people who would care for them as reverently as he had, the Jewish community of Auckland.

And so it was that on a brilliantly sunny day in 1997, Karel placed the small casket into a specially made recess at the foot of the memorial, to remain safe and sacred, hopefully forever.