What’s Left After We’re Gone?

jewishgraves

My latest article on The Wisdom Daily is based on the words I shared on Yom Kippur this year.

In Brooklyn’s Washington Cemetery, there sits a mausoleum built by my great-great-grandfather, Barney Wolff, who passed away in 1925. Around the turn of the 20th century, Barney was a powerful, charismatic, rough and tumble New York City politician. In an article published in The Brooklyn Eagle in July of 1893, Barney is described as follows:

He dressed well, topping off his costume with a carefully brushed silk hat or a stylish derby, while a crop of elegant side whiskers and a swallowtail mustache added considerably to his distinguished appearance. A day or two (after he moved into his Brooklyn home), there appeared above the doorway of the Wolff domicile a sign announcing in glaring letters that B. Wolff was prepared to conduct…business.

Barney, wanting to do what he could to remain a powerful, distinguished presence in Brooklyn even after his passing, had the family mausoleum constructed. He, along with his wife, Augusta, and several of their children are buried within the stone structure that still stands prominently on Ocean Parkway at Avenue K.

The mausoleum was my great-great-grandfather’s attempt to ensure a lasting legacy. Sadly, I don’t think it worked. Had my late grandmother, Florence Wolff Landesman, one of Barney’s many grandchildren, not taken me to visit the mausoleum about 20 years ago, I would know nothing about it. No one’s visited the mausoleum since my grandmother and I were there. It’s maintained by the cemetery, but forgotten about by Barney’s descendants. And today, despite the fact that “Barney Wolff” remains etched in stone above the mausoleum’s heavy metal and glass doors, my great-great-grandfather’s name means nothing in Brooklyn.

I’ve spent years putting together my family tree, researching the various people who make up the generations of my clan. While Barney is one of the more colorful folks on my tree, his legacy, or the story of his life after death, resembles the legacy of every other deceased relative on the tree that I or a living relative of mine was not fortunate enough to know personally. For the most part, these deceased relatives are people who are three or more generations removed from me. I’m fortunate to have discovered historical material that’s given me a glimpse of some of these relatives, including Barney. But, sadly, I still know very little about them. Granted, it’s more than I have for many other relatives who have been reduced simply to a name. Sometimes only a first name. And in too many cases, no name at all. Their stories have fallen silent.

My inability to learn about distant relatives has gotten me thinking about the legacy many of us hope to leave. Every so often a Michelangelo or an Albert Einstein comes along and does leave a lasting mark on history. But, as troubling as it is, my own genealogical research suggests that within a few generations of our passing, the odds are, just like Barney Wolff, the work we do during our lifetime will eventually be forgotten. But, I don’t think that this means we’re incapable of leaving a lasting legacy.

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