When a Jewish community moves to a new place, the first thing we do isn’t build a synagogue. It’s find a place to put our cemetery.

A Jewish cemetery is known as the house of the living or the house of the eternal. And yes, they are eternal in a real way. Once a place becomes a Jewish cemetery, it’s always considered to be a cemetery—even if there are no more headstones left in it.

Unfortunately, many of the Jewish cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe have no Jewish community to care for them anymore. The Holocaust and post-war antisemitism destroyed most of these communities or forced them to immigrate elsewhere.

This is where my friends and I come in.

R.M. Romero, members of the Matzevah Foundation, and the 2019 JewishGen scholars

In 2016, I went to Poland to do research for my debut Middle Grade novel, The Dollmaker of Krakow. I also decided to join the members of the Matzevah Foundation, Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls of the University of Staffordshire, and her students in the Oświęcim (Auschwitz) Jewish Cemetery. There, we cut back ivy and stinging nettle, documented the matzevot (headstones), helped lay a path, and used noninvasive archeological methods to survey the cemetery for the historical record. The experience turned out to be life-changing.

In 2017, I took my teenage sister to work on another project with the Matzevah Foundation and Dr. Sturdy Colls, this time in two different Jewish cemeteries in Poland. In 2018, I returned to Oświęcim and then traveled to another cemetery with Rohatyn Jewish Heritage in Ukraine. And the last time I was in Poland in 2019, I was with a group of JewishGen scholars, who were exploring their own heritage.

The Ghosts of Rose Hill came from these trips.

R.M. Romero working in Rohatyn, Ukraine. Photo by Marla Osborn

It’s hard not to feel the weight of the past in cemeteries, no matter where they are. But that weight is particularly heavy in the places I’ve been and it’s easy to imagine a ghost or two in lingering in them. Because what is a ghost? An echo. A memory that won’t fade. History that persists and haunts the living.

The ghosts in my novel are stranded between a past they can’t return to, a present they’re trapped in, and a future they can’t quite reach. They’re Jewish ghosts too, meaning that their family and personal histories have long shadows creeping across them. My heroine, Ilana Lopez, discovers how lively some of these shadows are and becomes determined to save her ghostly companions from them—as well as herself.

The dead are powerless and voiceless. It’s up to us to bring their stories to life. To remember them for life, to paraphrase a prayer from the Yom Kippur service. And that is what I hope to do both with my cemetery work and The Ghosts of Rose Hill.