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Years Later, Recognition for ‘Jews Who Didn’t Make It’

January 21, 1992

NEW YORK (AP) _ It is said that the Jews found the golden land when they arrived in America, that all who came here were rewarded with prosperity. Tell that to the souls at rest at the Mount Richmond Cemetery.

There, on 32 sloping acres of Staten Island, you will find the graves of suicides, drug addicts, destitute pensioners and impoverished children.

They were buried there by the Hebrew Free Burial Association, descendant of the burial societies that conducted the business of dying in the shtetls of eastern Europe, another century and another world ago.

The association meant well, but its means were limited; 30,000 graves went unmarked for lack of money. Now, a campaign is under way to put headstones on the graves of the unfortunates.

This, says Gerald Feldhamer, president of the burial association, is ″a memorial to the Jews who didn’t make it.″

″These are some of the real tragedies in American Jewish history,″ said Feldhamer, a 56-year-old investment counselor active in New York’s Orthodox Jewish community. ″We have the responsibility to take care of these people.″

Taking care of the dead is a central tenet of Judaism, which forbids cremation and insists on religious burials. Jewish paupers in New York would otherwise be buried in a mass grave in the city-run Potter’s Field.

Authur Goren, a Columbia University history professor who has studied Jewish burial practices, says an anonymous burial among gentiles would be unacceptable to a believing Jew.

″The idea of burying the dead has the most important religious significance of any act,″ comparable to last rites in Catholicism, he says.

For centuries, burials had been entrusted to societies of each community’s most pious men and women. But in the United States - where 2 million Jews emigrated at the turn of the century - the societies were increasingly replaced by undertakers and funeral directors.

Most of the traditional burial societies ceased to exist; the Hebrew Free Burial Association - founded in 1888 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side - went into decline; Mount Richmond fell into disrepair.

The association’s Rabbi Shmuel Plafker recalls seeing weeds so high they covered many tombstones, and monuments toppled from erosion and creeping roots.

Plafker and Feldhamer say the cemetery became a top priority when Feldhamer became association president in 1987.

The successful son of Jewish immigrants, Feldhamer says he was moved to action by the idea of poor Jews living amid the world’s wealthiest Jewish community. ″You try to tell people there are poor Jews in America and they laugh,″ he said.

On a visit to Mount Richmond last fall, the lawns were freshly mowed and dozens of 3-foot-high new markers stood in neat rows.

An office on the grounds maintains microfilm records of burial applications that provide glimpses of the poverty, disease and dangerous working conditions common in the immigrandt community at the turn of the century.

On Jan. 3, 1902, Russian-born grocer Davis Paster turned to the association for help in burying Max Schmugilsky, a 35-year-old Romanian peddler who had killed himself. Two days later, harness maker Elias Siegel, also from Romania, arranged a funeral for his 8-month-old daughter, Celia.

Some are unknown, and yet famous - the cemetery is the resting place of 22 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire, which swept through the top floors of a loft building in March 1911 and killed 146 workers. Most were immigrants, exploited in their poverty by the sweatshop owners.

In the early 1900s the association was burying more than 1,000 paupers a year; the numbers declined to less than 200 in the 1970s, but have increased to more than 250 last year, Feldhamer said.

Plafker recited a short list of recent burials: a 65-year-old resident of a senior citizens’ home in the Bronx; a 30-year-old drug addict; a 19-year-old man killed in the cross fire of a gunfight in Brooklyn.

Nearly two of five burials involve Soviet Jews; Feldhamer blames the increase on both Soviet immigration and a worsening economy.

Even as the association tries to serve today’s dead, it is trying to rescue yesterday’s dead from obscurity. A $10,000 bequest paid for the raising of the first 75 markers; a campaign aimed at Jewish congregations and individuals in the metropolitan area last fall raised a similar amount, and another 50 markers are to be unveiled next spring.

In at least one case, the effort has aided the living. When the first new stones were unveiled in June and a local newspaper ran a photograph, Bernard Kaplan, 72, finally learned the fate of his baby sister.

One of 11 children born to Romanian and Russian immigrants on Manhattan’s East Side, 3-year-old Fanny Kaplan died on Dec. 3, 1928, of spinal meningitis. Her brother remembered her; he remembered when authorities quarantined his family in their tenement apartment because of her illness.

″I never knew where she was buried,″ Kaplan said. ″I was about 8 years old at the time. I’ve been looking for her for 60 years.″

″It gives me peace of mind that I know where she is,″ he says.

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