Monday, September 20, 2010

Shouldering the burden of forgotten cemeteries

From the JTA

The old Jewish cemetery in Eufaula, Ala., hasn’t been used in years. “The monuments are just crumbling,” said Sara Hamm. She and her family are the last Jews living in this once-booming cotton and railway town on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

The Jewish cemetery’s first burial dates from 1845, when German Jews began arriving as merchants and dry goods salesmen. They bought a synagogue in 1873, but sold it in the early 1900s when their numbers dwindled to several dozen. The cemetery, with its 84 burial plots, fell into disrepair.

In the mid-1980s Hamm’s grandmother Jennie Rudderman began restoring it, righting headstones and clearing away brush. After she died in 1999, Hamm took over as volunteer caretaker. But the job is wearing her down.

“It’s been left to its own accord now, like everything else in small-town America,” she said.

Similar stories repeat across the land, from the rust belt of western Pennsylvania to the Bible Belt in the South. As factories closed down and populations shifted westward, once-thriving Jewish communities declined and synagogues shut their doors. The only thing left behind, in many cases, were the cemeteries -- with no one, or almost no one, to take care of them.

Jewish donors and volunteers are chasing after their roots in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, cleaning up the abandoned cemeteries of their ancestors, but similar attention has not been paid to the at-risk cemeteries of their parents and grandparents in the United States.

“It’s an error for people to think it’s only in Eastern Europe that cemeteries are in disrepair,” said Nolan Altman, coordinator of the online burial registry of JewishGen, a Jewish genealogical website. “It’s right here at home.”

Click here for the entire article.

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