Tuesday, February 25, 2020

USA: Looking for Holocaust Memorials in American Jewish Cemeteries

Conklin (Binghamton), New York. Temple Israel Cemetery. Holocaust Memorial (1952). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015.

Akron, Ohio. Workman's Circle Cemetery on Swartz Road.. Holocaust Monument, dedicated September 1961. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
USA: Looking for Holocaust Memorials in American Jewish Cemeteries
by Samuel D. Gruber

"This mound shall be witness and this pillar shall be witness…" Genesis 31:52 

Holocaust memorials have been erected in American Jewish cemeteries since the 1940s. For many decades these memorials were usually the only public markers in America memorializing Shoah victims. They are often monuments, meant to warn us, but more often they are seen as symbolic matzevot, so that the dead who have no graves will have a place to be remembered, and there will be a place where mourners can recite Kaddish. In the 1990s I was in discussion with The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum about creating a large database of all Holocaust monuments and memorials in North America, but to my knowledge nothing ever came of this effort. At the time, there was much more attention to commemorative practice in Europe, and this still remains true today.

In 2018 I was at a funeral for a favorite aunt in Akron, Ohio, and was drawn to the neighboring Workmen's Circle cemetery that had a large Holocaust monument. Seeing this lonely stone, I was reminded that there is still no list of all such memorials in the United States.

Akron, Ohio. Workman's Circle Cemetery on Swartz Road.. Holocaust Monument, dedicated Sept. 1961. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
Akron, Ohio. Workman's Circle Cemetery on Swartz Road.. Holocaust Monument, dedicated Sept. 1961. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2018.
The monument at the Workmen's Circle Cemetery on Swartz Rd in Akron, Ohio, was erected and dedicated by Workmen’s Circle Members of Branch 587 and Friends on September 17, 1961. This remains the site of the annual Service in Memory of the Six Million in early autumn (for information contact the Jewish Community Board of Akron).

The Workmen's Circle was a national Jewish Mutual Aid society with local chapters. Formed in 1900 by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Circle at first helped its members to adapt to American life and provided life insurance, unemployment relief, healthcare, social interaction, burial assistance, and general education. Workmen's Circle cemeteries were founded in many cities.

In his important book The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Indiana Univ. Press, 1999), historian David Roskies wrote about the commemoration of Yiddish writers and socialist activists at the Workman’s Circle plot at the Old Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Queens, New York beginning in 1916 with the burial of Sholem Aleichem. In the 1940s this commemoration was continued in the nearby New Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery. Many of these graves and markers  had Holocaust associations, and in the 1940s and early 1950s, before specific collective memorials were created, these monuments to individuals could be used for broader commemorative practice.

On the stone of writer Yankev Pat (d. 1966) the inscription reads “over the mighty ocean of Jewish anguish and calamity / a great light will shine,” quoting from Pat’s post-Holocaust travelogue Ashes and Fire, published in 1946. Roskies describes several similar examples and observes that “It is the heroism and tragedy of the Bund, the leading Jewish movement in interwar Poland, that is given pride of place in the new Honor Row".

Queens, NY. New Mount Carmel Cemetery. Memorial grave of Artur Zygelboim. Photo from Roskies, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Indiana Univ. Press, 1999).
Foremost among these memorials is the grave of Artur Zygelboim, which Roskies identifies as the first Holocaust memorial in America.
 “Separated spatially and architecturally on the extreme left is the tomb of "Artur (Shmuel Mordecai) Zygelboim 1895-1943 / Member of Central Committee of the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland / Bund Representative in Polish Parliament in Exile." Containing his ashes that were brought over from London after the war, his tomb is the first memorial to the Holocaust on American soil. Martyrdom is its operative term. The biographical side of the tomb concludes with the words: "May 11, 1943, in London Chose Martyr's Death." The liturgical side speaks of Zygelboim's "free heroic suicide," which is read as an expiation for the involuntary martyrdom of "The 6 Million Jews / Victims of Nazi Genocide." The flame atop his stone is their Eternal Light.” (Roskies, p. 138)
The late Rabbi Alvin M. Poplack published a valuable volume Carved in Granite: Holocaust Memorials in Greater New York Jewish Cemeteries (New York: Jay street Publishers) in 2003 that identifies and documents eighty-six monuments.  To my knowledge there is no similar inventory of other memorials in cemeteries elsewhere in the country, though this would be a valuable collective endeavor to ensure the protection and preservation of these memorials, and to trace the evolution of Holocaust commemoration in the United States over the past seventy years.

The study of American Jewish cemeteries is relatively new to me. I've been documenting Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust sites and memorials in Europe since 1990, but only recently began to look at the parallel situation in America. This includes the creation of new memorial sites that are surrogates for those far away and which were for a long time inaccessible behind the "Iron Curtain". As Poplack demonstrates there was also an attempt early on to bring human remains--ashes, bones and a bar of soap--for interment in America, and thus in a way to bring the immediacy of the Holocaust sites directly to American shores. A later version of this would take place in the boom of Holocaust Museum construction in the 1990s, when new American institutions strove to incorporate "original" Holocaust mementos in their exhibitions. These included boxcars, cemetery gates, suitcases, and even human hair and other remnants loaned from the Auschwitz Museum. 

Most of the early American memorials were erected by landsmanshaftn, and the process began very soon after World War II. The monuments were usually placed within the boundaries of the immigrant organizations' collective burial plots in larger cemeteries. In a few instances illustrated here, these monuments mark the burial of ashes brought from Europe, and in at least one case, a bar of soap said to be made of human ash.

One of the oldest monuments identified by Rabbi Poplack is the Zbarazer monument in the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, Long Island, dedicated September 7, 1947. This monument was seen as a real grave marker--as it sits above the burial of a bar of soap believed to have been made of Jewish human remains. This monument is also the most detailed in its inscriptions in English and Hebrew, listing the number of Zbarazer Jews "murdered and the dates of each action and where they took place. On the back of the monument the text is inscribed in Hebrew. One verse from Scripture (the liturgy) is included: "Earth, cover not their blood." (Poplack, p 22). Unfortunately, this monument is hard to find and even then, hard to see. Poplack lists three other monuments erected in 1947 by the Litiner, Grybower, and Rypiner Societies.


Elmont, Long Island, New York. Beth David Cemetery First Zbarazer Relief Society, 1947. Poplack, Carved in Granite, 22.

Elmont, Long Island, New York. Beth David Cemetery First Zbarazer Relief Society, 1947. Poplack, Carved in Granite, 22.
The largest memorial over ashes brought from Europe to the United States is the Monument by Drobniner Benevolent Society at the United Hebrew Cemetery in Staten Island, erected in 1961. This lists many names on each side, and it gives a single collective Yahrzeit date (14 Kislev) for all the Drobniner Jews murdered in the Holocaust.


Staten Island, NY. United Hebrew Cemetery. Monument by Drobniner Benevolent Society. Poplack, Carved in Granite, 25.
Staten Island, NY. United Hebrew Cemetery. Monument by Drobniner Benevolent Society. Poplack, Carved in Granite, 25.
Staten Island, NY. United Hebrew Cemetery. Monument by Drobniner Benevolent Society. Poplack, Carved in Granite, 25.
Another monument erected in 1967 in Clifton, New Jersey, is much more prominent and is built, as the inscription informs us, over ashes brought "from the crematoria chambers in Auschwitz".

Clifton, New Jersey. King Solomon Cemetery monument by East Side Social Center of Paterson, 1967. Photo: Poplack, Carved in Granite, 23.
Clifton, New Jersey. King Solomon Cemetery monument by East Side Social Center of Paterson, 1967. Photo: Poplack, Carved in Granite, 23.
I've written about the unusual circumstances of another early monument in the Beth David Cemetery in Binghamton, NY (1952), where refugees buried the written names of their loved ones for whom there were no graves to visit.

I ask my readers to visit the Jewish cemeteries in their communities to look for Holocaust memorials and to send me their findings: inscriptions, photos, and any information about the creation of the memorials and how they are used for commemorative purpose in the communities where they are found.

I suspect that there are memorials similar to those documented by Poplack for the New York metropolitan area in Jewish cemeteries around Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, and other cities that still had large first generation Eastern European immigrant communities in the 1940s through 1960s. By the 1970s, Holocaust commemoration had become more "mainstream," at least within the Jewish communities, and we begin to see more centrally located sanctioned and publicly promoted monuments and commemorative events.

With the breakdown of Eastern European Orthodox communities and landmanshaftn, the death of first generation immigrants, and the move of Jews to cities and away from grandparents' home cities, many older cemeteries have been neglected or at least less frequently visited. Holocaust commemoration events are often moved to Jewish Community Centers and other more central locations. The first memorials are often forgotten.

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