Cemetery project aims to preserve memories
Volunteers record fading information from gravestones
Wednesday, July 21, 1999
By Elizabeth Kaufman
For the most part, time has been kind to the nearly 75-year-old Kneseth Israel Cemetery. Grave sites at the Hammond burial site remain evenly spaced, with no apparent threats of overcrowding. Vandals don’t seem to threaten either — even with no visible caretaker, there is no litter, no spray paint, no crumbled monuments.
But with time come wind, rain and snow, and on the tombstones, a once sharply engraved word here, a date there, are beginning to vanish into the flat, polished surfaces. With each character erased, a troubling question looms larger: Who will remember the last of the Winers or Wallaces or Rosens?
The answer lies on Trudy Barch’s clipboard. On a prepared form, she and eight others are carefully recording all information listed on the tombstones of Kneseth Israel.
Barch, who is president of the southern suburbs’ chapter of the Illiana Jewish Genealogical Society, will bring various members of her group to this cemetery for as many as five two-hour sessions. The Kneseth Israel Cemetery was selected, she explains, because “I personally did not know of any Jewish cemeteries in the southwest suburbs. We were putting up posters a couple of months ago in temples promoting Jewish genealogical month, and I was asking about cemeteries when I found out about Kneseth Israel.”
The group’s completed information will be shared with the International Association Jewish Genealogical Society, which has established the International Jewish Cemetery Project.
The project’s aim is to create a database that eventually will contain the information of every Jewish cemetery, and all Jewish sections of cemeteries, throughout the world.
Three phases comprise the endeavor. The first phase’s goal is to find out where Jews are buried; so far, more than 3,000 Jewish cemeteries or cemeteries including Jews around the world have been found, in places such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine.
The second phase is to retrieve the names of the buried: More than 400,000 names have thus far been collected.
Phase 3 will create a cross-reference so those searching for a grave will need only the name of the deceased to find the burial site.
“We are trying to preserve the good names of all Jews buried in these cemeteries,” says Barch.
Genealogy clearly is a passion of Barch’s, who was one of the first members of the south suburban chapter of Illiana, created in 1984. On a recent Thursday marking the first Kneseth Israel trip, Barch’s T-shirt tells her story. In neat black stick-on letters, her full name rides atop Rosenbaum, her maiden name; Pearlman, her mother’s maiden name; Dvosha Gitel, the name of her great-grandmother, for whom she is named; and Miriam, her great-great grandmother.
But the research trip is about more than names. This group is also deciphering Hebrew words written across so many tombstones. And even though Barch is one of a group of nine participants, all over age 50, only a few know enough Hebrew to understand what the stones say.
So the foreign words, some brushed almost cleanly away by decades, are being videotaped by Henry Landauer. The Park Forest resident left Germany one year before World War II broke out. “Just in time,” he says, “to fight for the Americans.” He has traced his lineage back to the 1600s, though all he has from then are first names. “In Europe, people only got first names usually until about 1700,” he explains. “And with the Jews, it made life a little easier,” not to be marked by a last name, he said.
Carved religious symbols decorate many of the Kneseth Isreal head stones, and those, too, must be deciphered.
One of those symbols relates to the Kohenim. In the Jewish Temple,(), the Kohen Gadol was the high priest, and the Kohenim were those priests serving under him. Many people alive today are descendants of the Kohenim. Tombstones often denote the fact with the engraving of a pair of hands, fingers set apart in twos to create a ‘V,’ a blessing identical to the hand sign used by Leonard Nimoy’s Dr. Spock character of “Star Trek.”Usually, Kohens are people with names such as Cohen, Cohn, Kagen, Kahn, even in some cases Kaplan. But at the Kneseth Israel outing, there are some surprises. A tombstone for an Echt and a Barton, for instance, display the engraving.
There is so much else to know. A six-pointed star, seen on many of these graves, usually refers to an Israelite man, although it also can refer to a woman. The Hebrew words “Abraham, our father” refer to a male convert, and a candelabra signifies a woman’s resting place.
An earlier game of Jewish geography between Hammond’s Congregation Beth Israel participants and the Illiana members (the topic on this day: the area of 67th Street and Kedzie known as Long Manor) has been shelved in lieu of research.
The nine people walk, with their clipboards and pens, in their shorts or summer slacks, jotting down the information — census takers of a most unusual variety, clucking their tongues at stones marking the death of children, saying hello to those they might already have said goodbye to. Stones sit atop many markers, the sign that someone has recently visited.
Only Sharon Bartel and Bill and Sylvia Strick, the participants of Beth Israel, the congregation to which this cemetery belongs, know anyone here, but between the three of them, they know just about everybody.Most of the Illiana club’s members’ relatives who lived in the Chicago area are buried in various cemeteries throughout Chicagoland; some, in Jewish cemeteries north of this region; others, in Jewish sections of non-denominational cemeteries.
And then there are the stories of members such as Roslyn Greenberg of Homewood, a founder of the south suburban Illiana chapter, whose quest to find family graves ignited her interest in the past. “I had taken a trip to Israel with my dad,” she recalls.
“He said he wanted to see his grandparent’s graves. I had no idea they were buried in Israel, I thought they were buried in Russia. They had gone to Palestine just before World War I, and they starved to death because they thought they would be getting their money sent from Russia and the war broke out. We found out there were no tombstones on their graves. It was really interesting to find their graves, and we did have tombstones placed there. I said, ‘Here I have all this interesting family history, that I know nothing about. There must be other stories.'”