All is quiet during a midday walk through Baron Hirsch Cemetery, where dense woods cover much of the grounds, leaves whisper in the breeze, metal gates creak on rusted hinges, and critters rustle through underbrush that surrounds tombstones. Throughout this 80-acre Jewish graveyard in the Graniteville section of Staten Island there are large plots, fenced off and gated like small neighborhoods, that were bought up by various burial associations during the cemetery’s early years. Leaning and toppled headstones are evidence of the waves of vandalism that have plagued the cemetery since the 1960s, as well as signs of widespread indifference—as members died out so did the burial societies that supported upkeep of their plots and younger generations feel no responsibility for maintaining their ancestor’s graves.
Altogether, about 65,000 people are buried at Baron Hirsch Cemetery, which was founded in 1899 by an association of Jewish men of New York and named for Jewish businessman and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. Some notable figures can be found at Baron Hirsch—theater producer Joseph Papp, publisher Samuel Newhouse, Sr., and Medal of Honor recipient William Shemin among them—but most of those buried here are the lesser-known or forgotten from surrounding areas of New York and New Jersey, individuals with hopes and dreams, with families, each with their own unique story.
The story of one young woman buried at Baron Hirsch Cemetery is profoundly timeless and hauntingly relevant to today’s social issues. In the summer of 1931, 22-year-old Henrietta Schmerler, a student of renowned anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s at Columbia University, set out to do fieldwork among the White Mountain Apache in Arizona. On her way to conduct research at a tribal dance on July 18, 1931, she was raped and murdered by a member of the community she was studying. Her body was returned to her family in New York and interred at Baron Hirsch. In the aftermath of the crime, Apache tribal members, FBI investigators, and Schmerler’s mentors and colleagues condemned Schmerler for her own sexual assault and murder. Characterized as willful and careless, a message emerged that she shared responsibility for what had happened to her. Recent research has attempted to correct the distorted narrative of events surrounding Schmerler’s death and to reexamine her story in the context of the #MeToo movement and other experiences of sexual violence within the field of anthropology.
Sources: “Incorporated at Albany,” Sunday News (Wilkes-Barre PA), Jul 9, 1899; “Bigotry Peril to the World, Ike Tells AJC” Daily News,Jan 13, 1960; “Vandals Topple Tombstones at S.I. Jewish Cemeteries, Daily News, Apr 2, 1979; “Island Cemeteries Reflect Our ‘Tender Mercies,’”Staten Island Advance, April 29, 1990; “In a Place Plagued by Vandals, The Pain of Putting Things Right,” New York Times, May 16, 2004; “Apathy, Neglect and Vines Overtake Staten Island Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, Aug 18, 2012; “Hundreds Pay Their Respects on 103rd Anniversary of Rabbi’s Death at Graniteville Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, May 17, 2019; “Students Attend Schmerler Rites,” New York Times, Aug 1, 1931; Henrietta Schmerler and the Murder that Put Anthropology on Trial (Schmerler 2017); “How Henrietta Schmerler Was Lost, Then Found,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct 14, 2018; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 32-37; Baron Hirsch Cemetery; NYCityMap