Category Archives: Staten Island

United Hebrew Cemetery

Numerous stones left atop these monuments at United Hebrew Cemetery attest to frequent visits (Mary French)

In contrast to many of New York City’s Jewish burial grounds, which often have a deserted air about them, United Hebrew Cemetery on Staten Island hums with activity. On an average day, cars line the cemetery’s roadways, paths are filled with family and friends visiting their departed loved ones, and a yarmulke-wearing manager zips around the grounds on a golf cart. The cemetery’s history begins when the United Hebrew Cemetery Association of New York City incorporated in 1906. The association later acquired 67 acres on Arthur Kill Road in the Richmond section of Staten Island and opened to burials in 1908. United Hebrew now is the resting place of 40,000 Jews from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In its early years, United Hebrew sold plots to about 200 burial societies and benevolent associations. Today its grounds are sold directly to families or individuals, and recent emigration from the former Soviet Union has resulted in an increase in burials over the past few decades.

The Drobniner Holocaust memorial at United Hebrew Cemetery (Steven Lasky/Museum of Family History)

Among those interred at United Hebrew Cemetery are countless people touched by the Holocaust and monuments found throughout the cemetery memorialize those who suffered or died under Nazism.  The Holocaust memorials are dedicated to specific towns that lost their Jewish population to the Nazi regime and their collaborators, or to the many Jews themselves who once inhabited these towns. A monument in the Eishishok Society plot at United Hebrew commemorates more than 4,000 Jews of the Lithuanian shtetl of Eishyshok who were massacred by German troops in 1941. Another large monument, erected by the Drobniner Benevolent Society, commemorates 3,000 Jews from the town of Drobnin, Poland, who were gassed and cremated at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Buried at the foot of the Drobniner monument are ashes brought from Auschwitz in 1961 by one of the camp’s survivors, Rabbi David Foffer.

Burial site of ashes from Auschwitz interred at the foot of the Drobniner monument (Steven Lasky/Museum of Family History)
Listing for United Hebrew Cemetery in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries
Location of United Hebrew Cemetery on Arthur Kill Road in Staten Island (OpenStreetMap)

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Sources: “Incorporations Filed,” Buffalo Courier, Nov 2, 1906; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164-165; Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; “Rites for Nazi Victims,” New York Times, Nov 27, 1961; “Jewish Cemeteries Recall Era of Immigration, Times of Suffering, Moments of Forgiveness,” Staten Island Advance, Jul 26, 2005; Carved in Granite: Holocaust Memorials in Greater New York Jewish Cemeteries (Poplack 2003); “Holocaust Memorials of New York and New Jersey,” Museum of Family History; OpenStreetMap

Baron Hirsch Cemetery

A stone gate at Baron Hirsch Cemetery marks the entrance to a plot owned by a branch of the Independent Order of Brith Abraham, a Jewish men’s fraternal order (Mary French)

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.

Martin Einziger of Staten Island examines the swastika vandals painted on his family’s tombstone at Baron Hirsch Cemetery in January 1960 (Associated Press)

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.

Henrietta Schmerler’s tombstone (Baron Hirsch Cemetery)

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.

A 2012 aerial view of Baron Hirsch Cemetery
Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn pray at the grave of Herman Steiner—brother of Grand Rebbe Yehuda Tzvi Steiner, who founded the Kerestir Hasidic dynasty—at Baron Hirsch Cemetery, May 2019 (SI Advance)

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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; The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 32-37; Baron Hirsch Cemetery; NYCityMap

St. Mary’s Cemetery, Grasmere

St. Mary’s Cemetery, Grasmere, May 2017 (Mary French)

When Burton Kaplan and NYPD detective Stephen Caracappa met, they followed a protocol designed to prevent detection. If Kaplan, the envoy of Lucchese crime family underboss Anthony Casso, wanted to meet Caracappa, he pulled up outside Caracappa’s mother’s house on Kramer Street in the Grasmere section of Staten Island and beeped his horn. Kaplan would then proceed down Kramer Street to a  cemetery there that was nearly always empty. Surrounded by a chain-link fence, the headstones in the graveyard were modest, the surnames mostly Italian. Kaplan would get out of his car and wait for Caracappa. The two men would walk and talk along the pathways between the graves. The cemetery rolled into a small rise overlooking the neighborhood and affording a view of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. It is the place where Caracappa received hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for orchestrating—along with his partner, detective Louis Eppolito—eight gangland murders between 1986 and 1990. The infamous “Mafia Cops” were convicted in 2006 and died in federal prison.

A 1907 map shows the two sections of St. Mary’s Cemetery on Parkinson Ave.

The graveyard where Kaplan and Caracappa met for their late-night criminal rendezvous was St. Mary’s Cemetery, one of the oldest Catholic cemeteries on Staten Island. The Roman Catholic parish of St. Mary’s was established in 1852 in Rosebank by Father John Lewis. In 1862 Father Lewis purchased seven acres of land located on the former Leonard Parkinson estate, about two miles southwest from St. Mary’s Church at Rosebank, and laid it out as a cemetery. This hilltop parcel is bounded by today’s Parkinson Avenue and Kramer Street. In 1905 St. Mary’s Cemetery expanded with the purchase of a separate three-and-a-half-acre parcel nearby on Parkinson Avenue and Old Town Road (now Reid Avenue). St. Mary’s parish closed in 2015 and merged with St. Joseph’s of Rosebank; St. Mary’s Cemetery is now managed by the parish of St. Joseph and Mary Immaculate.

During their grim exchanges at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Kaplan and Caracappa passed by the graves of some 20,000 Catholic locals laid to rest here. Among them are Pvt. Thomas B. Wall, who died of battle wounds received in the Philippines and was buried at St. Mary’s with military honors in 1900; Rev. James F. Mee, pastor of St. Mary’s parish from 1889 to 1908, whose monument marks the apex of a central knoll in the old cemetery; and Vietnam war hero Nick Lia, killed in action in 1968. Marine Lt. Lia has a Staten Island park named in his honor and and a memorial scultpure of him stands at Wagner College, where he was a football star.

St. Mary’s Cemetery, Old Section, May 2017 (Mary French)
St Mary’s Cemetery, New Section, May 2017 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of St. Mary’s Cemetery

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Sources: Robinson’s 1907 Atlas of the Borough of Richmond, Pl 14; Annals of Staten Island (Clute 1877), 299-300; “Soldier Buried With Honor,” The Sun, Apr 9, 1900; [Notice], Richmond County Advance, June 17, 1905; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 150; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 154-156; Italian Staten Island (Mele 2010), 86-87; The Brotherhoods:The True Story of Two Cops Who Murdered for the Mafia (Lawson & Oldham 2006); United States v. Eppolito, 436 F. Supp. 2D 532 (E.D.N.Y 2006)

St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery

A view of St. Mary’s of the Assumption Cemetery in 1928 (NYPL)

In 1853, St. Peter’s—the mother church of Staten Island’s Catholics—established a mission to serve the area of the island known then as Northfield. With contributions from Irish and German laborers who worked in the area’s quarries, a piece of land was acquired at what is today Walker Street in Elm Park. Here a two-story frame building, 60×30 feet, was erected as a church and school house for the 40 Catholics who lived in the vicinity at that time, and land next to the church was laid out for a cemetery.

An 1859 map of the historic township of Northfield depicts St. Mary’s Church situated between Port Richmond and Granite Village, at today’s Walker St in Elm Park

The congregation grew to 500 members by 1877 and church authorities designated it as a separate parish—St. Mary’s, Granite Village. By this time the old frame building was no longer adequate, and in 1884 the congregation moved to a new church building at 2230 Richmond Terrace, a mile north of their original church and its adjoining cemetery. Incorporated at their new location as St Mary’s of the Assumption, the parish continued to operate their Walker Street cemetery until 2015, when the church closed and the congregation combined with Our Lady of Mount Carmel in West Brighton. St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery is still an active burial ground, now managed by Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Detail from an 1874 atlas of Port Richmond showing St. Mary’s church and cemetery situated on the south side of Prospect St (today’s Walker St).

Less than an acre in size, St. Mary of Assumption Cemetery is located on the south side of Walker Street, just east of the MLK Expressway in Elm Park. Though the site may have been used for burials beginning in the 1850s when the mission was established at the site, there is little evidence of its early history—the cemetery’s 19th century burial records have been lost, and the tombstones standing today date from the late 1800s to the present. Names on the tombstones reflect the changing demographics of the area—earlier burials are largely Irish, while more recent markers represent the Italian and Polish families who settled on the North Shore in the 20th century.

Obituary for an 1891 interment in St. Mary the Assumption Cemetery

Among the lifelong locals buried at St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery is former city magistrate John Croak. Of Irish ancestry, Croak was born in Elm Park in 1846, received his early education in Staten Island’s public schools and his legal training at Albany Law School, where he was a classmate of U.S. President William McKinley. When Staten Island became part of Greater New York in 1898, Mayor Van Wyck appointed Croak the first city magistrate on Staten Island, an office he held until his retirement in 1920. An active member of St. Mary’s the Assumption parish throughout his life, Croak died at his home on Richmond Terrace in 1930.

A view of tombstones in St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of St. Mary the Assumption Cemetery (NYCityMap)

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Sources: Walling’s 1859 Map of Staten Island; Beers 1874 Atlas of Staten Island, Sec 3; 1878 Sadliers’ Catholic Directory, 115; Annals of Staten Island (Clute 1877), 300; History of Richmond County (Bayles 1887), 433-434; Staten Island and Its People (Leng & Davis 1930-1933), 1:485, 5:287;  Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 152; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 157; Richmond County Cemeteries (NYGenWeb); “Obituary,” Richmond County Advance, Aug 1, 1891, 5; “John Croak Dies at 82,” New York Times, Sep 3, 1930

Merchant Marine Cemetery

A 2012 aerial view showing the Merchant Marine Cemetery located in the wooded section at the northwest corner of Ocean View Cemetery. United Hebrew Cemetery is adjacent to the north and east of the woods (nyc.gov)

At a back corner of Ocean View Cemetery in the Oakwood section of Staten Island is a narrow gravel road leading into the woods. Wandering down the path, one passes thick brush and brambles, a small pond, rusted scraps of abandoned cars and other junk, until finally encountering a clearing. Here, lined up row by row seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a cluster of aging headstones marking the graves of merchant mariners who died between 1901 and 1937 in a federal hospital on the borough’s north shore. The Marine Hospital, established on Bay Street in the Clifton section in the 1880s, was part of a network of hospitals around the country that were dedicated to the care of sick and disabled seamen. In the early 1900s, the Marine Hospital on Staten Island evolved into the U.S. Public Service Hospital, which in turn became the site of Bayley Seton Hospital.

A view of the Merchant Marine Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

After the graveyard on the hospital grounds became full, in 1901 the Marine Hospital purchased a section of Ocean View Cemetery as a new burial ground for the seamen who died in the facility. The men buried here—approximately 1,000, from all around the world—include Adolf Jorgenson of Norway, who died in 1909, aged 33; Joseph Giffney, a 51-year-old native of Massachusetts, who died in 1918; 72-year-old Benton Moore, a seaman from New Jersey who died in 1906; and Nemed Achi, a 21-year-old mess-room steward from India who was interred among the mariners in 1919.

Grave markers in the Merchant Marine Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

Although the federal government paid for the graves, interment, and burial markers for the men who died in the Marine Hospital, no money was set aside for perpetual care of the burial ground and responsibility for maintaining the site was never assigned to any federal agency. When agencies restructured over the years, the Merchant Marine Cemetery fell through the cracks as ownership and responsibility became undefined, leading the site to suffer a long history of neglect. As early as 1947, just 10 years after burials at the graveyard ended, Representative Ellsworth Buck decried the “appalling conditions” at the abandoned site. Dubbed the “Forgotten Acre,” graves were sunken, headstones crumbling, and metal name markers rusted and broken. Despite efforts of elected officials and several community-sponsored cleanups over the decades, with no one taking on continual care of the burial ground, it would again be forgotten and left to the elements.

In recent years, Ocean View Cemetery’s board of directors committed to restoring the Merchant Marine Cemetery, regardless of who is legally responsible for it. Beginning in 2009, they installed the gravel access road, cleared the site of brush and tree branches, and reset or straightened many of the monuments. On Veteran’s Day 2011, American flags were placed on each grave at the reclaimed site—the first time these merchant marine veterans received such recognition.

A listing for the Merchant Marine Cemetery in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries
Manifest of the British vessel Lutetian that arrived in New York Oct 23, 1918, with Nemed Achi as one of the crew (arrow). Five months later Achi was buried in the Merchant Marine Cemetery on Staten Island.
Gravestone and death record for Nemed Achi, who was buried in the Merchant Marine Cemetery in March 1919

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Sources: Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 166; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 78-81; “Island’s Own Arlington Planned for Soldier Dead at Ocean View,” Staten Island Advance, May 7, 1951; “Treatment of the Men of ‘Forgotten Acre’ a Borough Blemish, Staten Island Advance, March 1, 2004; “Senator Seeks Federal Help to Repair Forgotten Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, March 2 2004; “A Cemetery and Its War Dead Wait for a Savior,” New York Times, April 4, 2004; “Forgotten Acre Stuns Surgeon General,” Staten Island Advance, Apr 29, 2004; “At Staten Island Cemetery, a Tribute to Merchant Marine Vets of ‘Forgotten Acre,’ Staten Island Advance, Nov 10, 2011; The Forgotten Acre (Facebook site); U.S. Public Health Service—History; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” Nemed Achi, 11 Mar 1919, FamilySearch; “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” Ancestry.com