In 1947, Evergreens Cemetery sold a 20-acre notch of the northern part of their grounds to Knollwood Park Cemetery corporation, which opened the first new Jewish cemetery in New York City since 1915. Whereas their earlier counterparts sold much of their land to Jewish burial societies and other communal organizations, Knollwood Park publicized their modern cemetery as “New York City’s only Jewish burial estate dedicated exclusively to private family plots.”Their early advertisements emphasize that they sold “no land to societies, lodges, and organizations”—thus avoiding the over-crowding of graves and monuments seen in many communal plots, as well as the neglect common in older Jewish cemeteries as many plot-owning organizations went defunct in the 20th century.
Situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border, Knollwood Park Cemetery now has over 17,000 interments and is the last Jewish cemetery developed in the city’s five boroughs. Most of the cemetery is divided into plots with a family stone marking the plot and flat markers for individuals. In 2008, Knollwood Park was acquired by Mount Carmel Cemetery, the large Jewish cemetery located in nearby Glendale, Queens, and today is operated as a division of Mount Carmel.
Sources:“Knollwood Park Cemetery” [Advertisement], New York Post, Mar 15, 1950; “To Jewish Families” [Advertisement], New York Daily News, May 3, 1950; “News for Jewish Families” [Advertisement], New York Post, Jun 12, 1956; Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008 (Rousmanier 2008); “Knollwood Park Cemetery Burial Data Now Online,” Museum of Family History, Apr 27, 2010; OpenStreetMap
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.
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.
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
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
Beginning in the 1860s, cemetery corporations began to acquire tracts of land near Jamaica Bay to create what would become three Jewish cemeteries situated in today’s Ozone Park, Queens. Jointly, these cemeteries—Bayside Cemetery, Mokom Sholom Cemetery, and Acacia Cemetery—now cover close to 40 acres where an estimated 50,000 individuals have been interred. The adjoined burial grounds are located on flat terrain extending from 80th Street to 84th Street and from Liberty Avenue to Pitkin Avenue.
The cemeteries are separate, but their conterminous nature has frequently led to mix-ups in burial records, obituaries, and other accounts regarding which cemetery an individual was actually interred in. Newspaper reports and property records often confuse the cemeteries and their ownership as well. The three cemeteries also share a troubled record of poor stewardship, financial woes, chronic neglect and vandalism, and some of the most appalling acts of desecration ever to occur in New York City cemeteries.
BaysideCemetery (founded 1861), Mokom Sholom Cemetery (founded 1864), and Acacia Cemetery (founded 1896) each were established by independent corporations authorized by the state’s Rural Cemetery Act of 1847. The corporations acquired the cemetery land, which they then sold as sections or plots to hundreds of different Jewish burial societies, fraternal organizations, congregations, and other communal groups. Although family and individual plots also were sold, the majority of the cemeteries’ land was acquired by communal organizations who were responsible for the care and upkeep of their burial grounds.
Nearly all the organizations that purchased burial grounds at the three cemeteries were defunct by the mid-20th century, and few made financial arrangements to fund ongoing maintenance of their plots. Compounding this situation, the managing corporations who originally established the cemeteries also had become defunct over time, and responsibility transferred to Jewish congregations that had existing relationships with the original corporations. These congregations, which numbered around a thousand worshippers during their heyday, dwindled to just a handful of active members and lacked the resources to maintain the cemeteries.
With insufficient resources for upkeep and monitoring of the burial grounds, the cemeteries deteriorated and became consistent targets for a wide range of intruders, including thrill-seeking teenagers, vandals, and thieves. Incidents were particularly rampant at Bayside and Mokom Sholom during the last decades of the 20th century (though Acacia also experienced occasional vandalism, incidences were not as frequent or severe).
In 1973, the National Guard were called in to help with clean-up and repairs at Bayside Cemetery, after a four‐year siege of vandalism in which hundreds of tombstones were overturned or broken, mausoleums smashed, iron gates ripped open, and the cemetery office building looted and ransacked. Between 1976 and 1978, over 500 tombstones were overturned at Mokom Sholom Cemetery. In addition to the pervasive vandalism that continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the cemeteries were frequently preyed upon by professional thieves who stripped dozens of mausoleums of their bronze doors, stained-glass windows, and marble interiors.
Acts of desecration at these cemeteries have gone far beyond vandalism and theft. In April 1981, a group of teenagers broke into a mausoleum at Mokom Sholom, pulled a coffin from its niche, smashed it open and drove a metal spike through the heart of the corpse. The perpetrators, who placed a dead cat above the body and a red candle nearby, were later caught while showing off Polaroid snapshots to a friend. In the twilight hours of Mother’s Day 1983, two young men viciously and methodically desecrated the grounds at Bayside Cemetery, smashing stained-glass windows and covering walls and tombstones with graffiti. In one mausoleum, they broke through a three-inch-thick marble floor and into the crypt of a girl buried there, at the age of three, in 1903. Dragging the tiny coffin out onto the roadway, they scattered the child’s remains, then took a rock and shattered the corpse’s skull. Another incident at Bayside was called “a pretty sick and perverted act” by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in June 1997 when “sickos” broke into a mausoleum and set fire to one of bodies, incinerating it so thoroughly that nothing remained but ashes.
These shocking episodes of vandalism and desecration have decreased in recent years, as steps were taken to secure the cemeteries and provide them with the attention they needed. Mokom Sholom and Acacia, which had been owned by Manhattan’s Congregation Darech Amuno and Pike Street Synagogue, respectively, were taken over by the state in the 1970s and placed in receivership; today both are administered by David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s smaller Jewish burial grounds. Bayside Cemetery, which is owned by Congregation Shaare Zedek of Manhattan, has continued in a serious state of disrepair. Other than the efforts of dedicated volunteers who labored for years to restore dignity at Bayside, the cemetery had essentially been abandoned until recently. In 2017, Shaare Zedek reached an agreement with the state Attorney General’s office to dedicate $8 million dollars from the sale of their Upper West Side synagogue for long-term care of Bayside Cemetery; rehabilitation efforts began in 2018.
It’s unfortunate that the history of these cemeteries—and the stories of those interred within their grounds—has been overshadowed by a depressing saga of neglect and desecration. Family visitors are few, and there are no graves of famous individuals to attract much public interest in these burial grounds (though a US Congressman and a Titanic victim are interred at Bayside). Still, it’s worth remembering that Mokom Sholom means “place of peace” and Bayside was so named because various small streams leading in from nearby Jamaica Bay came up to its boundaries before modern development encroached. When wandering in the secluded urban wilderness of these cemeteries today, it’s easy to imagine this was once a lovely spot, where thousands of Jewish New Yorkers were laid to rest as the sea breezes swept in from Jamaica Bay.
Sources: Dripps 1872 Map of Kings County, with parts of Westchester, Queens, New York & Richmond;The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 9, 11-12; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 12, 17; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer Apr 2, 1861; “To the Jewish Public,” Jewish Messenger, Sep 18, 1861; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer, Feb 9, 1864; “Notice,” Jewish Messenger, May 6, 1864; “Proposed New Cemetery,” The Journal, Mar 21, 1896; “Cemetery Plots for Sale,” American Hebrew, Mar 10, 1899; “Restoring Dignity to Cemetery, Daily News, May 21, 1973; “Vandalism Is on the Increase in City’s Cemeteries,” NY Times, Dec 18, 1973; “NY State Takes Over Ozone Park Cemetery,” The Wave, Aug 20 1977; “Vandals Attack Cemetery,” Daily News, Dec 4 1978; “Corpse in Mausoleum Desecrated by Vandals,” NY Times, Apr 3, 1981; “In New York, Not Even the Dead are Safe,” Daily News Sunday Magazine, Aug 21, 1983; “Vandals Rock Jewish Cemeteries,” Daily News, Sep 9, 1991; “Cemetary[sic] Vandalized,” The Journal News, Apr 6, 1994; “3 Cemeteries are Haunted by Vandals,” NY Times, Nov 24, 1996; “An Affront To the Dead, And the Living, NYTimes, Jun 13, 1997; “Resting—But Not in Peace,” Daily News, Oct 12, 1997; “Can a Catholic Guy Save this ‘Hellhole’ Jewish Cemetery?” Forward, Jun 10, 2018; Kroth v. Chebra Ukadisha, 105 Misc. 2d 904 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1980); International Jewish Cemetery Project—Queens—Ozone Park; Congregation Shaare Zedek—Cemetery FAQs
When Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States at the turn of the last century, they sought community resources that would provide social and financial support and help them maintain their cultural and religious traditions. Most joined mutual aid societies that, among other services, provided cemetery plots and traditional religious burials for its members. However, there were many Jewish immigrants who were unable to sustain society membership or through various other circumstances found themselves without connections that would ensure a traditional Jewish burial upon death.
Indigent Jews in New York City who were unaffiliated with a burial society or synagogue at the time of death risked burial in a communal grave on Hart Island, the city’s public burial ground, which contravened all aspects of Jewish religious law. Burial in accordance with traditional burial practices is central to Jewish faith and the threat of mass interment in a common grave among strangers posed an existential crisis in the Lower East Side Jewish community during the late 19th and early 20th century. In response, a group of Jewish businessmen founded Chebra Agudas Achim Chesed Shel Emeth (The Society of the Brotherhood of True Charity) in 1888, specifically to bury the unaffiliated Jewish indigent of the Lower East Side with religious observance. Later known as the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA), this organization grew to serve the broader metropolitan area of New York City and is currently the largest free burial society outside of Israel.
Silver Lake Cemetery
Early in its history, HFBA arranged for burials wherever plots were available, usually at Bayside Cemetery in Queens. To meet rapidly increasing need, in 1892 the society purchased its first burial ground, Silver Lake Cemetery on Staten Island. This six-acre cemetery is situated between two older cemeteries—Silver Mount Cemetery and Woodland Cemetery—on the east side of Victory Boulevard in the Grymes Hill area of Staten Island. Approximately 13,600 impoverished, marginalized men, women, children and infants were given traditional religious burial here until the cemetery’s capacity was met in 1909.
Though most of the cemetery was used for burying indigent Jews, several small sections were purchased by other Jewish burial societies and synagogues for the interment of their members. Among them is Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Staten Island, the first Jewish congregation of Staten Island. While the HFBA stopped burying individuals at Silver Lake in 1909, these other groups continued to sporadically use their portions of the cemetery until about 1950. Today Silver Lake is inactive and is available to visitors only by appointment; however, the HFBA is in the process of restoring the cemetery to open it as a historic site and in 2017 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mount Richmond Cemetery
After Silver Lake Cemetery was filled in 1909, HFBA began burials in its second cemetery about five miles south of Silver Lake in the Richmond area of Staten Island. Known as Mount Richmond Cemetery, this 23-acre burial ground is situated on the south side of Clarke Avenue east of Arthur Kill Road adjacent to United Hebrew Cemetery. At Mount Richmond, the HFBA has provided dignified burials to 55,000 of the Jewish poor and continues to bury about 400 each year. The neat rows of graves tell the story of the history of Jews in this country over the last century—the earliest graves those of Lower East Side immigrants, 22 victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, veterans of the wars, and, in recent years, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom were unable to observe their religion in their homeland but expressed the desire for a traditional Jewish burial.
Many of those laid to rest at Mount Richmond have no headstones, but the HFBA is working to place some type of marker at each grave. Granite markers engraved with personal identification and the Hebrew abbreviation for “here lies the soul” have been placed at thousands of these unmarked graves, creating vast fields of uniform headstones throughout the cemetery. Honoring the less fortunate of the Jewish community with a proper burial and maintaining their resting places with dignity is considered an important obligation and truest act of charity because it cannot be repaid.
Sources: Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 99, 125; Hebrew Free Burial Association—History; Hebrew Free Burial Association—Silver Lake Preservation;National Register of Historic Places Registration Form—Silver Lake Cemetery (Draft), Sept 2016; “Staten Island’s Silver Lake Cemetery Tells the Tale of NYC Jewish Immigrants,” SI Live, Jan 4 2013; “At Mount Richmond Cemetery, Hebrew Free Burial Association Maintains Dignity in Death,” SI Live, Nov 23, 2014; “On Staten Island, a Jewish Cemetery Where All Are Equals in Death, New York Times, Mar 31, 2009; “Who’ll Weep for Me?” Jewish Week, Feb 8, 2002; NYCityMap