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Jewish cemetery lives on in GM factory

2015-05-13 13:55

19TH-CENTURY CEMETERY: The Beth Olem Cemetery is in the grounds of General Motor's Detroit Hamtramck factory. It has about 1100 graves. Image: AP / Carlos Osorio

HAMTRAMCK, Michigan - The Beth Olem Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan, is like many final resting places, filled with assorted tombstones in varying condition, sizes and styles, encircled by a brick wall and with a rusting iron gate.

Surrounding it is an unusual neighbour - a huge automotive factory.

The green and serene oasis is in the heart of the steel and concrete of General Motors' Hamtramck factory which, among others, assembles Chevrolet Volts and Cadillacs.

PRESERVING HISTORY

Public access is limited to a couple of days a year — typically Sundays nearest to the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Passover — and some special requests.

In 2015 the opening for Passover was postponed for a month until this past Sunday (May 10 2015) when a couple of dozen people showed up.

The one-hectare, 1100-grave Jewish cemetery with interments ranging from the late 1860's to the late 1940's, has survived through historical quirks. The biggest was an agreement ironed out 35 years ago to preserve the cemetery when the Michigan Supreme Court approval GM's contentious bid to raze 1500 homes and businesses, several churches and a hospital so it could build a car factory.

Visitors who clear GM security must drive about 1.6km around the factory and are welcomed by an iron arch with partly rusted letters that reads: Betholem Cemetery

CONNECTING FAMILY

Given the passage of time and infrequent access, cemetery officials say visitors with no connection to the deceased outnumber descendants. Still, guests on May 10 included Susan Brodsky, who saw for the first time the grave of her great-grandfather, Chlavno Cantor, who died in 1909.

The connection was made through her daughter Olivia, who was working on a college genealogy project, then confirmed by an elderly male cousin.

Brodsky said, standing next to a headstone that read "Cantor" in English and the rest in Yiddish: "He said it was in the Cadillac factory. At first, I'm sitting there going like, 'Where? Where? What is he talking about?' Then I Googled 'old Jewish cemeteries in Detroit' and it was pretty obvious. This was it."

The cemetery's existence isn't widely known but those searching online can find some information. Local historic and Jewish organisations as well as a weekly Jewish publication occasionally write about it.

155-YEAR OLD CEMETERY

In the early 1860s, members of what's now called the Congregation Shaarey Zedek secured the burial ground, according to a 1992 article published by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan.

Beth Olem's bucolic setting soon gained industrial neighbors as the auto industry ascended at the turn of the 20th century. The Jewish community moved in subsequent decades and the cemetery had fewer burials as other cemeteries opened.

Ralph Zuckman is the executive director of Shaarey Zedek's Clover Hill Park Cemetery, a suburban Detroit cemetery overseeing Beth Olem, which is also spelled Beth Olam and means "house of the universe." He said the synagogue shared oversight with other congregations in the 1980's but assumed full responsibility when it came time to negotiate with GM.

Zuckman said: "We realised we had an interest in that cemetery and wanted to make sure it remained. In Hebrew, going onto a cemetery property is like walking into a synagogue. You're walking on holy ground."

While the arrangement is unconventional, Zuckman described the relationship between the automaker and cemetery officials as "very good." Some landscaping work and headstone repairs are needed, but the grounds and graves are in generally good shape given their age. Clover Hill Park is responsible and pays for upkeep, though GM has access in case of emergency.

LIMITED ACCESS

In addition to maintaining security of the factory, GM and cemetery officials say they agreed to limit access because of low demand. Two generations have passed since the last burials and the current schedule has accommodated those who want to visit.

The grave of Vichna Benstein (1867-1898), was spotted by great-granddaughter Barbara Morse, who came with her son-in-law and two grandchildren. Soon they were reciting prayers and laying flowers and stones, as is the Jewish custom.

Morse said she'd been visiting occasionally for 20 years to pay her respects. She said: "You can only come when GM says you can come but I guess we should be thankful that we can come twice a year."


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