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Reprinted with permission from the July 13, 2012 edition of:
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A cemetery that will break your heart

Effort to restore children's graves

By Elise Kigner
Advocate Staff

 

When Stanley Kaplan searched through the death certificates of those buried in Malden's Maplewood cemetery, the numbers startled him: Almost all of the people in the Jewish burial ground were children.

 

About half of the 1,400 people buried in the mostly unmarked graves were under the age of 1, according to available records. Most of the rest were under the age of 21. One gravestone, for example, marks the death of "Our Baby Fannie Shore," 1904-1906. Another marks the Nov. 6, 1902 deaths of Freda and Leah Maydeck. Freda was age 7. Leah was 29.

 

"It broke my heart," said Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM).


Children's cemetery finds caretaker
Bits of gravestones can be found throughout the cemetery. Like assembling puzzles, workers are attempting to piece them back together.


Kaplan is now spearheading a JCAM project to restore the cemetery. Founded in 1851, it is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the state (Temple Ohabei Shalom Cemetery, in East Boston, is the first, founded in 1844). In many cases it provided free plots to families, often immigrants from Eastern Europe who could not afford synagogue affiliation, Kaplan said.

 

JCAM plans to install a new fence, entrance gate and pathways in the one-acre cemetery on Lebanon Street. It is also planting a garden and constructing a brass sculpture of three children sitting on a bench and sharing a book.

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Among the changes: a brass sculpture of children reading.

 

Through its "Remembering the Forgotten Children" campaign, the organization is working on raising $100,000 to complete the project, Kaplan said.

 

Already, workers are restoring the 100 gravestones in the cemetery. Many of the marble ones are cracked and crumbling. Bits of gravestones can be found throughout the cemetery. Like assembling puzzles, workers are attempting to piece them back together.

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Founded in 1851, the Jewish section of Malden's Maplewood cemetery needs restoration. Above: 19-year-old Sam Swartz's grave. 

 

While many cemeteries from that era, such as those on Baker Street in West Roxbury, had small children's sections, Kaplan said he knew of no other cemetery in the state that was predominantly for children. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was much more common for parents to have to bury their children. In 1900, the infant mortality rate in the US was 10 percent. Today it is 0.6 percent.

 

Jonathan Sarna, an American Jewish history professor at Brandeis, said in an era before inoculation, diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, mumps, flu, whooping cough, diphtheria, pneumonia, polio, rubella, tetanus and scarlet fever could prove fatal. Parents tended to have large families, in part because they expected not all of their children would live to adulthood.

Poverty, hunger, and poor nutrition made immigrant families even more susceptible to disease, Sarna said. Besides Malden, many of the families lived in Chelsea, Everett, Medford, Revere and the Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester and Mattapan.

 

Joshua Segal, rabbi of Congregation Betenu in Amherst, N .H, and author of multiple books on Jewish cemeteries, said the fact that most of the graves are unmarked at the Malden cemetery is consistent with the practices of the time. The Talmud says there is no mourning period for a child who does not live for 30 days, and the rabbis around 1900 discouraged people from putting up gravestones for young children.

 

"The leadership of the time didn't want people investing emotional and financial energy into a nonviable entity. It was much better focusing their resources and love on those who made it," Segal said.

 

Kaplan said in restoring the cemetery he hoped to bring attention to the history of the charitable efforts of the local Jewish community.

 

The cemetery's original owner was the Shaar Hachayim Association, a burial society for poor and unaffiliated Jews. Among the founders of the association was Herman Elson, whose niece, Caroline, was buried in the South Burying Ground in Dorchester in 1847 when a synagogue refused to bury her in its cemetery. Caroline's family did not belong to the congregation.

The association bought the Lebanon Street land in 1851. The next year the cemetery had its first burial: Sarah Seaman, age two months old.

 

Thirty years later the cemetery was sold to Oheby Zedek Society and Congregation Bet Jacob. The deed stipulated that the United Hebrew Benevolent Association would use the cemetery to bury poor Jews.

 

The Hebrew Charitable Burial Association took over the cemetery in 1905, continuing to provide free plots to families who needed them. A major charitable organization, it was one of the founding agencies of the Federation of Jewish Charities of Boston, which later became Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

 

As part of the restoration, the cemetery's fence will display a new name for the cemetery: the Hebrew Charitable Burial Ground.

 

The Malden Jewish War Vets took over the cemetery in 1949, but found it difficult to maintain without funding. In 1990 the vets asked JCAM to take over the cemetery.

 

Kaplan said he has not been able to find any family members of people buried in the cemetery. Few people visit. Kaplan said he was taken aback the other day when he found some flowers by one of the gravestones.

 

He hopes the restoration project will draw visitors to the cemetery. "It's a complete disconnect with the Jewish community, which is what I'm trying to reverse," he said.

 

 

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