Tag Archives: gravestone

Database of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland

An interesting project people with Jewish relatives that lived in Poland should be aware of is the Database of Jewish Cemeteries in Poland. Started as a database of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, it has expanded to include cemeteries in the following cities and towns:

  • Brok
  • Błonie
  • Garwolin
  • Góra Kalwaria
  • Grodzisk Mazowiecki
  • Gąbin
  • Karczew
  • Korczyna
  • Mińsk Mazowiecki
  • Mszczonów
  • Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki
  • Okuniew
  • Otwock
  • Palmiry
  • Piaseczno
  • Prudnik
  • Pruszków
  • Przytyk
  • Płock
  • Radom
  • Siedlce
  • Sierpc
  • Sochaczew
  • Sopot
  • Strzegowo
  • Szydłowiec
  • Warszawa
  • Wieliczka
  • Wiskitki
  • Wysokie Mazowieckie
  • Wyszków
  • Węgrów
  • Łaskarzew
  • Łosice
  • Żelechów
  • Żyrardów

New cemeteries are added on a semi-regular basis. Most recently in September the databases for Sopot, Palmiry and Korczyna were added.

The database includes photographs of graves, although the photos are small and generally hard to read. In Warsaw alone, there are over 80,000 records.

If you have family that lived in any of the above cities and towns, I recommend doing a search and seeing what you find.

Of course, when looking for Jewish cemetery records for your research, always check out the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) as well. JOWBR has records from many countries, including 69 cemeteries in Poland. In Warsaw, JOWBR lists 5 cemeteries with only 591 burials, however, so clearly if you want to do research for all Polish cemeteries you’ll need to search both databases. JOWBR has 97,953 burials in Piotrkow that this site doesn’t have. Hopefully they will share data in the future.

For more information on JOWBR and how to use it, see my blog post from the JewishGen Blog: JewishGen Basics: JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR).

Abandoned Jewish Cemetery in Belize

My cousin who lives in South Korea sent me a link about someone who came across an abandoned Jewish cemetery deep in the jungle in Belize. Truly there are few physical boundaries today.

The pictures are not very clear, but the woman who wrote the post, Megan Wood, was traveling in Belize and came across an abandoned cemetery which had broken gravestones on the ground. I can’t see it myself, but she says in real life it was clear the image engraved on the gravestone was that of a Star of David.

Broken gravestone in the jungle of Belize (from meganlwood.com)

Belize never had a major Jewish community, although some refugees from Sint Eustatius were believed to have settled there after their community was destroyed by the British military which took over that island in 1781. Jamaican Jewish traders were also know to trade at the Belize port.

The IAJGS International Jewish Cemetery Project (IJCP) lists two mentions of burial locations of Jews in Belize, adding up to only 5 graves, but certainly not this cemetery in the middle of nowhere.

The Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Register (JOWBR) lists 4 out of the 5 graves mentioned in the IJCP, but doesn’t list the names on the graves.

Who were these Jews and what were they doing far into the jungle of Belize?

Learning about Landsmanshaftn

This is a quick post while I am still preparing for my lecture at the IAJGS Int’l Jewish Genealogy Conference next week, but it’s something I hope to write more about in the future.

When Jewish immigrants arrived on US shores in the late 19th century and early 20th century, they formed mutual-aid societies, usually based on the town or region they came from ‘in the old country’. These societies are called Landsmanshaftn (Landsmanshaft is the singular form of the word). You may have heard of the term landsman meaning someone from the same place as you. Thousands of these organizations existed. In addition to helping new immigrants get on their feet in their new country, one of the major functions of many of the societies was to organize burial plots for its members. This is an important point for those people researching Jewish immigrants from this period, as Jews from this period would most likely have joined one of these societies, and would have bought a plot to be buried in within sections owned by their Landsmanshaft. If you don’t know where your immigrant ancestor was from, but can find their grave, you might be able to figure out where they’re from just from the section in which they’re buried.

While the Landsmanshaft societies thrived during the years around the turn of the century, they largely died out as their members died off and their children born in the US didn’t need the services provided by the organizations. In some cases this actually led to serious problems as member had purchased rights to a plot in the society’s cemetery section, but the people needed to approve their burial in the cemetery had died off before them and not left things in the hands of someone who could handle it. A NY Times article from 2009 covers this problem of societies disappearing before all their members have been buried in their cemetery sections.

For many of these societies, as their final members died off, the remaining officers donated their records to the YIVO Institute. For thousands of other societies, however, their records were unfortunately lost to time, probably thrown out by children or grandchildren of the last keeper of the societies’ records after the person’s death. Some societies still exist in one form or another, and hopefully they will donate their records to YIVO or another suitable archive for preservation.

Washington Cemetery

A few weeks ago I visited Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. This is a massive Jewish cemetery in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. The cemetery actually made the news several times in the past year. First there was the likely hate-inspired vandalizing of graves (photos) there back in December. In January, it was city sanitation workers’ turn to damage dozens of graves when they dumped snow into the graveyard during blizzard cleanup and knocked over a fence and many gravestones.

An article from July about using lasers to etch portraits on gravestones used Washington Cemetery as the centerpiece of the article. Indeed when visiting the cemetery one could not miss the very large number of laser-engraved gravestones, particularly because it appears the cemetery seems to have been putting new graves into places that were not previously intended for graves, like along walkways in front cemetery sections. Thus the first graves you see whenever you are walking along the cemetery are these newer graves (largely from Russian Jews who immigrated to the US much more recently than the majority of the people buried in the cemetery). That the cemetery has been forced to put graves into any open spaces might explain the recently controversy over the graveyard’s desire to buy a residential property to expand (interesting note from the article – no NYC city graveyard has ever expanded since they started keeping records in 1948).

I had a note in my tree written by a relative (that I had imported years ago) that mentioned my gg-grandparents were buried in Washington Cemetery. I only vaguely remembered that note when I read about the damage back in January, but I looked up the note in my tree and called the cemetery to figure out where my gg-grandparents graves were located, and if they had been affected by the vandalism or snow-damage. Luckily my gg-grandparents’ graves were located in a section not affected by either problem. When I arrived in NY for the first time since that time a few weeks ago I decided to see if I could find the graves. As I followed the directions given to me from a woman in the main office of the cemetery, I came upon this:

Entrance to section of cemetery in Washington Cemetery

There are a couple of interesting things to notice in this picture.

First, if you read the article I linked to above about laser-etching gravestones, you’ll notice the black granite gravestones in the front of the cemetery section are all laser-engraved. You will also notice that they are not actually in a cemetery section, but rather in the buffer space in between the cemetery section and the walkway. Thus those newer gravestones have nothing to do with the section immediately behind them.

Second, you should notice the elaborate stone arch with the metal gate that forms the entrance to the section. Not every section in the cemetery have such entrances. As this section is the one where my gg-grandparents are buried, I was interested to see what was inscribed on the arch, and what it might tell me about where my gg-grandparents originated. Keep in mind that just because someone is buried in a cemetery section managed by a Landsmanshaft doesn’t necessarily mean that the person was from the town around which the Landsmanshaft was formed (especially spouses) but it is one more clue to add you your research into where your immigrant ancestor originated.

So what does the gate say? Here’s a closer look:

Independent First Odessa Sick & Benevolent Association cemetery section

The arch reads: Independent First Odessa Sick & Benevolent Association (I’ll shorten that to IFOSBA). Along the sides of the stone arch are the names of the people who organized the purchase of the cemetery section for the Landsmanshaft. If you look into Landsmanshaftn, you’ll notice almost all the words used repeat in other organization names. ‘Independent’ might be a break-away organization, ‘First’ is very common – so common I really wonder if they were really all first, and if Independent did mean it broke away from another organization then how can it also be First? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but to get an idea of how many organizations there were of this type, see this list created by the Jewish Genealogical Society of NY (JGSNY) of the collection of Landsmanshaftn records held by YIVO.

Another list created by the JGSNY is that of Landsmanshaftn incorporations in NYC, which were microfilmed by the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). These documents are what was filed by the societies when they formally incorporated in New York. The documents are generally signed by the founding officers of the organization, and can list their addresses at the time as well. While these are single documents without extensive information on the members of the organization, they can still be useful. I requested a copy of one such document on the First Kancziger Aid Society, a Landsmanshaft for people from Kanczuga, and found that another gg-grandfather of mine and his brother were both founders of the organization, and the document had their signatures and their home addresses. It turns out that while YIVO doesn’t have records on either the First Kancziger Aid Society, nor the IFOSBA, the AJHS has incorporation documents for both societies. I hope to get a copy of the incorporation document for the IFOSBA soon to see what I can find out.

Back to the Cemetery

So, it’s not particularly relevent to the rest of the article, but I thought I would mention that I did indeed find the graves of my gg-grandparents in this section:

Gravestone of my gg-grandfather, Sam Greenberg
Gravestone of my gg-grandmother, Gittel Greenberg


Note that on the top of the stone of my gg-grandfather there was an embedded portrait (same size and shape as the one on my gg-grandmother’s) which was ripped off the grave. Not sure who would want to do that, but as mentioned earlier in the article, this cemetery has seen its share of vandalism. Indeed in the same small section there were several gravestones that had been knocked over:

It is sad to see such vandalism in a cemetery. I’m not sure what to think about the fact that the cemetery administration doesn’t re-cement the stones. I can understand that in cases where the stones are broken and require extensive and expensive repairs that the cemetery may seek to have the costs covered by relatives if they can be found, but in the case of something like this in an urban cemetery, I would think putting them back up and re-cementing them would be a routine part of their regular maintenance.

A Final Note

If you’ve exhausted all methods of figuring out where your immigrant ancestor came from, and you know where your ancestor is buried, you should look into which section your ancestor is buried in in the cemetery. Even if there is no grand entrance to the section, it should be marked. If the section is not marked, the cemetery office should know who purchased the section and can tell you if there is an active organization managing it or not. From there, tracking down documents from the Landsmanshaft from YIVO or the AJHS might be a good next step to finding out more.

See a short follow-up to this article, More on Landsmanshaftn about retrieving society incorporation documents from the AJHS.

For Memorial Day, BillionGraves App/Site Launches

Memorial Day in the United States is tomorrow, May 30, 2011. In time for this day, app-developer AppTime has launched a new iPhone App/web site combo called BillionGraves.

The concept is quite simple – provide a way to use camera-equipped phones to photograph gravestones and upload them to a central website for transcription and searching by others. So you download the cell phone application, use it to photograph gravestones, upload the photos to the website, and then you or others can see the photos and add transcriptions which make them searchable. The link to Memorial Day is two-fold – first, that these photographs can be a form of memorial to those who served their country and died in that service, and second that people are off from work can visit cemeteries, and while there photograph gravestones and upload them to the web site.

The idea is quite good, but I foresee some problems.

I like the idea because anything that makes the process of documenting graves, transcribing them and making them searchable, is a boon to genealogists. The problem is that I don’t think AppTime has put quite enough thought into the back-end of this site. Things can be fixed over time, but it would have been better to get some of these things right at the beginning.

The biggest problem I have is the duplication this creates with other sites like FindAGrave.com, which I’ve written about before. I understand that AppTime wants to make money, and by controlling the server they can better control revenue streams, but I’m not sure there is room for a newcomer here. Far be it from me to tell anyone not to go into a market because it’s crowded. I’m a big believer in the market and if they can truly innovate here, that’s great. If they just muddle the process and split up the graves indexed on their site and the others, then they are not contributing but detracting from the process. I also wonder if  they will be able to build the large cemetery database needed to make this work. It might have made more sense in this regard to sell an App that is a front-end to FindAGrave.com.

Let’s put aside the issue of competition, however. I signed up to the site and tried it out. The interface is simple, which is great. Even without using the cell phone app, I can choose to transcribe photos. If I choose Transcribe I see the photo and a simple interface for adding the names and dates from the gravestone. This simplicity masks some omissions, however. For example, there is no place to add the maiden name of a woman. My only choices, in fact, are to add Prefix, Given Names, Family Names and birth and death dates.

Transcribe interface on BillionGraves.com

So there is no way to add the maiden name, nicknames, or other information that may be present on the grave. I can of course add a nickname into the ‘Given Names’ field and I can add the maiden name to the ‘Family Names’ field, but how? If I add the maiden name one way such as in parenthesis, and someone else does it differently, then what if I only want to look for women whose maiden names were Smith? I can’t do that, and BillionGraves.com can’t add this later without making people go back and correct the data later.

There is no way to fully transcribe a gravestone, to add information on the individual, to add a memorial to the person, etc. This can all be added later, but then how do they know which graves already transcribed have more information to be added once they offer that capability?

There is no way to add more than one photo of a grave, such as when there is writing on both the front and back. There also doesn’t seem to be a way to prevent duplicate entries of the same grave. Perhaps they’re expecting the GPS coordinates uploaded with the photos to help them figure out duplicates, but there is nothing that indicates that to me, and nothing to prevent someone from photographing a grave already photographed.

While FindAGrave.com could improve the experience quite a bit, they do support the ability to link graves of spouses, parents, etc. This is an important feature, and one that BillionGraves needs to support.

From a Jewish perspective, of course, there doesn’t seem to be support for other languages such as Hebrew – common on Jewish gravestones.

The iPhone app is free through June 1 (the next two days) and then AppTime will be charging $1.99 for the app. Presumably the web site itself will remain free. An Android app is currently being worked on and they hope to release it in the next few weeks. For more information on BillionGraves, go to their web site or their blog.

If you have an iPhone then download the App by June 1st for free and give it a try. Let me know what you think in the comments. If you use FindAGrave.com, let me know what you think of the differences.

I hope AppTime fixes some of the initial issues with the web site and wish them the best of luck in this new effort. I also hope FindAGrave.com wakes up and puts out their own cell phone apps to provide a way to upload geo-tagged photographs to their site as easily. Let’s hope competition improves both sites.

Grave of the ‘Unknown’ Soldier

Yom HaZikaron Ceremony (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tonight begins Yom HaZikaron in Israel, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers. As with most Jewish holidays, the ‘day’ begins at sundown the night before and ends at sundown the following day. Tomorrow night begins Yom HaAzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

It’s always struck me as incredibly emotional to have a country’s Memorial Day lead directly into its Independence Day. This has a lot to do with Israel having had a mandatory draft, for men and women, for its entire existence. Just about anyone who grew up in Israel, or moved here young enough to have served in the army, has friends and/or family that were killed while serving in the Israeli army. In some ways one can compare the attitude of memorial day in Israel to that of memorial day in communities in the US that have large military connections. It’s unfortunate, by true, that in many areas of the US, Memorial Day is considered just another day off from work. It’s hard to think that way in a small country like Israel where everyone knows someone who was killed.

On Yom HaZikaron, all Israeli TV stations either broadcast a memorial symbol like a burning candle, or broadcast programming that respects the reverence of the day. Only the kids channels and foreign channels broadcast normally.

Another fascinating thing that happens on Memorial Day in Israel is that a 2 minute siren is sounded around the entire country, at which time people stop what they’re doing and listen. Car actually pull over on the highway and wait for the siren to finish. The first time I was driving on a major highway at the time of the siren, I had no idea why everyone was pulling over. Other driving knew to pull over even before the siren started, and I didn’t realize why everyone was pulling over until the siren sounded. Here’s a Youtube video of this very interesting experience:

So what does any of this have to do with genealogy? Well, I was just reading a fascinating article from one of Israel’s main newspapers, Haaretz, titled Identifying the unknown soldiers from Independence War. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once proclaimed that Israel did not have a grave for unknown soldiers like other countries. The point was that he intended to insure that there was never a need for such a memorial – that every soldier would be known.

The article describes the efforts the Israeli Army goes to to identify ‘unknown soldiers’ from various wars, including now doing DNA testing when necessary to confirm the identity of soldiers who, due to the circumstances of the war, were buried without proper identification.

Somehow after last week’s Holocaust-related posts (on Yom HaShoah, also last week, Israeli TV stations also do not broadcast normal programming) it seemed appropriate to mention this article which points out that many of the ‘unknown soldiers’ in Israel were Holocaust survivors who arrived in Israel just in time to fight and die for the nascent State of Israel. Many Jews arrived from Europe with no family or friends who knew them in Israel, and when they died fighting had no one to insure they were properly memorialized. The Israeli army’s Eitan unit, which handles the investigations into unknown soldiers, identified the graves of fourteen soldiers from the 1948 War of Independence between 2009 and 2010, and nine out of those fourteen soldiers were Holocaust survivors

While a sad topic, it is somehow clear how fitting Israel’s scheduling of Independence Day the day after Memorial Day is, when you realize how the initial soldiers in Israel’s War of Independence died fighting to insure the country was not snuffed out before it even began. All the more reason it seems critically important that those soldiers who have no memorial today are identified, found and have proper memorials set up.

Update: Someone posted a video taken in the open marketplace in downtown Jerusalem yesterday on Yom HaZikaron which I think is worth seeing. The video shows the hustle and bustle of the open marketplace and about a minute in to the video the siren begins…