Monday, March 24, 2014

Felice Nel Box + Save the Synagogue! Project

Recently I was contacted by Ghila Valabrega, writer, director and producer of Felice Nel Box, what it seems to be a very interesting comedy with a Jewish cemetery as the starting point. This movie shows the unfortunately condition of many of Jewish cemeteries across Europe and I hope it will be a wake up call for many people that can help restore and save this and many other pieces of the history like the Synagogue of Sabbioneta.
Bellow is more information about the movie and how you can help this project become a reality.

About the Movie
Ghila Valabrega’s first work, Felice Nel Box, tells, with yiddish humor, two stories in one movie: an intimate and surreal family tale based on true events and a broader narration of the Jewish community in Sabbioneta, Italy.

The plot
Back in the ‘70s, my dad, Stefano, was a curious photographer with a cool motorbike. One day, he found himself carrying out an assignment around Mantova, northern Italy. On his way home, he spotted by chance the old ruins of an abandoned Jewish cemetery.

Touched by the terrible state of the place, he impulsively decided to take one of the tombstones back with him to Milan. My dad did not know that, by doing so he had awaked the ghost of Felice Leon Foà, an 1800 Jewish man, who, following his tombstone, jumped on my dad’s motorbike.

The tombstone ended up staying for over thirty years, forgotten, in our car box and so did Felice... until my sister, my mom and I discovered them...

To donate and help this project visit

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Happy Valley: Jewish cemetery in Hong Kong

I have what some people consider a weird custom of visiting Jewish cemeteries wherever I go.

It’s not that I have a relative buried there, although it may be so -you never know- it’s simply that I’m a genealogist, and this is similar to checking phone books to see how many with the Horowitz live in a town.  

Cemetery Main Entrance
In March, I was on my way to the Australasian Congress in Adelaide, Australia and stopped over in Hong Kong. In addition to the great time I had -and the wonderful people I met- I had an opportunity to meet with Howard Elias and Erica Lions, two members of the Jewish Historical Society and the people in charge of the Hong Kong Jewish cemetery.

I had never thought about a Jewish cemetery in Hong Kong - it is not documented in the Jewish Online World Burial Register (JOWBR). Those who manage the cemetery are dedicated to resolving this quickly. All the gravestones have already been photographed and transcribed and will soon be available (and searchable) on the Internet.

The cemetery itself is amazing. When Howard and I arrived in a taxi, I saw only huge apartment buildings and some old-style Chinese buildings (a school and a temple). Imagine my surprise when he said, “Here they are, already waiting for me,” referring to a meeting with people doing restoration and maintenance work on the grounds.

This cemetery was once outside the city, as in many big cities around the world. The land is owned by the Jewish community, which wasn’t common in Hong Kong. Once a swamp, it was given to the community by the Queen of England with the hope that people would move to the neighborhood. The area's name is Happy Valley, meant to persuade people to move there, but as this idea never prospered, they decided to use it for the cemetery.

From the street, visitors wouldn’t guess that a cemetery was hidden behind the gate and those tall buildings (see photo). Visitors can see all the gravestones, many of which are Sephardic-style, raised above the ground. The oldest one I saw was from 1875, inscribed in Hebrew. Some were so old that the inscriptions were illegible.

Name and dates tell the story of Jewish immigration to Hong Kong and such difficulties as plague and other illnesses. Although these days the committee doesn’t have more than a few burials a year, the total number of graves is about 300. Some have Hebrew inscriptions, while some recall relatives from around the world. One carries an image of the deceased, not often seen in Jewish cemeteries, although it is common among the Russian and Persian Jewish Diasporas.

Perhaps most amazing was the view of the beautiful grounds from the surrounding apartments. In Chinese culture, cemeteries are sacred and respected areas. Obviously, the living neighbors don’t mind living adjacent to the dead. After all, they may be the best neighbors: they are quiet, don’t hold loud parties and never complain.

If you travel to Hong Kong, put Happy Valley on your must-see list.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Take your smart phone to the cemetery!

I was on Long Island in New York the other day, preparing to give a lecture, when I realized that my aunt Rika Singer was buried only a few miles from where I was to speak.

I decided to go a little early and pay my respects.

Thanks to GPS, I arrived at the cemetery with no problems. Soon I found the section, block and area.

But as I began counting rows and tombstones, I realized I had problems. According to the cemetery website, my aunt was buried in row O.

Was that a zero or the letter O?

It’s easy to have a row zero in some cemeteries - they may have had to add a row before the original first one to make space - but she wasn't there. Did I count the rows in the wrong direction? She wasn't there. Then I tried to number the rows by letters, so I started A, B, C, D ... That didn't work either.

By now, I was getting worried and decided to review my data. Out came my new iPhone, found a Wi-Fi connection and went online to check my family tree data. Yes, the information was correct. I checked the cemetery website again - the information was the same - but my aunt wasn't there!

Could I do a reverse look up on the cemetery database? It seemed easy. There was the name of the person in front of me, and the database should give me his location. I did that a few times but all the names had numbered rows. If my aunt was in Row Zero, I was in trouble.

Amazingly, the phone also can be used for its original purpose - to make calls! I rang the administration office and spoke to a very kind lady who confirmed that I should be looking for the letter O and not zero. She explained that the area is divided in two - one with lettered rows and the other with numbers. With that information, I moved over to the left section and walked a few rows to the front and found Aunt Rika in the same spot she had been in for nine years.

I then turned on the camera feature to take pictures of the tombstone, and turned to Google maps to get the exact coordinates of the place where I was standing at the moment with the "Show my location" feature (image on the left is just an example as Long Island is in New York, not Oregon!). After all, I didn’t want any other relatives to walk around for hours as I did to find our beloved aunt.

I finally sent the tombstone image via email to my cousin - on the other side of the world - to show him my findings.

What did we do a few years ago when we didn't have Smart Mobile Devices with Internet, GPS, cameras and phones?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cemetery Project Q&A: Markers at babies' gravesites

The Jewish Graveyard Rabbit
welcomes contributor
Steve Lasky,
creator of the
online cybermuseum,
Museum of Family History.

Recently, someone wrote me with a question about baby markers, and how to keep the gravestone from completely sinking into the ground over time.

The question was:

"I recently had a baby marker created but the monument dealer/installer never heard of adding cement around the bottom of the stone and doesn't see how it prevents the stone from sinking. My question to you is: Do you know where I can obtain proof to show to the dealer? "

I then wrote to Todd Ivler, cemetery manager at Mt. Judah Cemetery (Ridgewood, Queens, New York), whom I've interviewed in the past. I know Mt. Judah has handled a good number of such burials, so he was the one to ask.

I thought his response might be of interest to readers, as many of us who have visited our Jewish cemeteries have noticed that these small markers often appear eroded, oriented on a slant, or partially or completely sunken into the ground.

I don't doubt that decades ago baby markers were sometimes made of sandstone and probably not set in cement, etc., but Todd's response at least can be said to reflect the method commonly used today, at least at his cemetery. Here is his answer:

"We call a baby marker a piece of granite that is twelve inches from left to right, usually at least three feet high and about two inches thick. When placed in the ground, we pour concrete in the hole first, then on the sides which leaves about an inch or two around the whole stone. This helps keep the marker from sinking."

You can well imagine how difficult it is to find a baby's burial site for the reasons I've mentioned above.
It's one thing for a cemetery to have a searchable burial database; at least one can look up a name, even if the gravestone marker is nowhere to be found or is highly illegible. Without such a source of data, one can always, of course, try contacting the cemetery office, though there is often less burial information about a baby than an adult.

For the complete interview with Mt. Judah Cemetery manager Todd Ivler, click here.
Read all about the The Museum of Family History's Cemetery Project here.
Questions? Contact me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Lithuania: Kalvarija Jewish Cemetery

The Jewish cemetery in Kalvarija - southern Lithuania - has just been recorded by Ralph Salinger of Kfar Ruppin in Israel.

Born in the UK and raised in New Zealand, Ralph lives on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin. He has researched his family history and discovered that the SALINGER family lived in Vilkaviskis (c1805-1941).

To learn about the project, go to Ralph's site,

Working with Ralph is Wayne N. Frankel, Ph.D., a professor at The Jackson Laboratory (Bar Harbor, Maine), and editor-in-chief of PLoS Genetics, an open access research journal.

Dr. Frankel's ancestors lived in Vilkaviskis for many generations prior to the 1902 emigration of his great-grandfather to New York. His cousins lived in Vilkaviskis until World War II; some survived, others did not."

His assistants on the ground in the area include Antanas Zilinskas, Vilkaviskis Regional Museum director; Algis Vaskevicius has a deep interest in the subject and his superb knowledge of English has been a wonderful source of support; and The Honorable Mr. Algirdas S Bagušinskas, Mayor of Vilkaviskis and his staff. See Ralph's site for contact information for these individuals.

In September, Ralph visited the Kalvarija Jewish Cemetery and with the help of middle-school students, the names of Jews buried there were deciphered.

The stones were cleaned with shaving cream, which is not recommended by cemetery preservationists as it can destroy stones and inscriptions.

In any case, the method was used and the stones deciphered. The International Jewish Graveyard Rabbit hopes that the visitors thoroughly washed off the foam from the stones.

One after another the names of people known from the archives were revealed to Jewish history researcher Alvydas Tottori. In a day and a half, Ralph - with his helpers - transcribed some 80 stones.

At the link above for the Vilkovishk site, see photos of the stones and learn more about Ralph's project. See the names of the researchers and the families they are looking for here.

Some history

Vilkovishk is located in southwestern Lithuania on the Seimena River, a tributary of the river Sesupe, about 18 km from the border with Prussia (now Russia) and 3.5 km from the St.Petersburg-Berlin railway line.

In 1660, King Jan Kazimir granted Vilkovishk city rights, making it one of the oldest Lithuanian towns. Jews had begun to settled there in the 14th century, but the old Jewish cemetery had stones dating only from 1575.

Queen Bona (wife of King Zigmunt August II) donated timber to Vilkovishk's citizens for building prayer houses at the beginning of the 16th century. Jews also benefited from this and the synagogue was built in 1545 and was extant until WWII, after several renovations over history. Sephardic Jews also settled here and the synagogue contained several Torah scrolls the refugees brought with them from Spain. They had their own cemetery.

In the early 18th century, Jews from Koeningsburg (Prussia) were buried in Vilkovishk because they were not permitted to construct a cemetery of their own. In the mid-1750s, refugees from a cholera epidemic in Vizhan, about 35km south of Vilkovishk, settled in a nearby forest - not allowed to enter the town - and the Jewish community supplied them with food. Many died and were buried near the forest. Their descendants settled in the town and remained there until the Holocaust.

There is much more detailed history, read it at the link above.

More links of interest

-- See the list of available Vilkovishk databases here.

-- See the photo library here.

-- See the site's index page here for all the pages on the site, including maps, photos of stones, various aspects of the project.

-- And see the related blog here, with even more information.

A truly fascinating site for those with ancestors in the area, or to see how similar projects can be organized.

Contact Ralph here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Turkey: Sephardic cemeteries running out of space

There is an ongoing dispute between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities in Turkey because the Sephardic cemeteries are running out of space.

Ashkenazim - in Turkey since the 1400s - make up only 5% of the Jewish community, but the two communities are extensively intermarried. The Sephardic community grew after Spanish Jews were welcomed at the time of the 1492 Expulsion.

The office of the Chief Rabbi (Hakham Bashi) placed an advertisement in the daily Jewish paper stating that Sephardim were reserving plots in Ashkenazi cemeteries and vice versa.

The rabbi warned that this is a big problem and those considering such plots should consult him first, while the Ashkenazi organization says, in response, that their door is open to everyone.

The main problem is that Sephardim and Ashkenazim married to each other want to be buried side by side, but the Sephardi cemeteries are running out of room.

There are six Sephardic and one Ashkenazi cemetery, with the Ulus Cemetery most popular.

Read the complete Hurriyet article here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Poland: Prisoners to renovate Jewish cemeteries

AFP reported that prisoners are to do conservation work in disused Jewish cemeteries, Poland’s prison service said Thursday.

Prison spokesperson Ireneusz Mucha said an agreement had been signed with the national Polish-Jewish heritage foundation enabling the prisoners to volunteer.

Some 1,000 Polish cemeteries need work; many were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.

“The voluntary, unpaid work will be run with local authorities or Jewish communities. The advantages will go both ways, because the foundation will also provide courses in history and tolerance for the prisoners,” Mucha said.

More than 12 prisons will participate.

Initial projects will be building a memorial in a Radom cemetery, south of Warsaw, and renovation of a Zwierzyniec graveyard in Poland's southeast.

The story added that Jews arrived in Poland from western Europe to escape 11th century pogroms.

Before the Holocaust, some 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, about 10% of the population and Europe's largest Jewish community.

Of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, half were Polish. Most perished in concentration camps.

Today, some 5,000-15,000 people in Poland identify as Jewish.

Read more here.