Disrespect for dead disturbs survivors

Dismayed families walk among markers damaged by vandals at Jewish cemetery

November 29, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

There was no rest for the dead at B'nai Israel Cemetery.

Relatives of the interred, their heads bowed, some wiping away tears, walked slowly though their family plots yesterday at the venerable burial ground in Northeast Baltimore, grimly taking stock of the damage done by vandals to more than 150 tombstones: many knocked to the ground, some split in half.

"It's the second time they've busted my father's tombstone," said Harold Postol, eyes brimming with sorrow, his cheeks glistening on the cold, sunny morning. "Why? What is the reason to bother the dead? They're not bothering anyone."

A police detective who had stopped by earlier in the day could not answer such questions, stumped, as was everyone else, not only by the ferocity of the attack on the cemetery but by the energy required to accomplish it.

Some of the hefty marble, granite and stone grave markers, many elaborately carved in Hebrew and bearing the Star of David, weigh several hundred pounds, others as much as a ton. And yet there they lay in the grass like so many matchsticks.

"It's just incredible to think that it can be done, but two or three people could do it," said Bill Bisesi, a maintenance foreman at the cemetery who discovered the damage the morning after Thanksgiving. "They probably ran through here in 20 minutes. It was a workout for them."

At least one of the visitors called the destruction a hate crime, but city police have not classified it as such, and there was no grafitti. The woman left behind a pebble atop a tombstone, a traditional sign that someone has visited a grave.

For more than 100 years, the cemetery, set in a gently sloping field off Southern Avenue, has served as one of the primary resting places for Baltimore's Jews. It holds more than 2,000 graves, with names etched in stone -- Pincus, Levinsohn, Schugam, Frosburg, Gurfein, Dubois, Krulewitch.

This is not the first time it has been vandalized.

"This is senseless, it's unreal," said Gary Fisher, who has seven relatives buried in the cemetery. Most of their tombstones were intact, but he was not sure of the location of two or three, and feared that they might be the ones lying face-down nearby.

Fisher was relieved to see that the graves of his maternal grandparents -- Samuel Miller, who died Aug. 5, 1977, at 91, and Jennie Miller, who died a year earlier, at 85 -- were spared, as was that of his mother's cousin Esther Miller, whose death came this year, on June 15.

The vandalism, whether motivated by anti-Semitism or mere brutishness, was the work, he said, of "a sick person, a person with no respect."

"Get a life," suggested Fisher, a lifelong Baltimore resident who recalled that in the 1800s, Jewish cemeteries were not permitted downtown. This one was built in what at the time was open countryside, far from city prejudices -- at least then.

"It happens at every cemetery," he said.

A rabbi's daughter, Tzipora Frager, born 11 years after the end of the Holocaust, had another theory. She considered that the attack on the Jewish cemetery that holds her mother -- Esther Lafferman Shuvalski, dead two years -- might have been provoked by anti-Semitic feelings swirling around the Middle East peace conference in Annapolis and aided, perhaps, by Arab propaganda.

"The first thing I thought of when I heard was, `Are we safe as a people?'" said Frager, a social worker. "We don't know who did this. The only thing we know is how angry we all feel. It doesn't matter what your political beliefs are, or how angry you are about your life: When you take it out on dead people, it's not going to make your life better."

Cemetery vandalism is common, said Robert Mosko, chief conservator of Mosko Cemetery Monument Services, a Hanover, Pa., firm that specializes in conservation and restoration of historic cemeteries.

Such vandalism is often a crime of opportunity, prompted by nothing more the vandals strolling through a cemetery and noticing how loose monuments are.

"It's not just a Maryland problem: I've dealt with it from Philadelphia all the way down to Richmond," said Mosko, who is a conservator consultant for the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites.

Damaging funerary objects is a misdemeanor in Maryland, Mosko said, subject to a fine and restitution. In 2003, a Baltimore County judge sentenced a Dundalk man to 18 months in prison for toppling more than 170 headstones in four Dundalk cemeteries and for theft. He was also to perform three years of community service in the cemeteries he vandalized.

Phillip Mizrach, a member of the B'nai Israel Congregation, founded in 1873 and the oldest continually operated modern Orthodox synagogue in Maryland, said the latest attack was the first time "we've been hit like this."

"Once in a while, you're going to get some damage -- most cemeteries get that," said Mizrach, who is chairman of the synagogue's cemetery committee, as he surveyed the damage yesterday. "But what kind of thrill do you get doing this? What's the point? It's improper, and it's disrespectful."

Mizrach, whose mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents all lie in the cemetery, said a survey would determine how many stones need to be put back in place -- using a pulley-and-chain device on a wooden tripod -- and how many must be repaired or replaced.

The synagogue, at 27 Lloyd St., is hoping that families of the dead, as well as other benefactors, can help the congregation raise the necessary funds.

"I'm going to be buried here myself, right next to my grandparents," said Postol, the man whose father's tombstone has been broken twice. "If I come back from the dead, I'll haunt the person who did this."


Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.

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