Nominated by Geri Mola; researched by Barbara Ellman and Margaret Kaiser; narrative and images by Barbara Ellman
The cemetery of the Paterson Workmen’s Benefit Association located in Elmwood Park was the burial site for members of the Workmen’s Circle #13 of Paterson, NJ.
The Workmen’s Circle or Der Arbeter Ring was formed in the 1890s by Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, The Workmen’s Circle at first acted as a mutual aid society, helping its members to adapt to their new life in America. It provided health care, unemployment relief, burial assistance, and general education. Soon, the organization was joined by more politically focused socialist Bundists who advocated the anti-assimilationist idea of Yiddish cultural self-sufficiency, led by education in Yiddish and socialist ideals. It became influential in the American labor movement and grew to serve more than 84,000 members through hundreds of branches around North America. It also became involved with the Yiddish-language theater; The Forward newspaper; and operated old-age homes, medical clinics, and other services. Politically, the Workmen’s Circle moved away from socialism towards liberalism by the time of the New Deal.
Some of the headstones contain the image of the Der Arbeter Ring logo. Another has an image of a raised arm with the saying “Tsum Arbeter Klas Balangt Di Velt” (To the working class belongs the world).
Burials in this cemetery range from an early date of 1897 to one burial in 2016. There are in excess of 600 burials that have been documented by the effort of this project. As members of the society have dwindled, the cemetery’s management has been turned over to the Cemetery Association of Jewish Federation of North Jersey.
Among the gravestones of the 1920s and 30s are a number of grave markers shaped as a chopped tree which symbolized a life cut short by death. Once the symbolism resonated, but while the stones still impress cemetery visitors, their meaning has largely been forgotten.
When visiting the older section of the cemetery, it is sad to see a number of broken or unreadable limestone grave markers. The mild acid in rainwater can slowly dissolve limestone over time, which can make inscriptions unreadable and eventually it can obliterate the stone entirely. Based on the density of burials in the sections from the 1930s, one must wonder at the many apparently empty areas where it is likely that headstones had previously existed.
Why is this Cemetery Important?
The Jewish genealogical community has been making a great effort in documenting cemeteries around the world. This cemetery while existing on a list of Jewish cemeteries in the Metro New York area has not appeared in any documentation of burials. As in most interactions with cemetery management, the information is closely held and not shared with those seeking the information. Cemetery documentation projects such as this one are the means of making the family information available.
All existing grave markers have been photographed and the process of indexing and translating the information on the grave markers is nearing completion. The index is being compiled by Barbara Ellman with translation by GSBC Trustees, Barbara Ellman and Lea Schwarzwalder. Once completed, a copy of the information will be available at the Bolger Center. In addition, the index and photographs will be posted to the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Register www.jewishgen.org/databases/Cemetery/. Look for future announcements once the online index is live!