GSBC Special Project—Bergen County in Six Objects

Paterson Workmen’s Benefit Association Cemetery, Elmwood Park, NJ

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.

gsbc-fiveobjects-014When 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.

What’s Next?

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 Look for future announcements once the online index is live!

Artifact Information

Artifact Title Paterson Workmen’s Benefit Association Cemetery, Elmwood Park, NJ. There are three plaques mounted to the cemetery fence: “Owned by the Cemetery Association of Jewish Federation of New Jersey;” “Paterson Benefits Workmen’s Association;” “Board of Directors of 1926.”
Location Chobot Lane, Elmwood Park, NJ 07407
Date Interments span from 1867 to 2016
Description More than 600 headstones arranged in rows over approximately 1.4 acres

Do They “Rest in Peace”?

By Peggy W. Norris, MS, MLIS

Cemeteries are places for the living as well as the dead. Cemeteries are filled with art that reflects our ancestors’ times and their attitudes toward death (and life). They are quiet places of reflection about the lives and contributions of our families through time and where we humble ourselves before history and our foremothers and forefathers. Large cemeteries like Valleau in Ridgewood and George Washington in Paramus and churchyard cemeteries like that of the English Neighborhood Reformed Church in Ridgefield are well cared for and records are accessible in their offices.

However, in Bergen County we have many small cemeteries, whose families have moved away and churches have closed and for whom no one is responsible. The fact is these ancestors deserve our respect and we’re all responsible for making sure their resting places are peaceful and protected. Many are on private property; some are now owned by the towns. These “caretakers” have varying philosophies of care, from active maintenance, to benign neglect, to efforts to hide or diminish the cemetery by intentionally burying markers and encroaching on the bounds of the burying ground. New Jersey’s state laws do little to protect them.

Preservation of these cemeteries can take many forms. They need to be identified. We have a wonderful inventory of cemeteries in Bergen County called “Bergen County Historic Sites Survey: cemetery inventory,” which is available at many of our public libraries. This is an accounting of all the known cemeteries, churchyard burial grounds, family and private plots, mausoleums, and individual graves in the county. However, it is a guide and many of the burial places are waiting to be further explored and described.

In order to raise awareness we need to share cemeteries with the public however we can. Most people do not think about cemeteries, but when they are introduced to the markers and the people buried under them, they begin to care. We need to make sure that information about the monuments is available to historians and genealogists. These efforts have taken place for the last 100 years, but there is still work to be done and ways of making it accessible to as many people as possible.

Find a local cemetery in your town, learn about it, and take an interest in its preservation. You’ll find it interesting and you’ll be contributing to our community history.

About the Authors

Barbara Ellman is a former GSBC President, Trustee, and Programming Chair. She is an expert in New York research and Jewish genealogy and has researched her maternal family back to the mid-1700s in Drohobych, Ukraine. She has served in a number of capacities on the GSBC Board and is currently the GSBC’s Program Chair. Currently, she is the JewishGen KehilaLinks Technical Coordinator, a member of many other Societies, as well as a frequent contributor to The Archivist. Barbara is a computer systems analyst and assists JewishGen with various website projects and databases and is a frequent speaker.

Margaret Kaiser is President of GSBC and a Northvale resident. She received the Silberne Medaille des Landes Burgenland (Silver Medal of the State of Burgenland) from the Governor of the State of Burgenland, Austria, for her commitment and contributions to Burgenland research through her work with the Burgenland Bunch genealogy group. Kaiser is a long-time consultant at the Family History Center in Emerson, NJ, and a member of numerous genealogical societies.

Geri Mola is a GSBC Trustee and past President, and serves as the Elmwood Park Historian. She is involved with numerous historical and genealogical organizations and was Chairperson for the Bergen 350 Gala in 2014, which celebrated Bergen County’s 350 anniversary and raised funds for a Bergen County museum to be built on the grounds of the Bergen County Historical Society.

Peggy W. Norris, MS, MLIS, is a librarian retired from the Bolger Heritage Center at Ridgewood Public Library. She has been researching family history for over 30 years and in recent years has been using deeds to solve genealogical problems. She is also interested in quilts and quilt history.

Lea Schwarzwalder is GSBC’s Treasurer and is a relatively new genealogist, who has been researching her family for about three years. Her research is focused on Eastern Europe, in particular Poland and Croatia. Lea has an accounting degree from Queens College and has worked as a bookkeeping supervisor on Wall Street for many years. She has served as a Home and School Association (HSA) Treasurer and as Treasurer for the Glen Rock Jewish Center Sisterhood.