Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Celebrating New Year's with a glass of Meade?

General George Meade
Okay, I have a confession to make. I have repeated a story for years, and I just found out that it is not true! I’d be the first to admit that I seldom let facts get in the way of telling a good story, but in all honesty, this tale was so good, I guess I just wanted to believe it! The story goes that each New Year’s Eve, a group of people calling themselves "The General Meade Society," has a midnight champagne toast at General George Meade’s grave site, which is located in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. General George Gordon Meade was of course the commander of the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War; his birthday was December 31, 1815 (New Year’s Eve). He died in Philadelphia in 1872.

 Memorial Day (2014) gun salute by reenactors at Meade's grave site, Laurel Hill Cemetery

Turns out that the midnight champagne birthday toast at his grave site on New Year's Eve does not actually occur. I got the day right, but not the time! I was searching for details today, thinking that I might attend the toast after hearing about it for so many years. I checked Laurel Hill’s website and found this information:

The annual General Meade Birthday Celebration will mark the 199th anniversary of the birth of General George G. Meade, commander of the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg. A parade of Civil War re-enactors, civilians in period attire, special dignitaries, heritage groups and participants will advance to Meade’s final resting place and memorialize his services to his nation. A 21-gun salute and champagne toast will cap off the program at graveside, and will be followed by a reception in the Cemetery Gatehouse. A tour of historic Laurel Hill will be offered following the festivities (weather permitting). This year holds special significance as we continue to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.
The event will take place on Wednesday, December 31 at 12:00pm, departing from Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Gatehouse entrance at 3822 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19132. Free parking is located in the lot across the street from the Gatehouse.

Free and open to the public; a $10 donation in support of Laurel Hill Cemetery’s work and preservation is suggested and would be much appreciated. Additional information can be found by calling (215) 228-8200.

Ge. George Meade's grave marker, Laurel Hill Cemetery
After reading this, I realized that I didn’t know if "Wednesday, December 31 at 12:00pm" meant midnight, or noon! I really was not sure. Bear in mind that I'm getting up in age - I just turned 56, which is, oddly, the age at which Meade died. Would they really have a 21-gun salute and a tour in the cemetery at midnight? So I called Laurel Hill Cemetery and was told that, no, this will not happen at midnight, but at noon. In fact, the event has always been held at noon! So, to all the people to whom I have repeated this "midnight toast" nonsense to over the years, I sincerely apologize. Happy New Year!

References and Further Reading:

The General Meade Society

Photo at top of article is from The General Meade Society website

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas in Bethlehem

I had heard about St. Michael's Cemetery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for a few years now and needed to see it for myself. What better time of year to go to Bethlehem than Christmas? I knew it to be an old cemetery on a hill overlooking the defunct Bethlehem Steel mill complex (which now houses a Sands casino). The drive from Allentown was easy enough, down Route 378 toward the Lehigh River. Some big place called Nisky Cemetery jumped off the map at me, but I only had time for my one destination on this trip - St. Michael's.

 Approaching the bridge over the river, I noticed a gigantic star framework on top of the mountain, overlooking the town. Must be the famed “Star of Bethlehem.” I tried to get a photograph, but I didn’t want to rear-end the car ahead of me. It must look rather impressive lit up at night – the star, that is, not the bridge. A bit congested here, traffic-wise. The cemetery was about a mile to the left up Fourth Street after I crossed the Lehigh.

On the right side of the road, St. Michael’s Cemetery rises at a steep grade, stretching about a city block or more up with the same amount of frontage. (For a satellite view, click here and click on the map tab). Note that the cemetery continues into the trees, which must have been allowed to grow wild after a point in the cemetery’s long career, which began in 1867.) Any cemetery built into a hillside simply has more character – it’s a very dramatic look. I parked my car on steep State Street alongside the cemetery and was greeted instantly by the graffiti on this mausoleum (below). 

St. Michael's Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA
I had heard that the cemetery was not in the very best condition (which I admit, is one attribute that will spur me to visit), but I was not quite prepared for what I saw. When you decide to explore a new cemetery, and you’re alone, you must decide where to begin. I decided on mid-hill, entering the grounds through a side entrance – wait – no, actually, this is the main entrance. A lowly narrow brick road that meanders up through the cemetery. Following it, I was able to look down the hill at all the – damage. You don’t really notice this from the street, looking up. The clandestine vandals who spray-painted the grave markers and mausolea did their dirty work on the uphill side of these structures, out of view of passersby.

Grafittied garages below St. Michael's Cemetery

Defaced headstone
As I hiked across the hillside, it was shocking to see that graffiti covered many of the monuments, headstones, and mausoleums. More than I have ever seen in any cemetery before – and I’ve visited hundreds. The same culprits tagged the same messages on neighboring buildings and garage doors, so it wasn't like they were targeting the cemetery. Granite is just another surface to deface, I suppose. Graffiti can be artistic, but there is a time and place for everything. I’m thinking the place for these people is prison.

St. Michael's Cemetery with Bethlehem Steel mill blast furnaces on horizon

You can see Bethlehem Steel, or what’s left of it, below the cemetery. The old gigantic blast furnaces tower into the sky along the river. It’s not a very Christmassy look. At two weeks before the holiday, I couldn’t help but notice the complete absence of any Christmas decorations. The only thing that came close was the red and green graffiti on this mausoleum, its original door replaced with cinder blocks, possibly due to theft. I also noticed, to my horror, many statues lying on the ground, pushed off their pedestals. In fact, save for a four-foot-high female mourning statue high up in the woods, all the statues in the maintained portion of the cemetery were on the ground.

Author Ed Snyder with grounded angel

When I say maintained, I mean that the grass is cut, there is no trash, and the grounds are perfectly safe and suitable for visitors. There is a Friends group of community volunteers called the “Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery,” that is trying to help care for the property. On the Friends’ Facebook page they say that the group “hopes to raise awareness of the historic and cultural value of [Saint Michael's] Cemetery, generating interest and support for on-going preservation and restoration efforts.” What a job these good people have ahead of them! They deserve a round of applause for their efforts.

Graffitied mausoleum

Zinc grave marker
Why would they bother? Why should anyone bother? It’s all about respect, people. Not just respect for the dead, but respect for ourselves. This burial ground is part of our legacy. St. Michael’s is the last resting place of many of the Italian, German, Polish, and Slovak immigrants who once labored fiercely in the steel mills down at the river. Inscriptions in these various languages are evident on the monuments and headstones throughout the cemetery. 

St. Michael's history can be pieced together from short excerpts on the Internet – it was formerly the parish cemetery of St. Michael and then Holy Infancy, serving most of South Bethlehem’s Roman Catholics. The Lutheran church next to the cemetery has no affiliation with St. Michael's Cemetery, which is owned by the Holy Infancy Church (a few blocks west of the cemetery on Fourth Street). 

As I climbed the hill, noting the many toppled crosses and head stones, the wind began to pick up. It was cloudy, overcast, and about thirty-six degrees, the wind making it feel colder. An SUV came winding up the cemetery road. It parked and two women emerged. They spent about a half hour walking around. I was curious if they were members of the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery, and I should have gone up to them to ask, but I was too spellbound by the cemetery. It seems odd now as I think about it, but it was almost like the Stendhal Syndrome, where I just become so focused on my surroundings that I’m barely capable of processing new information. Captivating graveyards sometimes do this to me.

Graves continue on up the hill beyond tree line

About three-quarters of the cemetery is well-maintained and walkable – the lower portion, if you will. As you climb the hill toward the tree line, you begin to see grave stones and rusty plot fencing far up into the woods. And if the day is as chilly and windy as it was when I was there, you welcome the tree cover. I climbed up past a small zinc grave marker (shown above) – the only one of its kind in the cemetery, to my knowledge.

Plots with fencing in the wwods

I followed the graves into the woods, dried leaves and dead branches crackling beneath my feet. I spent about an hour roaming the hillside. Many of the individual graves were bounded by their own rusting iron fencing, something I don’t recall ever seeing in such quantity. Trees had grown through the center of family plots, breaking apart the granite coping and toppling headstones. Most of the grave sites in the woods were crumbling ruins. I assume this forested area (which accounted for maybe a quarter of the entire cemetery) had been allowed to grow wild some fifty years ago. Nature reclaims its own.

Tree growing in center of family plot
To my surprise, an all-terrain jogger passed above me in the woods – some sort of trail up above. I wondered if he even knew the woods below him were filled with graves. I wondered if he even knew the cemetery was there, or the efforts of the Friends group in trying to keep the place safe for people like him. I quote from the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery Facebook page:

“Please join us in raising awareness of this important historical resource in our community and its urgent need for restoration.”

Personally, I’ve always been a tad heavy-handed when it comes to this “raising awareness” stuff. I call it the way I see it and invariably, someone gets upset. But I feel that if you don’t put the photographs right out there where people can see them, the problems will continue. The public needs to be made aware. At that point, if they choose not to do anything about it, that’s their decision. But they can’t say they were unaware of the situation. If you’re very, very calm and diplomatic, people are less likely to pay attention.

"St. Michael’s Cemetery is the resting place for immigrants who came to America in the 19th & 20th centuries, many of whom worked at Bethlehem Steel & other local industries. The land for the cemetery was donated by Asa Packer in 1867 to create the first burial place in Bethlehem consecrated for the interment of Catholics. SM is an excellent representation of the diverse cultures that built our community – more than 25 nationalities are buried at SM. The Cemetery is also known for the nationally-recognized work of famous American photographer, Walker Evans, who made a series of photos in the Lehigh Valley during his time with the Farm Security Administration. One of his most acclaimed prints, the iconic, “Graveyards, Houses, & Steel Mill, Beth, PA, Nov 1935,” was taken at SM."

Walker Evans' 1935 photo above (ref), Ed Snyder's 2014 photo below
Now that’s interesting – Walker Evans was here in 1935, walking the same ground as me. A wonderful lesson in photographic history, that Evans saw this as an iconic scene to shoot for the Farm Security Administration. Asa Packer, mentioned above, along with Robert Heysham Sayre and Augustus Wolle built the mills on the Lehigh River in 1861 to provide steel for the railroads which brought America into the Industrial Age. Bethlehem Steel grew to be the second largest steel producer in America, until the 1960s when competition grew fierce. By 1995, the mill had closed.

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie ...

As I descended out of the trees into the open graveyard, the cold wind cut through my layers of clothing like I was wearing linen. It seemed colder than before. Fingertips numb inside my leather gloves, I balled them up to keep them warm. I glanced back and saw a female figure in the trees. It was a four-foot-high discolored marble mourning statue, a lone figure keeping her vigil over a lonely grave in the woods. This is, in fact, the last statue standing in the entire cemetery. I turned back downhill toward a tall monument with a circular platform at its top – what could this be?  I was shocked to see these white marble angel wings sticking out of the ground; the statue itself likely six feet tall (or rather, long, at this point).

Fallen angel statue, St. Michael's Cemetery

I left the partially-buried angel feeling a bit disturbed. I walked down through the lower part of the cemetery, as the light began to fade. At the front corner of the cemetery, at Fourth Street and State, sits an incredibly ornate Italian marble memorial sculpture of a leaf and vine-covered cross, fronted by the faces of a husband and wife. It is the same monument you see in the Walker Evans photo, at the bottom center of the scene (the one with the small cross). The monument is in fine condition, probably due to the fact that it and the entire front of the cemetery is raised about six feet off the Fourth Street sidewalk, with iron fencing atop a high stone wall. All this probably keeps most of the vandals out of the front section of the cemetery.

Author Ed Snyder with friends
At the front of the cemetery, fragments of Victorian-era ornamental metal fencing still mark the entrances to family plots, and many plots have large obelisks and monuments. There are four family mausoleums at St. Michael's. While hundreds, maybe thousands of the graves here belong to poor steel mill workers and 1918 influenza victims, it’s obvious that many of those interred were rather well-to-do citizens of Bethlehem. Citizens whose history is lost to the ages, and most likely lost on the three high schools boys who passed me as they cut through the graveyard on their way home from school.

Far be it for me to be judgmental with regard to why this cemetery, this memory garden, is in such condition. There are reasons why damage occurs, and reasons why ongoing maintenance drops off. I don’t know the financial condition of the owner, Holy Infancy parish. But since this is not an active cemetery (i.e., there are no new burials), then there is no income. I believe there have been no burials since the 1960s. Should there be money in trust to provide perpetual care? Probably. But considering that burial records were not even kept for the first forty-five years of the cemetery's existence (between 1867 and 1912), there were probably no funds allocated for ongoing care of the first graves.

Graves in the trees, St. Michael's Cemetery, Bethlehem, PA

I see beauty everywhere, and St. Michael’s Cemetery is quite a show piece. It should also be treated by us, collectively, with greater respect. With ongoing efforts by the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery, it could very well become the Star of Bethlehem. If you would like to learn more, visit, or help with the stabilization and restoration of the cemetery, please visit the Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery Facebook page (click here). To make donations to the upkeep of the cemetery, please visit the website of Holy Infancy Church.

References and Further Reading:
A Short History of Big Steel and Bethlehem 
Bethlehem Historical Marker 
Friends of Saint Michael's Cemetery 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Blood Washes Away; Bullet Holes Do Not; or: How to Not Get Arrested in Poland

The following article was guest-written by my good friend Jonathan M. Klein. After Jonn relayed this experience to me verbally, I invited him to share it with a wider audience. He was gracious enough to agree. - Ed Snyder 

Abandoned Jewish cemetery, Warsaw, Poland

Before we get down to the stories of my adventures in Poland, allow me to give a brief introduction.  I’m a 38-year-old bar owner from Philadelphia who has been an avid photographer for over 20 years.  I was what you might call a “goth“ for many moons, and I’ve always had a fascination with the morbid and decadent.  I first met Ed outside one of my bars when he stopped me on the street to snap some pictures of the hearse I used to own.  I have a salvaged Victorian tombstone in my front yard.  Finally, despite being a practicing atheist, I was born and raised Jewish and continue to culturally identify with the traditions, if not the religion.  I’ve been traveling regularly for 14 years and have always made it a point to explore abandoned Jewish cemeteries in the Holocaust-decimated countries of central Europe whenever I find myself in that region.  Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have all been targets of exploration.  This fall, I set my sights on Poland, which, pre-WWII, had the largest Jewish population in Europe and now effectively has none.  Having done my research, I left knowing that the four cities I was visiting had four of the biggest, most neglected Jewish graveyards in the world.

A lonely path through an abandoned Jewish cemetery, Warsaw, Poland

My first stop was Warsaw, which reading had told me was home to a humungous and extremely poorly kept Jewish cemetery that abutted an equally old, but still very much active, Catholic one.  These were on the edge of the former Warsaw Ghetto, and while I had hoped that the three mile walk from my hotel would provide some interesting sights, the bleak reality was that what the Nazis hadn’t destroyed, the Communists had.  Thus, my walk was very uninteresting, and I was chomping at the bit to use my camera for the first time that day.  It was also my last day in Warsaw, and I knew that I would not be returning anytime soon.  Imagine my disappointment when, after this long schlep to the graveyards, the simple black gate with a star of David on it was locked tight, displaying a handwritten note in Polish that pretty clearly said, “Closed Today”. 

Inside the (Catholic) Powazki Cemetery with the Jewish cemetery beyond the dividing wall

Unbeknownst to me, as a totally non-observant Jew, it was Sukot, a Jewish holiday I barely remember.  Despite the fact that the cemetery is abandoned and decaying, despite the fact that there are almost no Jews left anywhere in Poland, and despite the fact that the property is maintained by the city and not a religious authority, it was closed for the holiday.  However, I’m not one to be put off by simple things like locked gates and rules.  It occurred to me that, as I was planning on shooting the Catholic cemetery anyway, I could scout for a way to gain entrance via the shared back wall.  Imagine my dismay when reconnaissance revealed that, for some reason, the wall dividing the two properties had been almost completely rebuilt, clearly within the last few months!   

However, the work had not been completed yet, and there was one small section of the old wall, which was lower, and still had Catholic graves butting up against it.  I quickly discovered a cross tombstone that afforded me an easy foothold to vault the wall, but… It was a beautiful fall day, and the active cemetery was busy!  There were two funerals while I was there, and many people were tending to the graves of their loved ones.  So I, with my odd facial hair and bag full of camera gear, who stuck out like a sore thumb, had to skulk around for almost a half hour, trying to be inconspicuous and waiting for a clear moment to scale the cross and hop over.  I seized the moment when it came and was in the Jewish cemetery within 30 seconds.  The reward was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had in my life. 

Being the only living soul walled in with over 100,000 burials is something that can barely be described.  It was a beautiful sunny day, but the trees, which have been growing unchecked since 1942, created a canopy of such density that the lack of light was like shooting at dusk.  The only noises were the sound of autumn leaves rustling in the wind and my own footsteps, which I was desperate to keep quiet even though I knew I was alone.  Parts of the graveyard were kept somewhat clear for those few tourists who might wander in, but mostly, it was an overgrown morass of packed, toppled, defaced, and deteriorating markers for the long dead.  I only spent about 2 hours there, but that time left an indelible mark on my memory.   

After covering as much ground as I could without getting too near the gatehouse (just in case!), I returned to the low point in the wall half expecting to see a gaggle of Polish police calmly waiting to take me away.  I was trying to formulate an explanation as to why an atheistic American Jew felt it overwhelmingly necessary to break into an abandoned Jewish cemetery (on a Jewish holiday, no less!), but I could not come up with anything useful.  Fortunately, none was necessary.  My egress was just as clean as my entry, and I spent another three hours photographing the magnificent Catholic cemetery without incident.

Krakow graves in Jewish cemetery

Krakow offered a different experience.  This was a much smaller cemetery where many of the smashed tombstones had been haphazardly reconstructed by the Communists decades ago.  Because Krakow survived the war mostly intact, the graveyard, though abandoned, had a slightly touristy feel to it. The overgrowth is kept to a picturesque level, with clear paths and a fair number of people wandering through. It is surrounded by busy streets, and the former Jewish district of Kazimierz is thriving again.  This was a far cry from the decimated areas of Warsaw I had walked through.  I even got to see a Klezmer concert in a newly re-opened but historic Jewish restaurant. 

Poznanski mausoleum - largest known Jewish mausoleum in the world

The city of Lodz is actually home to not only the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, supposedly, but the graveyard itself is home to the largest single known Jewish mausoleum as well.  That mausoleum is maintained as a monument, but the rest of the cemetery, as in Warsaw, was an overgrown ruin.  I spent the only rainy day of my vacation traipsing through muddy brush, marveling at piles of tombstones that the Nazis had pulled up for use as pavers but never found the need for.   
Stacked headstones in Lodz Jewish cemetery

There are acres of beautifully carved gravestones in Hebrew simply being consumed by the woods, but which are too proud to disappear altogether.  Rusting wrought iron railings demarcate the plots of wealthy Jews whose descendants were still shipped off to the gas chambers regardless of money or status.  The grey, damp weather merely accentuated the sense of loneliness and desolation.

The forest reclaims, Lodz Cemetery

My final stop was Wroclaw.  Having again done some research, I learned that what is now the Polish city of Wroclaw was, until 1945, the German city of Breslau.  The story goes that Breslau, which was the easternmost major German city, put up such fierce resistance that, at the end of the war, Stalin, as punishment, took Breslau from Germany and gave it to Poland as part of the massive border rearrangements that marked the end of hostilities and the start of the Cold War.  I can speak and read a little German, so I was excited that I might be able to understand the inscriptions on some of the tombstones, which obviously were all pre-1945.  

"30mm in Art Nouveau," Breslau/Wroclaw cemetery

Breslau had a vibrant and wealthy Jewish community,  thus the artwork in the graveyard was supposed to be quite elegant, especially that from the Art Nouveau period.  My GPS guided me to a tiny dirt driveway which was so inconspicuous I drove past it the first time, and it wasn’t until I saw the cemetery walls that I realized I had missed it.  After looping back around and parking in the grass, I wandered up to the tiny gatehouse.  The little shack had a bit of information in English, and it was there I learned that as part of the last, desperate Nazi defense of Breslau, SS troops had taken refuge using the high walls against the oncoming Russian army. 

Bullet-riddled headstone, Breslau/Wroclaw cemetery (detail from photo below)

Bullet-riddled grave marker
The resultant gunfight did more damage to the cemetery than the years of neglect or anti-Semitic vandalism. When you wander through the graveyard, which is just barely maintained for the few tourists willing to pay the equivalent of $2 to wander around, the battle scars are everywhere.  Granite, unlike marble, never weathers – it’s why Egyptian sculpture holds up so well.  But, no stone is impervious to gunpowder and bullets.  Marker after marker bore the tell-tale pockmarks of small-arms fire.  Certain tombstones showed evidence of heavy weaponry, while some mausolea were nothing but collapsed piles of rubble.  Snapping picture after picture, I tried to follow the individual trails of gunfire, and I was filled with an odd sense of satisfaction.  The idea of Nazi soldiers, frantic and losing, holed up in a hated Jewish cemetery is surreal enough. But, being able to look at certain tombstones and just know from the level and position of the damage that someone was almost certainly shot against that marker is a whole different idea.  Nazis shot by Russians against wealthy Jewish graves – how could it not appeal to all of my cultural sensitivities?

However, reality then filtered in, and I realized that I was looking at a place where not only is someone buried, but more than likely someone else spent their last few agonizing moments of life.  As Americans, we are so insulated from many of the horrors of the last hundred years.  In that cemetery, I was standing at a place frozen in time, at a pivotal point in history.  The city of Wroclaw has moved on.  Everyone speaks Polish.  Buildings destroyed in the war have been rebuilt or something modern raised in their place.  But amongst those bullet-riddled tombs, it will always be Breslau, 1945.  Those Jewish graves, inscribed in German, chipped and broken, forever bear witness to one of the darkest chapters in human history.