The Citizen Newspaper     Hamtramck, Michigan September 2000     Reprinted with permission  

Special visit   On Sunday visitors got a rare glimpse of the Beth Olem Cemetery, which is open only twice a year to the public. The cemetery, located inside GM's Poletown plant, is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the state.

Gone, but not forgotten…

By Charles Sercombe

 

One of Hamtramck’s hidden treasures was opened to the public on Sunday.

Visitors got a rare glimpse of one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the state, located within the GM Poletown plant.

The Beth Olem Cemetery is open only twice a year, on the Sundays before Rosh Hashannah and Passover. Jewish leaders said that usually a handful of people visit the cemetery, but this year about 200 came to visit.

The increase in visitors comes at a time of renewed interest in Jewish heritage.

Hamtramck was once a bustling retail and manufacturing center where a number of Jewish business owners flourished. The cemetery dates back to 1862 and the last burial was in 1948.  Beth Olem (which means “house of the world”) at one time was next door to the sprawling Dodge Main plant.

That plant was demolished  in the early 1980’s and made way for GM’s Poletown plant, which engulfed the 2.5 acre cemetery. State law prohibited the removal of the cemetery, so GM was obligated to let it remain.

Over the years, a number of the gravestones weathered, forever wiping away the names of some of the deceased.

According to surviving records, there are 1,400 people buried here. Sunday’s visitation featured a moving ceremony by Rabbi Steven  Weiss of Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Included in the ceremony were family members of some of the deceased buried in the cemetery.

Sunday’s beautiful fall, sunny sky was a picturesque backdrop for the cemetery’s park-like oasis in an otherwise non-descript industrial setting.

The age of the gravestones and weathering is what attracts the visitor’s eye, offering a fascinating look at Detroit’s Jewish history. At one time, this cemetery was considered a remote location from the Jewish community, which was then mostly located in the downtown area.

The Jewish community moved on and out of Detroit to the suburbs, leaving behind this little cemetery, which fell victim to vandals. But a series of caretakers rescued Beth Olem and continue to maintain it.

For Hamtramck history buffs, the cemetery offers some possible clues to the city’s beginnings. You’ll see gravestones with some familiar names, names that are possibly the source of some city streets here, such as Jacob, Miller and Mitchell.

There are also two gravestones for Zussman family members, but it’s not clear whether they are related to Hamtramck’s World War II hero, Lt. Raymond Zussman, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics on the battlefield. (A park across from Hamtramck City Hall is named after Zussman.)

Visiting on Sunday, one could overhear a number of stories about the Jewish community that once lived and worked here.

Rabbi Weiss noted that it’s important for the Jewish community to visit cemeteries like Beth Olem.

“We must show that we will never forget,” Weiss said.

A piece of history A visitor to Beth Olem Cemetery looks at some gravestones, many of which date back to the late 1800s.

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