Story reported February 13, 2015, The Jewish Advocate
By Alexandra Lapkin
Work has begun on righting toppled headstones. When Libby Levinson went to visit the graves of her grandmother, aunt, and uncle at Netherlands Cemetery in Melrose last fall, she said the burial grounds reminded her of European Jewish cemeteries desecrated during World War II.
Before and After Headstone repairs at the Netherlands Cemetery in 2014
“I was horrified to see that many of the gravestones were lying face down in the dirt making it impossible to find the graves of my family members,” she told The Jewish Advocate. The cemetery was created in 1859 by Jewish Dutch immigrants. “I was appalled to see that The Netherlands Cemetery had been vandalized… and I was horrified and sickened at the sight of the conditions of this sacred ground.”
Levinson called her first cousin, Gerald Pollack, who now lives in Florida, to look into the matter. Pollack, a retired attorney, reached out to Sam Fischer, whose family had owned and managed the cemetery for generations. Fischer’s family had been buried at the cemetery beginning with his great grandparents. In 1985, Fischer’s father merged Netherlands Cemetery Association with the Roxbury Mutual Society, another burial society located in Woburn. Fischer had been the manager and president of the association for almost 30 years.
In the interview with The Advocate, Fischer said that due to the lack of membership and the resulting lack of funds to maintain the cemetery, “expenses outgrew the income.” According to Fischer, the endowment fund, which was created with perpetual care payments from families of the deceased to maintain the cemetery grounds, was very small and has been used up over the years for operating expenses.
Despite its age, Netherlands Cemetery is still active, with the last burial taking place as recently as six months ago. Fischer said that the revenue he received from burial costs was not enough to maintain the grounds and fix the headstones after vandalism incidents. It is unclear at what point the Netherlands Cemetery fell into its abandoned state. According to newspaper reports, Melrose police arrested several teenagers for the desecration of 14 headstones back in 1996. Apparently, the cemetery and a nearby hill became popular drinking spots for local youth. The cemetery began falling into severe disrepair in the last four or five years. Fischer believed it would better to leave the gate open and let the teens gather and drink alcohol there, than keep the gates closed, which he thought would create the potential for worse damage, as the teenagers would force their way inside. Before a funeral or a headstone unveiling, Fischer said he would walk around the grounds and pick up empty cans and bottles. According to Pollack, from a conversation he had with the cemetery’s groundskeeper, the burial site was cleaned up whenever he got paid, which was once or twice a year.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, Fischer noted, was last July, when about eight grave stones were toppled and Fischer learned that repairs would cost $7,000. “That’s when I gave up. I said it’s time to turn it over,” he noted. Fischer added that he was able to fix some of the grave sites with the help of donated funds.
The Jewish Cemetery Association (JCAM), a non-profit Jewish cemetery association that owns and manages more than 110 cemeteries in Greater Boston, took over the Netherlands Cemetery in December. One of JCAM’s missions is rehabilitating and maintaining abandoned Jewish cemeteries. Stanley Kaplan, the executive director of JCAM, said he has been trying to take over the Netherlands Cemetery for the last 10 years. “It was a real eye sore,” he said. “[But] in this business, you have to be patient.” He added that the cemetery is now in the right hands and the $ 20,000 restoration efforts had already began, but were put on hold due to winter weather. Restoration will resume in the spring and is expected to be completed next fall.
According to Pollack, asking Fischer to turn over the Netherlands Cemetery to Jewish Cemetery Association (JCAM) was not easy. In his conversation with Fischer, Pollack learned a different story: At one point there was over $100,000 in the perpetual care fund, but the cemetery’s treasurer had absconded with the monies. When Fischer said he tried to track down the funds, he learned that the treasurer had died and so he dropped the case. Pollack learned that the stolen money was never reported. “It didn’t ring true to me, the whole thing sounded very fishy,” Pollack said. Pollack also said that he learned from Fischer that the cemetery was not insured for theft and damages.
When he asked for his relatives’ gravestones to be fixed, Fischer did so and asked for payment. “I said, ‘We’ll pay for it, but how are you going to maintain the cemetery? There are 50 other gravestones that are pushed over,” Pollack said. When he did not get a satisfactory answer, Pollack informed Fischer that he wanted him to turn the cemetery over to JCAM or he was going to Melrose Police and so Fischer agreed.
“I have mixed emotions about it,” Fischer said about giving up the Netherlands Cemetery. “It was like giving up one of your children for adoption. But from the point of what JCAM is capable of doing, I’m grateful there’s somebody out there who can take over the cemetery and restore it to the conditions that we as Jewish people would want it to look like.”