Jerusalem: A hidden cemetery

It’s not only in Eastern Europe that forgotten or descrated Jewish cemeteries are being being rediscovered. It also happens in Jerusalem.

A one-minute drive from the Jerusalem Cinemateque, the Sambusky cemetery covers 15.5 dunam (3.75 acres). A researcher of the area for 30 years, Doron Herzog, first saw the remains in 1978. Today he’s a tour guide and self-taught historian of Jerusalem.

One day in 1978, shortly after completing his IDF service, as Doron Herzog took a walk from Kfar Shiloah (Silwan) to Mount Zion, he noticed tombstones engraved with Hebrew writing and pieces of graves strewn all around him. “I realized that this was the location of a Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was desecrated and gravestones were destroyed. Interested in finding out more about the cemetery, I discovered that there was no material about the place,” he recounts.

The Jerusalem Post carried the story about Herzog and Sambusky.

There are two theories about the cemetery’s name. One is that it refers to a crescent-shaped Sephardic pastry called sambusak, and the site is also that shape. The other is that it might relate to the name of a family whose ancestors are buried there.

His research indicates that some 9,000 Jews were buried there and he has compiled – from various registries – a list of 1,500 Jews buried there, along with burial dates and plot locations. He’s looking for additional registries for more names.

“Sambusky was neglected by researchers and authorities for various reasons,” maintains Herzog. “Nobody of importance is buried there as compared to the many dignitaries at the Mount of Olives cemetery. There are no burial caves dating back to Second Temple times. There are no conflicts with haredim, since roads are not planned there.”

But what really compelled Herzog was the fact that those buried there had no descendants or family who took care of their graves. “These people were on the fringes of society. Nobody took an interest in them after they were gone,” he says.

He says that the Mount of Olives was the main Jewish cemetery and much in demand as a final resting place because of Jewish tradition – that the resurrection of the dead will start there. Burial plots there were expensive, and those who could not afford those resting places were buried at Sambusky.

Jews were buried there from the 17th century through 1945, and it was used as a geniza for damaged Old City Torah scrolls. Askenazim used the cemetery until 1856, when the Hevra Kadisha (burial society) split into separate Ashkenazi and Sephardi groups – the Ashkenazim were then buried on the Mount of Olives.

Herzog says hundreds of Yemenites – who arrived in 1882 – were buried there, and that periodically the Ottomans banned Mount of Olives burials, resulting in Sambusky burials.

It was also the location for mass burials related to frequent plagues afflicting the city.

In addition to historical photos from 1855 and 1865, he also used WWI German air Force photographs. In 1856, as one example, there were 500 burials (from a cholera epidemic) in a five-month period.

“Those buried at Sambusky were often impoverished and simple people. Some of the deceased were unidentified. Some were orphans or people without family. A few of those buried there have descendants today who cannot visit their graves,” says Herzog.

Desecration was bad during Jordanian rule from 1948-1967, but that the worst was during the past four decades, he claims.

After the Six Day War, some 300 tombstones were still intact. In 1973 this dropped to 135, and today there are maybe 10 tombstones. Horses roam the cemetery. Exposed bones were found. Cars travel through, and tractors dump dirt and building material. An Arab resident constructed a mosque by adding a crescent to a barrel on the roof of his home on the site,” Herzog says.

Although student volunteers have helped to clear the cemetery, it once again filled with garbage.

According to the article, Herzog has been writing to authorities and ministries to restore the site and that funds should be provided for this purpose. Some progress is finally being made. The East Jerusalem Development Company’s director-general Gidon Shamir said that the project is part of a plan to restore and upgrade Old City open areas via Prime Minister’s Office special budget.

The project will restore about 120 tombstones mapped in 1973 by the Sheinberg-Efroni architectural firm at the request of the Religious Affairs Ministry. Over the years, all have disappeared, but Herzog has photos of 80 of them.

Herzog has written a Hebrew-language book to be published by the Megalim Institute. “The Sambusky Cemetery: The Story of the Ancient Cemetery – Mount Zion” will include detailed photographs and the rediscovered names of 1,500 people buried there.

Read the complete story with more information at the link above.

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