DEVELOPMENT, DECLINE and RENEWAL of OLD JEWISH CEMETERY

Jewish Graceland Final Resting Place of Many Early Community Leaders

by Mark Mandle

Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Historical Society newsletter, June 1986.

In a busy neighborhood on Chicago’s north side lie three cemeteries – one nationally famous, Graceland Cemetery; the other two obscure. They are Wunders Cemetery and the Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery. The latter is commonly referred to as Jewish Graceland and will be so referred to in this article. Graceland Cemetery is famous for the prominent people buried there and the beautiful architecture of its tombstones and mausoleums; Wunders Cemetery, founded by German Lutherans, and Jewish Graceland are important because they are two of the oldest cemeteries in Chicago. Indeed, Jewish Graceland is the oldest Jewish cemetery still extant. All three cemeteries were founded in the early 1850’s around the intersection of Irving Park Road and Clark Street. They all may have been part of a single cemetery at one time. In the 1850’s they were far outside the city’s northern boundary, North Avenue.

Founders Were Community Leaders

The Hebrew Benevolent Society was founded in 1851. Its founders included David Witkowsky, an early president of Congregation B’nai Sholom (the second oldest synagogue in Chicago, now a part of K.A.M. Issiah Israel Congregation). Other people active in the society were Ellias Greenebaum, founder of a major mortgage bank; Lazarus Lebolt, whose sons founded the downtown jewelry company; Leopold Sonnenschein, father of Hugo Sonnenschein, a prominent Chicago lawyer; Simon Rubel and David Dreyer. One of the society’s main purposes was to create a Jewish burial ground. There already was a similar group, the Jewish Burial Ground Society, which was then burying people in what is now Lincoln Park. (See Joseph Levinson’s article “Lincoln Park was Location of Earliest Jewish Burial Ground in Chicago Area” in Society News for January, 1983.) The new society was probably started because its members hailed from Posen, then in Prussia, now in Poland, while the other group’s members came from Bavaria.

Four Cemeteries Occupy Original Plot

The Hebrew Benevolent Society had paid $600.00 for the three acres of land currently known as Jewish Graceland. Due to its close relationship with Congregation B’nai Sholom, that congregation bought an acre of the land from the society for its own cemetery. The synagogue had a spin-off later in the 1850’s called the Society of Benevolence and Relief of the Sick. This society also bought land for a burial ground from the Hebrew Benevolent Society for a cemetery. However, the Society of Benevolence eventually went bankrupt and sold its section to a Laurent Clody. Mr. Clody’s section is now owned by his niece, Charlotte Wells, and her husband Ron Wells. The Wells family has maintained the cemetery since the 1920’s. A fourth section was sold to Congregation B’nai Zion, a north side congregation with no connection to B’nai Sholom. Thus the three acres comprised four Jewish cemeteries. The first burial at Jewish Graceland seems to have been in 1854. The second burial at the cemetery is interesting because of the deceased’s family connections and the manner in which he died. Emanuel Frank was a brother-in-law of Michael Reese whose benefactions resulted in the Michael Reese Hospital. A contemporary newspaper account explains his untimely death. “Emanuel Frank…was drowned at Lake St. bridge under the following circumstances. The bridge was closing but had not come together and he walked off into the river. He was nearsighted and it was supposed he did not observe the situation of the bridge, as it was nearly dusk.”

Prominent People Interred There

Several prominent people and ancestors of prominent people are buried at Jewish Graceland. Colonel Marcus Spiegel (1829-1864) is one of the Civil War veterans buried there. He has an imposing tombstone which includes a weathered likeness of his face. Colonel Spiegel was one of the organizers of the Hebrew Benevolent Society in the 1850’s. Having moved to East Liverpool, Ohio, before the Civil War, Colonel Spiegel served in the 67th Ohio Infantry and was a Civil War hero. He is a member of the family that established the Spiegel mail order and catalog store. Buried next to him is his wife, Caroline F. Hamlin Spiegel, a member of a prominent non-Jewish Chicago family. Caroline Spiegel was apparently the first Chicagoan to be converted to Judaism. She was converted in 1853 before an ecclesiastic court.

Resting Place for Hannah G. Solomon

Hannah Greenebaum Solomon is buried nearby. Mrs. Solomon is a member of the Greenebaum family, outstanding Chicago Jewish pioneers. She was a devoted communal worker, best known as the organizer of the National Council of Jewish Women and its president from 1893 to 1905. She also organized the Jewish Women’s Congress, which was part of the Columbian Exposition and was a moving force in several other women’s organizations. Rabbi Aaron Messing, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Sholom three times during 1868-1870, 1873-1876 and 1890-1906, is buried in the cemetery. So are two early presidents of Congregation B’nai Sholom, Caspar Summerfield and Jonas Moore.

Edna Ferber’s Grandparents Buried There

Some well-known Chicagoans have ancestors buried at Jewish Graceland. Among them are novelist Edna Ferber’s grandparents, the Newmans, and the great grandparents of Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Frederick Schwartz, Bennett and Bertha Cowan. The cemetery contains only one family mausoleum. Most tombstones are in English, though a few have Hebrew or German inscriptions. Since so many of the people buried in the cemetery had come from Germany and were soon assimilated, English inscriptions predominate. With assimilation, participation in Freemasonry became popular and several Masonic inscriptions are to be seen.

Few Leaders Guide Cemetery Affairs

The Hebrew Benevolent Society was run for many decades by three dedicated men, Arthur Bonheim, Dr. Sidney Klein and Alan Whitney. Mr. Bonheim was prominent in Jewish education, and Mr. Whitney was head of the society until his death in 1984. Mr. Whitney was a grandson of David Witkowsky, a founder of the cemetery. The current society head is Howard Eiseman. There have been problems with erosion and vandalism at the cemetery for many years. A report written in 1931 talked about erosion of cemetery tombstones. Serious acts of vandalism in the cemetery began about fifteen years ago. There has also been a continuing problem with cemetery maintenance since four organizations owned different parts of the whole.

News Stories Result in Action

These problems were publicized last year in three articles in the Chicago Tribune written by Michael Arndt. The second article, entitled “Graveyard Buried in Troubles” and published on Rosh Hashanah, galvanized the Jewish community. One group, led by Hans Spear, a Holocaust survivor, has been at the cemetery several times to clean it up. Mr. Spear’s group has been made up of members of nearby Anshe Emet Synagogue. They have cleaned away refuse with power saws and with hoes. Another group, the Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois, is in the process of recording and cataloging the graves. Its members have been at the cemetery for two day-long “read ins.” The society has read and checked readings for all of the approximately 3,000 people buried at Jewish Graceland.

New Records Discovered

It was thought that all cemetery records before 1911 were destroyed in a fire. Recently, a treasure trove of records going back to 1854 were discovered. A preliminary inventory indicates a Children, Adult and Family Lot Register covering the years 1855 to the present. Records and tombstones before 1871 are particularly important because all city death records were destroyed in the Chicago Fire of that year. The cleanup and cataloging groups are continuing their missions. If you are interested in assisting with the cleanup, please call Anshe Emet Synagogue at 251-1423 and leave your name. The Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois hopes to catalog and integrate the tombstones and the office records and to put them into a computer. This will be a large project because of the erosion, the vandalism and the vast array of records.

Preliminary Results of Survey

A preliminary survey of part of one section indicates the extent of erosion and vandalism over the years. Of 324 tombstones surveyed, 247 or 77% of them were legible. Fifty-six tombstones were illegible due to erosion or vandalism and twenty-one tombstones were entirely missing due to vandalism. It is hoped that by going through cemetery records and doing tombstone rubbings we can discover who are buried in some of the seventy-seven unknown graves. Jewish Graceland is a historical site valuable as a record of the development of the early Chicago Jewish community. It is gratifying to see the beginning of the renewal of the cemetery after years of general indifference.


Chicago’s first Jewish cemetery, situated in what is now Lincoln Park, soon had to move to another site, which also proved to be temporary. But the second Jewish cemetery, established over 150 years ago and known as Jewish Graceland, still exists and is the area’s oldest Jewish cemetery. Mark Mandle, who here traces the checkered history of that burial ground, has four great-great-grandparents and two great-grandparents resting there. He wishes to thank Robert Friedlander and Charles B. Bernstein for assistance in the form of information concerning the unusual death and burial in Jewish Graceland of his great-great-grandfather, Emanuel Frank. A Society board member and former officer, Mr. Mandle is employed by Crain Communications, Inc.

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