The Duck Farm Cemetery and the Flu Epidemic of 1918: The Story of Rose Paikin Isaacson

by Karen S. Franklin

To mark the centennial anniversary of the Spanish Flu pandemic, New Jersey historians studied the Washington Monumental Cemetery in South River. Their work addressed the mystery of a long-established legend in the area – that an open field in the southeast corner of the cemetery was home to hundreds of unmarked graves of flu victims. A radar survey suggested the burial of about 400 individuals in that section.

The illness had swept through New Jersey causing the deaths of thousands of people in the fall of 1918. New Jersey had been especially hard hit because servicemen returning to Fort Dix from Europe brought the disease back with them, and because there was a shortage of doctors as many were serving in Europe.  There are hundreds of articles referencing influenza in the Paterson newspaper, The Morning Call, and other local papers, in 1918 and 1919 (indexed and available on newspapers.com).

With this in mind, I wondered if Rose (Raizel) Paikin Isaacson, a resident of Paterson, was a victim of the flu epidemic in 1918.  At the time of her death in December of that year, Rose was only 38 years old and had been in the country little more than a decade, having likely emigrated from Joniskis, Lithuania, where her husband was from. The youngest of her four children, Ethel, was only seven years old.  

As often happens when a person dies young, the family history is lost to later generations. Thus, the details of her death and burial were not known by her descendants. We sent to New Jersey for her death certificate (click on the image at the right).

The document arrived a few weeks later, bringing us more uncertainty rather than less. Yes, Rose had died of pneumonia from influenza, but the place of burial listed on the death certificate was Duck Farm Cemetery. What? There is no Jewish cemetery by that name. Several undertakers in the area were perplexed by the entry. Even JOWBR’s expert Nolan Altman had never heard of it! Had Rose been buried in a mass grave like that of Washington Monumental Cemetery – but at a duck farm?

It took a bit of research and calls to several local cemeteries and historical societies to figure it out.

What made the identification of Rose’s place of rest particularly challenging is that there is a tombstone for Rose with her husband Samuel in the Stein-Joelson Cemetery adjacent to the A. M. White Lodge Cemetery in Totowa. Was she actually buried there? Could she have been buried in a mass grave for flu victims at a duck farm and a tombstone erected in her memory?

We checked with Meyer Levine of the Cemetery Association of the Jewish Federation of North Jersey, who confirmed that her body was in the plot.

Exactly what was the Duck Farm Cemetery then? The answer was to be found with the assistance of Regina Fitzpatrick at the New Jersey State Library. She discovered a January 30, 1958, article in Paterson, New Jersey’s The News regarding a proposed route for the “Bergen-Passaic Expressway,” which was to become Route 80. At the time, the plan was for the road to go “west through Stein’s Cemetery, the Duck Farm, Hennie Coal Co…” The piece suggests that the Duck Farm and Stein’s Cemetery (Stein-Joelson), were adjacent. Other articles from the 1930s and later refer to the Duck Farm, or Abram’s Duck Farm, as a site where outings and events were celebrated.

More about the cemeteries: The A. M. White Lodge, I.O.B.A. (International Order of Brith Abraham) was incorporated in 1898. The Stein-Joelson Cemetery, adjacent to it, was founded in 1924. It is a separate section within the A. M. White Lodge Cemetery today. It has not been possible to learn more about the cemetery in the past weeks because of shutdowns related to our current pandemic, COVID-19, but we can see that the first burials in the A. M. White Lodge cemetery date from the turn of the century, shortly after the organization was founded. The Stein-Joelson section was used by Congregation Beth Hamedresh Hagadol, known also as the Water Street Synagogue (today Water Street is Presidential Boulevard). It was situated near the silk mills and the Passaic River. Its members were silk mill workers who came from Eastern Europe following the 1905 pogroms there (the Isaacsons arrived in 1906).  

  We surmise that the section where Rose was buried was known locally as the “Duck Farm Cemetery” because of its proximity to a duck farm.  But the slang was not suggested elsewhere on Google (that we could find).  Dr. Joan Salomon suggests that Rose may have been buried in a part of the cemetery that was unused at the time.  

Where does JewishGen fit into the story? We wanted to learn more about Rose’s family, so we turned to the JewishGen website. I remembered the work of Elsebeth Paikin of Denmark, who was active in Jewish genealogy some years ago, working on the Paikin family. Wandering through her messages indexed in the Discussion Group Archives, I discovered a family website for the Paikins, the Paikin Genealogy Project. Though not currently active, the site provided some tantalizing information. We knew that Rose was likely from Joniskis. There was a Paikin family in Joniskis! Six children were born to Beryl and his wife Feigel Paikin. Their ages are not listed, but the timeline is quite plausible. Four of the children moved to South Africa. But Raizel, according to the site: “emigrated [sic] to the US, where she died in a garment workers factory fire.” The author of the tree indicated she was unable to find any details about Raizel in the United States.

Could Raizel Paikin be the same person as Raizel Paikin Isaacson who died in the Spanish Flu epidemic? The fire story might have been a “mis-remembered” event, suggesting the possibility that her death was shrouded in tragedy and conflated with another. What makes the connection even more plausible is that Raizel/Rose’s death certificate indicates her father’s name as “Baer” – he may have been known as “Dov Baer,” a common name, that could easily be the same person as “Beryl” found on the Paikin web site.

More work needs to be done to learn about the early burials at the A. M. White Lodge Cemetery in Totowa, to confirm the relationship between Rose and the South African Paikens, and to connect with Paikin cousins.  But at least we’ve solved, in part, the mystery of the “Duck Farm Cemetery.”  

If any of you know of the Paikin or Isaacson families of Joniskis, Lithuania and Paterson, New Jersey, or know more about the Duck Farm Cemetery, please be in touch. I can be reached at: karenfranklin@gmail.com

Thank you to Esther Brumberg and Dr. Joan Salomon for their assistance in researching this story. We acknowledge the help of Regina Fitzpatrick of the New Jersey State Library, and Meyer Levine of the Cemetery Association of the Jewish Federation of North Jersey. Published with the permission of Joel Isaacson, a great-grandson of Rose Paikin Isaacson.

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Karen S. Franklin is Director of Family Research at the Leo Baeck Institute, New York. She has served in many roles in the genealogy world, including as President of the IAJGS and Co-chair of the Board of Governors of JewishGen, and is now a member of the JewishGen Advisory Committee. Karen is the recipient of the 2019 IAJGS Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

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