Fir Street Cemetery

Cleveland's Second Oldest Jewish Cemetery

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." Emma Lazarus' immortal words from her poem "The New Colossus," etched on the Statue of Liberty, had special meaning to one immigrant family buried in this historic Jewish cemetery in Cleveland.

When James and Fannie Horwitz experienced the unspeakable heartbreak of losing a child--their 2-year-old son Aaron in January 1865, they undoubtedly found some consolation in burying him in the new Jewish cemetery out in the countryside, west of the Cuyahoga River in Brooklyn Township, on a charming little lane called Peach Street (later to be renamed Fir Street). The cemetery had just been opened that year by the Hungarian Aid Society (HAS), an organization formed in Cleveland in 1863 by Morris Black, Herman Sampliner and others, for the purpose of providing aid, including burials, to Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Aaron Horwitz was the organization's first burial at the new cemetery.

Aaron's father James (or Jacob as he was known in Europe) was a Vienna-trained medical doctor, and his mother Fannie a sister of Michael Heilprin, a brilliant Hebrew scholar. Both men were Polish Jews who lived in Galicia, an area of historic Poland that had been "annexed" by Austria in first partition of that country in the late 18th century. In 1848, both men had become ardent supporters of Lajos Kossuth and the Hungarian Revolution. And when the Hapsburgs defeated the insurgents and Kossuth fled Hungary, both men also did the same. Horwitz, immigrated to Cleveland, via Sandusky, practicing medicine before turning to business enterprises. Heilprin went instead to New York, where he became a celebrated Hebrew scholar, a friend of Horace Greeley, and mentor to the young poet Emma Lazarus. Several sources attribute the inspiration for Lazarus' 1883 poem "The New Colossus" to a meeting she earlier had with Michael Heilprin. Heilprin was both inspiration to Emma Lazarus and the uncle of an unfortunate young boy who was the first person to be buried at the new Jewish cemetery in Brooklyn Township.

The cemetery where Aaron Horwitz is buried we know today as Fir Street (or Fir Avenue) Cemetery. The second oldest Jewish cemetery in Cleveland, it is actually three small, separate historic cemeteries which are located on a rectangular-shaped piece of land bounded on the north by Fir Avenue; the east by West 59th Street; the south by Bayne Court; and the west by West 61st Street. The center cemetery, where Aaron and other members of the Horwitz family are buried, was owned by the HAS until 1963 when the land was deeded to the Jewish Community Federation (JCF) of Cleveland. While the first burial took place there in 1865, permission to operate a cemetery on the grounds was not officially granted by the City of Cleveland until 1880, several years after the section of Brooklyn Township in which it was located was annexed to the City.

The western cemetery was established by Anshe Emeth, the largest and oldest conservative Jewish congregation in Cleveland. It was founded by Polish Jewish immigrants in 1859. The Congregation made its first purchase of land on Fir Street in 1877, the same year that it was granted permission by the City to establish a cemetery on its grounds there. Anshe Emeth, in the twentieth century, merged with Beth Tefilo congregation to form Park Synagogue Anshe Emeth Beth Tefilo Congregation.

The eastern cemetery may also have been founded by Polish Jews, although there is some mystery surrounding the identity of the two Jewish organizations which owned the land in the nineteenth century. Chebra Kadisha, which acquired the land in 1866, was identified in the conveyance deed simply as a "religious organization." Thirteen years later, in 1879, through its trustees, it deeded the land to the B'nai Abraham Cemetery Association, an organization for which no records appear to exist. Chebra Kadisha may have been an early congregation which later merged with other congregations to form what became, in the twentieth century, the Heights Jewish Center (HJC). Or, it may have simply been a "burial society."

Among the locally famous residents of Fir Street Cemetery are: Herman Sampliner (1835-1899), founder of the B’nai Jeshurun Congregation; Harry “Czar” Bernstein (1856-1920), owner of Perry Bank and the Perry Theatre, and city councilman allied with Mark Hanna; Moses A. Adelstein (1813-1903), organizer of Cleveland’s first Russian synagogue and first free Jewish cemetery, Lansing Cemetery; Isaac Goldman (1858-1919), Cleveland’s first Jewish building contractor; Fanny Jacobs (1835-1928), founder of Park Synagogue’s sisterhood; Rabbi Gershon Ravinson (1848-1907), a 10th-generation rabbi who became a leading scholar of Talmud; Reverend Elias Rothschild (1858-1914), a kosher butcher with a reputation for offering meals and beds to the down-and-out. Rothschild is believed to have saved the Hebrew Free Loan Society when it ran into financial difficulty.

This final resting place of so many locally famous Clevelanders, as well as families with heart-wrenching stories like the Horwitz's, Fir Street became an inactive cemetery in 1971, after the last burials there took place. In the decades that followed, the condition of its grounds steadily deteriorated, in part due to acts of vandalism and in part because the Cleveland Jewish community had moved east, leaving the cemetery geographically distant from its founding congregations. The condition of Fir Street Cemetery troubled Cleveland Housing Court Judge Raymond J. Pianka, who been interested in the history of the cemetery, and the strange inscriptions on its gravestones, ever since he was a young boy attending Waverly Elementary School, just a block away from the cemetery. In 2007, he and a stalwart group of neighborhood residents collaborated with Park Synagogue and successfully formed a coalition of funding, organizations and volunteers that, over the next two-year period, renovated and restored the cemetery, cleaning its grounds, fixing broken grave stones, planting trees and hundreds of tulip bulbs, and repairing the entrance gate and signage. Since the completion of these repairs and renovations in 2009, the cemetery has been maintained by Park Synagogue Anshe Emeth Beth Tefilo Congregation with financial assistance from the JCF. Fir Street Cemetery is now, once again, a source of pride not only for Cleveland's Jewish community, but also for the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.

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