History: Uncovering a grave situation

A researcher pieces together the story of Sambusky Cemetery, one of Jerusalem's oldest graveyards.

Sambusky cemetery 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Doron Herzog)
Sambusky cemetery 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Doron Herzog)
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. For the past 30 years Herzog, a tour guide and self-taught historian of Jerusalem, has researched the history of the Sambusky Cemetery. He recently conducted a tour of the area within the framework of the Megalim Institute's 10th Annual Conference. The cemetery, spread out on an area of 15.5 dunams, is a one-minute drive from the Jerusalem Cinematheque. According to Herzog, the name "Sambusky" probably refers to the sambusak, a pastry dish eaten in the Ottoman period by the city's indigent residents. The shape of the cemetery resembles the crescent shape of the sambusak. Another theory suggests the name originates from one of the families that buried its dead in the cemetery. Herzog, 52, is the director of Another Channel, a company that produces educational events for schools and custom-made tours, often related to Jerusalem's history. His research unearthed the fact that Sambusky was the final resting place for some 9,000 Jews. Until now he has researched various registries and compiled a list of names of 1,500 Jews buried there, the dates of burial and plot locations. He is hoping to find more registries to gather more names. Herzog claims that Sambusky was not researched by others. "It is mentioned briefly in Ze'ev Vilnai's book on Jerusalem and in a book by Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Aryeh," he says. "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. "The cemetery on the Mount of Olives was the main one where Jewish residents were buried. It was in high demand because according to tradition, the resurrection of the dead is supposed to start there, and burial there ensured shortening the distance of the rough 'rolling underground.' Plots on the Mount of Olives were always expensive. Poor Jews who couldn't afford the Mount of Olives were buried at Sambusky," he says. From the 17th century until 1945, Jews of Jerusalem were buried there. The grandfather of Rabbi Ya'acov Moshe Harlap, a disciple of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook who headed the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva after Rabbi Kook's death, was buried there. It was also used as a geniza for used Torah scrolls from the Old City. "Until 1856, Ashkenazim used this cemetery. In that year, the Hevra Kadisha split into two burial societies - one for Ashkenazim and one for Sephardim. Ashkenazi Jews were then buried on the Mount of Olives," explains Herzog. Among those buried there are hundreds of Yemenites who immigrated to Jerusalem in 1882. During the 17th to 19th centuries, during the Ottoman rule, burial on the Mount of Olives was periodically banned, and Sambusky became the alternative burial ground. At times, mass burials took place at Sambusky due to many deaths from plagues. Among Herzog's research tools were photographs taken from Abu Tor, which faces Sambusky. Herzog has a photo from as early as 1855 and another from 1865. "By comparing these photos, I saw the increase of tombstones at the cemetery. The increase was due to plagues that swept Jerusalem. For example in 1856, within a five-month period, 500 Jews from the Old City died of cholera and were buried at Sambusky." Herzog's research was also based on aerial photographs of the region taken by the German Air Force during World War I. Herzog researched registries of Jerusalem's deceased, which list the different cemeteries in which they were buried. He also obtained other documents. "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. Bratslav yeshiva students hope one day to bury the remains of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (buried in Uman, Ukraine) at the Sambusky Cemetery. "They claim that according to Rabbi Odesser [a disciple of Rabbi Nahman], Rabbi Nahman wanted to be buried as close as possible to the tomb of King David, who is buried on Mount Zion. I encourage them to bury him here. It would definitely bring in funds needed for restoration," says Herzog. "The worst destruction wasn't during the 19 years of Jordanian rule between 1948-1967 but actually during the past 40 years. 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. Students from Himmelfarb High School volunteered with Herzog to partially clear the cemetery, but to no avail. After a while, the cemetery became strewn again with garbage. Shortly after coming across the graveyard, Herzog started writing to various authorities and government ministries to restore the place. He has always maintained that just as the Mount of Olive receives funds to restore its historical cemetery, so Sambusky should also benefit from assistance. Today, after decades of Herzog's work, including contacts with the authorities, Sambusky Cemetery will finally be restored. The director-general of the East Jerusalem Development Company, Gidon Shamir, said the following about the upcoming plans to restore the Sambusky Cemetery: "In general, it is within the framework of a large plan led by the government to restore and upgrade the open areas around the Old City of Jerusalem, with a special budget of the Prime Minister's Office via the Jerusalem Development Authority. The East Jerusalem Development Company is the channel for implementing the plan." According to Herzog, who is the historical adviser to the East Jerusalem Development Company on Sambusky Cemetery and participates in meetings about its restoration, the goal is to restore some 120 tombstones. "In 1973 the Sheinberg-Efroni architect firm was asked by the Religious Affairs Ministry to map out the graves in part of the cemetery. They marked 120 graves. Over the years, the graves have disappeared. I have photographs of 80 of them." Herzog matched names from the list of 1,500 and was able to cross-reference when it recorded another name to the left or right. "It was like putting a puzzle together," he says. "Today we are thinking of a more systematic approach to solving the problem. The Arabs in neighboring Kfar Shiloah have inadequate services that have to be addressed, whether this is lack of garbage collection, ineffective sewerage and lighting problems. Some of these problems are directly linked to the rundown condition of Sambusky. We hope that the Arabs see this connection between improving these services and maintaining the restored cemetery," says Herzog. Architects and engineers have completed the plans for the cemetery, and within a few months tenders for contractors will be issued and restoration will start. "This will be a great joy for me if this cemetery is fenced off and restored. Think of all the poor people buried here, many who did not have family, and how their final resting place was totally neglected and desecrated," says Herzog. The restoration plans are a hopeful sign for the month of Elul, a time of introspection and prayer when people visit their relatives' graves. Following 30 years of his painstaking work to research and restore the Sambusky Cemetery, Herzog wrote a book in Hebrew to be published by the Megalim Institute entitled The Sambusky Cemetery: The Story of the Ancient Cemetery - Mount Zion. The book will include detailed photographs and the names of 1,500 people buried there, the names discovered thus far. "The importance of Doron Herzog's work and his book is that Sambusky is one of the oldest cemeteries in Jerusalem," says the institute's director, Ahron Horovitz. "If there is no documentation about it, these people will be totally forgotten. Doron's book will be a monument for these special people."