The Human Spirit: Lovely bones

To see my great-great-grandparents’ remains treated with respect and honor, draped in a tallit and a white burial cloth was uplifting.

Exhumed remains brought to Israel 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Exhumed remains brought to Israel 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A few weeks ago, you might have noticed the black-and-white boxed notice in The Jerusalem Post, which read: On the eve of the holy Shabbat Chayei Sarah, the coffin of our ancestors of blessed memory, Reb Giacomo Ya’acov Tedesco and his wife, Therese Yirat Tedesco, arrive Friday in Israel.
They passed away more than 140 years ago, were buried in Paris and were exhumed from their graves by city ordinance, and placed in an ossuary for more than 10 years alongside hundreds of others who have yet to find rest. The funeral will take place in the Erez Hayayim cemetery near Beit Shemesh on 23 Heshvan, 5774.
Behind the notice lies a drama that bridges the world’s first ghetto, cholera epidemics, Impressionist painters, a story from Les Miserables, a Tulsa oilman and one determined Orthodox woman from Jerusalem.
Here’s the gist of it: Debbie Heller Lifschitz, a literature professor at the Michlala College for Women in Jerusalem, was always enthralled by genealogy. She remembers making family trees as a teenager in New Rochelle, New York. Her unconventional parents gifted her with the language tools for research, interrupting her American religious day school education with a year in Israel and three years in France so that she would acquire proper language skills. She moved to Jerusalem after high school. In 2004, Lifschitz attended the 24th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Jerusalem. “I learned a lot about how to do genealogy research,” she said.
In her own family, she could trace her ancestry on her mother’s side back to the Venice Ghetto, where Jews were locked into crowded streets from the 16th century until nearly modern times. Her great-great-grandfather, Giacomo Tedesco, was born in 1799 in the Ashkenazi quarter of the ghetto.
He spoke Yiddish, which made his integration easier when he left the Italian art capital and moved to greater freedom in France.
“The only family story I was unable to confirm was that he was shipwrecked on the way, and had to swim ashore,” said Lifschitz.
In Paris, a city of burgeoning art, Giacomo opened a painters’ supply shop, and, in 1833, married Therese Cerf, 12 years his junior, from Lisdorf, Germany.
They had 11 children. When aspiring painters were short of cash to pay for their brushes and canvases, they often paid their debts with paintings. Tedesco’s shop became a gallery. Indeed, at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Lifschitz found listed on Tedesco ledgers: John-Baptiste Camille Corot, John Louis Ernest Meissonier, Rosa Bonheur, Paul Cezanne, Eugene Delacroix, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
The seven Tedesco daughters married well – into rabbinic and prosperous business families in Germany.
According to Lifschitz, their devout parents preferred the stricter religiosity of the Orthodox German Jews to their own French brethren. After Parisian weddings, the brides moved to Germany. This turned out to be a boon for Lifschitz. French archives before 1870 were burned in the Commune uprising which followed the Franco-Prussian War, but in the preserved German marriage registries, much of the family data was still intact.
The French Tedescos strove to improve local Jewish life. Giacomo helped establish synagogues, a Talmud society, Paris’s first ritual bath after the Revolution, and the first government-approved butcher shop that sold only kosher meat. He was a founding member of the Jewish mutual aid burial society. Among the indigent were Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms. Like Fantine in Hugo’s Les Miserables, young women were forced to turn to prostitution to survive. Tedesco provided for the brit mila for boys born to these women and gave them their mothers financial aid. He was a proponent of the importance of circumcision and was himself a mohel.
Two of the Tedesco children and a grandson visiting from Germany died in a cholera epidemic in 1873. Therese died in 1867, Giacomo in 1870. There are no Jewish cemeteries in France except for the province of Alsace-Lorraine. They were therefore buried in a squared-off Jewish area of the Montparnasse Cemetery. Liftschitz’s own great-grandfather Abraham, the youngest of the 11, and the other surviving brothers inherited the art gallery.
In 2006, on one of her early research trips to Paris, Lifschitz said Psalms at the graves of her great-grandparents, Abraham and Sophie Cramer Tedesco. Her great-great-grandparents, Giacomo and Therese Yirat, were listed as well, but their graves were missing.
To her horror, a computer check revealed they had been dug up and their bones were boxed in the ossuary of the Pere Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
An epic battle ensued, with Lifschitz fighting French bureaucrats to have her great-great-grandparents brought to Israel for reburial.
Lifschitz hired three different lawyers, enlisted relatives, involved Jewish organization officials in France and Belgium.
Each time she thought she was closing in, new hurdles arose.
For instance, there were closer relatives. Her grandmother, Julie Tedesco, daughter of Abraham and Sophie, was living in Paris when a relative brought over a tourist friend from Tulsa.
Sam Travis was a Lithuanian Jew who was making his living in oil prospecting in Oklahoma. Julie eventually gave up Paris for Tulsa.
Their daughter, Lifshitz’s aunt, Ruth Perl, was actually one generation less removed from Giacomo and Therese Yirat than Lifschitz herself, and according to French law needed to be the litigant. Other cousins at this genealogical level lived in England, the US and Israel, and each needed to sign off on the proposed bone transfer.
Fortunately, all the Tedesco relatives – including the rabbis – agreed that the bones should be reburied in Israel.
That was back in 2008.
An intractable obstacle still had to be overcome: Giacomo’s bones were found to be mixed with another set. French authorities refused to have them DNA tested so they could divide the bones.
“We were really at a loss here,” recounts Lifschitz.
“We couldn’t legally ask to have a stranger’s bones sent for burial to Israel. Then we remembered the grandson who had died of cholera on a trip to Paris.”
Perhaps these were the mixed bones! Still, nothing happened. Relatives around the world sent hundreds of letters directed to their countries’ embassies in France. A French Jewish magazine got involved. European Jewry was now asking to rescue all the exhumed Jews from the bone collections before they were cremated. At last, an invitation arrived from the French consul-general in Tel Aviv. He requested a pow-wow.
Finally the bones would be released.
On October 22, the remains of Giacomo, Therese and the child were packed and sealed in a coffin. A rabbi cousin from Metz, France accompanied the bones to the airport. An El Al jet delivered them to Israel.
In Israel, the Chevra Kadisha divided the bones and prepared them for burial.
Notified by phone and email, descendents of Giacomo and Therese, who would be buried by their Hebrew names, Yaakov and Yirat, prepared for the funeral. A fair number of the Israeli women were also named Yirat, which means fear of God. Buses from Kiryat Sefer, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem converged on the cemetery in Beit Shemesh. Three hundred men, women and children stood by. Families Bamberger, Sanger, Bing, Wechsler, Hirsch Steindecker, Goldschmidt, Yutkowki, Yutav, Bernstein, Bistritzky, Perl, Neuwirth, Weiss, Hildesheimer, Schrieber, Schwartz, Adler Emanuel, Sohlberg, Schlessinger and others were represented.
Among those who were asked to eulogize the dead was Rabbi Yehezkel Lifschitz, one of Debbie’s children.
It’s not every day that a young rabbi gets to preside over the funeral of his great-great-great-grandparents.
In Hebrew, he told their story to the many relatives present, who had only heard fragments.
“It wasn’t a sad funeral,” said Lifschitz. “After all, the dead passed away 140 years ago. It was a joyous family gathering where we were eager to get to know each other.
To see my great-great-grandparents’ remains treated with respect and honor, draped in a tallit and a white burial cloth was uplifting.
“We were all filled with happiness and thankfulness that they had a final resting place in the Land of Israel.”
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.