Harry D. Boonin has done a lot of research in his 80 years.
He researched his own family history after his mother got a book for her birthday called Finding Our Fathers: A Guidebook to Jewish Genealogy, which piqued Boonin’s interest.
That eventually led him to serve as the first president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, which was founded in 1979 and has since grown to more than 250 members.
He spent 24 years doing research for three books he wrote about South Philadelphia Jewish history.
Now, he’s turned his research to more recent events, namely the vandalism at Mount Carmel Cemetery.
On Sunday, March 19, he will give a talk at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore about the history of the cemetery as he has found thus far, starting all the way back in the 1870s.
He pointed out that the toppled headstones that have dominated headlines is only the most recent act of vandalism in the cemetery’s history.
According to Jewish Exponent archives, the cemetery was also vandalized in October 1982.
Articles showed that more than 100 tombstones were overturned and the ground was littered with discarded beer cartons and bottles. One stone had a swastika and “Hile Hitler” [sic] on it. It was the second weekend in a row the cemetery experienced vandalism.
Then again in February 1989, 78 tombstones were knocked over, some defaced with graffiti. A similar incident occurred in November the previous year.
In both instances, the incidents were not deemed anti-Semitic.
Fast forward to 2017, and a statement from the Philadelphia Police Department, as of March 1, also has not labeled the events anti-Semitic.
“We must allow the investigation to take its course before we can determine a specific motive or label [it] as a particular type of crime,” the statement read.
But Boonin could see why people might think it was.
“You can divide something into anti-Semitism and how anti-Semitism is looked at by different people, so that’s one area, and I may stay away from that,” he said the Thursday night before his event at the bookstore, finalizing his notes.
Instead, he wanted to look at the history of the cemetery and how it got to where it is today, where the tombstones may have just been overturned by rowdy teenagers who stashed a case of beer somewhere. Or, like in the 1989 incident where the cemetery’s superintendent suspected local youths from the nearby playground.
The February 2017 incident is still under investigation and the identity of the perpetrators has yet to be discovered.
He contrasted Mount Carmel, which has been frequently referred to as an “orphan,” with few new burials and little funding for upkeep, to more well-kept cemeteries like King David Memorial Park in Bensalem.
When he visited Mount Carmel again March 3, something stuck out to him: There were no pebbles, as far as he saw, on the stones.
“There’s no one coming to see these people and if there’s no one to support it, then the fact that there’s vandalism is not that surprising,” he said.
He’s been researching the earliest beginnings of Mount Carmel. There were years where the land existed under different names.
He discovered that part of the current area of land Mount Carmel occupies was designated in 1872 atlases of Philadelphia as “the Jews’ burying ground.” His guess is that it was an early substitute for zoning.
“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t owned by some beneficial association or Jewish organization,” he explained, “but I can’t find anything in the 1870s, but it was set aside.”
In his book The Jews of Philadelphia published in 1894, Henry Samuel Morais wrote that Krakauer-Beth Elohim, later Krakauer Beneficial Association, dedicated about 100 “lots” for its members. In 1894, the area was identified in one atlas as Krakauer Beth Elohim Cemetery.
In 1897, as Boonin said, the Exponent identified the area as Mount Carmel Cemetery and a man named David Werner Amram, a member of Krakauer who is also buried at Mount Carmel, purchased the grounds. The grounds were later owned by Philip Amram, who Boonin guessed was David Amram’s son.
With stories of Jewish soldiers from World War I being buried at Mount Carmel or those who died of diseases of the time like influenza, they reflect the cemetery’s unique timeline.
“These are all normal stories,” Boonin said. “They have nothing to do with malicious conduct or vandalism, but they show you more what went on in these kinds of abnormal times.”
Throughout the years, ownership of the five-acre cemetery changed and with it so did the surrounding community.
According to an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the cemetery has been owned by Scotts Mount Carmel Cemetery Inc. for decades, “a business of the family that operated Scott’s Florist Shop on Frankford Avenue, across from the graveyard,” which has since closed.
The Inquirer also found in recent years that the cemetery has been overseen by a decade-old nonprofit organization headed by Richard Levy, who also owns Har Nebo Cemetery.
Boonin has returned to the cemetery to continue his research and has followed social media and the news for updates.
In the meantime, he is staying out of conjectures about how many tombstones were knocked over — “I didn’t try to count them so I’m staying out of that,” he laughed — and not jumping to conclusions about the reasoning for the vandalism.
Comparing it to the incident that occurred only weeks before at the cemetery in St. Louis is dangerous, he said, as it is hard to make conclusions from just two samples.
While it’s likely the vandalism was just the result of teenagers, he is being careful — as are many organizations and community leaders — to openly call it anti-Semitism.
“It’s easy to conclude with everything going on in the country that we know about that there’s more to it than just drinking beer and knocking over stones, that’s been the general feeling. Whether it’s true or not is much more difficult to handle,” he said.
As he was finalizing his notes for his talk, he expressed that he wanted only to talk to the crowd about the facts as he’s found them — and there are a lot.
“I don’t want them to learn my opinions,” he said, “but I’d like to teach them the facts of the cemetery and realizing that this is maybe not the normal cemetery and there are a lot of details that I’m sure that if someone were to put in — not me, I’m not going to do it — the time you could write almost a book on this because there is an awful lot.”
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