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Historic Jewish cemetery in Caribbean fades away

Associated Press Modified: November 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm •  Published: November 25, 2012

The cemetery occupies what was once plantation land on about 10 acres on the outskirts of Willemstad. The oldest confirmed inscription is from 1668 on a stone made of potter's clay, according to records maintained by the synagogue. Congregation members have determined more than 5,000 people are buried there, but only a third of the inscriptions are legible in a mix of languages that includes Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and Hebrew. Also vanishing are some of the engravings known as sepulchral illustrations, some of which are considered artworks.

Ivan Becher, president of the Shaarek Tsedek synagogue in Willemstad, said his grandfather was among the last to be buried in Beth Haim nearly 60 years ago.

"My grandfather's grave is pretty well kept, but with the rest of the graves, there is a lot of erosion," he said. "It's too bad."

Experts who have studied the headstones say the deterioration is caused by a combination of factors, including wind, salt air and humidity, said Michael A. Newton, an architect who works with the Curacao Monuments Foundation, a preservation group.

Many on the island also blame the oil refinery that towers over the cemetery and on many days spews sooty clouds that burn the eyes of visitors to Beth Haim as well as those of residents in the poor neighborhoods of the area.

A spokesman for the refinery, which is owned by the Curacao government and operated under contract by Venezuela's state-owned oil company, did not return calls seeking comment.

The refinery's operators have occasionally helped with the cemetery's maintenance, which has otherwise cost the congregation "many, many thousands" of dollars over the years, Maduro said.

Congregation members have consulted with experts from the Netherlands and the United States on possible solutions to halt erosion, but the options were too expensive and considered long-shots at best.

Jewish law forbids disturbing remains so moving the cemetery to another part of Curacao that would be less threatened by refinery smoke is out of the question, Maduro said.

Frankel, the New York architect, said that preservation has also proved difficult for other historic cemeteries in the Caribbean that no longer receive burials and have dwindling populations of Jewish heirs to care for them.

"In places where pollutants are not a problem, there are other challenges," she said. "Vegetation grows fast and furious in the subtropical climate. Goat herds — which exist even in urban centers — make their way through open cemetery gates. And as Caribbean cities become more densely populated, cemeteries sometimes become garbage dumps where public sanitation is lacking."

But appreciation of the cemeteries as historic sites has grown over the past two decades, Frankel said, with local governments, academics and congregants are working together to document, study, and preserve them while also making them accessible to the public.

The Curacao cemetery is occasionally visited by tourists from the cruise ships stopping at downtown Willemstad.

Maduro hopes future visitors will also be able to view the cemetery virtually, on the hoped-for website.

"Not that we can preserve it, but we are trying to make it easier for people to know what's there and who is buried there," he said.


On the Web:

Official website of the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curacao


Associated Press writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from Mexico City.