Resurrecting the dead: the ghosts of past Jewish San Franciscans
Adolph Sutro, the former mayor of San Francisco, stood by his wife’s grave, a long slab of granite nestled on a slight incline near the top of the Home of Peace cemetery in Colma.
Sutro then pointed to his name, chiseled on a step near his wife’s tomb, and explained that he really wasn’t buried there. He had been disinterred and buried in three different spots. His remains had been moved so many time no one knew were they rested.
Sutro, of course, was not the actual Adolph Sutro, but an actor in a long black frock coat and black top hat. He had come to perform at the Home of Peace/Hills of Eternity on Sunday Nov. 2 as part of the cemetery’s 125th anniversary. The event was named Buried Treasures: An Underground History Fair. He was joined by a handful of others dressed as Levi Strauss, Wyatt Earp and his wife Josephine (she was the Jewish member of the family), Alice B. Toklas, and Julius Kahn and his wife Florence Prag Kahn, both former Congressional representatives from San Francisco.
The characters spanned centuries but they all had one thing in common: they were famous Jews from San Francisco. They were part of a day long event put on by Temple Emanu-el and Temple Sherith Israel called was Buried Treasures: An Underground History Fair. The idea was to expose people to the rich history of the cemeteries.
The two temples, which formed in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, had their own, separate cemeteries in San Francisco until 1889, when land became so valuable that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned all cemeteries in city limits. So even though Jews and others had been burying their dead in the center of town for almost 40 years, they had to dig them up and move them south. Colma is now a city with more dead bodies than live ones: some put the ratio at 1,000 to 1.
I had come to the celebration to stand in front of the massive Hellman tomb, built by my great great grandfather Isaias W. Hellman around 1908. He had purchased the tallest spot in the cemetery and hired an architect to construct a crypt that would dominate those around it. His beloved wife, Esther Newgass Hellman, had died unexpectedly at age 58, and a stricken Hellman wanted to honor her memory.
The best part of the day was all the conversations about where people had come from. I met a couple from Montgomery, Alabama and they explained the Jewish history of that city. There was a woman who had come from the Ukraine in 1990 after a surge of anti-Semitism. She had a harrowing story. And there was another man who had grown up thinking he was Christian, only to discover that his grandparents were Jewish and had hidden their identity.
My curiosity was piqued when the actor playing Adolph Sutro told me his body was not at the cemetery, but lost. I Googled around and found this newspaper article that said his relatives had dug him up and buried his ashes above the old Sutro Baths, so Adolph could look at the view of the ocean and Cliff House.
You learn something new all the time!