Trumpeldor cemetery
The Trumpeldor cemetery. The style of the tombstones mirrors the development of local construction and architecture. Photo by Yuval Tebol
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The floral wreaths laid on the newly dug grave of businessman Sammy Ofer had all dried up and withered − scattered by the wind. From dust they came and to dust they returned.

All that remained were stacks of denuded stems and black plastic banners bearing the names of the corporations that esteemed the late tycoon. “The Zim family, the Israel Corporation,” “Agrexco,” “Dead Sea Magnesium Ltd. − management and workers.” So crowded was Ofer’s plot that the wreaths slid off and covered the adjacent grave. Engraved on its cracked headstone was the information that this is the final resting place of Hilda Elka ‏(spelled with the Hebrew letter ayin‏) Waldman, daughter of Moshe, who died in 1924 at the age of four. The municipal archives contain no more information about her, other than the registration in the books of Hevra Kadisha, the burial society. There Elka is spelled with an aleph and she was listed as having been born in Borislav, Poland; her parents lived in 20 Beit Hashikum in the Chelnov neighborhood there. Maybe they weren’t yet used to the Hebrew spelling of the name and stuck to the Yiddish version on the headstone.

In “The Hope of the Poet,” the late Dahlia Rabikovitch wrote: “... The best of all possible worlds, / Is a grave they’ll dig for you, / After lobbying in the mayor’s bureau, / In the cemetery on Trumpeldor Street / At a distance of sixty meters / From Bialik’s grave.”

Nevertheless − like Alterman, Shlonsky, Penn and other leading Tel Aviv poets − Rabikovitch did not enjoy “the best of all possible worlds” and was buried in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery when she died five years ago. But Sammy Ofer got a prime last resting place, and probably not because he had sinned by writing poems to be kept in the drawer.

There’s a Yiddish saying to the effect that “Shrouds have no pockets,” but in Ofer’s case it’s estimated that 10 years ago NIS 200,000 got him a coveted double plot in the Trumpeldor Street cemetery, in a place that was built at the time as a second tier above one of the old children’s sections. Now he’s buried near great Hebrew poets and novelists, Zionist leaders, cultural icons, city founders − and also next to Elka Waldman.

This old Tel Aviv cemetery does not enjoy pastoral surroundings like the old cemetery on Lake Kinneret. Nor did it inherit the stateliness of the section reserved for the nation’s great leaders on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, nor the holiness that envelopes the cemetery on the Mount of Olives. But when it comes to name-dropping, the Trumpeldor site trumps them all.

In terms of number of headstones per area, it probably houses the largest number of Zionist assets and the most concentrated representation of Hebrew creativity, in the densest and most distilled manner possible.

A sight to see

These are the reasons why the cemetery attracts large numbers of visitors every day and is mentioned in local and international guidebooks as one of Tel Aviv’s recommended attractions. Most of the visitors arrive in groups, as part of organized tours or with private guides. Such visits are aimed at people interested in local history, nostalgia buffs, soldiers and high-school and university students in various frameworks. Others come alone to pay their respects, commiserate or just to chill out on a bench in the shade of the ficus tree in what is one of the city’s quietest and most pastoral venues.

As part of Tel Aviv’s centenary celebrations, the burial society and the municipality decided to carry out an extensive rehabilitation and conservation of the cemetery. The aim was “to transform it into a heritage site and a historically worthy venue.” The first stage of the project was completed a few weeks ago.

According to Avraham Manala, director general of the city’s burial society, who initiated and led the project, the work took more than a year and cost upward of NIS 7 million. About 2,000 headstones underwent repairs, half of them on a massive scale. A small metal plaque was placed next to each restored grave. In addition, small bridges and elevated paths were built in the crowded areas, modern lighting was installed and sections of the limestone perimeter wall, which had crumbled over the years, were restored. In the future all the graves that still need renovation will be dealt with, more trails will be built, the plantings will be cultivated and a visitors’ information center will be built, which will include lavatories, a snack bar and a souvenir shop. Another NIS 15 million is needed to complete the project, Manala says, and the work will not begin until the full funding is guaranteed.

“This is a very distinctive project,” says architect Rotem Zeevi, who was in charge of planning and executing the restoration. “Beyond the great complexity entailed in every job of conservation, a great deal of thought and attention is required here in regard to the families of the deceased, the historical importance of the site and religious issues.”

Before she began to plan the project, Zeevi says, she contacted Rabbi Yaakov Roget, “who is considered a world authority in regard to Jewish burial,” and with him drew up the principles which would underlie the working methods. For example, it was decided that every effort would be made to preserve the headstone on which the deceased’s details were engraved.

Zeevi: “In addition to the fact that the stone reflects the desire of the deceased’s family to glorify his name, it is also their way of expressing a personal, unmediated dedication to him. Accordingly, only in cases where the headstone could not be restored did we create a new one, and even then as faithfully as possible to the original. We relied on old photos and on an in-depth study we made of the manufacturers of the headstones and their working techniques. In any event, we always placed the remnants from the old headstone in the grave. First of all, to ensure that no secondary use would be made of them, as this would defile them, and also out of a desire to leave the deceased with the most authentic possible family souvenir.”

Zeevi says that the research project turned up the names of seven artisans who, over the years, created most of the headstones. Some engraved their names at the end of the tombstone; others were identified by means of the masonry style they developed or by their use of distinctive fonts.

“We found all the chronological traits of construction in Jaffa and Tel Aviv,” Zeevi says, “ranging from carved limestone to sand bricks, silicate and concrete with its range of coverings.” Similarly, the conservation team also versed itself in the technique for making the likenesses of the deceased individuals, which appeared on some of the headstones, mostly in the 1930s and 1940s.

Zeevi: “We found that the images were created by a technique of burning on porcelain, which was then glazed over in the same way as ceramic tiles are. We were not able, however, to figure out the exact way this was done and create new portraits to replace those which broke or disappeared over the years. We did not want to sacrifice even one of the pictures remaining on the headstones and send it for analysis to a specialist laboratory in Italy. We repaired those we could or reattached them to the headstone. According to seals we found on the backs of the pictures, we understood that at least some of them were made in Germany. There may have been other factories, but we were unable to examine this further without risking the existing portraits.”

A dunam for 80 franks

The Trumpeldor cemetery was established even before the city of Tel Aviv was founded, and thus, technically, should be considered as being part of Jaffa. In the summer of 1902 a cholera epidemic swept Palestine. The disease, which originated in Egypt, struck the local Arab population in particular. Tens of thousands of laborers − who at that time of year were employed in great numbers at orchards and farms close to the coastal towns, in substandard hygienic conditions − perished. At the recommendation of a delegation of physicians from Constantinople, the Turkish authorities ordered the epidemic victims buried outside the municipal boundaries. For this purpose, they allotted Jaffa’s Arab population a plot of land close to the tomb of Sheikh Abdul Nabi, the site of the present-day Independence Park and Hilton Hotel. Jaffa’s small Jewish community received the plot on which the Trumpeldor Street cemetery now exists, on “mahlul land” − i.e., abandoned and unworked property.

The circumstances of this development were reported in the Jerusalem-based newspaper Hashkafah in November 1902: “Thanks to the effort of Mr. Shimon Rokach, the purchase of 12 dunams [3 acres] of land for the cemetery has been completed. Each dunam cost 80 franks. The reason was as follows: One of our brethren died in the epidemic and the government wanted to bury him in the special place for those who die in the epidemic, but the Jews, led by Mr. S. Rokach, protested against this. They made their position known to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem came a report that the Jews would be given a special place for this purpose. Mr. S. Rokach thereupon purchased the field from their Excellencies, the government authorities, for a cemetery.”

A week later, the newspaper editor published a clarification: “I wish to deny the report that arrived from Jaffa concerning the sale of land for the Jews who died from cholera. The 12-dunam plot of land is indeed in the hands of us Jews. But it should be noted that it was given to the Jews for nothing; we are now only awaiting an official order from Stamboul [Istanbul] stipulating that this land has been given to us, and we the Jews are obliged to utter great thanks to His Excellency Hafiz Bey the governor of our city, who has always, always commiserated in the troubles of our wretched brethren ... for [his] work for the benefit of the city as a whole and for our benefit in particular.”

In any event, on Friday, October 20, 1902, the first grave was dug in the heart of the dunes north of Jaffa. Shmuel David Granson, the second Jewish cholera victim, was laid to rest in it. ‏(The first victim, Aharon Ben Moshe Sidis, the representative of the Sephardim on the Jewish Council, was buried in Jaffa before the new regulations took effect.‏) Many members of Jaffa’s small Jewish community attended Granson’s funeral, ignoring the Turkish authorities’ prohibition on leaving the city for fear of spreading the disease.

Cemetery records published in 1940 note that during the funeral, “as a talisman to stop the epidemic, parchments of holy books were buried in a special grave and a wedding ceremony was held for two couples.” About a month later, the newspaper Havatzelet reported that the two couples had been wed “with drumming and dancing.” The report concluded by asking God to put an end to the epidemic, “so that we shall know no more grief.” According to the Rokach House archive, that very evening the sky clouded over, rain fell, the heat wave broke and − the epidemic ended.

In short order the Jews resumed burying most of their dead in the old cemetery of Jaffa, which is now on Marguza Street in the Ajami neighborhood. Others continued to carry the dead in a long and exhausting journey to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The so-called new cemetery in what would become Tel Aviv was at first considered distant and isolated.

Burial society records show that only one or two people were buried there a month on average. Children who died continued to be buried in Jaffa.

In the introduction to the book of the new cemetery’s records, the chief rabbi of Palestine, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, writes: “The way to the site was studded with piles of sand, which in many cases prevented the pallbearers from advancing. Often the coffin was left by the wayside in order to regain strength or wait for the arrival of new pallbearers.”

Lost in the dunes

In order to demarcate the cemetery’s boundaries, the dead were at first interred in the far reaches of the property. A wall was eventually built in 1909, mainly to protect the graves from the wandering dunes that threatened to bury them. To this day, there are apparently a number of lost graves, which were dug before the wall was built.

The headstone of Granson, the first person buried in the cemetery, was covered over by sand for many years before it was found. City folklore recounts stories about funeral processions that got lost in the dunes. In one case, it was said that the pallbearers in a nighttime funeral mistakenly reached the banks of the Yarkon River. Only when they felt the damp on their feet did they realize where they were and turned back. The testimony of one of the city’s founders relates that in one case pallbearers asked Meir Dizengoff, later the city’s first mayor, where the cemetery was located. He pointed toward the dunes and said, “That way. Go straight until you get there.”

Because Jewish religious law prescribes same-day burial of the deceased, even at night, the first city leaders decided to place a pole with a lamp on it midway along the path in order to show the way after dark. Several histories of Tel Aviv relate that the Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood was founded when a representative of the Yemenite ‏(Teimani‏) community was posted next to the lamp and was responsible for lighting it. In addition, the Carmel produce market evolved a few years later from booths that offered mourners on the way from the city’s first neighborhoods to the cemetery something to drink.

With the establishment of the first Jewish neighborhoods north of Jaffa, combined with the rise in hostilities between Jews and Arabs, less use was made of the old cemetery in the Ajami neighborhood. When British forces began to make their way here during World War I, a number of graves were moved to the small cemetery outside Jaffa. The reason was related by the late Prof. Yuval Ne’eman in an article he wrote in the bulletin of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Ne’eman wrote that his father told him that a Turkish officer informed the leaders of the then-newly founded city of Tel Aviv that the Jewish cemetery in Jaffa would be used as a British artillery position in order to defend the port. The officer added, “Those whose dead are buried there can evacuate them, provided the evacuation ends by morning.”

Ne’eman’s great-grandmother, Buba Yocheved Moshli, died in 1887 and was buried in Jaffa. He wrote that “the challenge [of dealing with the grave] was met by her son-in-law, Abba Ne’eman, assisted by his sons Gedaliahu and Ezra. The three dismantled the grave, placed its contents and headstone on their backs, and under the guidance of Meir Dizengoff − at the time the head of the neighborhood committee − walked northward through the dunes until they were distant enough from the cholera Dizengoff mentioned, and reached the site where the dead had been buried since the epidemic of 1902. There they placed the transferred grave on the sands, and within a few days Abba Ne’eman built a metal fence in his workshop, as the grave was in an open area, alone in the sands.”

In the meantime, the city grew rapidly and soon surrounded the cemetery. Officially, burial at Trumpeldor stopped after the opening of the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery in 1932 − “apart from a few and special instances of public figures and dignitaries, and of family members who had purchased plots in their lifetime,” as the cemetery’s book of records notes. Those few cases are estimated to total more than 1,000, and in the recent past there has been an average of about one burial a year at the site.

Those interred at Trumpeldor in the past decade include former MK Aryeh Lova Eliav, the singer Shoshana Damari, former navy commander-in-chief Shlomo Shamir and Prof. Ne’eman. Burial society director general Manala says that “fewer places remain today than you can count on the palm of one hand.”

It’s not clear exactly when a burial plot in the cemetery on Trumpeldor Street became so valuable. In the few years during which the cemetery operated, all the city’s dead were buried there. Some of them were famous but most were what’s known as “ordinary people” − pioneers, men and women, young and old, children, family members and also those without a family. The first steps toward pantheon status occurred in the wake of the funerals of the victims of the Jaffa riots in May 1921. The Jewish community in Palestine was small at the time and the descriptions of the atrocities and murders shocked the residents of nascent Tel Aviv. “Due to the riots in Jaffa, all manner of meetings throughout the Land of Israel were postponed and all parties and celebration canceled,” the newspaper Hatzfira wrote. “Schools across the country were closed for four days. The newspapers on May 3 appeared with black borders.”

A monumental tombstone was erected over the victims’ graves, which to this day is considered one of the cemetery’s iconic elements. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a mass grave - though the six victims of the 1929 disturbances are buried together in a nearby grave. The victims of the 1936 riots were also laid to rest here without any fuss, even though the Nahalat Yitzhak site was already operating. In September 1946, remains of residents of the Polish town of Zdunska Wola who perished in the Holocaust were interred in the Trumpeldor cemetery. The event was one of the first encounters of the Jewish community in Palestine with the horrors of the war in Europe. The monument that was erected above the burial place of the remains is the largest and most prominent in the cemetery.

Rising status

The cemetery’s national status was bolstered at the end of the British Mandatory period.

Burials presented opportunities for Zionist activity and in many cases were perceived as demonstrations of strength and unity in the face of the British authorities and the Arab population of Jaffa. The British police responded accordingly. In periods of tension they prohibited the display of national symbols, such as the wearing of uniforms of the Zionist youth movements in funeral processions. In October 1943, a few members of the right-wing Betar movement, who arrived for the funeral in the Trumpeldor cemetery of the poet Shaul Tchernichovksy in their uniforms and sounded trumpet blasts as a sign of mourning, were arrested by the police.

Three years later, Tel Aviv, too, was placed under curfew in the wake of the detonation of a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by the Jewish underground organization Etzel.

Some 20,000 soldiers and police accompanied by armored vehicles and tanks entered Tel Aviv at 4 A.M. on July 30, 1946. After life returned to normal, the newspaper Davar reported, “It has now been learned that the army also operated in the old cemetery of Tel Aviv during the curfew. The searchers damaged a few graves. Some were destroyed and the headstones uprooted. Members of the cemetery council examined the damage. This act of disrespect for the deceased is cause for reflection.”

The cemetery’s prestige was also enhanced by the reburial there of the remains of Zionist leaders who died abroad. In 1926, the remains of Max Nordau, who had died in Paris three years earlier, were brought to Palestine and reburied at Trumpeldor. Afterward, the remains of the former chief rabbi of Vienna, Zvi Peretz Chayut, who died in the Austrian capital in 1927, were reburied in the same graveyard. This custom continued after Israel’s establishment in 1948.

A further significant contribution to the cemetery’s status was made by the Hebrew Writers’ Association, founded in 1921. Four of the association’s members were killed in riots that year − the best known being Yosef Haim Brenner. Following their internment in the cemetery, the association was given a plot there, which became the final resting place of many of its members. The archives of the Tel Aviv municipality contain letters written by the “national poet,” Hayyim Nachman Bialik, in which he requests that another author or poet be buried at Trumpeldor.

“One of the outstanding pupils of Ahad Ha’am, of blessed memory, who was a wise teacher in institutions of higher learning in America, and also wielded both pen and verbal rhetoric to disseminate the doctrine of Hebrew nationalism and culture,” Bialik wrote about the writer Shalom Maximon, who died in 1932. According to his last will, “his remains were brought up to the Land of Israel to be buried close to his mentor.” Bialik concludes the letter with a request to the burial society “to allot the deceased a distinguished place of burial close to Ahad Ha’am and without payment, as this is impossible for people, and the deceased also merits this because of his importance and honor.” Dizengoff added his signed recommendation at the bottom of the letter.

Despite the cemetery’s respected status, it suffered from neglect for many years. The proximity to the sea affected the tombstones. Shoddy materials were used in building the first graves and maintenance was erratic. Hundreds of complaints were made over the years to the municipality, to the burial society and in the press. Everyone was appalled at the overcrowding, the refuse and the general shabbiness of the place.

In 1965, writing in the newspaper Ma’ariv, journalist and writer Tikwah Weinstock painted this picture in Maariv: “Despite the ‘eminent personages’ buried there, the cemetery is extremely shabby. The old-timers who visit the place have apparently become accustomed to its neglected state. For decades there has been talk of making improvements. True, not much can be done in the way of improvement in the face of the terrible overcrowding ‏(one actually steps on graves in the memorial service for Bialik‏), but good will can generate substantial changes even here.”

A spokesperson for the Tel Aviv municipality responded a week later that Weinstock “has exaggerated,” adding: “The truth is that in the cemetery on Trumpeldor Street, taking into account the conditions of the place and the crowding of the graves, renovations have already begun on ruined headstones. In addition, trails are being paved, trees planted and so forth, and this work is still continuing.”

At present, the old cemetery is squeezed between ugly walls and buildings. It is small, crowded and lacks uniformity and order. The plots are small, sometimes split, the pathways are packed, and for the price of a plot here you can buy a mausoleum for the whole family in a rural area. In many ways, the cemetery is a miniature replica of the city: The style of the tombstones mirrors the development of local construction and architecture. The first stones were fashioned in a style that was common in both Jewish and Muslim cemeteries in the region for hundreds of years: horizontal flat structures made from local stone, with a marble plaque with the deceased’s name affixed in the middle. Later, new styles were added and the headstones became taller and more decorative.

As the city began to develop, headstones emulating the design of the early buildings began to appear. At first they were in an eclectic style, combining Eastern and Western motifs; afterward, in the late 1930s and in the 1940s, headstones in the International Style of architecture appeared.

‘Great excitement’

The recent restoration project has not only helped to preserve the cemetery; it also revealed many of the secrets of the place which were buried over time and under mountains of neglect. Headstones that had been covered over by sand from the sea decades earlier were uncovered and cleaned, inscriptions that had faded were reconstructed and repainted, missing letters returned to their places, unknown stories of the dead showed signs of life. Thus, the grave of Batsheva Goldstein ‏(Bluwstein‏), sister of the poet Rachel, who is buried on the shore of Lake Kinneret, was uncovered. Burial society records show that she was buried in 1946, close to her brother, Yaakov Bluwstein ‏(Sela‏), but over time the headstone sank, was covered by sand and disappeared. Zeevi relates that there was “great excitement when we found the grave and exposed the relief of a harp that appears on it.”

Also uncovered were inscriptions and dedications which had faded over time, including a lamentation from the Book of Jeremiah engraved on a copper dome erected above the grave of Miriam Kantrovich, who died in 1924, at age 35: “Miriam! I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.”

The delicate harp-shaped carvings that adorn the headstone of the composer Hanina Karchevsky were also rediscovered and renewed after years of exposure the elements.

Karchevsky, a music teacher, director of the Herzliya Gymnasia school choir and the composer of popular songs, killed himself in 1925, at the age of 48. The inscription on his headstone is, “If the harp is shattered, its sounds still shall delight ...”

The process of cleaning the headstones also turned up the “signature” of sculptor Avraham Melnikovn the cemetery. Melnikov is best known in Israel for his sculpture of the roaring lion above the grave of Josef Trumpeldor at Tel Hai in Galilee, but he enjoyed greater success in the mid-20th century in London as a portrait sculptor. Three of his sculptures can be found in the old Tel Aviv cemetery: one above the grave of pioneer Bezalel Jaffe; another above the grave of Dov Goldberg, a key Zionist activist in Russia and England, who died in the Arab riots of 1921; and the third over the last remains of Chaya Novomesky, the mother of Moshe Novomesky, who was a key figure in the Zionist movement in Siberia and was the founder of the Dead Sea Works.

Restorators still have a great deal of work ahead of them. Dozens if not hundreds of headstones in the cemetery are broken and crumbling. Many of the buried have no living survivors who can pay for the maintenance of their graves. Manala relates that the burial society has approached a number of ministries for help in preserving the cemetery and to declare it a national heritage site. However, he says, no one has replied positively. The sale of the last few remaining grave sites is helping to underwrite the costs of the conservation work, but this source will dry up when the plots run out.