Reuma Weizman, widow of Israel’s seventh president Ezer Weizman, moves with difficulty among the ancient tombstones in the Trumpeldor Cemetery, on her way to the grave of a woman she did not know. Nobody has visited the grave for decades. The headstone is worn but one can still read the inscription: Mina Weizmann Lau, the sister of the first president, Chaim Weizmann.
The search for the grave started some six months ago.
“One day I received an email from the Weizmann Institute asking if I knew where Chaim Weizmann’s sister, Dr. Mina Weizmann, was buried,” says Reuma Weizman, who is almost 90.
“How could I know? I was 24 when I joined the Weizman family and only heard of her from stories Ezer told here and there,” she says. Mina Weizmann, who had been a doctor at Hadassah Hospital, died at about the time Reuma was born.
“One day the institute sent me a photo of a grave with a beautiful creeper growing over it. Suddenly I said, I think that’s Trumpeldor,” she says.
Later she found another photograph from a relative’s album, showing the headstone clearly. “That’s when I knew it was Trumpeldor,” she says. “Today’s cemeteries don’t have upright headstones, so as not to hide each other.”
The grave was located in Trumpeldor Cemetery with the help of the Hevra Kadisha burial society.
Mina Weizmann was one of 12 siblings. An old book about the Trumpeldor Cemetery says she was born in 1890 in Motol, Poland and educated in Pinsk and Kiev secondary schools. She studied medicine in Zurich. In 1918 she came to Israel from Moscow and worked as a doctor in Hadassah hospital.
The book says she was “the wife of deputy governor Captain Lau.” But Reuma says that as far as she knows Mina was divorced. At 35 she died without leaving any children. Over the years, as her close relatives passed away, the grave was simply forgotten.
Weizman was told by the cemetery’s conservation architect Rotem Ze’evi and the CEO of Hevra Kadisha’s Tel Aviv branch, Avraham Manela, that Mina’s grave would be included in the second stage of the graveyard’s rehabilitation, due to start in a few months’ time.
Hevra Kadisha and the Tel Aviv municipality are footing 3.5 million shekels each of the 8 million-shekel project, while the national heritage department in the Prime Minister’s Office will contribute the remaining million shekels.
The first rehabilitation stage, launched during Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary, was completed three years ago. The city and burial society documented all 5,400 headstones and renovated some 2,000. They also rebuilt parts of the cemetery wall, built paths and small bridges in the crowded areas and put up signs and lighting. The second stage consists of renovating some 1,000 headstones, installing a new gate from Tiberias alley to the cemetery, building a plaza and paths, and reconstructing the northern wall and three southern gates.
Trumpeldor Cemetery was built in 1902, first for Jaffa’s Jews and once Tel Aviv was founded, for the city’s residents. The cemetery was almost completely filled in the 1930s and burial there stopped with the building of the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery in 1932. In recent years only those who had purchased burial plots in advance or famous national figures were buried in it, such as singers Arik Einstein and Shoshana Damari. Last month Tel Aviv’s former longtime mayor Shlomo Lahat was buried there. Today it is no longer possible to buy plots in the cemetery.
“It was decided to keep the few remaining places for great figures – it’s not a matter of price but of principle,” says Manela.
The visitors to Trumpeldor Cemetery consist mainly of tourists and students. Families rarely frequent it as most of the burial ended more than 80 years ago.
“It’s an important historic cemetery, we see it as a national pantheon,” says Manela. “We also have a plan to build a visitors’ center that would tell the story of the figures [buried here] and offer a virtual tour.”
Reuma is convinced the result justifies the investment. “I’ve already found six other Weizmanns in Kiryat Shaul following this story,” she says.
The architect, Ze’evi, estimates there are about 400 graves in the cemetery with unknown persons in them and hundreds of others who have been forgotten over the years.
“Each headstone encompasses the story of an entire, well-known family,” she says. “Many who didn’t live in Tel Aviv at the time were also buried here because there weren’t that many cemeteries then. We’ve uncovered loads of stories someone who died on the ship to Israel and was dragged by friends off the ship and buried here. Preserving the headstones is a way of learning the story of how Israel was built and founded, not in a history lesson but to see it with our own eyes.”
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