By Fredricka R. Maister
“Oh, my God!,” my sister Jody shouted. “There’s a homeless person sleeping here.”
I ran over to where she was standing. A man, fully clothed (fortunately), was lying on the grass, passed out, stone cold. A suitcase, articles of clothing and a mattress were nearby. Empty bottles, food containers, plastic wrappings and other trash were strewn everywhere.
This space had obviously become the man’s home. I wondered how long he had been living there or whether it was a temporary abode for the summer months.
What made the scene most bizarre was that he was not living in a park or in the backyard of an abandoned building but in an old Jewish cemetery situated in a residential neighborhood of Trenton, New Jersey. He had found an oasis of safety, peace and quiet in this sacred site, away from the crime-ridden streets of a run-down city which, even as the state capitol, had long lost its glory and prestige. Jody and I stayed far away from him just in case he was mentally unstable or violent.
Trenton is the city where we were born and raised and the final resting place of our two sets of grandparents and parents which, I shamefully admit, we almost never visited since they passed decades ago. I had been to this particular cemetery on Liberty Street once as a child to visit my dad’s parents, Fannie and Jacob Maister, and my father’s brother, Benny, who was buried next to them.
With the mass exodus of Jews from Trenton over the years to the suburbs, nearby Pennsylvania, Florida and to parts unknown, visits by later generations of relatives to this cemetery dating to the 1880s were, we were told, few and far between.
Jody, who lives in Baltimore, met me in Philadelphia, where I live, and we drove to Trenton to visit the four cemeteries where our forebears were interred. We had talked about such a visit for years, but it never happened. Now that Jody was planning on moving to Austin, Texas, there was a sense of urgency to visit for what might be “the last time.”
Liberty Street was the first stop on our cemetery tour. Surprisingly, despite its age, the cemetery looked upgraded and well-maintained.
Even though it was Father’s Day, Jody and I were the only visitors that Sunday until three men suddenly appeared at the open gate of the cemetery, pointing to us. One started making his way onto the cemetery grounds. There we were, two women all alone, vulnerable to robbery or worse yet, physical or sexual assault. I stared back at them, and Jody took out her cellphone as if to call the police, and the men retreated to a house across the street.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t the foggiest notion as to the whereabouts of our family plot. We were given location numbers for the three graves by the synagogue, now based in Bucks County, which were useless. There was no directory at the cemetery to consult and no numbers displayed anywhere. And there was no one answering the phone at the synagogue.
For more than an hour, we walked around in frustration, checking out every headstone and footstone, but there were no Maisters to be found until my sister happened to look in the direction of the homeless man, still sacked out on the grass, and noticed the back of a large tombstone marked “Maister.”
To our shock and dismay, the homeless man had taken up residency on what we considered hallowed ground, the burial plot of our ancestors.
We walked to the other side of the tombstone, which was equally distressing.
Set between two large shrubs, the markers of Fannie, after whom I had been named, and Jacob were barely visible until we brushed aside the overgrowth covering their names. But where was Uncle Benny? He was supposed to be next to my grandparents. “He’s gotta be here,” I kept telling Jody. In a panic, I got down on my hands and knees and frantically started digging under a shrub until I finally hit his marker, which had been totally submerged under a heap of dead leaves and trash.
Jewish Exponent June 2022 monthly reportAlthough I have no recollection of Benny and Jacob, who both died when I was only 3 years old, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart connecting me to my uncle who I heard was a hunchback, having fallen from a tree in Russia as a child. It was gut-wrenching to discover that the ultimate proof of his earthly existence had been denied him in death.
Jody and I called the synagogue the next day and e-mailed photos of the man and his belongings sprawled out on our family plot and me finding my way to Uncle Benny.
“We cannot apologize enough to you and your family. I know how disheartening it had to be, to be at loved ones’ plots, and see them in that condition,” the synagogue administrator e-mailed back. She said they had contacted the Trenton Police to deal with the homeless man, with whom they already had an issue, and would arrange to clean up the grounds around our family’s plot.
I shudder to think what would have happened had we not stopped by to pay our respects. How much longer would the homeless man have stayed and littered our family plot? Who would have known about Uncle Benny’s grave marker hidden under all that rubbish? Would anyone ever have discarded the trash and tended to the overgrowth covering Fannie and Jacob?
As someone who embraces the notion that everything happens for a reason, I have to conclude that it was bashert (the Yiddish word for destiny) that brought Jody and me to that cemetery on Liberty Street on that particular day. While we are still appalled and upset at the desecration we witnessed firsthand at our family’s gravesite, we are also grateful that we were there to restore the honor and dignity of our dear departed ancestors.
A former New Yorker, Fredricka R. Maister is an essayist/memoirist now based in Philadelphia. Her personal essays and op-eds have appeared in a variety of print and online publications