The DougBlog
"Et sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!" —Baudelaire

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Digging Up More Old Relatives (and the Relatively Famous)

You may recall a few months ago that I’ve been researching my family tree. Last year my grandma turned 100 and my Papa died. Both of these events brought back so many stories from our family’s past, stories of the people and events that gave us life and shaped who and what we are today. But these stories are also disappearing—so I’ve made a project of collecting and preserving them.

Toward that end, you’ll also recall from a previous blog that my mother and I headed out to some cemeteries to dig up some old relatives from her parents’ branches (the Hirsches and the Maxmans/Millers)—and found them. Well, this time it was the Tischlers’ turn as I headed out to Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Queens for some on-site research. And, since I was making the trip, I also checked out the graves of some celebrities buried in the area—so those of you who don’t care about the family stuff can skip ahead to find the final resting places of some really random people like Harry Houdini.

I already knew that my Papa’s parents Lena and Morris are buried there. Still, I thought it would be nice to pay them a visit and pay my respects since I never knew either of them. Lena died of breast cancer when she was only 50, before she even became a grandma. Morris died about 20 years later:

The bigger question I had was about one Barrie Tischler. It was only during my genealogy quest that I learned that my Papa (who the oldest of Lena and Morris’ children) had a little brother who died as a baby. Lena was already 41 years old when she gave birth to him, and he lived only 12 days before succumbing to pneumonia. Some research revealed that he was buried in the same cemetery, but according to the cemetery records there was no grave marker for him on the site. But I checked it out anyway, and in the way back corner of the Workmen’s Circle, in an area where infants were buries, there he was:

So I guess it’s nice that he’s not been forgotten. Finally, from Census records I knew that Lena’s mother, Bella Kessler, had come to America. My guess is that her husband Meyer died and she came to America to be with her children. So I thought that maybe, if Lena was buried here, her mother might be as well. Sure enough, she is. To my knowledge, she is only one of two Great-Great-Grandparents of mine who came to America (from Podlesie, which was then in Austria but historically [and now] in Poland) and the only one I’ve found. Plus from the Hebrew on her stone I can tell that my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather’s name was Moshe Hahn!

Alright…now on to the celebrities!

The most notable grave in the area is that of Harry Houdini, next-door in Machpelah Cemetery. Of course Houdini was the famous magician who died on Halloween, 1926, from a punch to the kidney. His real name was Ehrich Weiss and he was a Jew from Hungary. His ornate family plot has been an attraction ever since because he promised his wife, if it was at all possible, that he would contact her from beyond the grave. She held a séance every year on Halloween, and to this day the tradition is continued. So far there’s been no definitive word from Harry from the great beyond…

The plot is impressive, but the rest of the cemetery is a wreck (which, I guess, adds to the spookiness, but is kinda sad). Plenty of visitors have left the usual stones, but also some more unique mementos:

One odd thing to note is the date of his wife’s death: “19__”. This is because she ended up being buried with her parents in a Catholic cemetery because her Catholic family was afraid she wouldn’t get into heaven if she were buried in a Jewish cemetery. The other odd thing is that most of the other family members are identified only by their relationship to Houdini, such as “Mother” or “Grandmother”, without even their name:

The lovely monument features both his stage and real family names, and the seal of the Society of American Magicians:

Another historic celebrity in the area is Leo Frank. For those of you who don't know the story, Frank was a Jewish businessman who ran a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia. He was accused of raping and murdering 13-year-old factory employee Mary Phagan despite any evidence whatsoever. During his trial the judge allowed to windows to remain open so the jurors could hear crowds outside chanting, “Hang the Jew!” Frank was convicted and sentenced to death in a trial that was pervaded by other examples of virulent anti-Semitism. Georgia’s Governor courageously went against popular opinion to commute Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, whereupon he was kidnapped from his jail cell and lynched by prominent southerners who were rebuilding the KKK. While half of Atlanta’s Jews fled in terror, others came together to form the ADL. The state of Georgia finally issued an official posthumous pardon in 1986.

Now we’re getting really random…I guess death makes for strange bedfellows. The Tischlers have the honor to be buried near legendary opera tenor Richard Tucker. One of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, Tucker also served as his temple’s cantor on high holy days. His funeral was the first and only held on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, and his heirs started the Richard Tucker Foundation, which helped launch the careers of singers including Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, and my good friend Patricia Racette:

More randomness…Edward G. Robinson, an actor noted for his tough-guys and appearance in The Ten Commandments (he’s in the Goodman family tomb):

Minnie and Simon, parents of the Marx Brothers:

Legendary Jewish writer Sholem Alechem, whose stories of life in the shtetls were the basis for Fiddler on the Roof:


Not a celebrity, but the smiley face delicately drawn and placed on this recent burial (name removed for privacy) was cute but awfully freaky:

Not to mock the dead, but what were this guy's parents thinking when they named him?!


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