GRANADA, Nicaragua (May. 18)
Judaism has never taken center stage in Nicaragua’s tumultuous history, but the tiny part of this city’s historic cemetery that was set aside for Jews is prominently placed. Sitting next to tomb of Nicaragua’s first president, Fruto Chamorro, and lying in the shadow of mass graves built for leftist Sandinista soldiers who died fighting the U.S.-backed Contra rebels in the 1980s, the cemetery is the most prominent public display of Judaism in Nicaragua.
It also reflects the struggles the faith has faced here.
The “Cemeterio Ysrelita” was founded in 1878 by the German-Jewish Tefel family to bury their nine-month-old baby Jacobo. With just 13 graves, it’s one of the smallest Jewish cemeteries still in continual use in the Americas.
But the Tefels abandoned this city for the capital of Managua more than a century ago. And like most of this country’s old Jewish families, the Tefels abandoned Judaism, converting to Christianity by the 1930s.
As a result, five of the graves, including the most recent, used in 1993, display crosses, not Stars of David.
As many as 20 of the Jewish families that arrived here before the 20th century converted to Christianity. While they don’t hide their Jewish roots, they also express no desire to return to Judaism.
Former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites, who recently was booted from the Sandinista Party for challenging former president and U.S. nemesis Daniel Ortega for the party’s leadership, is the most prominent descendent of these Jews.
“My grandparents left the children free to choose their religion,” said Dr. Guillermo Pasos-Wolfe, owner of Granada’s emblematic Alhambra Hotel, who oversees care for the cemetery. “My grandmother converted after my grandfather died.”
Both of Pasos-Wolfe’s parents are buried in the cemetery as Christians, as is his grandmother, though his grandfather is buried as a Jew. The Pasos family, which through marriage has ties to the Tefel and Salamon families, also buried here, considers the cemetery its private plot.
Alejandra Boza, 28, great-great-granddaughter of the Tefel patriarch and owner of a cafe overlooking Granada’s picturesque central plaza, is proud of her Jewish ancestors, but she is Catholic.
“I have faith in God, just like my Jewish ancestors had their faith in God, so I don’t believe there is much of a difference,” she said. Her toddler daughter — the sixth generation of Tefels in Nicaragua — stood next to her.
The Jewish cemetery, which used to be distinct, has been swallowed by the general cemetery, the final resting place for about 50,000 people.
Before the Panama Canal was built, Granada was a major stopping point for travelers who wanted to get from the east coast of the United States to the west. Cornelius Vanderbilt made it the hub for shipping lines; his boats would come in from the Caribbean, go up the San Juan River, and cross Lake Nicaragua, docking at his pier there. Passengers would disembark and continue to the Pacific on Vanderbilt’s train line.
Granada also was William Walker’s base of operations for his failed attempt to make Nicaragua a slave state — and one of the United States — in the 1850s.
For Kurt Preiss, who lives in Granada and is one of roughly 30 identified Jews left in Nicaragua, the cemetery is a rich historical resource for the city, which rebuilt itself in the colonial style after Walker burned it to the ground in 1857.
Today, Granada is becoming one of Central America’s top destinations for tourists, who are drawn to its architecture and its idyllic setting on Lake Nicaragua, bordered by the Mombacho and Masaya volcanos.
But few tourists visit the cemetery, which is on the city’s outskirts, a bit of a hike from the main attractions.
“I’d personally like for some Jewish religious association to take over the religious aspects of the cemetery, but respecting” the Pasos’ ownership, Preiss said.
He added that there’s space within the outer fence for more Jewish burials.
“I want the cemetery to end up as a religious symbol, and at the same time a cultural symbol for the people of Granada,” Preiss said.
Like most Nicaraguan Jews, who were in business or on good terms with the Somoza regime, Preiss was forced into exile after the Sandinista takeover. It’s only now that the modest community has begun to rebuild. Though the Sandinistas left the cemetery alone, the community’s Torah, which was taken to Miami, Honduras and Grand Cayman, is still being kept in neighboring Costa Rica.
Granada, founded in 1524, claims to be the oldest European-founded city in the mainland Americas, but its Jewish cemetery may not even be the oldest one in Nicaragua. Archaeologists are excavating cemeteries in Greytown, a ghost town at the mouth of the San Juan River, and many expect to find Jews buried there, because one of the Jewish graves in Granada lists Greytown as the woman’s birthplace.
A cemetery in Managua also has a Jewish section that still is in use, and Jewish graves occasionally are found in other towns throughout Nicaragua.