NEW YORK (Jul. 27)
The five-acre plot is overgrown and the 50 tombstones need restoration, but it’s one of the only pieces of Jewish life left in North Dakota. Descendants of those who lie in the Sons of Jacob cemetery want to make sure the site doesn’t go unmarked forever.
Hailing from places like Kansas and Minnesota, these descendants are raising money to install an honorary marker, which is to be dedicated Sept. 17 by a rabbi from Fargo, N.D.
They’re also trying to preserve their ancestors’ story, a story of the Jewish immigrant experience beyond Ellis Island and the crowded tenements of New York’s Lower East Side.
Many of the Jews who came to North Dakota were lured by the promise of free land.
Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a banker and philanthropist, believed that Jewish immigrants entering the United States should leave East Coast cities for the vast interior, where they would disperse and assimilate into American society. He set up a fund to encourage such migration.
“Free land, wouldn’t that have sounded like the American dream?” asked Dianne Siegel, whose great-grandfather ventured to North Dakota thanks to the de Hirsch fund.
Other Jews came as merchants or peddlers, sensing opportunity in the territory, which gained statehood in 1889.
“There was a Jewish merchant in just about every town along the railroad,” recalled Myer Shark, who grew up in Devils Lake, N.D. Shark’s father came to North Dakota in 1909 and opened a men’s clothing store.
But Jews who settled the Great Plains didn’t have an easy road.
Hal Ettinger, an architect in Lawrence, Kan., said his great-grandparents, Simon and Sophie Ettinger, arrived in North Dakota via Chicago and St. Paul, Minn., where Simon had been a peddler.
With six children in tow, the family moved into a 12-by-14-foot shack where they homesteaded a 170-acre property with livestock and crops.
Simon died a year after being issued his land permit, and Sophie moved to Chicago with the children, selling the property for $10.
Hal Ettinger, who made two trips to the county to trace his family history, is fascinated by the chain of events.
“Why a German or Russian immigrant coming to the U.S. could possibly think they could make it in North Dakota or the Dakota territories is unbelievable,” Ettinger said. “I guess it’s some indication of how bad they had it” in the Old World.
The Jews who arrived on the plains had little inkling of what lay ahead. Jews had not been allowed to own land in Russia, and had little knowledge of how to farm.
Crop failures, harsh winters and prairie fires made harvesting difficult, and life on the frontier did not include modern conveniences like plumbing and heating systems.
Additionally, accounts show that Jews weren’t always greeted hospitably. In 1885, 25 North Dakota farmers petitioned to have a Jewish colony removed from a village called New Jerusalem.
Shark felt the prejudice.
“Early in my childhood I learned I was different than the other kids,” he said.
Shark said that a man in the community once tried to block his mother from moving into his neighborhood, saying, “I don’t like the idea of a Jew building a home in that area.”
Still, Jews lived — and lived Jewishly — in North Dakota. Siegel said that her family kept kosher, and that the state’s lone rabbi would come to town for major ceremonies.
Shark recalled that “the district judge would not set a term of court until he checked with one of the Jewish residents to find out when High Holidays were” — even thoug the judge wasn’t Jewish himself.
“I can picture the bimah,” or synagogue podium. “It was where the judge sat,” Shark said. “I have very, very fond memories of services in that courtroom.”
Ettinger hopes that preserving the Sons of Jacob cemetery will keep the North Dakota’s Jewish history alive.
“You walk down this small, unplowed strip to this plot of land where you know people were just dying out in this frozen, desolate tundra,” he said. “It’s just humbling.”