Beth Olem: The cemetery in the GM Poletown plant

In some ways, this is the story of all cemeteries in Detroit: Some people hiked out to the country and bought the land, thinking it would be far, far away, forever and ever. Dust to dust. But what we imagined about the future wasn’t imaginative enough, and in just a few generations, the cemetery was swallowed up.

The difference, of course, is that most cemeteries were not swallowed up by car factories.

It is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Michigan. (The Beth El plot in Elmwood was established in 1850 as an independent cemetery and therefore takes the “oldest” title.) Congregants of Shaarey Zedek acquired the land for Beth Olem in the early 1860s, and the first burial probably happened around 1868. Germans owned the surrounding farms. Later 19th-century cemeteries like Woodmere were intentionally planned according to principles of rural design; Beth Olem was just rural. As we drove with a security escort across acres of parking lots — past test tracks, loading docks and clearance gates — I tried to imagine what this trip used to look like. Muddy horsepaths. Cows in the road.

That Beth Olem is from that world — and now exists on the grounds of a sprawling automotive complex that is manufacturing electric cars — inspires some serious spiritual awe. It’s a small, old-world cemetery, just over 2 acres, ringed by a red brick wall that hugs in the graveyard’s towering, ancient trees. It’s like a mirage. Its tombstones are sooty with age.

We were greeted by a representative of the Michigan Jewish Historical Society, who put down the gigantic pair of garden shears he was using to hack down a ghetto palm, then offered us water bottles and a list of names and warned us that the mosquitoes were ugly and biting that day.

This is a pastoral Jewish cemetery in the middle of a car factory. You can tumble that fact around in your head until it is so polished that it reflects everything about Detroit history forever and ever.

Before GM enveloped Beth Olem, Poletown did. In the 1870s, Polish Catholics began to displace the German farmers who had originally settled the area. Over time, Detroit’s Jewish community — concentrated close to downtown  — struck a northwestward path of migration that largely missed Polish Detroit and Hamtramck. Some Eastern European Jews settled in and around Poletown, but Beth Olem was still out-of-the-way for most Detroit Jews, and those buried there were mostly poor. By the end of World War I, there were dozens of metro-area Jewish cemeteries to choose from, and Beth Olem was tumbled down, its wooden grave markers weather-worn and toppled, a chapel built in the 1880s sagging with damage.

Burials stopped at Beth Olem in 1948. In less than 100 years, over 1100 people were put to rest on its grounds.

Beth Olem’s complicated relationship with the automotive industry (if you don’t count the fact that no one could get Beth Olem very easily until the automobile came along) began in the mid-1960s, when Chrysler built its Dodge Main plant around the cemetery, cutting off its entryway. The company extended the drive and paid the Jewish organizations that owned the cemetery $10,000 for repairs and maintenance.

And then, in 1981, GM invoked eminent domain (in a Michigan Supreme Court decision that has now been reversed) and tore down Poletown to make way for the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly. (Another story for another time. Just Google “Poletown” if you are curious and dig in.)      

Halakhic law forbids the removal of Jewish graves, and Michigan law makes it a big bureaucratic pain. (It wasn’t always so tough; Detroit’s municipal cemeteries were endlessly shuffled around in the mid-1800s, and some graves, like the military burials at Fort Shelby, were simply hauled into the river as fill or ignored and built right over.)

So Beth Olem stayed where it was, under the stewardship of Shaarey Zedek. It is open to the public twice a year for a total of eight hours: 10 – 2 a.m. on the Sundays before Rosh Hashanah and Passover.

I struggle with Beth Olem. I’m grateful that it still exists where it has always existed. I’m frustrated that it’s mostly closed to the world. It represents the strange and mournful loss of an entire community and its cultural history, and at the same time, it’s the only part of that community that survives. And that is something to cherish.

The man from the Jewish Historical Society asked us to bring garden tools the next time we visit. And so we will.

More information on Beth Olem:

The True Story of the Cemetery in the General Motors Parking Lot“, An entry-level overview of the cemetery by Milton Marwil from Michigan Jewish History

House of the World“, a semi-personal essay by Eileen Pollack, that digs deeper into the Poletown case and some speculation on GM’s relationship to the cemetery

And another Jewish cemetery of interest: Workmen’s Circle, which I visited last summer when I learned my great-grandfather is buried there.

#beth olem#GM plant cemetery#jewish cemeteries#poletown#poletown cemetery

Comments

  1. Sharond Jakubus - July 24, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    This is rather sad.

  2. Sharon York - September 25, 2013 @ 10:46 am

    Thank you for this insight into a world long forgotten, except, it seems, twice a year.

    I live in a rural area of Michigan where farms and farmland are slowly giving way to big business, and it seems each farm had it’s own private family cemetery. It is very interesting to walk these cemeteries an note the ages and years the land has lain peacefully undisturbed. My favorite is a private cemetery in the back parking lot of a restaurant. I bet most patrons have no idea it exists, but there are civil war soldiers resting there, and I believe it to be special if for no other reason than that.

    Thank you again for your story on this forgotten but largely undisturbed piece of history. I truly enjoyed your report and the photos…..

    SY

  3. KC Curatolo - October 5, 2013 @ 9:28 pm

    For years I have wanted to know more about Beth Olem. I am most grateful for this
    Information. Am looking forward to paying a visit. It is a shame it is only open for two days.

  4. gm lawsuit - September 12, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

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  5. Lora Tannenholz - April 4, 2015 @ 6:46 am

    I’ve only recently discovered that Alex (Alexander) and Anna B. Tannenholz who are buried in Betholem are my great grandfather and grandmother.

  6. Gary Schwartz - April 10, 2015 @ 7:01 am

    Is the cemetery open April 11th, 2015?

  7. Ilona klemm - May 8, 2015 @ 1:21 pm

    Very nicely written. Clearly you’ve done research and are NOT passing along misinfo. Like it!

  8. Alice Broudy Cupples - July 16, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    This is so wonderful. Great piece of research and so well presented. Thank you.

    Just found out yesterday that my father’s paternal grandfather, Jacob Broudy z’l is buried there! He passed June 5, 1911.

  9. Phil Laurette - November 6, 2015 @ 5:14 am

    I discovered this place yesterday while doing some site work at the plant. I noticed a walled off area around a bunch of old oak trees so took a picture. I was standing on top of the cooling towers for the assembly plant at the time. I was surprised to find that when I zoomed up on the picture it contained headstones!

    Of course I had to satisfy my curiosity so I walked around the area and took a couple pictures. It is a beautifully maintained cemetery in the middle of an automotive manufacturing complex. I had to know more so that is what brought me here.

    Thanks for the additional information about the cemetery, it is amazing that it still sits where is does. I bet most people who drive by it every day don’t even know it is there because the gate is on the north side away from the traffic.

  10. Amy Elliott Bragg - November 8, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

    What a great story, Phil! Thanks for sharing.

  11. Ravi Saini - June 25, 2016 @ 10:58 pm

    Several generations of my family are buried here, including Yisroel and Shprintze Moskovich, my 3X great-grandparents, who came to Detroit from the Old Country around 1881.

    My mother, Gayle Sweetwine Saini, was a genealogist extraordinaire. On one occasion, she took my grandmother to the cemetery, where I think her parents and some of her siblings might be buried also. I would like to visit it. I don’t understand why they will only open it to the public two days a year. Thank you to the good volunteers from the Michigan Jewish Historical Society for maintaining it.

    If you have information about our forefathers buried here, feel free to contact me at saini@umich.edu
    saini at umich dot edu

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