There are 800 Jews buried on a scraggly hill on the outskirts of Lakewood, their graves unmarked, unkempt and vandalized. Most years, the Hill, as the old cemetery is known, doesn’t get mowed more than once in the spring, leaving graves lost by summer’s end beneath a tangle of weeds.
When asked why the Hill doesn’t get mowed more than that, one caretaker said, “Because they didn’t pay.”
This year, days before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, weeds were cut down – a rare sign of care for a plot of land that’s all too often ignored.
Denver resident Ted Ruskin was shocked when he first saw the Hill, in 1989, which had already suffered from 30 years of neglect. Ruskin owned a memorial company and also was vice-president of the Synagogue Council of Greater Denver.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “There were a tremendous number of memorials knocked over, weeds and garbage. It was terrible. I was appalled.”
Ruskin began marshaling volunteers for an annual cleanup with help from the Council. He did so until a few years ago, when his eyesight failed and he had to stop. Since then, more tombstones have been knocked over, more trash has built up amid the snarl of weeds and rusted markers, and broken beer bottles litter the cemetery’s “Genizah” grave, a sacred place for worn-out prayer books.
The main section of the Golden Hill cemetery, started in 1908, is on the south side of Wide Acres Road in west Lakewood and is still active. The Hill, on the north side of the road and overlooking downtown Denver, was established in 1915. The first burial took place that year. No one has been buried there since the 1980s.
In 1995, the Hill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of only three Jewish cemeteries nationwide with that distinction.
The whole cemetery was built for Jewish tuberculosis victims, many who came from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s for the Colorado cure: isolation from the general population, a good diet, temperate weather and fresh, dry air. Many faced poverty. Tuberculosis was a disease of the poor, spread through crowded living conditions.
Jewish tuberculosis patients went to one of two sanitariums in Denver for the Colorado cure: National Jewish Hospital and the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society. National Jewish opened in 1899 with a motto of “none who pay may enter, and none who enter may pay.”
Jeanne Abrams of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver said that while the hospital did great work, it had rigid rules. Patients were limited to six months of care, and had to have at least $50 in savings so they could return home and not be a burden on their communities.
National Jewish also was nonsectarian, and didn’t observe kosher laws until almost two decades after it opened.
In response to Denver’s need for an observant sanitarium, working class Jewish men founded the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in 1904 and recruited Dr. Charles Spivak, a Russian immigrant, to run it. The organization’s motto, from the Talmud, is “he who saves one life saves the world.”
Spivak was a pioneer in the treatment of tuberculosis. He believed people would heal faster in an environment in which they felt comfortable. So, JCRS had a kosher kitchen from day one, and its staff respected the Yiddish language spoken by many of its patients.
The Relief Society also differed from National Jewish in another key way — it took tuberculosis patients in all stages of the disease, including people who might die just days after their arrival. More than 7,000 were treated at the JCRS sanitarium in its 36-year history, and scores of them didn’t survive.
Both sanitariums needed a cemetery. Golden Hill, near the foothills, was the result. It was started by the West Side Benevolent Society, a mutual aid organization founded by prominent members of Denver’s Jewish community to buy the land for the cemetery.
For the first few years, all tuberculosis victims, rich and poor, from JCRS and National Jewish, were buried in the main section of Golden Hill. Those from JCRS — who tended to be more devout and less well-off financially — were mostly buried in unmarked graves.
But by 1915, according to a cemetery ledger from the Foothills Genealogical Society, the poor began to be buried on the Hill so they wouldn’t “infect” those buried in the main section. According to records from the Jefferson County Historical Commission, burying tuberculosis victims on the Hill was a way to segregate them from the general population, since it was believed back then that people “visiting a cemetery could contract the disease through the deceased.” The practice also reflected more than a bit of elitism from wealthy families who buried their loved ones on more level ground in a meticulously manicured part of the cemetery just down the hill and to the south.
Records show that families with money spent between 30 cents and a dollar for a burial. But if burial expenses weren’t paid for, graves were marked with temporary metal plates, most of which rusted, disintegrated or have been stolen. Of the 200 tombstones placed on the hillside, many have succumbed to wind, rain and snow. Or worse. Dozens have been toppled and shattered by vandals.
“The second there are signs no one’s paying attention, that’s when the wrong people pay attention,” according to local historian Jennifer Goodland, who has researched the stories of some of the people buried on the Hill.
Most of the dead on the Hill were men, since Jewish cemeteries, at least until the mid-20th century, were segregated by gender. Many were young — in their 20s and 30s — who had come from their respective “old countries” in search of promise in the western U.S.
There was Joel Cagon who during World War I served in the “Jewish Unit” of the Royal Fusiliers, a British army battalion, and was a prisoner of war in Palestine.
And Martin (Mendel) Abelson, a World War I veteran turned stockbroker who was a delegate to the 1916 Republican convention, according to a local paper. Abelson ran on a platform of respecting the rights of everyone, regardless of nationality, a radical notion in those days.
Morris Rosenberg immigrated from Adampol, Poland, a town of middle-class and upper-class Jews. He came to the United States during the 1912-14 peak of Polish immigration. About 20 years later during World War II, his town of Adampol became a slave-labor subcamp connected to Sobibor, one of three main Nazi extermination camps. Adampol has no memorial to its Jews. The last synagogue was torn down in the 1970s and turned into a parking lot.
One of the first women buried on the Hill was Ida Hayum, who was born in Lohrhaupten, Germany in 1910. Like many Jews fleeing the rise of the Nazi Party, she and her husband came to the United States from Europe in 1935. Her town, Lohrhaupten, had already suffered its share of anti-Semitic attacks. Violence against Jews cut the population from 59 in 1861 to 21 by 1933. By 1940, the last 18 Jews in Lohrhaupten were sent to the concentration camps and to their deaths. Like Adampol and many other communities throughout Europe, Lohrhaupten also never memorialized its Jewish residents.
Hayum’s and Rosenberg’s graves on the Hill are some of the last reminders that those communities ever existed.
“Never forget,” goes the solemn vow borne out of the Holocaust.
But remembering takes both time and money.
Despite its historical importance for Denver and the Front Range Jewish community, the Hill shows signs of years of benign neglect because few funds are available to pay for even the most minimal care. That care now consists of mowing the hill once a year for Memorial Day, leaving it overgrown by early summer and looking like a wasteland by the Jewish high holy days this time of year.
Restoring the Hill and the memory of the 800 buried there will take money, according to cemetery director Neal Price. But making the Hill a replica of the main section, with its manicured grass, isn’t in keeping with the Hill’s historic designation. The cemetery needs new security fencing, road improvements and foundations for toppled tombstones. The yucca plants that have overtaken much of the grounds need yanking. The dirt should be seeded with native grass. Each grave should be properly marked.
Now nearly blind, Ruskin isn’t able to do the work himself. So he’s applying for a $25,000 restoration grant to Historic Denver. Price estimates the total budget at around $100,000, and he also is looking for funding. The work is vast, Price said.
When the sanitariums needed a place to bury their dead, the West Side Benevolent Society bought land that was once part of a farm owned by John Clark Welch, a Golden pioneer who helped found the Colorado School of Mines.
Today, the farm is long gone. In its place, on the north side of West Colfax and across the street from the Hill, a multi-story office building is going up. Businesses line West Colfax from that part of Lakewood all the way to Denver.
Houses line the streets surrounding the main section of the cemetery on its south and west sides.
But somewhat telling of the Hill, its nearest neighbor, on its west side, is an empty warehouse that has been vacant for years.
Photo credit: Jennifer Goodland
Thanks to Historian Jennifer Goodland of Big Year Colorado for this story and for her invaluable assistance throughout this project.