Memorial Day 1956 was a proud, if bittersweet day for Homestead’s Jewish community when they gathered at the cemetery the prior day (5/30) to dedicate a war memorial to the boys they lost in both World Wars. While they were observing the day with appropriate solemnity, six young men from the area took advantage of the day off to drink and become rowdy. By the evening they were so drunk it seemed like a good idea to scale the fence around the local Jewish cemetery and see what damage they could cause inside. The next morning someone from the synagogue came by to make arrangements for two funerals (Usher Cohen and Annie Newman of Hazelwood) — and beheld a quarter of the stones in the cemetery damaged and all the shrubbery destroyed.
The first time I heard about this desecration was when I spoke to Rabbi Jack Segal in November 2014. “Nobody would believe what they saw,” he told me. “Like a bomb had hit the cemetery.” At the time he had estimated that a quarter of the stones in the cemetery had been toppled or smashed. The reward fund the synagogue set up did the trick, he recalled. Someone overheard the men bragging in a bar, “Did we have a good time at the Jew cemetery!” and tattled. The perception in the Jewish community was that the sentences were light. Rabbi Segal recalled that people were angry.
More recently, grandsons of Usher Cohen, Harvey and Allan Gross, recalled the desecration. They remembered that there was an exceptionally large crowd at their grandfather’s funeral. Though he had been admired for his good deeds and charity, they suspected many came to the funeral to see the extent of the damage for themselves. Both remembered the broken tree tombstone pictures in the news clipping above.
It wasn’t the first time that the cemetery was vandalized, but it was by far the most significant. In September 1929, the “fence on cemetery was broken by some mischievous person, some cows driven in on the cemetery and some shrubs cut with a knife or hatched on three graves.” 1 A decade later, congregants discovered that “tombstones had been moved at the cemetery.” 2 There was also at one time an “arch with name at upper entrance,” but it was stolen and never replaced. 3 In the early 1980s a cross was burned in the cemetery, and not long after that kids had a party and left their trash behind, both of which incidents spurred the cemetery committee to turn the unused ohel into a home to ensure someone was always on the property. 4
This vandalism, by far the worst, took place at a time during which few records from the synagogue survive. These are the couple mentions from Chevra Kadisha records:
The question of a reward fund was brought up at this meting. The reward was to be offered to the person for bringing about the apprehension and conviction of the persons responsible for the vandalism done at the Cemetery on May 30th.
Mr. E.A. Keizler reported that Mr. Thomas Mahoney of the Homestead Chamber of Commerce and Mr. James Orris of the 1st Federal Savings Loan offered their services as a committee to receive and handle any money for this fund.
A motion was made by Rabbi Jack Segal and seconded by Mr. Z. Smooke, that this committee make a contribution to the reward fund. The motion was carried 9-4. A motion was made by Mr. Ben Stahl that we give $200.00 to the reward fund, seconded by Rabbi Jack Segal. Motion carried. The chairman, Mr. Max Mermelstein, appointed Rabbi Jack Segal and Mr. E.A. Keizler to handle all matters for publication.
Carline Bros. Co, and Abraham C. Faleder + Son, Monumental Works, were called to give an estimate on resetting the fallen stones. This was done to give the survivors of any interested party a partial idea as to the cost of repairing the damage done to the stones.
— June 5, 1956 special meeting of the Chevra Kadisha 5
Max Mermelstein [the Chevra Kadisha chairman] thanked Mr. Frank Seigall (sic) for his kind remarks about him. Glad to have as his right hand Fred Kaminsky for the valiant work Fred has done. Max had tears in his heart as well as his eyes when reporting on vandalism done at the cemetery and after 4 wks. fixing and repairing had cemetery in fine shape.
Jerry Schwartz [the congregation’s president, also offered] a few observations on vandalism of cemetery.
— February 10, 1957 annual Chevra Kadisha dinner 6
The full story — including the Jewish reaction — emerges from the contemporary newspaper coverage. As the newspaper articles below relate, a quarter of all the tombstones were significantly damaged, and all the shrubbery was uprooted. The damage estimates ranged from $10-$20K, with the families having to bear most of the costs, since they were responsible for the stones. 7 (Today you see that that many of the oldest stones in the adult section of the cemetery are broken, and in the children’s section lambs atop stones are missing their heads; I assume there was no one left to bear the cost of these repairs a half-century after these stones were originally set.) For the work under the Chevra Kadisha‘s management, I can see from the cemetery’s financial records that donations poured in, not just from members of the congregation, who were especially generous during the annual cemetery visitation days before the High Holidays, but even from a few people and businesses in and around Homestead 8. They repaired the damage, and at the next Chevra Kadisha dinner the cantor of Shaare Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh, “remarked that the Homestead cemetery was the most beautiful he has ever seen.” 9
The community moved on, and only a few people besides Rabbi Segal have ever mentioned this incident to me — the grandsons mentioned above, and a man who grew up in Munhall who recalled that one of the vandals had been friendly with his sister during school. It isn’t the first time the community preferred not to discuss a devastating chapter in their history.
Initial Homestead press:
- 5/31/1956:Vandals Hit District Cemetery Yesterday
- 6/4: Reward Meet To Be Held
- 6/7: Officers Named To Take Charge of Cemetery Fund
- 6/11: Speedy Prosecution of Six Vandals Sought
- 6/13: Bond For Alleged Vandals Set at Squire’s Hearing
Area press (wire reports that were widely published):
- 6/27: Youth Admits Taking Part In Homestead Cemetery Vandal Raid
- 6/27: West Mifflin Lad Admits Vandalism at Cemetery
- 7/6: Sentenced For Desecration Of Hebrew Cemetery
- 10/3: Testifies Against Brother, Three Others in Vandalism
- 10/3: Four On Trial For Desecrating Cemetery, May 30
- 10/5: One of Four Cemetery Vandals Pleads Guilty in Pittsburgh Court
- 10/5: Find 2 Guilty of Vandalism
- 11/30: Two Brothers Sentenced For Cemetery Vandalism
- 2/26/1957: Says Chaney Innocent
- 11/23: Homestead Cemetery Vandal Back in Prison
- 6/1/1956: Vandals Wreak Havoc in Homestead Cemetery
- 6/8: Just where does vandalism stop and inhumanity begin? (commentary)
- 6/8: There must be a lot of emotionally sick people in this world (commentary)
- 6/8: Clues Sought
- 6/15: The law set something of a record for alertness and persistence, if not speed (commentary)
- 6/22: We see that another burial ground has been desecrated–a Catholic cemetery (commentary)
- 6/7/1957: Youngsters, again (commentary)
- 10/4: Vandals Strike With Paint At B’nai Emunoh Synagogue
- 1/8/1960: These outbursts could perhaps be likened… (commentary)
- 5/15/1969: Nor can I believe that the desecration of some thirty graves… (commentary)
In both cases the newspaper articles peter out before the story is quite finished. Of the six vandals:
- James Berberich, 24: Plead guilty in October. Sentenced to a year in jail, fined $100, and ordered to make restitution at $50 a month for 10 months.
- George Berberich, 20: Plead guilty in June. Given a six-month sentence and ordered to make restitution at $40 a month for six months.
- William Chaney, 22: Convicted in October. Sentence unknown; possibly he appealed or was exonerated.
- Daniel Molnar, 22: Plead guilty in June. Sentenced to a year in the Allegheny County Workhouse and fined $100.
- Edward Maszle, 25: Convicted in October. Sentence unknown.
- John Reinhart, 23: Possibly plead guilty in June (contradictory accounts). Cleared of the charges.
On the paper for 5/30, the paper highlighted the next day’s parade and Memorial Day service in Homestead. The activities were centered in Homestead’s Catholic and town cemeteries, “the liveliest places in town” with all the preparations going on. Nothing was mentioned about Memorial Day observance happening that day in Homestead’s Jewish cemetery. Another headline, “Settlement Search Underway in UW-Big Steel Sessions. Optimism Remains High As Sweeping Demands Are Made By the Union,” suggested unease before the July 1 strike deadline.
Damage To Tombstones Set At Approximately $20,000
No Damage to Memorial Dedicated To Twelve War Dead Yesterday
The bright Memorial Day observance in the district was marred yesterday by vandalism at the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery, Bellwood Rd., West Mifflin.
Estimated damage to some 86 tombstones was set at about $20,000, according to Max Mermelstein, president of the cemetery association.
The incident occurred some time over night or early this morning. The wild destruction was discovered about 7:30 this morning when workers entered the cemetery to dig two graves.
Vandals ran rampant through the graves pushing over the costly stones. All, or most of, the stones will have to be replaced. Some of the granite pieces costing several thousand soldiers were toppled over like toy soldiers and were snapped or badly chipped. A stone, cast in the shape of a tree about six feet tall, snapped in two pieces upon hitting the ground. This was typical of the other monuments.
According to Mr. Mermelstein, the vandalism probably occurred between 7 p.m. yesterday and 6 a.m. today.
A Memorial Day service was held at the 500-plot cemetery yesterday when a new monument was dedicated in memory of 12 Jewish soldiers who lost their lives in World War II.
This memorial was missed in the wild rampage through the cemetery.
Also destroyed in the wild spree were hundreds of dollars of shrubbery around the graves.
West Mifflin police and county detectives were called into the case when the vandalism was discovered this morning. They were investigating the destruction for a possible clue.
According to one complaint to police, a car was buzzing the homes along Bellwood Rd. last night, annoying the residents.
The Burial Society of Homestead Hebrew Congregation – Rodef Shalom will meet tomorrow evening to map actions regarding the desecration of some 80 tombstones last Wednesday night at the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery.
The Society will discuss the possibility of offering a reward for information leading to the capture of the vandals, who caused some $20,000 damage.
No Action Taken
No official action was taken at the Society’s meeting yesterday.
The Synagogue membership will meet Sunday to consider the problem and rehabilitation, however, all decisions will be reserved for the burial society.
Yesterday large crowds traveled to the cemetery to view the damage. An attendant reported this was the first time in the memory of the oldest citizens in the congregation that such desecration of hallowed ground ever occurred…
Thomas Mahony, executive secretary of the Homestead District Chamber of Commerce, and James Orris, of the First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Homestead, will have charge of the reward fund for the Homestead Hebrew Congregation Cemetery.
Mr. Mahony will serve as chairman, while Mr. Orris will act as treasurer. All donations are to be made payable to either of the above men.
Money collected will be used “for the apprehension and conviction of persons responsible for the criminal act and vandalism committed at the Cemetery a week ago,” according to Rabbi Jack Segal.
So far, $105 in donations have been received for the fund.
A general meeting for the entire congregation will be held Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Synagogue to complete final plans for the fund.
Sunday, 6/8, was also when Confirmation services were held. This class included Ruth Stein, Margie Carpe, Phyllis Brand, Edwin Grinberg, Ira Handelsman, Hinda Mandell, Arnold Rosenthal, and Norman Weinberger.
Suspects Give No Reason for ‘Malicious Mischief’
Drink Cited in Questioning Of Group Nabbed Here On Tip; All Being Held
West Mifflin police and county authorities were moving today toward a speedy prosecution of six young men charged with destroying the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery over the Memorial holiday to the tune of almost $20,000.
Implicated in the wanton destruction are:
James and George Berberich, Terrace Village, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Ave., West Mifflin, respectively.
William Chaney, Schwab Ave., Munhall
Daniel Molnar, 222 Elm St., West Mifflin
Edward Maszel, Bellwood Rd., West Mifflin [Note: This is the road the cemetery is on.]
John Reinhart, Lawrence St., Homestead Park, who also gave a Braddock adddress.
The suspects, ranging in age from 22-30, gave no reason for the widespread vandalism. Authorities said they were intoxicated at the time.
In a statement, one of the suspects confessed that the destruction was the result of a drinking spree during a picnic at South Park. After the picnic, the account goes on, they bought more beer and went to the cemetery to continue drinking.
Then Molnar got the idea of destroying the headstones, according to one statement.
All were picked up at intervals Saturday after police, working in close cooperation with county detectives, clean up the loose ends of the investigation in the case.
The successful investigation was initiated by a tip from a Munhall tavern where some of the suspects were overheard talking about the destruction…
Tentatively they are charged with “malicious mischief.”
…All except Reinhard have done time for assorted crimes in the area. Chaney reported is on parole from California on a narcotics charge.
Reinhart and Chaney are said to be employed at the mill. They were picked up at their jobs over the weekend.
Detectives described Reinhart as “a god boy” who was a “dupe.” They added that his car was used in transporting the others.
…After the first tip one of the men was grilled and he later implicated the others.
…Replacement costs [for the monuments] will be stood by survivors. This was decided by the lot owners in a special meeting last night.
The willful destruction stirred ire from all quarters in the entire area, as well as all over the county.
On 6/12 the paper reported that the cemetery committee “has been authorized to accept bids for the rehabilitation of the Bellwood Rd. cemetery and to proceed with the rehabilitation” after a meeting of the congregation. Approximately 70 people contributed toward the costs. Jerome Schwartz, president of the congregation, commended the “excellent police work” in the speedy capture. The article also noted that “donations for the reward fund…are still being received.”
The paper also noted that a 1935 act of the legislature made such vandalism a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and a $100 fine.
Six district men who are charged with participating in a vicious rampage through the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery were held for court yesterday during a hearing before Squire John Waltkins…All were in County Jail today awaiting bond.
Molnar, Reinhart, and George Berberich pleaded guilty while Maszle, James Berberich and Chaney pleaded not guilty.
Preliminary statements from Molnar, George Berberich and Reinhart implicated the other three, authorities said.
The defendants changed their original statements to such an extent that Squire Watkins held all six for grand jury action…All the suspects gave conflicting stories…
According to Rabbi Jack Segal, of the Rodef Shalom Congregation here, the Hebrew Cemetery Association will prefer charges — “to the fullest extent” — against the vandals…The association’s charges, however, will be handled through a civil suit…
…Reinhart, who is the only one without a criminal record, told the squire that he was sitting in his car. He said he was “confused” and “I still don’t know what happened.”
“I was like passed out,” Reinhart declared.
He added that he sobered up “after that.”
Chaney said he didn’t do anything and denied he was with the others at the time.
One thing that was established was “everyone was pretty well high.”
…Some of the defendants “are trying to scare” the others who are not on parole.
To Prove Case
“There is no question,” McDemott added, “that all these boys were up at the cemetery and we’ll prove it, too.”
Maszle told Squire Watkins that he was in a Munhall tavern that night. Detective McDermott labeled him “the biggest liar in the United States.”
Molnar testified that “we were really silly to do a thing like that,” going on to say that he has nothing against Jews and “I don’t like to see people suffer.”
The hearing had to be moved to the more spacious council chamber yesterday due to the large crowd of citizens who turned out for the proceeding. Public sentiment against those, who desecrated the cemetery to the tune of an estimated $20,000, is bitter.
The paper surely continued to cover the trials as they continued, but I did not look through the paper past 6/15/1956. The area press, which continues the story, gives a general sense of how it all wrapped up.
Published June 27, 1956:
PITTSBURGH (UP)–George Berberich, 20, pleaded guilty Tuesday to participating in a vandal raid on the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery.
The suspect one of six men arrested in connection with the Max 31 desecration of the burial grounds, said he had been drinking at the time.
Daniel Molnar, 22, was advised by his attorney to hold up his plea. The attorney, Louis Cooper, said he had not had time to become familiar with the facts.
Berberich said the four other suspects had nothing to do with the vandalism.
Judges Clarence B. Nixon of Allegheny County Criminal Court accepted Berberich’s plea and continued Molnar’s case until July 5.
Cemetery officials said 10 to 12 tombstones, each worth $5000, had been completely destroyed and 65 to 70 other stones must be replaced because of the vandalism. He estimated shrubbery damage at $2,000.
Pittsburgh (AP)–A 20-year-old West Mifflin youth, one of six men accused of damaging a Jewish cemetery, says he and another man were the ones who actually overturned 86 tombstones.
George Berberich, on trial for causing an estimated $20,000 damage last May 31 at the Hebrew Cemetery in suburban Homestead, testified that he implicated the other four men in hopes of drawing lighter punishment.
Berberich said he and David Molner, 22, also of West Mifflin, overturned the tombstones. He also said that he is under four years probation for auto theft in Fayette County.
Published July 6, 1956:
PITTSBURGH (AP)–Daniel Molnar, 22, of West Mifflin has been sentenced to a year in the Allegheny County Workhouse and fined $100 for his part in the desecration of a Hebrew cemetery.
Criminal Court Judge John J. Kennedy imposed the maximum sentence Thursday after Molnar pleaded guilty to malicious mischief.
Six men have been accsed of overturning tombstones and acusing other damage totally $20,000 at the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery in West Mifflin. However, Molanar and George Berberich, 20, also of West Mifflin, contend that they did the damage alone.
Molnar said that he and Berberich had been making the rounds of taverns on Memorial Day and were “crazy with drink” when they entered the cemetery.
Published October 3, 1956:
PITTSBURGH (UP)–A youth who pleaded guilty to charges of cemetery vandalism testified Tuesday against his brother and three other men on trial in Criminal Court on the same charges.
George Berberich, 20, of St. Clair Village, told how he and the defendants made a tour of taverns before the destruction at the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery last Memorial Day.
The defendants, accused of causing $12,000 damage to graves and tombstones in the cemetery, are James Berberich, 24, of St. Clair Village; William Chaney, 22, of Whitaker, and Edward Maszle, 25, and John C. Reinhart, 23, both of West Mifflin.
The witness testified he saw the defendants go toward the cemetery from a picnic ground.
“How did you know they knocked over tombstones?” Assistant Dist. Atty. Edward E. Fagan asked.
“They told me they knocked over tombstones,” the witness replied.
Daniel Molner, 22, of West Mifflin, who also pleaded guilty in the ase and is serving one year in the workhouse, testified he was helped over a fence into the cemetery by two of the defendants.
Attorney Robert R. Johnson Jr., counsel for Chaney and Maszle, produced an affidavit in which George Berberich exonerated both men. but the witness explained the affidavit by saying he was afraid the two men would harm him.
PITTSBURGH (UP)–Four young men accused of desecrating a Homestead cemetery while on a drunken spree last Memorial Day is (sic) on trial.
The defendants, all from the West Mifflin, Munhall, and Homestead Park areas, had pleaded not guilty to the charges on which two other men were sentenced last June.
Jerome Schwartz, president of the Rodef Shalom Congregation in Homestead, testified the cost of resetting and refacing headstones in the Hebrew cemetery totaled $12,000, not including repairs to monuments and to damaged shrubbery.
Mrs. Elizabeth Davis, a resident near the cemetery, said she heard a noise the night of last May 30, looked out her window and sw what appeared to be “drunks in a car.”
The defendants in the case are James Berberich, 24, William Chaney, 22, Edward Maszle, 25, and Daniel Molnar, 22, West Mifflin, pleaded guilty last June. Molnar was sentenced to a workhouse term and Berberich received a suspended sentence.
Published October 5, 1956:
PITTSBURGH (UP)–One of four men on trial in Criminal Court on charges of cemetery vandalism pleaded guilty Wednesday.
The plea was entered by James Berberich, 24, of St. Clair Village. He immediately was called to the stand by the prosecution and questioned on the vandalism at the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery last Memorial Day.
Berberich was the third man to plead guilty to the vandalism, which reuslted in $12,000 damage to graves and tombstones. Prior to the trial guilty pleas were entered by his brother, George, 20, and Daniel Molner, 22, of West Mifflin.
Those remaining on trial were William Chaney, 22, of Whitaker, and Edward Maszle, 25, and John C. Reinhard, 23, both of West Mifflin.
James Berberich testified after his guilty plea that Reinhart and his brother, George, remained in a car and that he, Molner, Maszle and Chaney went into the cemetery. He said that while all six men were in jail following their arrest in the case it was agreed among them that his brother and Molner were to assume blame for the vandalism.
The state rested its case after James’ testimony but reopened it 10 minutes later and put Molner on the stand.
Molner was asked if he wished to change his statement in the case in view of James’ testimony. He replied that he did not.
The state then again rested its case.
George Berberich, testifying Tuesday said he saw the defendants go into the cemetery.
PITTSBURGH (UP)–A criminal court jury has returned guilty verdicts against two young men accused of vandalizing the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery after an all-night drinking party.
The convictions, announced Tuesday night after seven hours and 10 minutes of deliberation, brought to five the number of men who face or already have begun jail terms for causing $12,000 damage at the cemetery last May 31.
A sixth man, John Reinhart, 22, West Miflin, was ordered cleared of the vandalism charges when he said he drove his car to the cemetery but took no part in the raid.
Convicted Thursday were Edward Maszle, 25, West Mifflin, and William Chaney, 22, Whitaker.
Earlier this week, James Berberich, 24, St. Clair Village pleaded guilty. Berberich’s brother, George, 20, Pittsburgh, pleaded guilty last June.
David Molnar, 22, West Mifflin, admitted his part in the vandalism last July and has begun a one-year sentence in the county workhouse. The Berberich brothers Maszle and Chaney are awaiting sentencing.
According to officials of the Jewish cemetery, the vandals upset about 80 tombstones and destroyed shrubbery.
Published November 30, 1956:
Pittsburgh (AP)–Two brothers received jail sentences yesterday on charges of damaging 80 tombstones in the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery last Memorial Day.
James Berberich, 24, of Pittsburgh was given a one-year term, was fined $100 and was ordered to make restitution at $50 a month for 10 months.
His brother, George, 20, of West Mifflin, was given a six-month sentence and ordered to make restitution at $40 a month for six months. George, however, will be released as soon as he pays his $100 find because he has been in jail since last June 12.
Published February 26, 1957:
PITTSBURGH (AP)–William Chaney, 22-year-old suburban Whitaker resident convicted of cemetery vandalism, is innocent, says Dist. Atty Edward C. Boyle of Allegheny County.
Chaney was one of several defendants convicted of vandalizing the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery last Memorial Day.
Published November 23, 1957 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (link)
Hoodlum Gets Two-to-10-year Term On Two Charges of Auto Stealing
A Homestead hoodlum was sentenced to Western Penitentiary yesterday, missing by one week his first anniversary of being sentence on a charge of desecrating a cemetery.
James W.B. Berberich, 26…was one of six vandals, another being his brother, George, who were sentenced November 29, 1956, for causing $12,000 damage to to Homestead Hebrew Cemetery on Memorial Day, 1956…
Berberich’s record also includes a plea of guilty to drunken driving.
Berberich was released from the Workhouse June 11 on the cemetery charge. His one-year sentence dated from his arrest in July, 1956, and he was given two months off for good behavior.
Eighty-six tombstones were turned over and broken, with damages estimated at approximately $10,000, in a vandalism raid on the Homestead Hebrew Congregation-Rodef Shalom Cemetery in Homeville, West Mifflin, early Thursday morning.
According to Rabbi Jack Segel, the Cemetery had been the scene on Wednesday of Memorial Day rites for the 12 soldiers of the Congregation killed in both World Wars. Early Thursday morning, a Congregation representative visited the Cemetery to arrange for two Thursday funerals, and discovered the extensive damage. Plots were ripped and plants trampled. A new Servicemen’s Monument, however, was not touched.
West Mifflin Borough police, who estimated the cost of the vicious raid, reported that the attack must have been done by a gang, since one or two person could not have possibly accomplished so much and such violent damage.
— June 1, 1956, The American Jewish Outlook, p. 1
Just where does vandalism stop and inhumanity begin? That’s been a foremost question in the minds of many since last week’s raid on the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery, where the desecration of tombstones, gravesite and floral tributes reached a monstrous pitch.
West Mifflin Borough police and County detectives are still searching for clues to the identity of the ghouls: so far, nothing substantial has been turned up. Motive is also a mystery, as is how the perpetrators scaled a six-for wall around the Cemetery and wreaked such a degree of havoc.
There are many horrible incidents reported in the papers every day–the Homestead Cemetery case, though, is one especially ugly. To gouge out at the resting places of the dead; to brutally slash at the evidence of love and devotion left by their loved ones; to rip and rend such a hallowed ground–these are the actions of maniacs.
Vandalism, this happening? That’s like comparing a tap on the shoulder to murder.
— June 8, 1956, The American Jewish Outlook, p. 2
There must be a lot of emotionally sick people in this world. Or psychically distressed. Otherwise how can you explain the rightful demonstration of primitive sadism which scarred the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery in West Mifflin Township during the early hours of Thursday a week ago? It is not easy to account for such a brutish display of sheer animal instinct. What pat little answer is there to the deliberate desecration of tombstones marking the final resting-place of those who lie beneath them? To somebody each of these memorials means a great deal. They could be nostalgic, the reminders of pleasant moments once lived and not to be relived. They could be the one link, between a past that was full and glowing and the present which is empty because someone is no longer here.
* * *
What could the motive possible have been behind this ugly piece of vandalism? Whom could these tombstones have disturbed, whose well-being could they have intruded upon to have instigated such blasphemy? Among normal people, it is natural for grievances to be scored against the living, not the dead. Hatreds are not vent upon the dust of the departed, but upon the flesh and spirit of those who are still capable of sensing those hatreds.
If this abomination at the cemetery is the handiwork of the anti-jew–though it is incredible that it could have been–what could they have hoped to gain? What is more revolting than the invasion of the sepulchre (sic)? Except for fanatics and fools, who would not be shocked by this assault on the memory of the dead? Even the most depraved mind which feels it must settle an account with a people it despises because of what they believe in could not except to win favor for its gripes by making a shambles of a graveyard. This is not only infamy; it is sheer insanity!
* * *
Bigots move in strange and unpredictable ways because their bigotry impairs their vision and their road ahead is never clear to them. But we cannot conceive of the worst case of prejudice engaging in so unsavory a manifestation of small-mindedness.
So for the moment at least the bleak incident at the cemetery of the Rodef Shalom Congregation of Homestead must be laid at the doorstep of hoodlumism. Anything else is anyone’s guess.
But whoever the perpetrators of this loathsome trespass are, let the calm of their waking hours be as marred and pocked as were the tombstones and turf they left as evidence of their evildoing. It may remain for a power beyond us all to exact proper retribution for this unspeakable offense against ninety tombstone.
* * *
Meanwhile the cost of repair and restoration is great, far indeed beyond the means of this modest congregation to bear. Rodef Shalom of Homestead will need all the aid it can get to right this grievous wrong committed against it. We understand that offers of reward have been made for information leading to and/or the apprehension of the culprits. It would seem to us that funds would serve a more immediate and better purpose if they were given for the rehabilitation of the graves and their surroundings.
For this, the living would be most grateful particularly the families of the deceased whose hurt must have run deep.
— June 8, 1856, The Jewish Criterion, p. 9
The mystery of last week’s vicious attack on the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery in West Mifflin, in which scores of tombstones were broken and plots and plants torn ad uprooted, remains under investigation by West Mifflin Borough police and Allegheny County detectives.
According to Rabbi Jack Segal, spiritual leader of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation, a number of individuals have expressed interest in posting reward money to spur discovery of the vandals, whose wild action created over $10,000 worth of damage.
At a meeting of the Congregation’s Burial Society this week, it was decided that Tom Mahoney, executive secretary of the Homestead Chamber of Commerce, will be in charge of reward funds at the Chamber officers in the First Federal Building, Homestead.
— June 8, 1956, The American Jewish Outlook, p. 19
The law set something of a record for alertness and persistence, if not speed, in rounding up the culprits who made a shambles of the graves and tombstones in the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery a couple of weeks ago. The six miscreants were not children. Their ages ranged from 20 to 25 years, which means they were old enough to know what they were doing, though they had done a pretty thorough job on a couple of cases of beer before the invaded the graveyard.
Though the real intent of this half-dozen assorted ruffians may never be known, it appears to the great relief of the Jewish community that their hoodlumism had no anti-Semitic flavor. In their condition they were apparently loaded for adventure, and they most likely would have heaped their violence on any similar place that was handy. One of the culprits phrased for all when he said, “It wasn’t because I dislike Jews. I was just drunk.” This could be partially so, but hardly the whole truth. Because nobody could be so paralyzed as to do such a loathsome thing against decency, and still be able to navigate.
* * *
Here is one instance where we would rejoice to see the book tossed at the guilty. The maximum the law imposes is not too much for these ruffians, most of whom have already cooled their heels behind bars. Tragedy is, however, that their punishment will not undo the frightful damage they did the cemetery which is now estimated to be upwards of $20,000.
That the burned of rehabilitation or replacement should fall upon the families of the deceased and the Rodef Shalom Congregation of Homestead is harsh indeed. That is why we appeal again, as we did in this department last week, to people of good heart to help in any way they can to lighten the load. The Congregation and its Rabbi Jack Segal will be deeply thankful for all contributions.
— June 15, 1956, The Jewish Criterion, p. 11
We see that another burial ground has been desecrated–a Catholic cemetery. 10
This time the damage was not so extensive as it was in the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery attack, but does that really matter? Chalk markings on the walls of synagogues and churches are low enough, but this new “thrill” is the very bottom.
It might well be that the light sentence given the six hoodlums in the Homestead episode has made a mockery out of the gravity of their offense. After all, what’s another year of living at the County’s expense to most of these characters?
— June 22, 1956, The American Jewish Outlook, p. 2
By Bea Paul
It was a year, almost to the day, since the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery was defiled by a group of drunken punks, when the papers carried the story of still more desecration in Jewish burial places.
This time it was two cemeteries in McKees Rocks which were smashed, ripped and torn and this time the “punks” were even younger—12 and 13, to be brutally exact.
Memorial Day of 1956 was bad enough, so far as these violations went. But, 1957 is even worse , for obviously a lesson was not learned; it was repeated. The police can do just so much—unfortunately potential ghouls can do much more .
This is no occasion for facetiousness, but: what must we expect next year? A raid by a kindergarten class?
— June 7, 1957, The American Jewish Outlook, p. 2
The strident, symbolic sound of the shofar had barely heralded a New Year to Pittsburgh Jewry, when a violent distasteful act of vandalism erupted in the vicinity of Squirrel Hill…
(B’nai Emunoh, the congregation of Homestead’s former rabbi was the target.)
There was pale green paint smeared on the front door and steps of the edifice and splashed and spattered on the walls around the entrance. It covered a brand new maroon painting the synagogue had just received in time to spruce it up just for the High Holidays…
Rabbi Weiss expressed optimism when asked if he thought police would eventually catch the criminals. “After all,” he said, “didn’t they finally find the ones who wrecked the monuments at the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery?”
That act occurred in 5717. Now the year 5718, barely a week old, bears the same ugly scar.
— October 4, 1957, The American Jewish Outlook, p. 1
(Actually, the Homestead vandalism took place in 5716. Only the American calendar years — 1956 & 1957 — are consecutive. But 5717 bears the scar through the McKees Rocks vandalism.)
The chain of anti-Jewish indignities that has ringed Asia and the Western World the past fortnight has understandably disquieted many a Jewish heart which had supposed that these abominations on a broad scale were mingled with Hitler’s ashes. It is too much to expect the widely scattered Jewish communities to take in stride such brutish manifestations as marked hitherto untainted cities like Parma and Turin in Italy, Brussels in Belgium, Melbourne in Australia and even Tel Aviv in Israel…
These outbursts perhaps could be likened to the desecration of several graves in the Homestead Jewish cemetery last spring. It was feard (sic) at first that this abomination was the infernal handiwork of Jew-haters until it was later found that the culprits, in an overly-convivial mood, were having fun in their own macabre way and happened to choose this particular burial place. That it was a resting ground for Jews was sheer coincidence.
— January 8, 1960, The Jewish Criterion, p. 11
(Again, the date of the vandalism is off.)
…Nor can I believe that the desecration of some thirty graves in the Jewish cemetery in the Czech village on the outskirts of Prague was sheer vandalism. Two years ago the destruction of tombstones in the Jewish graveyard in Homestead by a couple of beer-logged youths bent on excitement was such.
But in Czechoslovakia this ugly incident is part of the anti-Jewish wave that has washed almost 5,000 Jews out of the country since that wonderfully brave nation has been re-Kremlinized.
— May 15, 1969, The Jewish Chronicle, p. 6
(Again, the date of the vandalism is off. It’s fascinating, though, that this incident, now more than a decade in the past, still looms large in the mind of this local commentator.)
Box 7, Meeting Minutes 1920-1931, p. 238 ↩
Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1931-1940, p. 371 ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p. 229; recollections of Bob Katz ↩
Recollections of Allen Smooke. The ohel was never the house of the caretaker. ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, pp. 170-171 ↩
ibid, pp. 176 ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p, 171 ↩
Box 13, Cemetery Ledger 1945-1959, pp. 164-170 ↩
Box 13, Folder 3, p. 177 ↩
Pittsburgh Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville, late Saturday, July 28 or early Sunday the 29th, 1956 ↩