Forest Park has a Jewish connection that goes back to the origins of our town. In 1870, town founder Ferdinand Haase sold farmland to the Free Sons of Israel for a cemetery. They, along with other Jewish organizations, persuaded synagogues, lodges and families to establish plots in what is now Jewish Waldheim Cemetery.
The cemetery hosted so many Jewish burials that a number of inns and restaurants sprang up to serve the Jewish mourners, some featuring kosher meals. Why were so many Jewish people buried here? It’s because the city of Chicago had an ordinance forbidding Jewish burials within the city limits. Jewish Waldheim now has 175,000 graves.
The Forest Park cemetery is busy this time of year, just before the Jewish high holidays with visitors coming to honor loved ones. This season is called Yizkor and Ron Grossman described it in a Chicago Tribune article.
Yizkor is a time to pray for departed loved ones. As a child, Grossman associated the season with trips to Jewish Waldheim to visit the graves of his grandparents. He also linked it to lamb chops. His mother, Ethel, marked the occasion by serving Ron and his brother this special meal, while she contented herself with cornflakes. Reflecting on the sacrifices his parents made inspires Grossman to follow their example. He hopes Yizkor will motivate others to respond to those in need of help.
This spirit of Yizkor can certainly be felt at Jewish Waldheim, where people like Dave Penzell, director of operations, assist families with finding the graves of their forbears. Some only have a first name, or a partial last name. Others don’t have a date of death.
When they do locate the grave, mourners place a pebble on the headstone to commemorate their visit. Penzell said that the pebble signifies to other family members that someone has paid their respects.
Many of people buried in Jewish Waldheim fled persecution in Eastern Europe. This rush of refugees gave Chicago the third largest Jewish population in the world. Many of these families, who fled Europe ahead of the Holocaust, have a relative buried in Forest Park.
Penzell remembers a particular family who came to Jewish Waldheim and found the grandparent’s graves in need of some tender care. They returned with 22 checks from nieces and nephews to fix up the grave. They told Penzell that if two people hadn’t crossed the Atlantic in a small ship, none of them would be here.
During Yizkor, Ron Grossman said he asks the Almighty to remember his father and mother and he pledges to do good in their name. His example makes me want to check on my folks at Queen of Heaven. It makes me want to donate to the Howard Mohr Community Center’s struggling food pantry. And it gives me a powerful appetite for lamb chops.