Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In search of a myth

Jacob Drapekin

This spring, my story of my search for my great-grandfather, Jacob Drapekin, was published as a "success story" on the Jewish Genealogy website.

I retell the story here, slightly differently, with a few more photos and illustrations.  In subsequent blogs, I plan to tell the story of the SS President Arthur, the ship on which my great-grandfather died.

Like most children, I grew up with family stories.

Among my culturally assimilated, non-Zionist family, the most persistent and unverifiable story was that my mother’s grandfather, after spending many years in America, “died on a ship to Palestine.”  The captain, knowing Jacob Drapekin’s dream, buried him when the ship reached land rather than at sea.  The only fact was that there were no facts: no dates, no documents, no clues.  It seemed so unlikely.  His daughter, my grandmother, had no blue-and-white box and never planted a tree in my name.

When my husband, a Reform rabbi, wanted to return to Israel in 1977 to show me where he had studied for a year, I was the first on both sides of my family to go.

In Haifa, we found an abandoned cemetery across the road from the old port that I figured was the most likely place.  The stones ranged from difficult to impossible to read.  Many were shattered; all were covered with weeds and vines. A self-appointed watchman asked for shekels to say Kaddish, assuming we American Jews could not, but he could give us no information.

Late one night in 2005, I typed my great-grandfather’s name into Google.  On the screen appeared:  “It was on the 24th day of March that one of the passengers Mr. Jacob Drapekin of Chicago, who was making the trip to spend his last years in Palestine ...”

One click led me to the diary of Herman Hirsch.  His great-grandson, Arthur Hirsch, a Parkinson’s disease activist in Canada, had transcribed the diary and put it on his personal website.

Herman Hirsch had been a passenger on the SS President Arthur on its maiden voyage from New York to Haifa.  Among other events he recorded:  “It was on the 24th day of March that one of the passengers Mr. Jacob Drapekin of Chicago, who was making the trip to spend his last years in Palestine – died on the ship.  After consultation with the Captain and Officers, Mr. Drapekin's last request was granted to be buried in the Holy Land, and on Tuesday, March 31st, with his coffin draped in the American flag it was placed on deck.  The last rites were performed in Hebrew and English by Rabbi Ashinsky.  The Captain also said a few words.” Finally I had some facts: not many, but enough to know my family's story had at least a grain of truth.

In 2009, about to leave for Israel for my fourth visit, I consulted the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) where I found “Jewish Names in Selected U.S. State Department Files (RG59),” including a search engine for a database assembled by volunteers from the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington.  “Drapekin” produced no results, but “Drapkin” yielded:

DRAPKIN, Jacob Haifa Palestine Box #4580, File 367, Document n.113

A week later I was at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, holding “Report of the Death of an American Citizen”:  one “Jacob Drapkin,” from Chicago, of “chronic endocarditis and myocarditis.”  Included with the six sheets is a list of the property in his possession: a $10,000 letter of credit, “one watch and chain with knife,” $1,435 in cash and “American Express cheques,” one sealed bundle, one sealed valise, and one locked trunk all witnessed by a second-class passenger.  There was a roundtrip ticket, which may or may not have indicated his intention not to make aliyah or, my husband suggests, may have been a requirement of British authorities.

And there was one other fact: his body was buried in "The Jewish Cemetery, Haifa, Palestine."

I returned home that afternoon and found an address for the president of the Haifa branch of the Israel Genealogical Society; a few hours later, Hanna Steinblatt confirmed that the cemetery I’d visited in 1977 was the only one in use until 1934.  She included the phone number of the chevra kadisha – the burial society – to contact for more information.

And so, in a drought-ending downpour on a spring Sunday in 2009, my husband and I waded through wet, waist-high brambles and weeds seeking grave 17 in row 6.  There were no rows, no sections, so my husband called the chevra kadisha.  “Do you speak English?” he asked in Hebrew.  “Why should I speak English when you speak Hebrew?” replied the man on the other end of the line.  (So typical:  answering a question with a question!)

My husband read out the names on the stones nearby.  “Leave the cemetery and walk in through the other entrance to the north.”  When we did that, my husband called again and read more names:  “Walk to your left.” More names.  “Walk toward the sea.”  More names.  “Go back to your right.”

Between Yosef Halutz (grave 16) and Yaakov Kretzman (grave 18) in the packed cemetery, there was the space of one grave with no marker: Jacob Drapekin’s. We couldn’t leave a stone, but we did say prayers.
Back home, I returned to the Internet to learn more about the SS President Arthur, and it is a fascinating story indeed that I will continue in future blogs.  Suffice it to say that the Wikipedia article cited the death of my great-grandfather, but not his name.

In 2010, the Israeli Knesset Minister of Religious Services Yaakov Margi complained about the condition of the cemetery in Haifa. Hanna Steinblatt reported to me that an agreement was reached: the cemetery will be maintained by the municipality and the Ministry will “make paths and reconstruct the place.”  There are recent photos on the web (Google "Old Haifa Cemetery") that show that is happening.

Friends ask if I’ll put up a stone. I’ve looked into it, but publishing his story may be an even more lasting matzevah (marker) for Jacob Drapekin: A second-class passenger whose funeral was attended by hundreds of prominent Jews and reported around the world, thanks to a sympathetic sea captain, a first-class passenger who wrote about it, his great-grandson who put the account on the Internet 80 years later, and volunteers who believe that facts matter.

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