Upon returning to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Lassen, head of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society), checked on the Jewish cemeteries and found that, debris aside, they were in good shape.
Over the last year, she has made a point of taking care of a long-neglected Jewish cemetery over an hour away, where no Jewish community remained to deal with a tangle of downed trees and damaged stones that were left in Katrina’s wake.
The Osyka cemetery is located a stone’s throw south of the Mississippi border, just east of U.S. 51. The town itself is in Mississippi, but the cemetery and its neighboring historic Jewish cemetery are less than half a mile into Louisiana.
Bobbe Jacobs of California, who visits the area annually for civil war reenactments, contacted Rabbi Mendel Rivkin at Chabad of Louisiana about the cemetery after seeing its condition. He contacted Lassen, who around the same time heard from Jennifer Samuels about the cemetery.
Samuels and Lassen visited Osyka in June. “It was a mess,” Lassen said. “You couldn’t climb in there.”
She went to the New Orleans rabbinic council to tell them what she saw. “This is just terrible,” she said. “Our role as Jews is to take care of each other.”
She tried several avenues to get funding for a cleanup, but was unsuccessful. Finally, Richard Cahn, president of Dixie Mill in New Orleans, fronted enough money to get the cemetery cleared.
Michael Cahn, who was born in Osyka in 1917, was the founder of Dixie Mill.
Lassen’s small team met with the caretaker of the German cemetery next to the Jewish cemetery. He knew someone locally who could take down the trees for a reasonable rate, so 20 trees that were over 20 feet tall were removed, and the project cost just over $5000.
Jews came to the Osyka area in the 1850s, as the town was the end of a rail line. Most of the Jews were from Alsace, with others from Bavaria and Italy. They were accepted by the mostly-Protestant population in Osyka and nearby Kirksville.
Some of the Jews were cotton merchants, while others set up stores or were horse traders. They established a congregation that met in the home of Sam Wolf. Kirksville does not exist today except for the German cemetery, established in the 1860s, and the neighboring Jewish cemetery which had 27 markers a decade ago. Names included Cahn, Hart, Heuman, Wolf, Cerf, Levine, Levy, Moyse, and Dreyfuss.
The Jewish population was around 60 in 1878, but by the turn of the century the community was in decline. The synagogue and the German school many Jews attended closed by 1900. The railroad was extended away from the area and a yellow fever epidemic further lowered the population. Many Jews moved on to New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Today Osyka has about 500 residents.
Now that the cemetery is navigable, Lassen wants to see it restored. She feels the area youth groups are a natural for taking it on as a project.
A brick wall surrounds the cemetery, but in many places the wall has fallen apart. She thinks some of the bricks should be used to make a path. Many of the stones are broken or missing. Great-grandchildren of the Harts that are buried there visited from Houston recently and were unable to find their family stone that had been there on a previous visit a decade earlier.
The problem? “I have no money to start with,” Lassen said, and she says she was lucky to get Cahn’s support. The clearing of Osyka’s cemetery should lead to something like “Save Our Cemeteries,” she said, adding that New Orleans is a natural to take the lead because of community ties to Osyka.
The gravestones in Osyka all originated in New Orleans and were shipped up by train, she added.
She also would like to see a tour of Jewish cemeteries, since there are several historic cemeteries within driving range of New Orleans.