Gold Rush history unveiled in book on Jewish cemeteries

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The details of Hartwig Caro's short life are sketchy. Born in Prussia, he left the old country to become a Gold Rush pioneer. But any dreams of striking it rich were cut short. In 1853, he died at age 17 and was buried in the Sonora Hebrew Cemetery.

Today, though most of the lettering on his headstone has worn away, a few Hebrew words remain legible. They read: "To our beloved son and brother." But this "Forty-Niner" will be remembered for at least one reason: He became the first person buried in a Jewish cemetery in the Gold Country.

His legacy, as such, is recorded in Susan Morris' new book, "A Traveler's Guide to Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries of the California Gold Rush."

"We felt there was a need to document and make generally accessible — to tourists, to Jews and non-Jews — specifics about these Jewish cemeteries," said Morris, a 55-year-old Tiburon resident who is an archivist and oral historian with the Western Jewish History Center at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

The paperback offers a detailed glimpse into the lives of the more than 210 Jews buried in seven graveyards under the care of the museum's Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks.

Designed to help tourists wander through the Northern California cemeteries on their own, the book contains:

*A short history of the Gold Rush era and Jewish immigration.

*Facts about Jewish burial traditions and headstone markings.

*Itinerary for a three-day, self-guided tour of the seven cemeteries in Sonora, Mokelumne Hill, Jackson, Placerville, Nevada City, Grass Valley and Marysville.

*Maps of the towns, six of which are located along State Historic Route 49.

*Plot layouts of the graveyards, with each of the headstones numbered. These numbers correspond to short biographies about each person. For some, the information is merely a name and date. For others, usually the more prominent community members, the data is more extensive.

*Background on each of the seven cities and their Jewish cemeteries, including the date of the first burial, of the last burial, number of visible gravestones and whether visitors must make special arrangements beforehand.

*Mourners' Kaddish, in both Aramaic and English.

The project started 3-1/2 years ago when Magnes Museum director Seymour Fromer asked Morris to update a brochure on the cemeteries. The idea for a revamped brochure gradually grew into one for a book as Morris delved into old newspapers and visited the area 30 to 40 times.

The publication of the book, which received a Skaggs Foundation grant, is part of the museum's ongoing and ever-expanding mission to teach about the Jewish role in the historic frenzy that began in January 1848 when gold nuggets were found in the American River's South Fork in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

In the past several years, the museum also has produced a video, published a teachers' guide and reissued an out-of-print book about the region's Jewish cemeteries.

"It's very important in Judaism that one remembers those who came before," said Morris, whose own great-great-grandfather was a Gold Rush pioneer and the first president of the Placerville Hebrew Benevolent Society.

Morris expects interest in the subject of Jewish pioneers to grow when the state kicks off celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of gold's discovery in 1848 and of California's statehood in 1850.

Morris already has received several calls from readers. One Los Angeles woman is married to a Jew but didn't know she herself was descended from Jews until she noticed in the book the name of her ancestor Ludwig Dreyfuss, who died in 1880 when he fell into a vat of boiling beer at a brewery. He is buried in the Nevada City Jewish Cemetery.

"I constantly have people calling and finding out things about their families they never knew," Morris said.

She also hopes that readers with more information will contact her with additions or corrections

"What I've found is it's absolutely a work in progress," she said.