This summer’s prolonged heatwave and drought in Europe has had an unexpected effect: it has exposed buried gravestones, showing their layout in the historic Beth Haim Portuguese (Sephardic) Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, located near Amsterdam at the confluence of the Bullewijk and Amstel rivers and the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands.
Sephardic gravestones lie flat on the ground, and according to the cemetery web site, the drought has exposed stones that had sunken over the centuries into the peaty soil and been hidden under the grassy surface.
“Due to the drought, the contours of the sunken [stones] in the peat have become visible,” the web site states. “The grass and plants that grow where tombstones lies underground can be less deeply rooted and are therefore more susceptible to drought.”
The drought-parched grass growing above the stones now appears as yellow-colored rectangles, arranged in neat rows, while the more deeply rooted grass between the stones is still green.
“Fields that seem to be empty seem to be littered with graves,” the Dutch Jewish community web site wrote. “Because of the drought the grass of Beth Haim looks like a mosaic.”
Because of the drought, the cemetery administration also has introduced measures to prevent fires, including temporary bans on lighting candles and smoking in the cemetery.
The Beth Haim cemetery was founded in 1614 and includes more than 27,500 burials. (Click HERE to see a searchable database of the people buried).
Many of the slablike gravestones exhibit extraordinarily elaborate carving, but over the centuries, many of the gravestones sank into the soft soil. The cemetery web site writes:
In the 19th century David Henriques de Castro, a prominent member of the Portuguese community, catalogued and restored part of the cemetery. He raised some of the tombstones and used bricks to hold up the most important and beautiful ones. In all, he dug up and catalogued 6,000 tombstones.He spent 14 years restoring the cemetery.
The World Monument Fund put the cemetery on its Watch List of endangered heritage sites in 2012 because of “significant water issues,” due to its location at the confluence of two rivers, “compounded by a lack of regular maintenance.”
in the mid 1650s the Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael painted a famous view of the cemetery, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The writer Harvey Rachlin spun a fascinating tale about this painting and the cemetery and persons buried there, in an article from a few years ago in the Jewish Press.
Not far from Amsterdam, in the village of Ouderkerk on the River Amstel, lies the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery called Beth Haim. Here in this pastoral necropolis repose the remains of Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula in the wake of the Inquisition, exiles who chose banishment over baptism, who had fortuitously managed to survive the torture chambers or dodge the stake in the relentless drive by the Roman Catholic Church to cleanse the land of heretics.
To the Mennonite Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael, the Jewish burial ground seemed a propitious setting for an allegorical work incorporating themes of the ephemerality of life, the power of nature, human limitations, and eternal optimism. Beginning in 1655, he began to set down his vision on canvas, locating it in the graveyard but making the landscape his own by altering the scenery, creating the mood, and inserting some of his own artistic inventions.
In his Baroque-style painting, Ruisdael depicted ominous skies, a glistening rainbow, soaring birds, massive clouds, ancient ruins amid thick verdant underbrush, a naked fallen tree arching over a rippling brook, bereaved visitors, and assorted tombs. Ruisdael highlighted one tomb near the center of the painting in bright white, a lustrous cynosure in the otherwise somber graveyard scene. This was not just another anonymous monument perched in the placid forest glade of Ouderkerk, for in real life enshrined in this radiant
marble mausoleum were the remains of a distinguished man who was connected to a special story that in itself was an allegory reflective of those painted by Ruisdael.