Genealogists race against time to document previously abandoned White Oak cemetery
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Genealogists race against time to document previously abandoned White Oak cemetery

In the process of documenting history, Chuck Fuller and Rich Katz hope other enthusiasts will follow.

The two photos are of the same stone at the Ahavas Achim cemetery. The photo on the left is taken during the day. The photo on the right is taken just after sundown, with low-angle oblique lighting to highlight the inscription. Photos by Chuck Fuller
The two photos are of the same stone at the Ahavas Achim cemetery. The photo on the left is taken during the day. The photo on the right is taken just after sundown, with low-angle oblique lighting to highlight the inscription. Photos by Chuck Fuller

White Oak resident and genealogist Chuck Fuller first learned of the Ahavas Achim Cemetery in White Oak nearly a decade ago after encountering the formerly brush-filled area.

Fuller tried researching the then-abandoned cemetery’s history but was unsuccessful. The cemetery remained ramshackle for years but, in 2018, Mark Pudlowski, founder of the Family of God Biblical Reasoning Center in White Oak, began repairing it.

Like Fuller, Pudlowski’s efforts were spurred by happening upon the grounds. What Pudlowski discovered, though, was that Gemilas Chesed Synagogue in White Oak owned the property. Pudlowski obtained permission to restore the cemetery and, with help from Mike Lia, and Lia’s son Daniel, cleared the overgrowth, established a 40-foot-by-40-foot boundary and installed a split-rail fence. The small team also mulched the area and erected a 3-foot wooden Star of David.

Even with the newly freshened space, much remained unknown about those buried there.

In April 2021, Fuller, who is not Jewish, connected online with Rich Katz, a Californian similarly keen on solving ancestral puzzles.

“We knew that the cemetery needed to be documented and saved,” Fuller said.

With each practitioner relying on his expertise, Fuller and Katz went to work. Fuller photographed the eight standing stones and nearby slabs. The process, he said, often required visiting the cemetery at dusk and shining light across the face of seemingly unreadable markers. By creating shadows from the text’s ridges, detected names, dates and artwork that couldn’t be seen in daylight.

Katz — a Jewish engineer living in Torrance, California — translated the photographed text from Hebrew into English before deciding, along with Fuller, that the deceased, and the nearby area, needed more attention.

While relying on websites, including ancestry.com and jewishgen.org, as well as funeral home records and materials from the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives, Fuller and Katz determined that the cemetery land was purchased from William D. and Mary O. Peterson on Dec. 29, 1891, for $400 by four people — M. Weisy, Max Roth, J. Moskowitz and Emanuel Glick.

Despite the deed failing to mention a congregation or organization, Fuller and Katz posited that M. Weisy is the same Morris Weis who was a trustee named on the Ahavas Achim synagogue charter.

Founded in 1890, Ahavas Achim synagogue was established after several individuals left Gemilas Chesed Anshe Ungarn in McKeesport. The former operated for nearly 40 years, with interment in the Ahavas Achim cemetery occurring between 1902 and 1924 — though perhaps as late as 1927.

According to Fuller and Katz, many of the people buried at the cemetery hailed from the Subcarpathian region of Austria-Hungary — 25 miles from the current village of Vylok (Tiszaújlak) in western Ukraine.

Part of the difficulty with reaching a clear determination on the history of those interred at Ahavas Achim, Katz said, is that many of the families who left Austria-Hungary between the 1890s and 1920s endured significant antisemitism and “trauma” and chose not to speak of anything that preceded arrival in the States.

Katz added that he and Fuller adopted “totally different approaches” to gathering their information and, although the genealogists both encountered historical gaps, the two men reached almost identical conclusions.

After using primary source evidence to reconcile any remaining inconsistencies, Fuller and Katz prepared a 62-page report.

The work, which includes a history of the cemetery and the congregation that established it, was shared with several groups, including the USGenWeb Project, the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center and the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh.

Barry Rudel, JCBA’s executive director, said that Fuller and Katz’s extensive work is greatly appreciated and an integral piece of preserving the region’s Jewish history.

The substantive document includes eight appendices and hundreds of footnotes. The reason why there’s so much information, and a revision underway, is to help people identify their forebears, Fuller said.

It’s a similar rationale for why Fuller and Katz are now focusing on Kesher Israel Cemetery in Port Vue.

“We’re hoping to have that one finished by November,” Fuller said.

With efforts being made to document the region’s Jewish history, Fuller and Katz are extremely busy. The volunteers said they’re happy to continue working for free but hope other people may be inspired to support JCBA or undertake related genealogical efforts.

“The story of this cemetery and the other one we’re working on is kind of sad,” Katz said.

“They’re part of people’s history and, at some point, they were lost … people stopped going there, and people stopped taking care of them. We want to make sure the heritage is supported so that the cemetery doesn't get lost again.”

Preventing erasure, Fuller explained, is a race against time.

There’s going to be a point when even a no-touch method — the low-angle oblique lighting technique that Fuller used to read text at dusk — will be insufficient, he said: “The stones will erode and the history will eventually disappear.”

Whether for the descendants, historians, genealogists or those mystically inclined, it’s imperative to preserve the identities of the deceased, Katz said: “If you say their names, you almost bring them back to life in some degree.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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