Friday, November 24, 2006
Jewish cemeteries and memorials are scattered across the continent of Europe from Prague to Barcelona, and many are found in the city centers to pay tribute to a people who lived through many hardships. North Dakota may seem far away from all of that history, but on the vast, bare plains of Ramsey County, North Dakota has its own memorial to a Jewish settlement. The Sons of Jacob Cemetery is little known to most in the state, but on this day in 1971, the Devil’s Lake Journal brought this unique history and land back into the present.
The article came after a recent visit of two Jewish descendants whose family had tried to homestead near Garske, a small village in Ramsey County. The visitors, Stewart Stern of Hollywood and Jeff Kaufmann of Santa Monica, were thought to be the only descendants of the Jewish pioneers to visit since the settlement disbanded in the early 1900s. Stern and Kaufmann had come to retrace the steps of their relatives, from the settlement in Ramsey County, to Rolla where their relatives traded furs with the Native Americans. While on their visit in the Lake Region, the two visited Stern’s family’s homestead. Following their visit, they hoped to visit Stern’s uncle, Adolf Zukor, and present him with soil from the old homestead and with pictures of the cemetery.
Zukor had been one of the early pioneers to move into the Lake Region. Zukor had come from a family of vineyard farmers, and much like the other pioneers who staked out claims in the Lake Region, he had hopes of making a living on his own land. Immigrants began moving into the area in the summer of 1882, but the winter proved difficult for the pioneers. They lived in insufficient homes and were unaccustomed to the harsh North Dakota weather conditions. Poor conditions and unlucky crop failures the following summer plagued the inexperienced immigrants. Many families moved out within the next few years, and the situation of the Jewish settlements grew more dire. Relief came in the winter of 1888, when they began receiving welfare from sympathetic Jews in the Twin Cities. It wasn’t long before contributions came from across the nation.
Settlers held out for several years with the financial aid of the cities, but a bitter rivalry soon grew between Minneapolis and St. Paul over the Devil’s Lake settlement. St. Paul believed it had done more than its share for the Devil’s Lake colony. Meanwhile, Minneapolis was requesting aid from non-Jews, and St. Paul believed Minneapolis’ actions were “making beggars of the Devil’s Lake colony.” Despite the rivalry, the settlement persisted several more years. By 1912, it was the oldest Jewish settlement in the Northwest. The small village retained a sense of livelihood with its own rabbi and teacher, and farmers were having more success with crops. By 1920, however, the families had drifted away, and many younger people went to the cities. The cemetery now remains the only remnant of the brief, yet persistent Jewish settlers of the Lake Region.
By Tessa Sandstrom
Plaut, W. Gunter. “Jewish Colonies at Painted Woods and Devil’s Lake. North Dakota History, 33.1: 59-70.
Roberts, Kathleen and Zaleski, John Jr. “Old Cemetery Rich in Pioneer History,” Devil’s Lake Journal. Nov. 24, 1971: 2.