21 Sep 2018

Student uncovers early Jewish history in Auckland's oldest cemetery

From Checkpoint, 6:21 pm on 21 September 2018

The stories of those buried in Jewish section of Auckland's oldest cemetery are coming to life thanks to the work of an anthropology student. 

For the past two months, Richard Myburgh has been meticulously translating and documenting Hebrew enscriptions on more than 80 headstones in the Symonds Street Cemetery.

Old records containing the translations were destroyed in the 1940s but Auckland University student Mr Byburgh was working to rectify that.

"A lot of them are either damaged or very weathered over 150 years so I like being here when I'm reading and writing them because there's something about the space that really lends itself to the weight and gravity of it," he said. 

Consecrated in 1842, the cemetery sprawls either side of the Symonds Street thoroughfare and has 1200 graves, 80 of which have inscriptions in both English and Hebrew. 

Richard Myburgh first started transcribing the Jewish headstones after realising other anthropology students weren't studying them for projects because they couldn't find translations. 

The 21-year-old, who has Jewish ancestry and can read Hebrew, said he simply saw a need and filled it.

"I come at night and I look super creepy with my camera and flashes, I get nice, harsh oblique lighting. I take the photos home, run them through photoshop and try get what I can out of them. It's a long and pretty boring process, trying to pick all the little details out of them."

Lynda Lucas from the Auckland Council said the headstones have been transcribed before, but the records were lost in the 1940s.

"A lot of the information about Symonds Street was lost in a fire in a building, I think in the 1940s, and so over the last few years The Friends of Symonds Street and Auckland Council have been putting together information about the cemetery. We've gathered English transcriptions but we've never had the Hebrew Transcriptions. 

"That's a great thing that now we'll be able to add that to the database because those inscriptions will last forever whereas the headstones may not."

Gary Lambert, a retired detective who worked in the Auckland CIB for nearly forty years, has been working to archive information on the Symonds Street cemetery for nearly 20 years.

What began as a family tree project soon grew into a passion for investigating the stories of those buried at the historic site.

He said when he heard Mr Myburgh was transcribing the Hebrew inscriptions on the Jewish headstones, he couldn't wait to meet him. 

"I've researched the families as far as I can that are buried in here but the Hebrew has always remained a bit of a mystery as to exactly what it said; whether it was a translation of the English or whether it was something different."

Mr Myburgh said the differences in what he had so far transcribed mostly lay in the Hebrew calendar dates, which hold varying weight and importance. 

At least 20 headstones were [https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/126042/jewish-community-seeks-to-help-grave-desecrator damaged and defaced in 2012], with some spray painted with swastikas. 

Mr Myburgh said he hoped his transcriptions would help people better understand the Jewish community.

"I think Jews occupy a really interesting and weird space in New Zealand, with such a low population but at the same time this [cemetery] is smack-dab in the middle of the city. 

"It's very public and visible. I think because there are so few Jewish people in New Zealand there is a lot of mischaracterisation and misrepresentation that is just born out of not knowing. 

"I think that's probably the main source of all the vandalism is that people don't really know who Jews are. So I think having the very mundane day to day information about the lives and deaths of ordinary Kiwi people in such a public setting is really important."

The Auckland Council plans to add Richard's transcriptions to its website, so while the headstones won't last forever, the tributes to those buried there will. 

Tours of the Symonds St cemetery are being held between September 29 and October 10 as part of the Auckland Heritage Festival.