Heatwave kills grass at Holland’s oldest Jewish cemetery, exposing layout
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Heatwave kills grass at Holland’s oldest Jewish cemetery, exposing layout

28,000 Jews are buried at grave site that dates back to the Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries

Illustrative image of Netherland's Beth Haim cemetery where headstones are normally covered by grass. (CC BY-SA Marcelmulder68, Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative image of Netherland's Beth Haim cemetery where headstones are normally covered by grass. (CC BY-SA Marcelmulder68, Wikimedia Commons)

AMSTERDAM — The heatwave scorching Western Europe has helped identify visually for the first time in decades the exact layout of the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands.

Because of the scorching 38°C (100°F) temperature recorded this month, the grass that usually covers the sunken headstones at the 400-year-old Beth Haim cemetery near Amsterdam has died and turned yellow, whereas the grass that grows between the headstones remained green. The precise outline of each headstone became visible to the naked eye for the first time in decades, the Dutch Jewish weekly NIW reported Wednesday.

The phenomenon is connected to the fact that Beth Haim is a Sephardic-Portuguese cemetery, established by Jews who fled the Inquisition campaign of religious persecution in the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th and 16th centuries. In that community, headstones are not placed vertically but laid horizontally on the ground over the grave.

However, because the Netherlands has unusually soft soil, the headstones gradually sunk into the ground, eventually becoming completely covered with grass growing over them. But because of the drought, the grass growing over the headstones died whereas the grass growing between them survived because it could grow deeper roots.

Visitors can therefore for the first time in years now see the plots where their loves ones are buried, provided they consult records and blueprints that show who is buried where at Beth Haim.

Due to the heat, however, the cemetery’s management is enforcing a temporary ban on lighting yahrzeit candles, which many Jewish families use to commemorate their dead. It is feared that lighting candles in the current weather would start brush fires.

Approximately 28,000 people are buried at the cemetery, which to this day is in the service of the Portuguese Israelite Community of Amsterdam.

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