Beth Olem Cemetery, around since the 1860s, is like many aging, final resting places, with assorted tombstones in varying condition, sizes, and styles, encircled by a brick wall and iron gate. Yet surrounding it is an unusual neighbor: General Motors' Detroit Hamtramck Plant. Visitors who drive about a mile around the plant will find the 2.2-acre, 1,100-grave Jewish cemetery, preserved when GM got Michigan Supreme Court approval to demolish roughly 1,500 homes and businesses, several churches, and a hospital so it could build a new plant. To maintain plant security, public access to the cemetery is limited to a couple days a year—typically Sundays nearest to the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Passover. This year, the opening around Passover was postponed a month until this past Sunday, when a few dozen people showed up.
Susan Brodsky saw for the first time the grave of her great-grandfather, who died in 1909, after an elderly cousin told her about the grave. "He said it was in the Cadillac plant," she says. "At first, I'm sitting there going like, 'Where? Where? What is he talking about?' Then I started Googling 'old Jewish cemeteries in Detroit' and it was pretty obvious." Ralph Zuckman, the director of Detroit's Clover Hill Park Cemetery overseeing Beth Olem—which means "house of the universe" or "house of eternity"—says the synagogue "wanted to make sure it remained ... In Hebrew, going onto a cemetery property is like walking into a synagogue. You're walking on holy ground." While the arrangement is unconventional, Zuckman describes the relationship between the automaker and cemetery officials as "very good."