Historic cemetery in desperate need of attention and help

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LAKEWOOD, Colo. -- Colorado’s national parks and landmarks attract a lot of visitors, but there’s a national historic place along Colfax Avenue in Lakewood that has been overlooked and neglected for decades.

Historian Jennifer Goodland only recently began researching The Hill Section of Golden Hill Cemetery, but it has been on her mind for many years.

"When I was a kid, I used to ride the school bus every day passed this place," Goodland said. "It was always known as the abandoned Jewish cemetery despite the fact that it was not abandoned."

You can't blame Goodland or anyone else for believing that The Hill Section is abandoned. Take a quick glance as you pass by and you'll see overgrown grass, broken tombstones, missing grave markers and an old gate with incomplete fencing to protect the area from vandals.

For the past 25 years, Ted Ruskin has been making sure the Jewish cemetery is not abandoned, but he knows he can only do so much.

"I'm going to need your help," Ruskin said during a recent meeting with Goodland and the FOX31 Denver Problem Solvers. "No doubt about it."

Ruskin has helped organize yearly cleanup efforts and made a successful bid to include the cemetery on the National Register of Historic places, but he knows his abilities are limited. He's fighting a losing a battle with a degenerative eye condition, and that means he has a hard time even walking around the cemetery in the current shape it's in.

"I don't trust myself (getting around)," Ruskin said during a recent visit to the cemetery. "We're standing in front of Rudolph Schwartzman and if you tap it with your cane, you'll see that it's been tipped over."

In addition to widespread vandalism, many of the people buried in The Hill Section died in the early 1900s. Most also died as poor outcasts through no fault of their own.

"It wasn't a place where people were honored. It's a place where people were hidden," Goodland said. "This is where they put the bulk of their tuberculosis victims."

Tuberculosis patients flocked to Denver in the early 1900s, seeking help from sanitariums like the Jewish Consumptives Relief Society, which accepted many Jewish immigrants, who came from places later decimated by the holocaust.

"For some of these cases, their name on the tombstone is the only reminder of an entire town of Eastern European Jews," Goodland said.

Though nobody wants to see that history fade, fixing the problems facing The Hill Section will take more than caring. It will take money.

"Very little, if anything, was paid for burial and yet in modern times you have to pay people to take care of it," said Neal Price, executive director of Golden Hill Cemetery, which also oversees The Hill Section.

Though The Hill Section is part of the larger Golden Hill Cemetery, Price said most of his budget is dedicated to the active section, where burials still take place.

"To get the area up to snuff it would probably cost somewhere in excess of a quarter of a million dollars and my operating budget is $100,000 a year," Price said.

Ruskin, a monument maker, continues to do his part by donating tombstones and helping with grant applications that will help chip away at the essential repairs.

"I think we're moving forward," Ruskin said.

Goodland is donating her time to create a searchable archive of everyone buried at The Hill. She hopes to connect family members who might be searching for their long-lost relatives. She hopes the project will bring more people to the cause and make sure the cemetery is never truly abandoned.

"There are two deaths that people experience," Goodland said. "There's the death you experience when you're no longer inhabiting your body and then you die a second time when your name is no longer remembered or spoken on the Earth."

To donate time or money to help preserve The Hill Section, email Ted Ruskin for more information.

Learn more if you are interested in the people buried in The Hill Section.

If you have an Ancestry.com subscription you can also review this ancestry tree.

Find general information about The Hill Section and its connection to tuberculosis.