Row 8, plot 85. With the coordinates in hand, it should be simple to find the grave of Rebecca de Mendes Benjamin. But the sun has set over the Dispersed of Judah cemetery, the moon is reduced to a crescent, and an ominous chill has settled in over otherwise warm-blooded New Orleans.
Ethan points a meager flashlight borrowed from the bed and breakfast to the ground and miraculously finds a marker for row 9. We move to the right, closer to cemetery wall, shining a small halo on the path, hoping to find row 8. No such luck. But wait! There’s row 10: The rows are numbered north to south, not east to west. We scramble off in the likely direction of row 8.
I had come here earlier in the day, in the late afternoon, scouring this Jewish Cemetery, where the mother of Judah P. Benjamin was buried, without the benefit the coordinates. According to a directory on ancestry.com, she shares a plot here with her uncle Jacob Levy, who helped the family settle in the United States, and the mysterious Nathalie Lucia Kruttschnitt, who may be her grand daughter.
Rebecca de Mendes Benjamin, I explain to Ethan, is my fourth great grandmother, his fifth great grandmother, a Sephardic Jew from Portugal, related to us through my grandmother “Meanie” Thompson. She was the mother of Peninah Benjamin Kruttschnitt and Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy. The kids barely indulge my family ancestry quest. But attitudes may change if the research involves a late-night graveyard search.
The Dispersed of Judah cemetery isn’t in the best part of town. It’s located near the intersection of Canal and Metarie Streets, a corner seemingly reserved for cemeteries. Even so, this smallish cemetery, founded in 1846 by Spanish and Portugese Jews, isn’t the easiest to find. Until you realize it’s one of the few on the street without crosses on the graves and where nearly everyone is buried in the ground.
The rusty gates are open, or at least ajar, day and night, perhaps because they can’t be closed. And the cemetery lawn is littered with remnants of the night—dented 24-ounce beer cans, faded carnival beads, and wadded up cigarette packs. An unassuring glow from nearby streetlights make this an unlikely place for a rendezvous or a sleep over, but you never know.
I hear a rustle as we move into what appears to be an older section of the graveyard.
We must be going in the right direction—Rebecca died in 1848, at 56, only two years after moving here from South Carolina. She came with her daughter, Peninah, to live at Judah P. Benjamin’s Bellechasse mansion. It must have been a big relief to Rebecca when Peninah married John Kruttschnitt, a successful merchant, the year before she died.
In the older part of the graveyard, the rows and plots aren’t as well marked. In fact, landmarks are few and far between. We stumble upon plot 88. Rebecca’s grave must be three spots away. We search in both directions, but we can’t find it.
It’s getting cold. As we stumble around in the dark, the noise I heard before gets louder. Then it escalates into a roar, quickly sending chills down my spine, making my hair seem to stand on end. “Shit,” I say, tripping over the edge of a plot.
“It must be a bat,” Ethan says, as the noise quiets down. Whatever it is has moved toward the neighboring cemetery. “You’re probably right,” I say, thinking that the flapping of wings sure was unlike any I had ever heard.
It’s difficult to read many of the worn-out gravestones in the old part of the cemetery, especially since the flashlight only illuminates part of the headstone. Some of the inscriptions are so faint that charcoal and trace paper may be the only way to reveal their secrets. Some plots are empty, or their headstones have been turned over and broken. A disquieting number of grave stones make reference to a ‘dearly departed child.’
It’s hopeless. We decide to call it a night.
That night I wonder whether the Kruttschnitts could have moved Rebecca’s grave. Unlikely. Perhaps she’s buried alongside her son Judah in France. Maybe it’s possible to find cemetery records somewhere. Perhaps I’ll look in the Tulane library tomorrow.
The next afternoon, I decide to give it one last try. The cemetery isn’t nearly as spooky in daylight, but it looks even more unkempt. Though some of graves have “perpetual care” written on them, it feels like people, including the maintenance staff, rarely visit. But at least you can read the plot numbers.
Returning to the general vicinity where we thought the grave might be the night before, I immediately find plot 86. And, looking to my left, I see a marker for Rebecca DeMendes Benjamin, wedged between two other stones. I can barely believe my eyes. Her name is tough to decipher–it’s written in a semi-circle over the top of the stone.
My first thought is that the marker is too inconspicuous for the mother of Judah P. Benjamn, the brains of the Confederacy and one of the brightest legal minds of his generation. Granted he was forced to flee the country after the Civil War, but he became fabulously wealthy as a barrister in England. You’d think he might have upgraded the tombstone. But Judah P’s stone in France isn’t that large, either.
My second thought is that I’ve found something special. This is the grave of a Jewish relative who sought refuge in the United States from persecution in Europe. Moreover, the de Mendes family can be traced back to Spanish Inquisition of the late 1400s. It’s listed among 30 prominent families that sought refuge in Portugal from Spain. During the reign of Ferdinand of Aragon, Jews in Spain were forced to either leave the country, convert to Catholicism, or face torture and death.
Three hundred years later, well after the persecution spread into Portugal, Rebecca’s father, Solomon de Mendes moved to Holland, where he met his wife-to-be, Eva Levy, a Dutch Jewess. After Rebecca was born in 1790, the family moved to England. At 18, Rebecca married Philip Benjamin, “a little dark-skinned man in his mid-20s” born in the Caribbean, on the British island of Nevis, according to Judah P. Benjamin’s biographer, Robert Douthat Meade. The couple may have run a corner stand in London that sold dried fruit.
Rebecca and Philip probably decided that opportunities would be better in the New World. So they moved to Nevis, where many of the older Jewish families were of Shepardic stock. Opportunity there wasn’t much better than in Europe. But the couple heard from Rebecca’s uncle, Jacob Levy, that there might be more opportunity in Wilmington, North Carolina, and moved there in 1813. After that didn’t work out, the family in 1821 moved to Charleston, South Carolina.
Rebecca separated from her husband in about 1838 after 30 years of marriage. One scholar described Phillip as far more interested in study than making a living. During the marriage, the family’s fortunes were always at “a very low ebb,” wrote Pierce Butler, another Judah P. Benjamin biographer.
However, Rebecca remained close to her uncle, Jacob Levy, who was buried in the same plot two years after she died. Nathalie Lucia Kruttschnitt, the other name on the gravestone, may well have been a child of John Kruttschnitt and Peninah Benjamin, though there are no other records to substantiate this. The couple were married in 1848, and Nathalie died in September of 1850.
That’s a mystery for a later date.