The Lost (And Found) Grave of Joan Winters

Joan Winters 1909 -1933.

Joan Winters 1909-1933.

My name is Rahel Jaskow. I live in Jerusalem, where I work as a translator and editor. I’m also a singer and amateur photographer. Seraphic Secret has been one of my daily reads for several years, and I’d like to thank Robert for giving me the opportunity to write a guest post for his excellent blog.

In July 2011, Robert – whose stories of Hollywood history are a treat – published a post entitled American Showgirl Murdered in Gethsemane. He told the story of Broadway dancer Joan Winters – actually, that was her stage name. (She was born Carol Vesta von Niedergesaess and had another name besides, but see Robert’s post for the story.) In 1933, when Joan was a young woman of 23, she went on a trip to Europe and the Middle East. In late October 1933 she was murdered in Jerusalem together with her male companion, Mohamed Karamini. The case was never solved; both the murderer and the motive remain unknown. Robert ended his post as follows: “She is buried in the American Cemetery in Jerusalem. If any of my readers in Israel are so inclined, I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d visit Joan’s grave, make sure it’s properly maintained and perhaps send me a picture.”

When I read those lines, I thought: Well, that’s easy! I live about a fifteen-minute walk from the American Cemetery, which is now known as the Alliance Church International Cemetery. It’s located on the main street of my neighborhood, right next to a small shopping plaza with a popular pizza shop and mini-market. I’ve been to the cemetery many times and taken pictures of the tombstones, each one a snapshot of modern Jerusalem history. The cemetery is often open, and visitors frequently go in to look at the gravestones and learn a bit of local lore.

But the cemetery wasn’t always as available to visitors as it is today. Until recently, it was all but abandoned. It was nearly always locked, visits were by appointment only, and it was in a terrible state of neglect. That changed a few years ago when a man named Meir Aharony became the cemetery’s new caretaker and guide.

Meir’s knowledge of the cemetery’s history and occupants is encyclopedic. Go on one of his tours and you’ll learn about Anwar Sadat’s personal chef who later came to Jerusalem, ran the (kosher) kitchen of one of its most prestigious hotels and taught the culinary arts to students right up to his dying day. Other people buried there include a woman who worked as secretary to Golda Meir, a Dutch film director, a prominent British archaeologist and a daughter of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man who revived Hebrew as a modern language. Perhaps the cemetery’s most famous occupant is Rev. John Stanley Grauel, an American Methodist minister and Christian Zionist who sailed on the Exodus and, in defiance of the British, broke the story of its passengers to the world press in 1947.

Shortly after I read Robert’s story of Joan Winters, I went to Meir and asked him if he could show me where Joan was buried. He took me to the section where burials from the 1930s were located and we searched. Not all the graves from that time have headstones or any marker at all, though many do. Our search proved fruitless; no marker bore her name.

I called the American Consulate, since Joan Winters was an American citizen and both the American consul and vice consul from that time had attended her burial. I thought perhaps the consulate might have some record or other clue as to her grave’s location. The official I spoke to searched the records and met with Meir personally, but found nothing about Joan Winters or her burial place.

I searched the digitized burial records of Jerusalem’s Christian cemeteries on the Internet and called the churches that owned them, thinking that perhaps one of them had been known as the American Cemetery back in the 1930s. When nothing turned up, I all but gave up my search, thinking there was no possibility of tracing the burial record of a woman who had been dead for nearly eighty years.

Fast-forward to a week ago last Friday afternoon, when I was heading to the mini-market. As I passed the cemetery, I peeked inside, thinking I’d say hello to Meir on the way. I found him surrounded by heavy machinery and workers, supervising the renovation of the footpaths. Not wishing to disturb him at his work, I turned to go, but he noticed me and called to me to wait.

He walked toward where I was standing near the gate. “You’re about to do your shopping, right?” he said. “Come back when you’re done. I have something you’ll want to see.”

When I came back to the cemetery, shopping bags in hand, the workers had left. Meir walked toward me, grinning from ear to ear and carrying what looked like a very large, rolled-up sheet of paper.

It was the cemetery map. After all this time, Meir had found it! “When did you say the woman you’re looking for was buried?” he asked.

“In November 1933,” I said.

Meir led the way to the section and unrolled a portion of the map. There, in precision-sketched rectangles with neat handwriting inside each one, was a record of every burial in the cemetery. I held my finger just over the rectangles, without touching them, to keep my place, scanning each one and the name written inside.

And there it was. Plot 30A, just off the footpath. Inside the rectangle symbolizing the grave was written: “C. von Niedergesaess” – Joan Winters’s original name. The grave was unmarked but easy to locate, since it’s between two marked graves and in front of a third one. And like all the unmarked graves in the cemetery, its perimeter is marked by a course of rectangular stones.

Now those who wish to can pay their respects at Joan Winters’s grave… and Meir has another story to tell visitors.

Tyhe unmarked grave of Joan Winters has, at least been identified by Rahel Jaskow.

The unmarked grave of Joan Winters has, at last, been identified.

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  1. Batya
    Posted February 27, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    such an amazing story
    thanks Rahel

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  2. Johnny
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the great story. For a while there it looked like Robert may have gotten taken in by an urban legend. Or he may have been trying to cover his tracks. Has he ever proven he was not in Jerusalem in 1933? Are we sure he’s not some youthful looking 98 year old with a dark past? Hmmmmm!!!!
    Was this cemetery neglected the way Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem were until 1967 or was there another reason? Did Meir work there before he became caretaker. It’s heartening to know how important he takes his job and responsibilities. Is the cemetery that big that her grave and others were ‘lost’ from not being maintained? There have to be a lot of great stories with the cemetery, especially with Meir in charge.
    Looking at your photos I was struck by the palms at twilight. Did you use a flash to fill in the light or was that all natural? Either way it’s spectacular and a great catch. 

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    • Rahel
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Johnny — the cemetery is a Protestant one, and I don’t know much about its history or why it was neglected for so long. I also don’t know exactly when Meir began working there, but the place has changed immeasurably for the better since he did. And the stories are amazing. I learn more every time I go there.
      As for the palm trees — the lighting was supplied by the Jerusalem municipality. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Thanks for your kind words!

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  3. Bill Brandt
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Re-reading the original post it seems I would go for option 2 – 2. There was a love triangle. Joan Winters and Mohamed Karman were murdered by the jealous Mohamed Ikram. One isn’t shot 3 times in the head out of a random mob violence but rage.
    And thank you Rahel for solving an 80 year old (this year) mystery!
    It would be nice if we could give her a headstone

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    • Rahel
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Bill — I agree that it would be nice to give Joan a headstone. The only question is who’d decide what was written on it….

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  4. Brianna
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    How very neat.  Thanks Rahel!

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  5. Bill Brandt
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Quite a story! And I’ll bet with that revelation Joan was smiling somewhere. I wonder if we could contribute to get her a headstone?

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  6. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    I had the honor of hearing Reverend Grauel, may he rest in peace, speak at Syracuse University in 1977.

      Miranda Rose Smith
    Like or Dislike: 0  0

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  7. Posted February 18, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Mea culpa… I didn’t follow the link before I made my (ill-informed) comment!
    Again, thank you, Rahel.

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  8. D_mnFinn
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Than you for search and thanks to Meir Aharony.
    I found my 2nd great-grand father buried in an unmarked grave in Minnesota, next to my 2nd great- grandmother.
    He had evidently spent most all he had on her grave marker, so when time came there was no provision for his marker.
    Personally I feel a life unmarked is like a life forgotten, to all but G_D.

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  9. alterbentzion
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Very cool.

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  10. Posted February 18, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Well Done, Rahel, well done, Meir!
    I would ask that you post this information to Find-A-Grave ( if possible. It will get widely disseminated that way, and be sure to use both names if possible.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Prophet Joe:

      Rahel is ahead of us. She already posted Joan’s grave to that webite.

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    • Rahel
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      ProphetJoe — please click on the last link in the post….

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