Waldheim Jewish cemetery was founded during the second wave of Jewish immigration to Chicago in the late-19th century. Historically, the first institutions newly arrived Jewish immigrants created in their new communities were religious, educational, and fraternal organizations. With immigrants insisting on their own Jewish cemeteries, these groups eagerly looked for a cemetery to sell its members plots in their own specially created sections.
The Founding of Waldheim Cemetery
Beginning in 1870, over 280 cemetery sections representing various Chicago family groups, synagogues, vereins, landsmanshaften, and other organizations purchased sections in Waldheim Cemetery located in Forest Park, just 9 miles west of the Loop. Waldheim was unique in that, although it was one cemetery, it was comprised of 288 separate cemeteries with different owners, prices, rules, regulations and individual caretakers. These sections were at one time also rigidly divided by gated fences, and ornate entrances and dividers, some of which still remain today.
The First One Hundred Years
Waldheim’s first Jewish interment was held in 1873; at that time, funeral processions and visitors faced a day-long excursion from the Maxwell Street neighborhood to the graves of their loved ones. To make it easier for the individuals coming to Waldheim and other nearby cemeteries daily, a special funeral route train service was begun in 1914 on the Metropolitan Elevated “L” tracks. This service operated for over two decades and was finally curtailed on July 13, 1934. Although reconfigured over the years, there is still an “L” train stop at Forest Park served by the CTA’s Blue Line.
After being a force and foundation in the Jewish community of Chicago since their inception, these immigrant based organizations began to slowly dismantle. The effects of second and third generations assimilating into the landscape of suburban America, combined with the lack of new members and new funding were among the contributing factors. Unfortunately with the demise of these groups and the lack of uniform cemetery standards Waldheim began to look tired, old and neglected.
However, thanks to the emergence of a handful of the cemetery’s original caretakers, Waldheim’s rich history lives on today. Learn more about the legacy of Waldheim cemetery and what we mean to Chicago’s Jewish families.