Anthony Pisciotta is one of Bayside Cemetery’s most dedicated — and seemingly most unlikely — volunteers. He lives 15 miles away, has no family buried there and is not even Jewish.
Yet over the past three years the 40-year-old Pisciotta, who works for the Bridge and Tunnel Authority and is a married father of two, has spent countless hours cleaning and repairing sections of this historic Queens graveyard, and has also conducted extensive research on the people buried there. With a multi-year cleanup effort at the cemetery just completed, The Jewish Week spoke with Pisciotta about his work.
Q: How did you first learn about Bayside.
A: I used to drive a delivery truck, and I passed by it between some of my stops. This was probably in 1990 or ’91. At that time it was in real bad shape — really overgrown. It looked abandoned, and that’s what I assumed it was. … About four years ago, I started writing letters to different groups I thought might be interested because they had members buried there — like the American Legion and Jewish War Veterans. A few years ago, I was there with my son and we found open mausoleums. I contacted the city, but they seemed indifferent and said there was nothing they could do. … I contacted the media and they jumped all over it. … That was the beginning of me doing work there. My son, daughter and I would go out once a week.
What kind of work have you done there, and have you had to spend your own money?
We’ll pick a plot and will clean it up, try to expose the stones if they’re covered, and if they’ve toppled and are small enough, we’ll try to put them back up. We paint the fences and repair them. Some of the gates to the different sections were broken, but most of the pieces were on site, so I’d weld them together. I also did some graffiti removal.
I buy paint, and I use my own machines — weed whackers, things like that. But it’s mainly skill and labor.
What about research?
I worked with the American Legion, trying to document all the veterans there and keep a running index for them. Also, I’ve been helping some genealogists who are looking for information on family members who are buried there.
Who are some of the cemetery’s most notable residents?
George Rosenshein, who was on the Titanic. There’s the Witmarks, who owned a sheet music publishing company, Marcus Witmark Co. Becky Ostrovsky, a victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Salmi Moore, an actor and playwright. Lester Volk, a congressman who represented Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional District from 1919-’23 and was assistant New York State Attorney General from 1943-’58.
What makes you so passionate about this issue?
It upsets me that these were people’s loved ones and they’re forgotten. … They’re dead 100 years or more some of these people, and the last of the dignity they have is being destroyed. … I have an understanding with cemeteries because I lost my dad when I was 7, and as a child and teen, when things were hard, I’d go to his cemetery and think about things.
What impact has this work had on you?
I started becoming interested in my own genealogy. My father’s mom was Jewish, but he was raised Catholic by his Italian grandparents and I never had any contact with that side of the family. … Working at Bayside, one day it occurred to me that I could be related to someone there. It turned out I have nobody there that I’ve found, but I did find some interesting stuff. My great-great grandfather was a rabbi. He was named after a very important Chabad Lubavitch rabbi, Zalman something, which means they were probably followers of Chabad. They were from Belarus.
What would you like done next at Bayside?
I want the see the stones that are knocked down put back up and repaired, and the mausoleums at least brought back to some semblance of a respectable condition. I do think it’s moving in the right direction, and the more volunteers they can get out there, whether they’re affiliated with CAJAC or not, I think that’s good. If the courts can get the congregation to take more responsibility, that would be good too. … Also, I would like to see the place secured a little bit better.
This is an edited transcript.