While we were at the Mikvé Israel-Emmanuel Synagogue in Punda, we read about Curaçao’s oldest Jewish cemetery, the Beth Haim. It sounds macabre, but we always enjoy visiting cemeteries, and what really caught our eye about the Beth Haim was its location: right on top of the island’s oil refinery. Only employees are allowed onto the grounds of the refinery, so for the rest of us, the Beth Haim is as close it gets.
We appreciate sandy beaches with crystal blue water as much as anyone, but places like the Beth Haim Cemetery really capture our fascination. Hundreds of indistinguishable concrete graves against the background of a noisy oil factory’s complicated, poison-spewing machinery spewing. The contrast is startling and, to some eyes at least, weirdly captivating.
The Beth Haim is Curaçao’s original Jewish cemetery, and one of the first of any denomination on the island. The oldest identifiable tombstone is dated to the year 5428. It took me a few confused seconds to realize that many of the inscriptions use the Hebrew calendar; converted to Gregorian, 5428 is the year 1668.
Most of the tombstones are so old and weathered that it’s nearly impossible to read the names or dates. There aren’t any newer graves, because Beth Haim hasn’t been in use for a long time. It would be difficult to have a proper ceremony with the constant noise and pollution of the oil refinery fouling everything up.
Guided tours of the Beth Haim Cemetery can be organized; inquire at the gift shop in the Punda Synagogue. Or you can visit on your own, like we did. If you enjoy sightseeing with a heavy dose of the surreal, you’ll have a good time. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve never seen a place quite like the Beth Haim.