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Jack Zaleski, Published February 22 2014

Zaleski: Drama of Jewish settlers coming to ND

In 1978, as a young journalist working for the Devils Lake (N.D.) Daily Journal, I wrote this:

“There’s a small square of virgin prairie near Garske that has never felt the bite of plow or the tread of domestic hoof. It rests alone in a sea of plowed fields on an unobtrusive knoll. An old Ramsey County farmer takes care of it – mends its fences and honors its boundaries. Shrouded now by the passage of time, the small plot has been reclaimed by prairie grass, wildflowers and burrowing badgers.

“But the tangled growth of prairie and the silent crush of the years cannot hide the rich history that makes the tiny parcel … unique. It is the final resting place of members of a band of Jewish settlers who came to Dakota Territory in the 1880s but were beaten by harsh weather and economic misfortune.”

Since that time, the Sons of Jacob Cemetery has been preserved, maintained and recognized as evidence of one of the most fascinating stories of pioneer settlement in the 1880s. The cemetery is about 15 miles north of Devils Lake, near Garske.

I got into the story back then when two California men, who were trying to find ancestors buried in the cemetery, stopped at the newspaper office for directions. I guided them to the site where they found stone and sheet metal markers inscribed with names that connected them to the Jewish settlers. Those connections, which included the names Kaufmann, Canter, Mill, Adelman, Yaffe, Calof and Zukor, live on today in a book and stage play based on the experiences of Rachel Calof, who lived in the doomed settlement.

The play is coming to its source this summer. It’s been performed in New York, Los Angeles and St. Paul. The performance in Devils Lake will have special resonance because the history that is the basis of Rachel Calof’s first-person account will be all around the players. While the farming colony collapsed, several settlers moved into Devils Lake, where they established families and businesses and were part of the community for generations.

A formal announcement of the summer event will be made at a news conference Thursday morning at the Lake Region Heritage Center in downtown Devils Lake. The summer performance is sponsored by the center, the North Dakota Chautauqua Association and the Sons of Jacob Community. And there’s a Fargo connection: One of the members of the play committee is from Fargo’s Temple Beth El.

I sensed as I wrote that first article all those years ago that I’d stumbled on an amazing and untold story of a unique group of pioneers. It’s proved to be all of that and more, except now it’s been told. It will be quite satisfying to see “Rachel Calof’s Story” – a personal drama within the broader saga – brought to a North Dakota stage this summer.