Gary Elliott said he wished to find closure for a community not often remembered in Hannibal's history
They came from nations like Russia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Romania, France.
The families arrived in America’s Hometown by way of New York, Boston and Minnesota, gathering to celebrate their faith, operate businesses and labor in local factories.
In 1935, the Temple Israel was dedicated at 1005 Lyon St.
But in 1977, the place of worship was sold, as the congregation dwindled and merged with the Temple B’nai Sholom in Quincy. Hannibal resident Gary Elliott spent years visiting the B’nai Sholem Cemetery in Hannibal, poring over Hannibal City Directories, local newspaper accounts, online resources and other documents to tell the stories of early Jewish residents in Hannibal and account for everyone who was laid to rest in the cemetery. He discovered fascinating stories along the way, seeking closure and remembrance for each person he came across during the research that culminated in his book, “They Came and They Went: A Brief Account of Hannibal Missouri’s Early Jewish Community, and the B’nai Sholem Cemetery (Along With Those Interred There).”
“When we think about Hannibal, we talk about Mark Twain, and that’s the first thing we talk about,” Elliott said. “We sometimes forget about all the other people who were here and the contributions that they made, because they stayed a while or stayed a long time.”
Elliott’s research took off when he came across the 1871 deed for the B’nai Sholem Cemetery. His goal from the beginning was to uncover the stories and ensure that each person’s memory would not be forgotten. He discovered historical information he had never heard before, such as a forced immigration policy in Germany from 1933 until the fall of 1941 — in 1938, Dr. Ernest Appel fled Germany with his wife and two daughters. The family arrived in Hannibal in January 1939, and Dr. Appel served as assistant Rabbi and permanent Rabbi for Temple Israel. The family later moved to Gadsden, Ala., where he became the first full-time Rabbi for Congregation Beth Israel in that community.
Elliott weaves the stories of each person from the research he uncovered, assigning a number to each person to see how family members’ and friends’ lives intertwined. For some people, he could only confirm birth or death dates. And because some accounts varied, he checked headstones, old photographs and other documents to confirm the details he found. Along the way, he recounted the stories of shop owners, jewelers, laborers and other residents who took active roles in Hannibal organizations like the Masons, the Knights of Pythias and the Ancient Order of United Workmen.
Elliott said Abe “Lester” Gaba attained national fame after participating in a Proctor & Gamble soap carving contest at age 10 and graduating from Hannibal High School in 1924. His career took him to art school in Chicago. He later fashioned mannequins for Saks Fifth Avenue stores from soap — his “Gaba Girls” reduced the weight of a life-size mannequin from 200 pounds to 30 pounds. He was featured in Life magazine with his mannequin, Cynthia.
Elliott said he hoped his book would spark more exploration for the descendants of Hannibal’s earliest Jewish residents, along with anyone who wants to know more about the bygone days and the people who helped shape America’s Hometown into what it is today.
“It’s not just for the Jewish people, it’s for everybody,” Elliott said. “It’s Hannibal.”
The book is available for purchase for $15 by contacting Elliott at 573-554-2851 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald at email@example.com