Mt Carmel cemetery Philadelphia Stacy nccorig_00012230
Mt Carmel cemetery Philadelphia Stacy nccorig_00012230

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The lives behind the headstones

Updated 3:40 PM ET, Mon March 13, 2017

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Philadelphia (CNN)When Aaron Mallin entered Mount Carmel Cemetery to pay his respects to his late father, he noticed right away that something was wrong.

A headstone near the entrance had been toppled.
"I walked in further, I noticed two over there. Three over there," he said. "I just couldn't believe it."
Mallin was the first to discover that vandals had desecrated some 175 headstones in the Jewish cemetery here last month, an act being investigated as a possible hate crime.
Many of the fallen headstones are adorned with the Star of David and inscribed in Hebrew, offering tender glimpses into the lives buried there: beloved daughter, dear mother, loving father.
But what were they really like? CNN, collaborating with the National Museum of American Jewish History, is telling some of their stories.

Nettie Stern (1897-1994)

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Millard Braunstein

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Nettie Stern was only 17 when she married Elmer Braunstein.
The couple moved to a small Jewish community in Bridgeton, New Jersey. They quickly put down roots, opening a soda water bottling and beer distributing business.
Elmer, a veteran of the US Navy in World War I, joined the American Legion while Nettie spent evenings with a close-knit group of friends, playing bridge and mahjongg.
Son Millard Braunstein recalls that Nettie was extremely proud of her husband's service and instilled that pride in their children. The family cheered Elmer as he played the bugle in the local chapter's marches.
But Stern saw dark clouds gathering on the horizon as Hitler and the Nazis began their ascent to power in Germany. Anti-Semitism was soon on the rise in New Jersey as well.
Nettie Stern
Nettie went to the house of Millard's best friend and made arrangements with the friend's mother. Millard Braunstein, through tears, remembered Nettie telling the woman, "If anything happens to her, would she take care of me?'"
Unfortunately, fate was not kind to Nettie. Elmer developed ulcers which ruptured, causing him to develop deadly blood poisoning. He died in 1942.
Millard was only 15 years old.
"All of a sudden, [she] had become a mother and a father," Braunstein said, the pain of the loss audible in his voice. "I'm a young guy growing up during the war. My mother did a good job in preparing me for the future."
Millard Braunstein points out family members buried at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in a family photo.
Time marched on and Nettie persevered. She eventually made the tough decision to sell the family bottling business to the 7-UP company and move in with her parents in Philadelphia.
And she sent her son Millard to college at Penn State.
"She insisted I go off to college," he told CNN. "I didn't even know where Penn State was. I was never away from home all my life."
It didn't matter to Nettie.
"Millard, go do the best you can," she told him.
After just one year in college, Millard enlisted as a US Navy hospital corpsman stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Nettie would later remarry and move to Florida. She lived there for more than 30 years, enjoying her children and grandchildren.

Rebecca Renee Karp (1940-1988)

Stacy Silver by her mother's graveside.
Life was hard for Rebecca Renee Karp, but she danced her way through it all.
She was born July 28, 1940, in Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion section. Her mother worked long hours in the city's Navy Yard to support the US effort in World War II.
So Renee's grandmother raised her and became her protector.
It was only fitting that Rebecca, an avid dancer, made it frequently onto Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" show. Music followed her everywhere.
She loved rock 'n' roll from the '50s and '60s. She also loved "Soul Train," country music, big band music and Frank Sinatra.
Karp kept dancing into motherhood, raising her three children with the same appreciation for the arts she had.
Her daughter, Stacy Silver, always wanted to be a writer.
"She always believed in me," Silver said, her voice cracking with emotion as she fingered her mother's "hand of God" necklace around her neck.
Renee Karp became her daughter's sounding board for every story she wrote. Every time she finished one, Renee made the time for Stacy to read it aloud to her.
Her children were away at college when Karp told them the news. She had cancer.
It was Mother's Day in 1988 when her children got the call. Mom's outlook was not good.
They rushed to Karp's bedside in Atlantic City, New Jersey. But they were too late.
"The bus got stuck ... we couldn't get to her in time," said Silver, holding back tears.
But maybe it's what Karp wanted. She had suffered enough growing up and she was not going to let her children see her suffer anymore.
"We think that she's the one that stopped the bus," said Silver, her hand moving back to her mother's necklace.

Bessie (1893-1959) and Isadore Schwartz (1887-1965)

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Opportunity was a word not well known to Bessie and Isadore Schwartz. They just tried to make the most of what they had.
Isadore Schwartz emigrated to the US from Russia just a year after his birth in 1887. Bessie, the daughter of Germany immigrants, was born five years later in Catawissa, Pennsylvania.
Had Bessie's parents not emigrated from Germany, she would have been 39 when Hitler was elected German chancellor.
The two married when Bessie was only 17 and started a trucking business. Later, they opened a luncheonette in Philadelphia.
Grandson Stephen Schwartz
As business hummed, the couple led quiet and peaceful lives. They just simply tried to make a living for their children and give them a foundation for a better life.
The Schwartzes weathered the Great Depression but had to pull most of their children -- five boys and one girl -- out of school and put them to work to keep the family afloat.
Only one of their children attended college. But their groundwork paid off: almost all of their grandchildren did.
Grandson Stephen Schwartz recalled Isadore sitting him down for long conversations, often reminiscing about his life growing up.
"He told me his memories of the assassination of President William McKinley," said Schwartz. "He was 14 when that happened."
Bessie and Isadore became loving great grandparents and would stay married for 49 years.