When Muriel Werthein died in the winter of 1883, she became the first person to be buried in Transcona's Children of Israel Cemetery, the first Jewish cemetery in Winnipeg.
Although little is known about Werthein's short life or the circumstances of her death, her name, date of birth, date of death and the location of her grave have been entered into a massive database administered by the Genealogical Society of Winnipeg's Jewish Heritage Centre (JHC). The fact of Werthein's existence has now been recorded for posterity.
The JHC's Cemetery Photography Project began in 1995 at the initiation of community volunteers Bev Berkal, Louis Kessler and Lynn Roseman, who shared an interest in genealogy. Deciding that it would be a worthwhile project to create a photographic record of all the headstones in Manitoba's Jewish cemeteries, the group approached the JHC with their idea. The JHC, in turn, helped them secure funding for the initiative.
"The Manitoba Genealogical Society had been transcribing headstones for several years but they had no transcriptions for the Jewish cemeteries because they were in Hebrew," explains Lynn Roseman.
"We decided it would be a good project to take pictures of the headstones and then have folks who could read Hebrew transcribe them."
In the first year of the project, Roseman and about 30 volunteers visited every Jewish cemetery in Manitoba, five in the Winnipeg area, one in Brandon, one in Morden and one in the old Jewish colony of Bender Hamlet. They gathered whatever fragmented records existed for each cemetery and then painstakingly photographed every single headstone, ultimately taking more than 15,000 photos with 800 rolls of film. They then printed each roll of film, collated the photos according to cemetery, section, row and plot, labelled each photo and filled 54 archival quality albums with the headstone prints.
These albums immediately became a useful and much sought-after tool for genealogical research, but their critical value became apparent in 1999 when the Hebrew Sick Cemetery in Winnipeg's North End was vandalized. The detail contained in the photographic albums ensured that the names and dates inscribed on more than 100 vandalized headstones, many of which were damaged beyond recognition, could be accurately reconstructed.
In 2008, Roseman and her photographers made the rounds of the cemeteries again, this time taking digital photos of every headstone. These 18,000 digital photos have now been uploaded on to a database that can be accessed through the JHC as well as the Manitoba Genealogical Society. The original photo albums are also housed at the JHC.
Roseman now plans to photograph new headstones on a bi-annual basis. She also has arranged to receive a yearly update from each cemetery with the names and the plot location of those who have been buried in the last 12 months. She will then add this information to the database, which she is constantly tweaking with newly discovered names, dates and biographical details.
"The Cemetery Photography Project is all-inclusive," Roseman says proudly. "Nobody has been left out. We have gone through old newspapers, all the existing synagogue and cemetery records, Manitoba Vital Statistics records, and the 1901, 1906, 1911 and 1916 censuses to make sure our files are as complete as possible."
Roseman's devotion to this project has made her an expert on both Winnipeg Jewish genealogy and cemetery trends and customs. She knows which local families are related through marriage, which families descended from Cohens or Levites, and which families survived the Holocaust.
She knows that Jewish cemeteries must be encircled by a fence or other delineation, that a headstone shaped like a broken tree indicates a life cut short and that when visiting a Jewish cemetery it is customary to leave behind a stone as a memorial marker, evidence that the deceased is being remembered.
In the last 15 years, Roseman and her fellow volunteers have left behind more than their share of markers. In doing so, they have done a tremendous service to the Manitoba Jewish community and to the countless descendants of those whose headstones they have visited, photographed and catalogued.
Their work has ensured that individuals like Muriel Werthein, who died more than 100 years ago and is buried in a cemetery that has been in disuse since the 1930s, is remembered today in the 21st century.