The hidden graves

Western Canada's first Jewish cemetery tucked away in Transcona

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Western Canada’s oldest Jewish cemetery is in one of the last places you’d expect to find it — hidden away in the bush at the centre of a development boom in Transcona.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/08/2016 (2379 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Western Canada’s oldest Jewish cemetery is in one of the last places you’d expect to find it — hidden away in the bush at the centre of a development boom in Transcona.

“This poor little cemetery is stuck in the middle of nowhere,” said Bill Croydon, who’s lovingly tended Children of Israel cemetery for the last eight years for Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

The cemetery located north of Reenders Drive — just behind the Kildonan Place mall — was used from 1883 until 1935.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Bill Croydon, the Shaarey Zedek maintenance supervisor, opens the gates to the Children of Israel Cemetery. It is the oldest Jewish Cemetery in Canada.

To get there now, a visitor can park behind the empty Target store, walk north across Reenders and then wade through a field of thigh-high Russian thistle towards the cemetery’s 12-foot chain link fence.

The gate is locked but some of the gravestones are close enough to the fence that they can be read. Many have inscriptions in Hebrew and symbols such as two hands forming a priestly blessing with the fingers spread to form a V. It’s a gesture that was borrowed and adapted by Yiddish Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, who popularized it as the Vulcan gesture for live long and prosper.

“It’s a fascinating place but we don’t know a lot about it,” said Ian Staniloff, executive director of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. “Not many people know about it.”

Before the development boomed, the cemetery was dealing with a different type of encroachment. Poplar branches and bush threatened to overrun the graves. But that was before Croydon, who’s worked for Shaarey for 33 years, took over maintenance and had the surrounding trees cut back.

Pieces of wood still remain in the fence from branches that grew through and around it over the decades.

“We maintain it and cut the grass and make sure it looks decent,” Staniloff said. “We laid all the headstones down because they were falling down or being vandalized.”

While it’s not easily accessible, those who do come are often people looking for their roots, Croydon said. “It’s interesting to hear the stories.”

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The oldest gravestone at the cemetery belongs to Muriel, a young girl who died just short of 8 months in 1883.

Last year, Croydon took a visitor from New York inside the locked gates to look for the gravestone of his great-grandmother whose murder was never solved. He can’t remember the name nor the grave but Croydon, who’s not a Jew, said he often thinks of newcomers and their struggles at a time when survival was so difficult.

“You look back at 1883, and there was nothing here.”

Taking care of a sacred place that holds so much history and meaning for so many is rewarding, he said. “I take a bit of pride in that.”

To make sure the deceased at Children of Israel and seven other Jewish cemeteries in Manitoba are never forgotten, the Genealogical Institute of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada photographed 15,637 gravestones throughout the province.

The names, dates of birth, dates of death and the location of the deceased’s graves have been entered into a massive database. It took 35 volunteers more than 1,200 hours to compile the information. Lynn Roseman, who helped co-ordinate the photography project, has a personal interest in the Children of Israel cemetery. Her husband’s grandfather Akiva Mittleman purchased a plot, family lore says, for $5 in 1915 or so.

The land for the cemetery was purchased in March 1883 for $300. The first burials were in June of that year, when five infants were exhumed from a flood-prone Thomas Street cemetery and re-buried there after a dedication ceremony.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The top of one of the gravestones at the Children of Israel Cemetery.

The first person to be buried was Muriel Werthein, a seven-month-old baby who died Jan. 1, 1883, according to the Manitoba Historical Society. Little is known about her short life or the circumstances of her death but, in researching the Children of Israel cemetery, Roseman has gained some insight into the people and the times in which they lived and died.

“Most people think of cemeteries as somber places, but Children of Israel has some delightful stories to go with it,” Roseman says.

A passage from Scott de Groot’s essay in Jewish Life and Times quotes Wolf Moskowitz, who was at the cemetery’s dedication ceremony in 1883: “We got off the sleigh and, in parties, we circled the area as if to lay official claim to the place. After this procedure, we recited a number of chapters out of the Psalms, we sang hymns and partook of the liquor, each man shouting ‘Le-chayim (to life)’. We then danced in the snow covered field and completed thereby the dedication ceremony.”

Many of the original headstones were made of wood but only one remains — the one for Avraham Yitzak Steinman, who died Jan. 31, 1892. It’s it housed at the Jewish Heritage Centre but isn’t currently on display, Roseman says.

The last burial at Children of Israel cemetery was Frank Druxerman, who died June 20, 1933.

More than 80 years later, surrounded by commercial and residential development, getting to the cemetery to cut the grass every week has become a challenge for Croydon. He got permission from Storageville on Reenders Drive to cut through its property and drive his four-wheel-drive truck over hills, around a boulder and through waist-high grass and weeds to get there. As he nears the cemetery fence, a deer resting in a glade in one of the area’s last woodlands gets up and bolts.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS New developments are springing up around the cemetery.

Soon, the cemetery will have a new neighbour — Shindico’s 340,000-square-foot Shops of Kildonan Mile. An aerial view of the project on Shindico’s website shows the Reenders Drive strip mall cutting around three sides of the cemetery.

“We respect the burials and site,” Shindico CEO and president Sandy Shindleman says.

“West Transcona area is rivaling any other area as a desirable place to live, with the expanding residential and strengthening retail. It’s Transcona’s time to shine,” Shindleman adds. “Our development will add to this.”

He says it won’t make it harder to get to the cemetery, adding the cemetery has an easement off Almey Avenue to the north. However, neither homeowners on Almey nor Croydon knew exactly where or how to access the cemetery from the avenue, short of trespassing through someone’s yard.

No matter how much development creeps up on the cemetery, it will never be overtaken by it or moved, Staniloff says.

“I can’t imagine us ever doing that. In the Jewish faith, it’s not a very common thing to move a body. It would be very disrespectful.”

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Bill Croydon, the Shaarey Zedek maintenance supervisor, at the Children of Israel Cemetery. It is the oldest Jewish Cemetery in Canada.

It would also be very difficult, he says. “You would need rabbinical approval, never mind provincial approval.

“We own the land and have an easement that will always allow access to the cemetery.”

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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