Pho­tos a record of all head­stones in Man­i­toba’s Jewish ceme­ter­ies

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FAITH - By Sharon Chisvin

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.


Head­stone at Win­nipeg’s first Jewish ceme­tery, Chil­dren of Is­rael.

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