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CJN Review

Century-old Baron de Hirsch Cemetery
Final resting place for rich and poor

Janice Arnold, The Canadian Jewish News, June 5, 2008

If death is the great equalizer, then Montreal’s century-old Baron de Hirsch Cemetery is the epitome of posthumous democracy. It is the final resting place of more than 60,000 Jews, from distinguished communal leaders and cultural icons, to humble tradesmen and sacrificing mothers, and, yes, to scoundrels and rogues. The wealthy lie near those too poor to pay for their plot.

Here lie infants, a man who was one of the world’s oldest, rabbis, atheists, Holocaust survivors and veterans of World War II, in the largest, and one of the oldest, Jewish cemeteries in Canada. Its 35 acres is a patchwork of sections owned by numerous congregations and benevolent societies, many of which no longer exist.

This rich history is finally being told in a new book Sacred Ground on de la Savane by Montreal journalist Danny Kucharsky, published by Véhicule Press. The book was commissioned by the cemetery’s administrators to mark the 100th anniversary.

It’s a project that has been in the works for about five years, and the result is a comprehensive and fascinating social history, filled with facts, anecdotes and sketches of some of the dead. The book is illustrated with photography, some of it suitably sepia-toned, by D.R. Cowles of Montreal.

By the end of the 19th century, the city’s Jewish population reached 6,500, an almost 12-fold increase in 20 years, and there was a desperate need for burial space. Many of the newcomers were indigent, and their funeral costs were becoming burdensome to the community.

By the turn of the century, the Back River Cemetery, located at what is now the Sauvé metro station, where most indigent burials took place, was full.

In 1905, the community’s main social service agency, the Baron de Hirsch, named for the European philanthropist, eventually found affordable land in what was then known as Côte des Neiges West. It was far from the heart of the Jewish community, but near a railway station. The land was atop an underground stream, and keeping the cemetery from flooding continues to be a headache to this day. (De la Savane, the name today of its bordering street, means swamp.)

In its first year, 80 indigents were buried, 62 of them children, mostly new arrivals who apparently succumbed to the strain of a long sea voyage. The cost per burial was $6.93.

To this day, the Baron de Hirsch takes seriously its original mandate to give the poor a dignified burial. There is no paupers’ field in the cemetery; the graves of those relying on community charity are scattered throughout, and their monuments are virtually indistinguishable from their better-off neighbours with whom they share eternity. In fact, nobody’s monument can be more than three feet high.

Kucharsky delves into the historic friction between the Baron de Hirsch and the various affiliated organizations, who, the records show, chafed at being dominated by the institute and not regarded as true partners. These were literally turf wars.

Upkeep of the cemetery, especially its older sections, has been a preoccupation in recent years. In 2003, the board voted to spend one million dollars over the next 10 years repairing the foundations of toppling monuments.

In some sections there is no apparent system to the layout of graves. Every available inch of space is used, even behind other monuments. With computerization, however, the location of graves has been made easier.

Vandals have had no trouble finding a target, though, and the cemetery has suffered several desecrations including in 1990 when many stones were turned over and sprayed with anti-Semitic graffiti.

The cemetery has also, evidently, been the scene of acts of love. As Kucharsky discloses, used condoms have had to be disposed of from time to time.

The perpetual fund has grown to the point where Baron de Hirsch officials are confident of the cemetery’s foreseeable future. “The reality is, in 20 years, when the cemetery is full, and the affiliates have walked away or been taken over, the cemetery’s going to be maintained,” past president Jay Aaron is quoted as saying. Adds another past president Jacques Berkowitz: “We have an obligation as Jews towards the dead, towards the members of the family. It’s a very precious responsibility…”

Most Jewish burial practices are etched in stone, so to speak, but there have been changes over the years. Photographs of the deceased, printed on porcelain, were once common and some remain, but are now forbidden. Metal lanterns attached to tombstones is a custom brought by the Sephardi community.

Readers may be surprised to learn that there was at least one instance of ashes being buried in the Baron de Hirsch despite the Jewish prohibition of cremation. The Montreal Rabbinical Council gave permission to a Russian immigrant to have the ashes of her parents who were cremated in the Soviet Union buried at the Baron de Hirsch. The religious authorities reasoned that because they had been cremated against their wishes, the deceased should be permitted to be re-interred in a Jewish cemetery.

Similar leniency has been shown towards suicides, the tattooed and, in a few cases, converts to other religions.

The Baron de Hirsch is a pantheon of the Yiddish literati. J.I. Segal, Rachel Korn, Yehuda Elberg and Dora Wasserman, are interred there, as well as poet A.M. Klein. Notable rabbis resting there include Zohar translator Yudel Rosenberg and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Cohen. Six thousand came to his funeral in 1950.

Other greats are H.M. Caiserman, longtime secretary general of Canadian Jewish Congress; and Alan B. Gold, chief justice of Quebec Superior Court. Among the more storied occupants are Harry Ship, who ran illegal gaming houses, and a Titanic victim, sculptor Leopold Weisz. At least nine of the dead lived to at least 100 years old.

Kucharsky has documented some of the monument inscriptions, the poignant, the wise, the lyrical, the obscure and the off-beat.

Some examples: Tammy Rosenberg Ungar (1917-1998), “Oh, to be together in your kitchen once more…”; Errol Cutler (1948-1994), “He played the game with dignity and grace”; Dr. Hyman Rubinstein (1906-2002), “Uncle Hymie to Everyone”; and Gerald G. Green (1937-2000), “I’d rather be skiing.”

Sacred Ground includes a suggested walking tour of the cemetery and Baron de Hirsch officials hope the book will inspire people, especially the young, to stroll through its meandering paths and learn about those who came before them.