Klondike’s Jewish links
Entrance of the Jewish Cemetery in Dawson City, Yukon. The sign reads Bet Chaim (House of the Living). The photo was taken in 1961. (photo by Irving Snider; Dr. Irving and Phyliss Snider fonds; Jewish Museum and Archives of BC L.18992)
As visitors to the traveling exhibit The Jewish Presence During the Klondike Gold Rush 1897-1918 will learn, while the hope of striking it rich drew thousands upon thousands to the Klondike during the gold rush, most had left the region within five years, many as poor as when they arrived.
The exhibit, created by the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon, is currently at Temple Sholom and will open at Congregation Beth Israel on Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m. The opening will feature a talk by Michael Schwartz of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia, and the exhibit will be on display at BI until Feb. 7.
The first panel, called “Gold Fever Strikes,” begins, “It was at Schwabacher’s dock on Seattle’s Elliott Bay that the steamer Portland arrived on July 17, 1897, with her ‘ton of gold’ that electrified the world and sparked the Klondike gold rush. Soon thousands would leave that dock and others on their way to Alaska.” It notes that the Schwabachers – Abraham, Sigmund and Louis – who founded their Seattle merchandising business in 1869, had been born “in Germany of Jewish heritage” and “they left to escape the oppression of Bismarck.” The rest of the panel highlights several Jews who were involved in supplying goods and transportation to Yukon.
The second panel – “Life in the Klondike” – relates some of the stories of successful, and not so successful, Jewish prospectors and merchants. For example, “Louis Brier, a native of Romania, followed the rush and provided grubstakes to prospectors on a percentage basis. He eventually left for British Columbia with what he called ‘a rather bulging bankroll,’” it notes.
One of the less happy outcomes is that of the Shudenfreis. Among the first Jews to arrive, in fall 1897 to Dawson City, Solomon and Rebecca Shudenfrei came to the Klondike without their children. By September 1898, Rebecca had left and, soon after a fire in March 1899 that destroyed many of the city’s homes and businesses, including Solomon’s hotel, Solomon also left. The loss of the hotel was a mixed blessing, according to a letter he wrote: “I only lost all I had, which is not much, and I was glad that the fire occurred so that I could get rid of all my bed-bugs, which I could not do otherwise … the loss is not so great when you come to consider that we would have to remove the building anyhow by May 1, and [that] would have been a great expense to me…. The whole town is on the buy, and all my acquaintances are not any better off than I. This is the only consolation we have.”
The second panel also touches upon other aspects of life at the time – religious observance, politics, the Jewish cemetery and crime (of which Jews, as much as anyone else, were among the victims and perpetrators). The third panel, “After the Gold Rush, Where Did They Go?” provides brief descriptions of where some 15 Jews went after the rush was over.
The exhibit includes a booklet, as well as four videos, each about eight minutes long. They centre on the finding and rededication of the Jewish cemetery in Dawson City in 1998. One video shows the finding of the cemetery, which was established in 1902 but fell into disrepair as the Jewish presence in the area disappeared; one video covers the cemetery’s restoration; and one the July 31, 1998, rededication ceremony, which included many guests, including then-deputy prime minister Herb Gray, who spoke at the ceremony. (Gray passed away in 2014.) The fourth video, explains the document about the exhibit’s setup, “is the CBC TV coverage of the arrival of a Torah, the first time in history that Shabbat services were held in Whitehorse, a little tour of Dawson City … and the rededication services.”
That Torah, in 1998, was only the second to have been brought to Whitehorse – the first having been brought during the gold rush. With the rededication, the Dawson City Jewish cemetery, Bet Chaim (House of the Living), once again became a place where Jews can be buried.
“Cyril Leonoff’s book Pioneers, Pedlars and Prayershawls: The Jewish Communities in British Columbia and the Yukon was what started all of our research,” said Rick Karp, president of the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon, in an email. Additional research was contributed by Dr. Brent Slobodin, who has a doctorate in Canadian history from Queen’s University and was the assistant deputy minister of advanced education in Yukon. Slobodin has been a member of a number of heritage advisory and volunteer boards.
Karp’s day job is president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, and Slobodin joined the chamber when he retired to manage its Partnering for Success Program, Karp told the Independent. “As an historian, he was fascinated with the work we were doing on the Jewish presence during and after the Klondike gold rush and we hired him to work on the research, design and preparation of the mobile display,” said Karp.
Now that the exhibit has been completed and displayed both within and outside of Yukon, Karp said the cultural society has two main priorities, the first of which is keeping “the display going across the country, so, after Vancouver, it will go to Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. Then we will get it back here and it will go to Alaska and a few other cities in the U.S.”
The second priority is closer to home. “We are also educating the Yukon on what it is to be Jewish so, for example, we celebrate Passover and have the seder in the United Church meeting hall (about 40 people attended last year), and we are part of the interfaith community in Whitehorse,” said Karp.
“We also have more than 12 Israelis living in Whitehorse and have visits from Israel often,” he added. “For example, we have Dr. Wayne Horowitz coming … from Hebrew University and we will have him do presentations when he is here, and Dr. Paul Sidoun, as well, who is coming in February.”