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Back roads Hebrew cemetery not forgotten

This week, Back Roads Bill takes us along with him on a visit to Northern Chevra Kadisha – Krugerdorf

While other things fade, stones and souls endure even if it is the middle of winter. Once upon a time, there were many more Jewish people in Northern Ontario.

It is said that one of the first communal obligations is to provide for the dead. In the case of some Jewish settlers, the establishment of their cemetery took on a certain urgency and it is on the back roads.

Northern Ontario Jewish people from other communities are buried here at the Northern Chevra Kadisha, the only such dedicated Hebrew cemetery in the northeast. There are more than 100 burial plots in the cemetery including a war grave.

Krugerdorf was founded as a farming homestead in Chamberlain Township in the early 1900s, about 25 kilometres south of Kirkland Lake.

Not officially named Krugerdorf until 1949, the area was primarily settled by a number of German families. The town was given the name “The German Settlement” until it became to be called Krugerdorf.

One of the first settlers was August Kruger, a farmer and blacksmith from Germany. Having migrated to Renfrew County in 1879 (northwest of Ottawa), August and his son Frank left for northeastern Ontario, then called “New Ontario” in 1905, where he was given the deed to 800 acres of land.

Kruger established a farm, and a blacksmith shop, and helped provide ties and spikes to the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, which would become the Ontario Northland Railway. Word of his success attracted other German-speaking families from Renfrew County in 1910, along with English and Scottish settlers.

The area also had a noticeable Jewish homesteading community.

With the help of the Baron de Hirsch Institute of Montreal, an organization that helped Jewish immigrants to move to Canada, a small Jewish farming community was set up in the area.

Free land was offered to settlers along the railroad between 1905 and 1915, attracting Jewish settlers from Russia and Romania, where they couldn’t legally own land. Among the colony were such names as Henerofsky, Gurevitch, Feldman, Levy, Goldstein, Abraham, Frumpkin, Verlieb and others.

There were about fifty families in all. Eventually, the town developed, with a school, a Lutheran church, and a synagogue.

Abramson – Long Way from Home

Henry Abramson is a scholar; he was born and raised in Ansonville, now part of Iroquois Falls.

Through some extensive online sleuthing he was located as the Dean of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences in Flatbush, New York. He received his doctorate from the University of Toronto and has authored many scholarly articles and his YouTube channel where he talks about Iroquois Falls and his upbringing.

He has had appointments at a number of institutions including Oxford University, Cornell University, Harvard University, and Hebrew University.

In the article Just Different: The Last Jewish Family of Ansonville, Ontario he sets the scene of rural and resource-based northern Ontario.

“I was six years old when Ansonville lost its name (now Iroquois Falls)," wrote Abramson. "Like my father before me, I was born in this remote milling town, located some 450 miles north of Toronto on Highway 67, a spur off Highway 11 just before it begins to curve west."

"Unlike my father, I grew up as an only child, in two senses: I was the only child of my parents, and I was the only Jewish kid in town, while my father was the second youngest of seven, and grew up in the small but active Jewish community of the 1920s through early 1950s. By the time I was born, a new Jewish child was sufficiently unusual that it was the occasion of general celebration. A mohel was brought from Timmins, and a month later Harry Gramm, the snowplow driver from South Porcupine and the Cohen of the North, came to perform my pidyon ha-ben.”

In the Beginning

Henry’s mother, Ethel and her husband, Jack operated a well-known, clothing store in Iroquois Falls and she explained the history behind the cemetery. She is one of two Jewish people remaining in town.

“The Northern Chevra Kadisha Cemetery was established when some Jewish pioneers died in a canoeing accident," Henry said. "Morris Perkus and his son Ben were returning from Englehart station with three new immigrants from Europe when their boat was caught in a surprise current and took them over a waterfall.

"When the bodies were recovered sometime later, they were interred in a section of farmer Simon Henerofsky's property.

"This property was deeded in 1910 to the Hebrew congregation in Englehart to be used as a cemetery.

“As a child, I remember regular pilgrimages to the small Jewish cemetery at Krugerdorf, which covered an area roughly equivalent to that of a hockey rink. I remember in particular the unveiling of the headstone for my grandmother Polly (Pafke) in 1971 when two dozen or so Jewish people gathered from Cochrane into Timmins in the south to pay respects at the slightly neglected ancestral burial ground.

"I vaguely remember that the old iron gate was locked, but I found a small footpath so we left the cars on the gravel road and carefully made our way through the brambles in our best clothes.

"There was a medium-sized shed on the graveyard grounds, and after the unveiling, the last Jews of the north stood around and shared a small meal that consisted primarily of hard-boiled eggs.”

The iron gate remains.

I asked Dr. Abramson about the significance of this cemetery.

“Culturally and religiously (it is) extremely important, but the Jews of the north are almost all gone.”

It is for good reason, rather than establishing their own cemetery, many Jewish communities mainly continue to rely on cemeteries in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa; people like to be buried near their families.

There are occasional burials in Krugerdorf, however, most now want to be buried near their kin in the big cities such as Henry’s mother who will join her husband interned in Toronto.

“The children's tombstones are especially sad," Abramson said. "There are also some strange ones."

"Here's one nice thing - Jewish custom is to leave a stone on the tombstone of the person you are visiting. When I go up with my kids, we like to leave a stone on all of them, since they get so few visitors.”

Among the graves, there is one war grave, bombardier, Walter J. Crotin, who died in action on April 23, 1943, with reference to the Jewish (lunar) calendar, 13th day of Nissan (spring) 5703.

Leave a Stone

When you visit you will notice that some tombstones have small rocks or pebbles on top of them.

By placing a rock or a pebble on top of the tombstone, the deceased are honoured by letting people know that the gravesite has recently been visited.

Placing a rock on a tombstone is an old Jewish custom, placing flowers at a gravesite is not. In life, people may enjoy the beauty of their physical surroundings, but when they die, all of their material possessions and beauty are meaningless and left behind.

The act of placing a stone is called a “mitzvah’” In Yiddish, a mitzvah often means “a good deed” – as in 'Do a mitzvah and help Mrs. Goldstein with her packages.' 

There remain four active congregations in Northern Ontario, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Sudbury and Thunder Bay. There is a Jewish cemetery in Thunder Bay and a pioneer cemetery in Massey where there are only eight headstones in a small cemetery that dates from 1899 to 1950.

The cemetery is located halfway between Engleheart and Kirkland Lake. It is a tranquil place, here is the map. Bereavement in Judaism is termed a Chevra Kadisha. It is a burial society consisting of those who see to it that the bodies of deceased Jewish people are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration.

Henceforth, the cemetery is called the Northern Chevra Kadisha – Krugerdorf. There is Jewish heritage in our family tree and we have snowshoes for the deep snow. Stones were left – be sure to take some with you when you visit. Shalom.