Dawson City Yukon, Canada – It was a clear, hot June afternoon 10 years ago when Rick Karp and two friends crunched their way through a tangled, dense web of bushes and trees. But this is where their research indicated it was supposed to be, somewhere near what was now a horribly overgrown patch of land on the south slope of the hill that overlooked this historic Klondike town.
“And then one of us literally tripped over the old wooden arc that was once erected at its entrance,” Mr. Karp recalled recently in his office in Whitehorse. “It was lying on the ground. You could barely see it. It was like this amazing archeological find.”
What Mr. Karp and his friends had discovered were the remains of a long-forgotten, century-old Jewish cemetery, one that has a growing fascination among academics. Next week, a historian from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University will arrive to take a first-hand look while carrying out research on the Jewish role in the gold rush.
“It’s wonderful there is so much interest in this,” said Mr. Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, and point man for the Jewish community in Yukon.
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Mr. Karp had no idea the cemetery existed until alerted by a Jewish physician and amateur historian from Minnesota who had earlier vacationed in Dawson City. When Dr. Norman Kagan saw the overgrown condition of the area where the cemetery was supposed to be, he phoned Mr. Karp and suggested its cleanup and restoration would be a wonderful project to mark the 100th anniversary of the gold rush.
“How could we not?” Mr. Karp said.
With a grant, he and some others hired a university student to research the Jewish community in the Klondike at the time of the gold rush. The research indicated more precisely just where on the ridge overlooking the town the cemetery was said to exist.
On the day that Mr. Karp and his friends discovered the old entrance sign – the cemetery was called Bet Chaim, or House of Life – they also dug up the remains of an old picket fence that ringed the property. They found only one headstone, Abraham Packer’s, but mounds that indicated that at least four others had been buried there.
“I will never forget that moment as long as I live,” Mr. Karp said. “Arthur [Mitchell, a Jewish friend of Mr. Karp’s] said it best: He said he felt he wasn’t alone any more. We stood there in silence for a while and just thought about where we were and what we had stumbled upon.”
The Jewish population in Dawson City fluctuated from a high of about 200 at the height of the gold rush to about a dozen by 1931, the last year someone was buried at Bet Chaim. Lacking a rabbi or synagogue, worshippers gathered in homes, stores and meeting halls for Passover and other celebrations, according to historical records.
Known in the beginning as simply the “Hebrew Congregation,” members chose in 1910 to name their group in honour of Baron Hirsch auf Gereuth, the German-born philanthropist who had helped out fellow Jews throughout Europe.
The first person buried at Bet Chaim was Samuel Simon, a prospector who drowned in the Forty Mile River on Sept. 1, 1902. Others later buried there include Jacob Klein, a clothier who died of suicide on July 9, 1903; Samuel Ross, a merchant who died in his home on July 28, 1911, of an unspecified illness; Abraham Packer, a seller of guns, knives and hardware who suffered a heart attack on Feb. 26, 1918; and Jacob Rosenfeldt, who died Jan. 8, 1931, of unknown causes.
Today, Mr. Karp said, there is thought to be only one person of Jewish heritage living in Dawson. (There are about 20 in the Yukon capital of Whitehorse.)
After discovering Bet Chaim, Mr. Karp and friends returned a few weeks later with chainsaws and pruning shears to begin restoration efforts. They had a new entrance sign built and a new white picket fence. When they were finished, they had a rededication ceremony.
“We flew in a rabbi and we had people from all over come in for it,” Mr. Karp recalled. “We had a Torah flown in for the ceremony. It had to have its own seat on the plane. We had RCMP in red serge walk on the plane to get it. It was quite something.”
The 10-year anniversary of that consecration is on Aug. 22, and for Mr. Karp it has stirred up some old emotions. He is determined to firmly establish the Jewish Historical Society of the Yukon in the hopes of stimulating fresh research into the community’s roots in the Far North.
“It’s a fascinating part of our heritage,” he said.
And one that should never again be so hard to find.