There is a great deal that can be learned about the early social history of Victoria and Vancouver Island’s Jewish community through our new cemetery website: https://jewishcemeteryofvictoriabc.ca/.
One of the important roles of the Cemetery Committee is to maintain the records related to the deaths in our community and through that, to keep the history of the community in an accessible and useful format. With the launch of our Cemetery website in 2021, we created a wonderful vehicle for keeping our community’s memory available for historians, family members, and interested members of the broader community. The website also has a completely functioning database that is publicly accessible, and which can be used by individuals to do community-based research.
For example, there is information in the database that comes from a document now held in the provincial archives; a record book of the first burials in our cemetery between 1861 and 1866. This simple list of 18 burials offers a heartbreaking story of the lives and struggles of the first Jews in our region. Twelve of the 18 burials in those first years of the Jewish cemetery were children under 12 years of age, who mainly died between the months of November and March The remaining one-third were adults but not all died from ‘natural’ causes: one of those, Morris Price, who was the first burial in the cemetery, was murdered on the mainland. All four of the burials in 1863 were children, including two from the same family who died within months of each other.
Between 1860 and 1879, children made up nearly 80% of all burials in the cemetery. It is hard to understand the grief, for example, of Solomon and Rosa Levi of Nanaimo, who lost three children in one terrible week in August 1875, and then a fourth in 1876. We believe that the three children were taken by canoe from Nanaimo to our cemetery for burial, although we do not know the location of the graves.
However we can see a remarkable change in the death rates of Jewish children in early Victoria. During the last years of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th centuries, the demographics of burials changed dramatically. The percentage of child burials dropped from nearly 80% to around 20% during the last two decades of the 19th century, and in the first decade of the 20th century the percentage dropped to just under 10%. Better living conditions, and advances in public health and medicine all likely contributed to this rather abrupt change in child mortality.
There is much to learn about the history of our community by the examination of cemetery records. The Cemetery website has lots of information about the people buried in the cemetery, and will soon have some of these historical documents as well!
Amber Woods is collecting and preserving our community’s social history so that we can pass it down to future generations.
Please forward any information about those buried in the cemetery that could be posted on their individual web page to Amber Woods: CongregationEmanuelHistorian@gmail.com
Rick Kool, Emanu-El Cemetery Director