By SHARON LOVE My first visit to the Children of Israel Cemetery was in August 2008. A descriptive article about this group visit, written by Matt Bellan (zl), then editor of The Jewish Post & News can be found in the Aug. 20th, 2008 edition.
Over the years I hadn’t thought very much about going there again. This past year I was a student in the Yiddish Literature and Language class instructed by Professor Itay Zutra. The class was part of the Judaic Studies curriculum held at the University of Manitoba. We were reading “Motl Peysi the Cantor’s Son” in Yiddish, which was written by the renowned Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem.
Towards the end of the spring term I started thinking about the cemetery because Nissel Rabbinovich Zimmerman is buried there. He was the uncle of Sholem Aleichem, whose real name was Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. I knew that Professor Zutra and possibly other class members had never been to the cemetery and would probably find it very interesting.
To make arrangements for the visit I called Bill Croydon, the long time building and maintenance supervisor at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. The synagogue has maintained the cemetery since the 1950s. Bill suggested that we wait a few more weeks after the initial phone conversation until the nearby fields and the cemetery would be fairly dry.
Our group met Bill in the Kildonan Place Shopping Centre parking lot on Reenders Drive in Transcona on Thursday, June 23rd at 11.00 am. An open field separates the cemetery from the main road. It was a hot, sunny morning. We all ‘dressed’ for the mosquitoes. Luckily there weren’t any around to bother us. Bill had seen that the grass was cut short and the cemetery, surrounded by a mesh fence and gate is basically treeless. Trees are on the outer sides of the surrounding fence. This does help to make the cemetery fairly hidden.
Over the years there has been some vandalism. The tombstones have been purposely flattened to discourage such events. It is believed that at most there are 113 graves there. However, due to flooding and loss of original wooden markers, records are incomplete. This is disappointing for current family members who know that they have family buried there but cannot find their graves. There are indeed impressions in the ground in various spots sadly missing markers.
The cemetery was opened in 1883. The last burial was that of Frank Druxerman, which took place in 1933. Some tombstones are rather ornate. The lettering on some has faded and is hard to read. Some have cracks in them, with grass coming up through the cracks. Most have English writing along with Hebrew and some with what looks like possibly Romanian lettering.
Nisl or Nathan Rabbinovich Zimmerman has a very ornate stone as well as a description attesting to his leadership roles in Jewish community life at the time. He passed away in 1898, aged 64. His wife, Hudel, who passed away in 1910, aged 77, is also buried there.
According to Ron and Audrey Zimmerman, Nathan - Ron’s great-grandfather, bought a passport in order for their family to come to Canada. The name on the passport was Zimmerman. Both surnames are on his tombstone. Nathan continued to use Zimmerman for his surname for the rest of his life. Today there is at least a sixth generation of the Zimmerman family.
Sadly, I spotted the tombstone of Samson, the 10-day-old son of H. Bronfman, who passed away on Jan. 4th, 1910. The renowned Bronfman family was on the prairies before most of the family moved east.
I also came across the tombstone of Sarah, the 19-year-old daughter of J. and D. Pierce who drowned (as printed on the stone) on June 22nd, 1894. There was another tombstone of someone else who drowned as well. The tombstone of Lena Abremovich caught my eye. It reads that she was the wife of Leon, and passed away aged 20 in 1893, along with their infant son.
I did find the stone of Sarah Fainstein, who was murdered in her sleep on August 28th, 1913 at 28 years of age. Sarah was the great-grandmother of Wayne Hoffman, who recently published a book titled “The End of Her,” which chronicles his quest to solve the mystery of why she was murdered. Wayne’s book was recently the subject of a long story in The Jewish Post & News (February 2, 2022 edition.).
I know that we found this visit to be both interesting and thought provoking. Life could not have been easy for the souls who are buried there. Professor Zutra was very helpful with translating the printing on many of the tombstones. As a Yiddish language scholar he was very moved to be standing at the grave of Nisl, both a poet and author in his own right.
Thanks also to Bill Croydon, who was very generous in sharing his knowledge of the history of the cemetery. Final discussions left us with unsure feelings. There is a red large Shindico sign in the field west of the cemetery. My friend Sonia Kaplan and I have both heard of a proposed retail and housing development in the area. Bill told us that he heard that the plan is to build around the cemetery. The thought of this makes me sad. I am pleased to note that in his August 2008 article, Matt Bellan mentions the existence of an undeveloped Shindico property in the area. I hope that those wheels are grinding slowly.
This brings to mind the closing lyrics of the song, “If I Were a Rich Man,” with which many of us are familiar from “Fiddler On The Roof.” The song, which is sung by Tevye, is based on the monologue, “If I Were a Rothschild,” written by Shalom Aleichem in 1902. The last two lines of the song ask the question, ‘Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?’
I wonder whether it would spoil some vast eternal plan if those laid to rest so many years ago at the Children of Israel Cemetery could continue to rest there in peace for many years to come.