JCCV Displays ‘The Jewish Presence During the Klondike Gold Rush 1897-1918’

The traveling exhibit ‘The Jewish Presence During the Klondike Gold Rush 1897-1918’ will be on display at the JCCV from January 7th to 31st. Visitors 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 of three panels, a booklet and videos, was created by the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon.

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 re-dedication 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, re-dedication 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, 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 re-dedication 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 re-dedication, the Dawson City Jewish cemetery, Bet Chaim (House of the Living), once again became a place where Jews can be buried.

Many thanks to Rick Karp, President of the Jewish Cultural Society of Yukon, for kindly lending the mobile exhibit for display at the JCCV.