Montreal's Baron de Hirsch Cemetery opened at the beginning of the twentieth century but its roots lie in the very foundation of the Québec Jewish community.
Jewish life began in Montreal in the last third of the eighteenth century, the period following the Seven Years' War (1756 – 1763) between England and France for North American territory.
In 1760, the British military captured Montreal, the culmination of the campaign against New France and when the War ended some Jewish officers, soldiers, and military goods suppliers decided to stay and settle in Québec. They brought their families from England and the Thirteen Colonies, became merchants and fur traders and founded the first synagogue in Canada, the Shearith Israel, in 1768.
Although the community remained small for many years, the last decades of the 19th century saw a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe. More Jewish refugees landed in Montreal than in New York City. Many of the immigrants, heading for the United States, apparently didn’t realize that the part of "Amerike" in which they disembarked was a different country! In just twenty years, Montreal's Jewish population increased twelve-fold, topping sixty five hundred by the turn of the century. The new arrivals were mostly poor, and the established community was overwhelmed, unable to meet their many needs. Money was desperately needed. Members of the community decided to write to the great European Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch to ask for help.
Within three weeks, the Baron responded with a cheque for the then enormous sum of $20,000 to construct a Jewish school and a ‘house of refuge’. He promised more if needed. The grateful recipients decided to name the new facilities in honour of the Baron's generosity. And thus, the Baron de Hirsch Institute was created.
One of the most important needs of the growing Montreal Jewish community was a cemetery and between 1902 and 1905, the Baron de Hirsch Institute’s Burial Committee made repeated efforts to secure suitable grounds.
Ultimately, a site was found in 1904 and the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery was officially opened in July 1905. Although no records explain the story, the oldest gravestone is dated December 1904, eight months before the cemetery actually opened!
Interested in knowing more about the history of the Cemetery? “Sacred Ground on de la Savane” by Danny Kucharsky is the complete story of the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery’s first 100 years. The book is available in many bookstores and from the Cemetery directly. For details and to order a copy, click on the Offerings section.