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Jews in the Wild West

Klondike Jewish Cemetery Restoration Project

Contributed by Dr. Norman E. Kagan
from the American Jewish World, April 23, 1999.
 

Solomon Packer with Annie and Myer, after the death
of his wife, Elka, about 1900. Sol sent the children to live in Duluth. He was a respected citizen and successful merchant when he died in 1918, Dawson
City, Yukon Territory.

On cemetery ridge overlooking Dawson City in Canada's far northwest Yukon Territories, "Beth Chaim," the resting place of some five Jews, was rededicated on August 22, 1998. Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, who is Jewish, was the keynote speaker and guests from Vancouver to Toronto joined locals to commemorate the Yukon-led cleanup of this old, nearly forgotten testament to the wandering Jews of a century ago.

The project got its official start in the American Jewish World newspaper, on October 24, 1997, when Dr. Norman E. Kagan began to publicize the need. A group of Whitehorse, Yukon, Jewish citizens heard that call, incorporated themselves as the "Jewish Historical Society of Yukon" in February, and successfully petitioned the government for oversight of the untitled cemetery land.

With the financial support of the Canadian Jewish Congress, they hired local contractors to build picket fencing and a metal gateway and had it installed with the help of non-Jewish volunteers in Dawson.

The assistance of Jews from Fairbanks and Minnesota was declined, and none attended the rededication. However, a future visit to leave a Lake Superior stone is planned.

In March of 1918, Myer Packer of Duluth took leave from the U.S. Army Air Corps and returned to Dawson City in the Yukon to see to his father's affairs. His dad, Solomon (born Aaron Yehudah ben Pekker in 1861 near Odessa in the Ukraine), had been the last remaining Jewish merchant from the old Klondike days when as many as 200 Jews had lived in Dawson.

Myer had not seen his father in some time. In 1902, when the Yukon Jewish population was at its height, Myer and his older sister, Anne, had attended a year of grade school there, but returned to Minnesota afterwards to live with the family of their deceased mother, Elka Oreckovsky Packer.

Anne died in her prime at 16 due to an illness, and now Sol had pased on due to a stroke or heart attack after the exertion of carrying in firewood. Sol was planning to leave the Yukon for retirement in Minnesota.

After six weeks in Dawson, Myer had completed all the necessary arrangements. Sol's home and business had been closed, and his body was buried in "Beth Chaim," the Jewish cemetery overlooking the town. His business partner, Harry Pinkiert of San Francisco, would return to Dawson one last time in the summer with a stone marker for his friend, and the Jewish presence in that far northwestern Canadian town would be forgotten.

This past summer, Jews in Minnesota and Alaska promoted a cleanup of the overgrown Jewish cemetery as part of the Klondike Gold Rush Centennial. The theme was taken up by Canadian Jews, and a fine restoration was made. Some eight Jewish merchants are thought to be buried there, but only five mounts, side by side, are known and only the one in the middle is marked, the usual wooden markers placed on the others having rotted away.

And what has become of the dutiful son? Myer Packer became a clerk in Duluth and stayed there with his wife Luella until 1930. Afterwards, no one knows. Some say he went to Alaska, or Seattle, or San Francisco. Do you know? If so, please contact Dr. Norman E. Kagan.