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A man walks past the Leiser families gravestone following a public vigil at The Jewish Cemetery in Victoria. During the holidays several swastikas were spray painted on some of the Jewish gravestones including the Leiser Family's stone. (Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail)
A man walks past the Leiser families gravestone following a public vigil at The Jewish Cemetery in Victoria. During the holidays several swastikas were spray painted on some of the Jewish gravestones including the Leiser Family's stone. (Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail)

Tom Hawthorn

At a Jewish cemetery, a lesson in humanity Add to ...

An unknown hand perpetrated the unthinkable – painting swastikas on headstones in a Jewish cemetery.

It was a criminal act and a cowardly one, too, a desecration designed to disgust and perhaps to intimidate.

There is disgust. There is no intimidation.

On a grey Sunday afternoon, people came in their multitudes to gather on hallowed ground on a hillside overlooking the city. They filed past a gatepost bearing the Hebrew inscription Bais HaChayim (house of the living) before gathering around a memorial to the Holocaust.

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More than 600 came for a vigil.

“All of us coming out here and standing together means we will not be silent in the face of a hate crime,” Rabbi Harry Brechner of the Congregation Emanu-El synagogue told the crowd.

On the final day of last year, it was discovered swastikas had been painted on five headstones. One had also been defaced with a white-power symbol, as well as the scrawled words “Jewish scum.”

In the new year, a removal agent was applied to the monuments, which were wrapped in a see-through sheet. It gave them the appearance of having been wounded in battle. The wrap is now off, the blotched areas on which the solvent had been applied looking like scars.

Each of the vandalized headstones tells a story.

The most modest of the damaged ones is adorned not by a Star of David but with an engraved Maple Leaf. It marks the wartime burial site of Joseph L. Vince, a 44-year-old private with the Royal Canadian Regiment, who died of heart failure in 1915.

Nearby is a small granite marker for Annabelle and Eli Beam, a couple who lived at 15 Linden St., one house from the Dallas Road waterfront in Fairfield. He owned two businesses on Wharf Street – the Pacific Sanitary Bag Co. and the Victoria Junk Agency. He died in 1940. Her death date is now obscured. The stone awaits further repairs.

A monument of pink granite honours Charles A. Freedman, a theatre manager who had made his fortune in the Klondike gold rush. One March evening in 1908, he returned home from a night at the theatre with his wife when he stumbled across a prowler in the pantry. The men struggled, the intruder pressing a rusty .38 revolver to the left side of Freedman’s chest before pulling the trigger.

The bleeding man chased his attacker out of the house, then fell, mortally wounded. “Marion, I’m shot,” he told his wife. “I’m done for.” He died minutes later.

The other damaged monuments mark the resting spot of three brothers and their families. Born in Germany, they made their fortunes as merchants on the Pacific coast. The eldest was only 23 years old when he got a contract to build a trail from the Stikine River to the Cassiar gold fields, along which he collected a toll of two cents per pound of freight.

Simon Leiser and Company became the province’s largest grocery wholesaler with several stores in the mining towns dotting Vancouver Island. In 1896, he built a red brick warehouse at 524 Yates St. alongside Waddington Alley in downtown Victoria. The building still stands.

His brother, Gustav, went into business here as a dry-goods merchant, while Max, the younger of the trio, imported wines, liquors and cigars. Gustav died unexpectedly of pneumonia, aged 40, in 1896. Max later built a handsome four-storey brick building at the corner of Blanshard and Johnson Streets. (Today, the ground floor is home to the Shine Cafe.) It was called the Kaiserhof Hotel and boasted a beer garden at the rear.

In 1915, the civilian passenger liner Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat with great loss of life, including James Dunsmuir Jr., the 21-year-old scion of the Vancouver Island coal-mining fortune. News of the sinking enraged a crowd of men in Victoria. Led by soldiers in uniform, a mob numbering 500 attacked the Kaiserhof, since renamed the Blanshard Hotel. The bar was trashed. Another $25,000 worth of damage was done to Simon Leiser’s warehouse. Other businesses owned by those with German names, many of them Jewish, were also attacked.

It mattered not at all to the frenzied throng that the Leisers, prominent in the arts and business in Victoria, had long since become loyal citizens of this country.

A century ago, a mob acted in mindless fury. The recent vandalism reflects a similarly ugly spirit.

On Sunday, another large crowd – this one motivated by love, not hate – gathered around the graves of people named Beam and Vince and Freedman and Leiser.

The grounds of the Jewish cemetery were consecrated in 1859, desecrated in 2011, venerated in 2012.

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn

 
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