Aug 20, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL—Those given to black humour may joke that Gary Perlman has spent more time in cemeteries than some of their denizens.
But the retired software developer is deadly serious in his quest to photograph as many gravestones in Montreal-area Jewish burial grounds as he possibly can, and to research each person who lies beneath.
Over the past five years, Perlman has photographed more than 40,000 stones, some dating back to the early 19th century, finding ingenious ways to make legible often worn or damaged inscriptions, or to illuminate those in obscurity.
He has submitted these high-quality images, along with records about the deceased he has organized, had translated from Hebrew, and frequently added to or corrected – a total of over 100,000 items – to JOWBR, the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry.
JOWBR catalogues data on Jewish cemeteries around the world and makes it available in searchable format to genealogists and other researchers everywhere, free of charge.
Perlman, who has done all this without remuneration, was already a hero to his fellow members of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal (JGS-M). Now, he’s being recognized around the globe. This month, the modest Perlman received the 2020 Volunteer of the Year award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS), an umbrella organization of over 50 groups. Due to the pandemic, its 40th annual conference was held virtually.
“It’s meaningful that people appreciate what I am doing,” said Perlman, who carries on his sleuthing and hopes the honour will convince reluctant Montreal Jewish cemeteries to give him permission to shoot there as well and add to JOWBR’s Montreal holdings.
A glaring omission is two of the city’s oldest and largest synagogues: Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. Perlman has worked in Canada’s oldest Jewish congregation’s cemetery, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, founded more than 250 years ago.
He has completed documentation of two other historic sites: the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, Montreal’s largest Jewish cemetery, opened in 1905, and its affiliated Back River Memorial Gardens, dating to the late 1800s. The latter, located in the Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough far from today’s Jewish population, was especially challenging due to its having been left to deteriorate for a long time before a restoration.
Many of its nearly 7,000 stones were crumbling but Perlman managed to capture high-resolution pictures of all of them. Through countless hours of trial and error, he has discovered just the right angle or time of day to coax out eroded epitaphs that were thought to have been lost forever.
He has done all the city’s Holocaust memorials (1,900-plus names) and war casualty monuments (some 600 names), including from the Jewish section of the National Field of Honour in Pointe-Claire, which are posted on JewishGen’s memorial plaque page.
Balancing respect for privacy with the imperative to preserve and share the unique and rich source of Jewish history the burial data represent is a guiding principle for Perlman.
JOWBR, which logs 3.7 million photos and records from 8,666 cemeteries in 130 countries, considers the work Perlman does a mitzvah.
This treasure trove, however, is of little use and can be downright misleading when there are errors, and Perlman found an astonishing number of those even in such basic information as names and dates on both the stones and in the cemeteries’ archives.
A 63-year-old Montreal native, Perlman spent his 30-year career in the United States after receiving a PhD at the University of California at San Diego. He is a late-blooming amateur genealogist, not having done much snooping into his own ancestors until he attended one of the JGS-M’s free workshops for beginners.
He found in its enthusiastic president, Stanley Diamond – also co-founder and executive director of Jewish Records Indexing-Poland, a pioneering digitizer and democratizer of genealogical data – a kindred spirit who recognized modern technology’s power to unlock the past.
Perlman became JGS-M’s webmaster and set about to update the society’s existing cemetery indexing project, which since 2007, had collected a few thousand photos, many of which weren’t good enough for optimal reproduction online.
Perlman does not find spending so much time among the dead morbid. “Not at all!” he replied when asked if it has made him reflect on his own mortality. But on his early expeditions, he did find heartbreaking the tragic tales some stones told, such as the mother and her two children killed in a plane crash who rest together, or the mass unmarked grave of children who died in epidemics.
He couldn’t fail to notice the increased number of burials since the COVID pandemic, which has touched him personally. Another of his volunteer endeavours has been helping elderly residents of the Maimonides Geriatric Centre put together their family trees. He lost three of his “clients” to COVID.
Intriguing and sometimes humorous epitaphs have lightened his days in the field. He has numerous examples, such as the double monument of a couple. On her side it reads: “Saul would rather be golfing.”
Then there was “Don’t forget the Bubba” or “Resting in peace, no conversation please” that made him chuckle.
The IAJGS also cited Perlman for directly linking JOWBR search results to the JGS-M website (jgs-montreal.org) where supplemental information, like parents’ names (including the Hebrew ones) can be found, as well as the location and condition of the grave. He is lauded for creating the JewishGen Dashboard, where users can search some 50 databases from a single web page on the JGS-M site.
Perlman was nominated for Volunteer of the Year by Diamond, and “strongly endorsed” by JOWBR coordinator Nolan Altman who praised Perlman’s “unending attention to detail. His submissions to JOWBR are always clear, complete and precise…When Gary submits data/photos I know it will be correct.”
Wrote Diamond to the IAJGS, “I treasure volunteers who, not only step forward when asked, but who carry out their task with passion and devotion…Gary is most certainly one of the best in this regard.”