Among those buried in the Beth Aaron Cemetery in Billings are the two wives of Alexander Madenberg.
His first wife, Mary, whom he had married in Poland, died during the flu epidemic in 1918. Madenberg returned to Poland and brought back Mary’s sister Helen, whom he also married. She died in 1928.
Then there was Arthur Miller, who was driving from California to Massachusetts in 1928 with his wife. They didn’t have much money, so they would stop occasionally and work to earn enough to continue their journey.
During their stay in Billings, Arthur Miller got sick and died. Because he was Jewish and died a pauper, the local Jewish community paid for his interment in Beth Aaron Cemetery, at 17th Street West and Broadwater Avenue.
Those are just two of the many stories about the cemetery that have been compiled by the Yellowstone Genealogy Forum. Members of the forum recently presented Congregation Beth Aaron with a thick loose-leaf binder containing everything they could find out about the 121 people buried at Beth Aaron Cemetery.
“It was an unbelievable amount of work,” said Al Page, the treasurer at Congregation Beth Aaron.
Page, who is also a member of the Yellowstone Genealogy Forum but did not work on this project, said he has done a lot of graves registry work for Civil War veterans, which involves documenting whatever information is found on the headstones of people who served in the Civil War.
But for the Beth Aaron project, members of the genealogy forum also searched for and transcribed newspaper obituaries and consulted immigration, funeral, marriage and census records, many of them kept in other states.
“And I spent a lot of time down at the courthouse, quizzing them on these people and getting death records,” said Judy Cohen, the forum member who led the effort.
P.J. Smith, president of the forum, said their most indefatigable researcher was Cohen, who is not Jewish but whose late husband Harry was.
“When we got down to those few that didn’t have obits, Judy was the bulldog who kept after it,” she said.
There is one gap in the report. Cohen said they could find nothing on a man named Morris Lieberman. Someone put a plaque on his previously unmarked grave in 1980, but the plaque listed only the man’s name and the year he died, 1928.
Smith said the forum decided to compile a detailed report on the Beth Aaron Cemetery in 2010, when members were considering a Find A Grave project. Find A Grave is a national database containing millions of cemetery records.
They liked the idea of completely researching one small cemetery rather than a portion of a larger one.
“The Beth Aaron was small, so we figured it was something we could do,” Smith said.
Volunteers met with representatives of Congregation Beth Aaron in August 2010 to learn about the cemetery and Jewish burial customs. Then they went to work.
One interesting bit of history they discovered was that the cemetery was named by Louis Harron, who won naming rights in a fundraising poker game. Cohen said he named it Beth Aaron, or House of Aaron, because his last name was a form of Aaron.
Dr. Brian Schnitzer, president of Congregation Beth Aaron, said the cemetery was founded in 1918 during the worldwide flu epidemic. Before then, local Jews used to be sent for burial to Butte, where there was a much larger Jewish community.
Schnitzer said that in the early days of Billings, “They didn’t come out here to be Jewish. They came out to make a living.”
At first, the local Jews merely socialized. The need to form a religious community in order to establish the cemetery was the first step in creating a formal organization. Even then, a synagogue was not built until 1940, and it was named after the cemetery.
The Yellowstone Genealogy Forum presented Page with the binder full of biographies and other information at a recent meeting, and the forum made one copy for its own archives. Page then presented it to other members of Congregation Beth Aaron. The binder was accompanied by a detailed map of the cemetery.
Schnitzer, who has already read through the report twice, said he was “surprised and very pleased. It provided something none of us could have done.”
“It was really nice what they’ve done,” he said.