I was invited to give a presentation at a Christian-Jewish church service with a theme of persecution and immigration, as part of this year’s North Cornwall Book Festival. The recent horror of refugees trying to flee Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban victory, and the plight of migrants making perilous sea crossings in an attempt to reach Europe or the UK, have once again brought these issues to the fore.
My own family lived through the pogroms, a series of anti-Semitic riots that took place in the Russian Empire, which in many ways served as a precursor to the Holocaust. Today, we would probably call the pogroms a form of ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ against Jews – supported and incited by the government, if not actually perpetrated by it. They began in 1881, when Jews took the blame for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and continued in waves for the next 40 years, peaking in 1905 before coming to a head during the Russian Civil War – a chaotic and intensely violent period that lasted for about four years following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
During the civil war, the area where my family lived – near Kiev, in present day Ukraine – became a battleground with numerous armies criss-crossing the land – Communists, Nationalists, Anarchists, anti-Bolsheviks, peasant militias – all of them anti-Semitic to a greater or lesser degree. The White Army in particular, which was loyal to the Tsar – and backed by the West – introduced methods of mass murder of Jews that were later taken and pushed to their limit by the Nazis twenty or so years later. Many White Army soldiers later went on to join the Ukrainian militias that collaborated with the Nazis to destroy all Jewish life in Ukraine in the early 1940s.
As well as the violence during the civil war, there was hunger. Food had become scarce during World War l, inflation soared making what little there was unaffordable, and the Bolsheviks requisitioned grain from the countryside (including from my great-great grandfather, who was a grain trader), to feed the workers in the towns. Not only did they take the grain, but also the seed, leaving the peasants with nothing to grow crops with the following year. The population was left to starve.
My grandmother Pearl was around 17 years old at the start of the civil war, and an orphan. She lived with her grandparents, siblings and cousins and took it upon herself to become the family breadwinner, undertaking terrifying and dangerous journeys by train to markets across the region to buy, sell and barter what she could to keep her family alive.
Eventually she even became a black-market gold dealer – taking any gold items belonging members of her local community on a murderous journey half way across Ukraine to exchange them for hard currency, which she brought back to the villagers so they could use it to buy food. Had she been caught, either with the gold or hard currency, she would have been shot.
After more than three years of this perilous life that she hated with a passion, and following a particularly arduous trading trip when she was caught in a snowstorm and almost froze to death, she could take it no more. She decided she must try to get herself and her family out of the country.
Six months later, in 1924, Pearl managed to emigrate to Winnipeg, Canada to join some other members of her extended family who had already made it out of Russia. She travelled alone, and with nothing. Once in Canada she did what so many immigrants do. She found a job and worked hard, scrimping, saving, and borrowing to raise enough money to bring the rest of her family over to join her the following year. Today my family is spread across Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto, and in America from California to New York, as well as in Germany, Israel and the UK, where they became, among other things, teachers and lawyers, journalists and doctors, Rabbis and social workers, all adding in their own unique ways to the prosperity and cultural life, as well as the wonderful diversity, of the places they now call home.
Photo: Pearl (left) with her sisters Sarah (centre) and Rachel, circa 1920
As another lockdown Passover begins, I’ve been reflecting on this Passover story that dates back nearly a century, to the late 1920s. My great-grandmother’s cousin Babtsy arrived in Winnipeg, Canada, with her husband Moishe and four children at the end of their long journey from Kiev, which at that time had recently become part of Soviet Ukraine.
Babtsy and Moishe had survived a terrible pogrom in their home town of Khodorkov in 1919. The town’s Jews had been rounded up and herded to a sugar beet factory beside a lake, then forced to keep going deeper into the lake until they drowned or froze to death. Babtsy and her family had hidden in a basement and, when it was safe to emerge, they found houses smouldering around them and the lakeside littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping to grab a handful of belongings, they fled to the railway station and took the first train to Kiev, where they remained for several years, living with Moishe’s parents.
Owing to a mixture of errors, misunderstandings and delays, it took three and a half years from the time they first lodged their application to emigrate to Canada to their eventual arrival in Winnipeg. Remarkably, our family has around 50 pages of documentation relating to this process, consisting of letters between the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Western Division in Winnipeg, its head office in Montreal, and the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization in Ottawa. I have written about this in a previous article, which you can read here.
Once Babtsy, Moishe and their children finally arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Winnipeg, they asked the station master to call the phone number of Babtsy’s cousin Faiga. Faiga had been the first member of our family to leave the Russian Empire for Winnipeg back in 1907 with her husband, Dudi Rusen, and one of her brothers. Dudi was an ambitious young man. Once in Winnipeg he bought a pushcart and based himself on a street corner to sell fruit and vegetables. He worked hard and after a while had raised enough money to buy a truck, then within a few years he was running his own wholesale produce company. Faiga and Babtsy had not seen one another for more than 20 years.
Faiga and Dudi, with their children and grandchildren, were in the middle of a Passover Seder when the station master rang on that spring evening. Dudi answered the phone and told him to put the newly arrived family in a taxi and send them straight to his home at 107 Hallett Street. To great excitement, everyone budged up around the table to make space for the relatives from the Old Country so they could join the Seder, and celebrate this latest escape of Jews, to a new Promised Land, alongside the ancient exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
This Passover story is narrated in the following clip by Monty Hall, the host of TV’s Let’s Make a Deal. Monty was Faiga and Dudi Rusen’s grandson and was at their house that evening during Passover. In the video, Monty describes his tremendous excitement at reading my book, A Forgotten Land, and discovering that it was about his own family. Monty contacted me after he read the book and we had a long telephone conversation, during which he recounted this Passover story to me.
After many years hosting Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall engaged in philanthropic work, helping to raise close to a billion dollars for charity. He features in both the Hollywood and Canadian Walk of Fame, and the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California, and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988. He died on 30 September 2017 at the age of 96.
Until this year, I had never been to Canada. It had never even made it onto my bucket list. With hindsight, it seems a strange omission from my extensive travels. After all, my father came from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and I have a plethora of relatives dotted across this vast country.
Just a few months ago I knew almost none of my Canadian relations. But they all knew me, for I am the family historian, the depository of our family’s stories. Five years ago my book was published, based on my grandmother’s recollections of growing up in Russia: a Jewish girl living through pogroms, World War I, the Russian Revolution, Civil War and the famine that followed, and her eventual escape to Canada in 1924. Thanks to this book, I am a seen as something of a celebrity, but only among my own family.
This year’s trip came about thanks to some cousins from Toronto who were visiting London last December and wanted to meet up. Have you ever had that experience when you meet someone for the first time and it’s as if you’ve known each other forever? Well, it was just like that.
They invited me to a family celebration in Toronto in May, where I would have the chance to get together with several of my Dad’s first cousins, among myriad other relatives. Some of them I had been in touch with for many years during my research for the book, but had never met. I took the opportunity to organise some talks and media publicity about the book while I was there, and also to visit Winnipeg.
Dad never talked much about Winnipeg, except to tell me repeatedly that it was the coldest city on the planet. He left as a teenager, without finishing high school, and as far as I know, he never went back.
I never visited Canada when I was growing up. Childhood trips to see Dad’s family were to Los Angeles, to where his parents, sister and several cousins had all relocated in the 1950s and 60s, escaping the snows of Winnipeg for the Californian sun. Dad himself had settled in LA in 1955, where he picked up his education again after several years of bumming around, studying at Santa Monica City College (Dustin Hoffman and James Dean were fellow alumni from the same era, Dad used to say) then UCLA. From there he won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he met my Mum, and that’s the reason I turned out to be English.
Although I had researched my family’s Russian origins in great depth, I had never paid much attention to the Canadian part of our story. But since Dad died in 2012, his life experiences too have become part of our family history.
On arrival in Winnipeg I was welcomed like a visiting dignitary. From the airport, I was thrown straight into an interview with a journalist from the Winnipeg Free Press, had time just to jump in the shower before the press photographer arrived for a photo shoot, then was whisked away for an evening reception held in my honour in the very luxurious home of a distant cousin.
One of my publicity events in Winnipeg took place at the city library. Afterwards, the curator of the library’s historical collection showed me its copies of Henderson’s Winnipeg Directory, an amazing resource that was published annually from 1882 listing all the city’s inhabitants by name, along with their address and place of work.
I found my grandfather and great-grandfather listed, initially under their Yiddish name, Kuperschmidt, then later Coopersmith and finally Cooper, living at 303 Flora Avenue, the house where my father would later grow up. My grandmother was listed from 1925, living on Euclid Avenue and working at the Globe Bedding factory.
Dad’s cousin Adele later took me on a tour of the area where the family had lived. That section of Flora Avenue was demolished many years ago, but on my return home I dug out a photo of my grandmother with my father as a little boy, taken around 1935, which I’m guessing shows the house in the background. On Euclid Avenue, we couldn’t find my grandmother’s first Winnipeg home, but came across that of her great-uncle, who had immigrated to Canada in 1914 with his family so that his sons could avoid conscription to the Russian army.
Winnipeg, at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, was the first permanent European settlement in the Canadian West and grew rapidly in 19th and early 20th centuries as the gateway to the new frontier land of the prairie regions. Town planners designed the city with wide boulevards and grand buildings, aiming for it to become the Chicago of the North.
But, as happens in gateway cities, new immigrants came, and then they left – to settle the prairies or to move to Toronto, Vancouver, or the US – places with a less hostile climate and greater opportunities. Winnipeg never lived up to the dreams of its early pioneers and town planners. Knowing my Dad's cosmopolitan tastes, I can see why he wanted to leave. But in finally visiting Winnipeg, a little part of me definitely felt like it was coming home.
From and article in Argus Offline, Summer 2018.
A Forgotten Land by Lisa Cooper is available on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk.
It was a real thrill for me to visit Canada last month, to catch up with relatives, some of whom I had not seen for many years, and to get to know dozens more that I had never met before. It was my first visit to Winnipeg, where my family immigrated to when they left Russia and the town where father was born and brought up. Of particular interest was a trip to Winnipeg’s North End, where so many of the Jewish community settled.
The area centres around Selkirk Avenue. The Manitoba Historical Society has some great descriptions of Selkirk Avenue in the early 20th century. The street is named after Lord Selkirk, who was the first to encourage European settlers to the area and helped establish the city of Winnipeg. A four-block miniature park nearby was also named after him.
The street was the heart of the Jewish North End. There were Jewish bakers, kosher butchers and two grocery stores owned by Goldenberg and Rosen. A confectioners called the Five Cent Store was owned by a Mr Saidman, who sold no item over five cents, mostly candy, ice cream, pop, popcorn and sunflower seeds, which made him famous. And a fur and cap store stood on the corner of Selkirk and Charles Street. The Hebrew School was around the corner, and next door to it lived the chief Rabbi. The Queen’s Theatre was on Selkirk and played to capacity with Jewish talent.
The Pritchard pool, police station, chicken and egg dealers, barber shops, a church, synagogues, horse barns, watch makers, a tent and awning store and sign painter were all located within a block or so. In fact, the North End of Winnipeg around Selkirk Avenue was just like the shtetl that the Jews had left behind in Eastern Europe, a shtetl that they recreated for themselves half way around the world. And here in Winnipeg, even the climate was familiar, with long, fierce winters and brief, hot summers.
Little is left of the Jewish North End today. A lone Jewish baker’s shop sits on Selkirk Avenue, selling all variety of knishes, over a dozen different types of bagels, blintzes and the most enormous cinnamon buns. Now the area reflects subsequent waves of immigration from other parts of the world, while the Jews have largely resettled in fancier parts of town or moved away to other cities across Canada and the US.
In the main public library, Henderson’s Winnipeg Directory is an amazing resource that was published annually from 1882 listing all the city’s inhabitants by name, along with their address and place of work. Searching the directory for 1926, I found my grandmother listed, living on Euclid Avenue and working at Globe Bedding, and my grandfather at 303 Flora Avenue, the house where my father would later grow up. That section of Flora Avenue has since been destroyed, but I am guessing that this photo of my grandmother with my father as a little boy, taken around 1935, may show the house in the background.
After one of my talks in Toronto, an audience member asked me, why did your family choose Winnipeg? My response, that I didn’t think anybody actually chose Winnipeg, drew laughter among the cosmopolitan audience. But another attendee pointed out that trains bringing settlers from the boats docking in Halifax, Nova Scotia, made no stops until they reached Winnipeg. Canada was inviting immigrants to settle the prairie regions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, giving away or cheaply selling off fertile farming land. Winnipeg, the meeting point of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, was the gateway to this new frontier land.
Some Jews joined farming cooperatives and settled the prairie land. But Jews had been deprived of the right to own land back in the Russian Empire and most felt that farming was not for them. Instead they settled in Winnipeg in great numbers, as did Ukrainians, Mennonites, Germans and Scandinavians, although some of these groups assimilated more quickly than others.
I’m very excited to finally be visiting Winnipeg this month, my father’s home town and the place where my family settled when they left Russia for the West. Once my grandmother resolved to leave her shtetl, Pavoloch, in 1924, it took around six months for her great-uncle Menachem Mendl Shnier, who was already in Winnipeg, to prepare the documentation she needed and bring her to Canada. But the process wasn’t always so straightforward.
The following year, her Uncle Mendl began the process of getting our remaining family members out – his step-mother Leah (left) and step-sister Babtsy (right, standing) and her family. It was another three and a half years before they finally arrived in Winnipeg. Remarkably our family has the documentation relating to this process, which amounts to some 50 pages and shows a to-ing and fro-ing of letters between the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Western Division, which is in Winnipeg, and its head office in Montreal, and the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization, in Ottawa.
The application, dated 6 October 1925, was filled in by Menachem Mendl Shnier of 125 Euclid Avenue, Winnipeg, and is supported by letters from his grandson ID Rusen, a young lawyer in Winnipeg. The documents give a fascinating insight into the immigration process and officialdom of the time. Part of the reason this application took so long was that Leah’s surname was listed incorrectly – making it appear that she was the mother of Babtsy’s husband, which would have made her ineligible to come to Canada as she was not a direct relative.
A letter from the immigration department dated 19 February 1926 says:
“I beg to advise that it is evident that Leah Margolis is the mother of Moses Margolis and not the mother of Chaya Margolis, nor would she appear to be in any way related to the applicant or his wife. She therefore does not come within the classes specified in the quota agreement and I regret that no action can be taken by the Department to facilitate her entry into Canada.”
The remainder of the family was permitted to immigrate, according to a separate later letter the same month. Their permit was valid for five months, but this period expired while the family tried to correct the mistake and re-add Leah to the application. During this time, the Winnipeg office of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society asks for a ‘donation’ of $30 “as we have had considerable expense in connection with this permit”. This money wasn’t paid – again presumably because the family didn’t want Leah left behind in what was now the Soviet Union, and a further demand for money was made, which also went unpaid.
Eventually, in November 1926, 14 months after the initial application was made, there is a letter from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society in Winnipeg admitting that it was responsible for the error regarding Leah’s surname.
I love the way this letter continues ironically … “Will you kindly endeavour to obtain the necessary permission for the above [meaning Menachem Mendl Shnier] as he is calling at this office every time he goes to "Shul", and being a religious man he goes to Shul four times a day.”
Now the immigration department in Ottawa wants to see evidence that Leah is who they say she is, so the family sends a signed affidavit, which the department deems unsatisfactory. They need to provide Ottawa with “documentary evidence from the Russian authorities”. At this point, ID Rusen, the young lawyer, steps in saying that seeing as this was the Jewish Aid Society’s fault, the Society should be responsible for fixing it. But this idea is firmly rejected.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a copy of whatever evidence of Leah’s identity is submitted, but finally in March 1928 – two and a half years after the initial application – the family has permission for everyone to immigrate, with Leah now listed correctly as Menachem Mendl’s step-mother.
The final letter, written in September 1928, states that by now Leah is almost blind “her left eye having been removed after an operation for cataract, and her right eye being only one percent normal. If this elderly lady's optical disability is as outlined above, her movement to Canada cannot be authorized. However, if satisfactory settlement arrangements are made for her in Russia, there would appear to be no reason why Moses Margolis and family cannot come.”
So after all this, three years later, Leah has to be left behind in Russia after all, and the rest of the family finally arrive in Winnipeg at Passover 1929, nearly three and a half years after their application was originally filed. Leah died in Kiev two years later.
All the documents are available to view on the Shnier family website www.shniers.com
Monty Hall, who died a few days ago, was a distant cousin of mine. Monty was born Monte Halparin in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1921. He rose to fame as host of the game show Let’s Make a Deal and even put his name to the Monty Hall problem, a probability puzzle based on the show. I never met Monty, but apparently my grandmother used to babysit him when he was a baby.
My great-grandmother, Ettie Leah, and Monty’s grandmother Faiga were first cousins. They lived next door to one another in a large double-fronted house built by their grandfather in the village of Pavoloch, about 60 miles from Kiev. On the advice of a Rabbi, the house had been divided up by drawing lots, and my side of the family was awarded the larger part of the property.
This division of the house caused a great rift between my great-great grandmother Pessy, and Monty’s great-grandmother Bluma. Although their husbands were brothers and remained close throughout their lives, their wives were always at loggerheads and even in old age, a simmering resentment and jealousy continued between them.
Faiga and her husband, Dudi Rusen, were the first of our family to emigrate from Russia to Canada in the early 1900s. Dudi was clever and ambitious, and had long dreamed of moving to the West. They settled in Winnipeg. Dudi bought a pushcart and based himself on a street corner to sell fruit and vegetables. Soon he had enough money to buy a truck and within a few years he was running his own wholesale produce company and had bought a handsome house in the best part of town.
When my grandmother needed to escape terrible hardship in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, it was Dudi who lent the money for her journey. My grandmother found a job in a factory to pay him back and try to raise the funds to bring the rest of her family over to Canada, again with Dudi’s help.
I’m grateful to another cousin of mine for posting the following clip on Facebook, in which Monty recalls a telephone conversation I had with him a couple of years or so ago. Monty called me after my book, A Forgotten Land, was published. He was tremendously excited by the book and recounted this Passover story to me over the phone. The story relates to Babtsy, my grandmother’s great-aunt, and her arrival in Winnipeg from Russia.
Babtsy and her husband Moishe had survived a terrible pogrom in their home town of Khodarkov in 1919. The Jews were rounded up and herded to the sugar beet factory beside the lake, then forced to keep going deeper into the lake until they drowned or froze to death. Babtsy and her family had hidden in a basement and, when it was safe to emerge, they found houses smouldering around them and the lakeside littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping to grab a handful of belongings, they fled to the railway station and took the first train to Kiev, where they remained with Moishe’s family before managing to emigrate some years later.
After many years hosting Let’s Make a Deal, Monty Hall engaged in philanthropic work, helping to raise close to a billion dollars for charity. He features in both the Hollywood and Canadian Walk of Fame, and the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California and was awarded the Order of Canada in 1988. He died on 30 September at the age of 96. May he rest in peace
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.