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.
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is delving into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.