A journey to Saskatchewan’s Jewish past

There was a feeling that prosperity was around the corner.

RABBI ABRAHAM SIMMONDS helps Harvey Kleiman put on tefillin at the Hirsch Farm in Saskatchewan in October. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
RABBI ABRAHAM SIMMONDS helps Harvey Kleiman put on tefillin at the Hirsch Farm in Saskatchewan in October.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
This was meant to be an answer to a Zionist Homeland, an alternative to Uganda. 652,000 square kilometers of frozen soil in the remote province of Saskatchewan, Canada, awaited the mass migration of Jews who wanted to flee from the pogroms of the last century – but only a few actually arrived. A journey to a failed Promised Land somewhere on the borders of Canada and the United States.
“If your Jews had arrived here in their masses, our land could have been smothered in money, it would have been a mecca of world banking; a gold mine,” local gentiles had said to Leonard Goldman.
Goldman swallowed the poor attempt at humor and chose to ignore the unsubtle hint of a supposed magical connection between Jews and cash, but to me he dares to say “you could have done miracles here. To contribute a great deal to this wonderful land.”
What is so wonderful about it?
We are a country with a great deal of natural resources, oil, trustworthy people. You could have enjoyed a great deal of stability had you lived here.
And we would have eaten each other alive.
Undoubtedly. With you in Israel everyone is a president.
Let us suppose that you were participating in a Zionist Congress that was going to decide on the setting up of a Jewish state either here or in Zion, how would you have voted?
For a Jewish state here.
HERE IS SASKATCHEWAN. The local Native Americans gave it the name that means “Waters flowing from the mountain.” In aerial photographs this province in the southwest of Canada has the shape of a rectangle. 652,000 sq.km. of arid soil, frozen and empty. One million inhabitants with a density of 1.6 people per sq.km. Its emptiness reverberates. But the neighbors are pleasant. When you can rely on the US to the south, the guns are as silent as the hatchets of the Indian wars.
How did the Saskatchewan proposal come into being? In 1903, the sixth Zionist Congress buried the Uganda proposal but did not solve the problem of resettling the Jews. As opposed to the promoters of Zion who declared “Eretz Israel at all costs,” some Jewish leaders thought differently.
Prof. Gur Alroey, in his book An Unpromising Land: Jewish Migration to Palestine in the Early Twentieth Century wrote, “The Jewish Territorial Association [JTA] was a different voice within the Zionist Movement.
Its leaders felt that the days of the Jewish people were numbered. The pogroms in Eastern Europe were indisputable evidence that there was an urgency to find a refuge, no matter where.”
The threats over the heads of the Jews particularly disturbed the nights of the British writer, Israel Zangwill, the founder of JTA. He advocated mass Jewish settlement preferably within the boundaries of the British Empire.
“There are wide areas that await them – why should the Jews not exploit the opportunity?” he wrote.
Zangwill found an ally in Winston Churchill, the British deputy minister for the Colonies, who said, “The plan has spirit, energy and the ability to be implemented – I will do everything in my power to bring it about.”
Zangwill had no doubt that there would be little difficulty in identifying a suitable territory in underpopulated Canada.
He wrote in a letter to his friend, the writer H.G. Wells, “Whatever the difficulties involved, they will certainly be far less difficult if Englishmen like you will support the idea of the new state. The Jews would be most grateful for British help in achieving a state if it would stem from pro-Jewish and not anti-Jewish sentiments; from justness and not hatred of the Jews.”
Zangwill turned to Lord Strathcona, the Canadian high commissioner in London. A few days before they were due to meet, pogroms occurred in the Polish city of Bialystok.
“The life of the Jews hangs in the balance,” he told Strathcona, “The Jews who will settle there will create an autonomous region within the dominion of Canada. As you know the area is still unpopulated. On every continent – outside Europe – there are many areas that can provide us with a refuge. Canada can only benefit from a merciful decision. The special corner that will be granted to us will rapidly develop – six times greater than it would without us. Our feelings of patriotism toward the Empire that came to our rescue will be more enthusiastic and wiser than that of the emigrants who came to the United States.”
The “special corner” was meant to be in the province of Saskatchewan, as Jews who had fled from the first pogroms in Eastern Europe had already settled there. They were meant to absorb the new immigrants and to teach them how to work the land. Zangwill hoped that the Canadian prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, would raise the issue with the British minister for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, but the Canadians did not pursue Zangwill’s proposal and it was shelved.
The notion of resettling the Jews in Canada was dropped from the national agenda in 1906. It was only 35 years later that the term “resettlement” gained special notoriety.
Our story began to take shape during a conference of Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) in Toronto.
Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU had heard from the local emissary of the Jewish Agency about historical attempts to settle Jews in Vancouver. A quick investigation showed that Vancouver was not the intended destination, but that Saskatchewan was.
We knew that we would not find vestiges of a Jewish state-in-themaking, because the idea failed to materialize. But we wanted to meet some of the few descendants of those who had not waited for diplomacy to work. They were not to be found tilling the fields.
Most of them had turned their plows into lawyer’s diplomas or their scythes into oil shares. They had realized that it was not only the lack of agricultural knowhow that had confronted them and their parents, but also the forces of nature. The “Dirty ’30s” is how the locals term the long drought years in the middle of the 20th century that led to the collapse of dozens of farming communities throughout North America. The Jewish agricultural settlements exist today only in the recesses of memory; on the edge of nostalgia. But the Canadian government acknowledged the Jewish efforts. Beth Israel, the beautiful synagogue of Edenbridge, Saskatchewan, which was founded in 1906, is included in the list of national historical sites.
The new world
It’s 9:00 a.m.: The airport in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, is still huddled under a warm duvet.
A lone plane blocks the entrance to the gate and we wait patiently in the middle of the runway. There is no fear of another plane landing on our stewardess’s coffee trolley.
Not at this time of the morning.
Outside the terminal, his mouth exhaling frosty breaths, Chabad emissary Rabbi Abraham Simmonds awaits us. The temperature is skirting zero. A month later it will plunge to 20 degrees below, then the rabbi’s beard will have grown icicles like the stalactites and stalagmites in the Avshalom cave near Beit Shemesh. Rabbi Simmonds is a bearded youth; his voice as quiet as the autumnal redness around us.
He was born in Winnipeg and graduated from a yeshiva in Moscow. He arrived in Regina a year ago, but he has still not assembled a flock.
In 1891 there were nine Jews here.
By 1911, the community numbered 130, including a ritual slaughterer.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the number to 1,000 Jews among the 2,500 Jews in all of Saskatchewan. Mixed marriages, the bright lights of Toronto and the friendly border with the United States have taken away almost everyone. With no Jewish school, Simmonds’s four daughters study at home. His basement also serves as the synagogue although there is only a minyan when there are the occasional Israeli visitors.
“Don’t you feel lonely here?” I ask. “In a place where there is no community, you need to establish one,” he answers me.
So how do you establish a community? My great-grandfather came from Russia and found a wilderness. He established the first Lubavitch synagogue and then there was a community.
Leonard Goldman, 72, called his grandfather “Zeide.”
“My zeide had arrived in 1900 from somewhere near Kiev. He thought that the sidewalks here were paved in gold and that there is freedom and if you work hard, you will do well.”
Goldman’s zeide was right in every way. He found freedom in plenty, gold he found in real estate dealings in Winnipeg. He returned to the Old World and there lost his whole fortune.
But zeide remained faithfully to the frozen wastes. He took the bobbe (grandmother) his three sons and four daughters and returned to conquer the New World. When he found that his compatriots from the shtetls had taken over Winnipeg, the family set out for pastures new – in Saskatchewan.
Regina was previously known as Wascana (“Buffalo Bones” in the local Cree language). It was renamed in 1882 after Queen Victoria, “Victoria Regina,” by her daughter Princess Louise, wife of the Marquess of Lorne, the then governor-general of Canada.
Everything you kicked out of your way was buffalo bone. But Grandfather Goldman did not kick the bones aside but collected them in his wagon and sold them to a local glue factory and to Chinese companies who turned them into chopsticks. He turned his hand to anything – even horse dung that he sold to the local farmers as fertilizers for their fields – thus turning horse shit into gold. Leonard, his grandson, no longer sifts through horse droppings but is involved in property, erects skyscrapers, buys and rents buildings – a veritable real estate empire.
Did you ever think about branching out to Israel?
You live in a dangerous neighborhood.
My daughter visited Israel before the bombing.
Which bombing?
The one before last – in 2008. I admit I had my doubts about her going.
Other than prosperity, what does your life here give you rather than in Israel?
I feel I am part of the Western world. A full partner in the new universe.
The USA leads the free world and we are its neighbors.
Is it not slightly problematic living next door to a mighty neighbor?
Mighty, but one that does not kill.
GOLDMAN SENDS ME on my way with a disturbing question. What have we lost by not being neighbors to a Montana and North Dakota on the other side of our border? The annoying demand for sharing the burden, for example, would follow us even then. The Department of Finance of North Dakota would demand that we participate in the attempt to get rid of the budgetary excess of a billion dollars. The Department of Agriculture would pressure us to help get rid of the excess stocks of steaks. You need to know that in North Dakota the proportion of cows to humans is 1:3 in favor of the cows. It is true that in Montana you can conduct a safari between grizzly bears and dinosaur fossils but you must admit that that is a poor substitute for a trip through the taverns of Shimon Parnass.
In Regina life can be a lot more than just tolerable. In the two days I spent in the town I learned that not only is “the air of the mountains as limpid as wine,” but so it is also in the plains. The dusk is primeval and the nights transparent. There is no pollution. The smoke of those who dare to light a cigarette is dispelled in the merciless wind. There are boats for weekenders moored on the Wascana Lake. It is true that by 8:00 at night a veil of silence descends on the town, but there is always a pub hidden at the end of the lane. Lovers of Regina call it “Paris of the Prairies.”
Ghost farms
The first Jew in the prairies, Max Goldstein, came from Russia in 1877. Five years later the “New Jerusalem” community was established, but it did not last long. A serious Jewish farm was established near Wapella, east of Regina near the border with Manitoba. Kalman Eisman, the great-grandfather of Noel Sandomirsky also arrived here.
Sandomirsky, 72, is the only Jewish judge in Saskatchewan Supreme Court. With a prophet-like silvery mane and a suit covering muscles that clearly see a spa daily, he looks like a Mick Jagger in the service of the law. But His Honor lends dignity to other fields as well. He is chairman of the Regina Jewish Burial Society and his great-grandchildren are seventh generation in Saskatchewan, “and that is something very unusual,” he takes pains to emphasize.
About the founder of the family dynasty, Kalman Eisman, he knows very little. Only that he came from either Poland or Russia and paid $10 for 160 acres of land and was physically very strong. When his ox got stuck in the mud, he took off its yoke, put it over his own shoulders and pulled the wagon himself.
I ask Judge Sandomirsky what brought the Jews, many of them Hassidim with flying ritual fringes, to the other side of the globe? What made them establish farms called Zonnenfeld, Edenbridge, Lipton, Ramsey or Montefiore? His Honor sends us on our way to a ghost farm Osher Berger comes with us. He lives in sheltered accommodation in Regina, but was born in Zonnenfeld.
He is 87 years old and not in good health. He sprays his nose with a substance that causes bleeding. We suggest turning back, but he insists that we continue. He badly wants to visit what was once his home – except that of his home there is very little left. Just a cemetery on the gate of which is written, “In memory of the Jews who fled here after discrimination and persecution.”
The Zonnenfeld cemetery contains 10 graves, all of them split by the cold and discolored by the rains.
With his handkerchief pressed to his nose and drops of blood falling on his jacket, Berger wanders among the graves but cannot find that of his father. Eventually he stops by one with an indecipherable inscription and says “this is my father’s.”
He stands still and gazes at the horizon.
Berger has visited Israel only once, “because I grew up among the gentiles and I am used to their ways.”
You never wanted to be a farmer in Israel?
Over there are many refugees on a thin slice of land. Nobody needed me.
How does Israel seem to you from here?
Israel never particularly attracted me. You have 12 political parties there and they don’t agree about anything. What sort of a country is that? If the Jews weren’t under pressure from outside they would fight each other. Am I right or not?
Could a Jewish state have succeeded here?
A country based on religion? I don’t think so. With all the festivals like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I would have had to stop bringing in the harvest for three days. Afterwards there would be rain and the crops would be ruined. That idea was not for me.
RABBI SIMMONDS APPLIES his hand brakes at Hirsch. The Hirsch farm was founded in 1892 and was named in honor of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the greatest supporters of Jewish settlement in Europe, North and South America.
The nucleus of Hirsch was 47 families mainly from Russia. The synagogue, Hebrew school and cemetery were the oldest in Saskatchewan.
At 4:00 in the afternoon we find a deserted village. Rabbi Simmonds is guided along the silent paths by Osher Berger. What is he looking for? Now and then I hear him murmuring to himself, “I hope they are still alive.”
Suddenly someone appears.
Chaim Chesler is the first to notice him and calls out, “Hello, Hello!” but the person does not respond.
We approach him hurriedly and find he has hearing aids in his ears and a mezuza on the door post. This is the man we have been looking for. Berger has not seen him for eight years.
“I was afraid I would find you dead.”
They hug each other briefly, concealing any emotions.
“I am Harvey Kleiman, I was born in 1924 and I am 90 years old,” he says into photographer Yossi Aloni’s video camera.
Jack, his younger brother adds, “I was born in 1927, so I am 87 years old.”
As we start to chat, Harvey asks me to raise my voice, “I’ve heard too many tractors in my life.”
How was life here in times gone by?
Harvey: We had rabbis here all the time. My grandfather made me lay tefillin [put on phylacteries] each morning. I could recite the Amida prayer without looking at the book.
Now I can’t even read the prayer.
Did you have a bar mitzva?
Yes, and I gave a speech in Jewish [sic.] I spoke Jewish very well.
And now?
Only a few words.
Can you say something?
Harvey: Ich bin a yid. Is that good enough for you? Jack: I am Yankel – zeh gesunt.
Are there any other Jews in Hirsch?
Just us. There was once. No Jew worked here on Shabbes. Our visitors used to walk 12 kilometers just to keep Shabbes.
Do you still keep up any Jewish life?
Harvey: We say kaddish for our mother and father. Yiskadal veyiskadash shmay rabo. You see – I remember.
The Kleiman brothers have spent their whole lives together. Even at their advanced age, the seniority of Harvey is preserved. You see how Jack lies his head on Harvey’s shoulder, follows in his footsteps and you are moved. Harvey drives a 4.5 GMC Sierra – he is also responsible for most of the cooking – mainly meat stew and chicken soup. Their closeness to each other may be because they both remained bachelors.
May I ask why you never got married?
Harvey: The Jewish girls disappeared.
I had a girlfriend in Toronto, but she didn’t want to come here.
Don’t you miss female company?
Women come here, but their husbands always come with them.
And you, Jack?
Same as Harvey. But I was also sick.
Bull fighting
Edenbridge, over 300 km. north of Regina, got its name from a bridge that crosses the Carrot River.
Forty Jews from Lithuania established it giving it its nickname “Yidden Bridge.” The romance between Lithuanian Jews and Canada actually began in South Africa. In South Africa, a Lithuanian Jew called Sam Vickar, got hold of a flier issued by the Interior Ministry in Ottawa in which was written, “160 acres for 10 dollars in Western Canada.”
The year was 1906 and the smell of opportunity permeated the air.
Vickar wrote in a memoir, “On one Tuesday I sold everything I possessed.
On Thursday I was in Cape Town and on Saturday on a ship bound for Canada.”
Canada received them with a warm heart and frozen arms. The Native Americans helped them build their new houses. The ceilings of poplar logs, walls a meterand- a-half thick made from mud and straw that did not keep out the wailing of the foxes. Working the land was very hard. Anyone who wanted to plow their land had first to go on a day’s journey to Melfort, to buy oxen.
Sam Vickar and friends set out one Sunday on the long and difficult journey. After the winding and tortuous journey they bought their oxen. They spent the night in a hotel in Melfort leaving the two oxen tethered in the front. At dawn they set out on the journey home – Vickar, his friends and the cattle.
Everything went well until they reached the banks of the river. The oxen, as stubborn as mules, refused to put a foot in the water. They tried entreaties, they tried curses, but the cattle – not one step forward. Eventually they pushed and pulled them through the river. At home they harnessed the oxen up to the plow, but they could not shift the soil one inch. Eventually a local old timer explained to them how to synchronize the work of the man, the plow and the ox.
“That was when we learned it was more difficult to be a farmer than a clerk in a shop,” one of the farmers wrote in his diary.
But the wheat began to sprout.
Native Americans were hired to help bring in the harvest. The yield was transported to the flour mills.
There was a feeling that prosperity was around the corner. But the settlers were careful and they adopted an austere regime. They bought only fruit, sugar, honey, salt, matches, charcoal and oil. They built their beds from spare logs, the mattresses were made from old potato sacks filled with straw. The first winters were dreadful. Nobody had prepared them for the dramatic snow falls, the thunderstorms and arctic gales. Their clothing was thin and their shoes leaked and they would stuff them with straw and wrap them in old sacking. They fashioned clothes from buffalo skins and heated their homes with forest cuttings. The smoke from their fires was not just in the winter, but in summer served to drive away mosquitoes the size of elephants.
What kept them there? Lilian Vickar arrived in Edenbridge in pursuit of love. At the age of 20 she married William Vickar, son of David, brother of Sam. Her three children were born there. A few years later William got a job on a river steamer. They moved to British Columbia, but her husband was not up to it.
“I want to go home,” he implored his wife.
They returned to the difficulties of life in Edenbridge. Leah-Rochel, as she was known at home, was married to William-Nathan for 53 years.
“He died 14 years ago on the fifth candle of Hanukka,” she tells us.
She now lives in an old people’s home called Cedarwood Manor, a wise and tender little woman as good-hearted as a five-yearold.
I find her in an armchair wrapped up in a check blanket. I ask her, what was the magic of Edenbridge? She answers immediately, “the fact that it was all ours.”
Explain that to me.
I would sit on the porch steps of my home and look around and think to myself, God; all this is mine: The good earth is mine, the ancient soil is mine, the cars in the garage – they are mine. Everything up to the last washing line – everything is mine.
But as an Orthodox Jew didn’t your husband feel that the ultimate ‘mine’ could have been on the soil of Zion? When the Six-Day War broke out, we heard that Israel needed farmers who would work the land instead of the soldiers who were fighting. My husband and I were ready to set out.
What stopped you? They told us that William, age 50, was too old.
That must have hurt him.
Very much. He worked 12 hours a day on the farm. My husband old? He was as strong as one of our oxen.
Today at your age, what would appeal to you more – the soil of Edenbridge or the soil of Zion? The soil of Zion – as clear as the sun.
When I see the blue and white flag at the Olympic Games – ich kvell! Truly? As old as I am, I would fly this minute to Zion and kiss its soil.
Translated by Asher Weill.