Learning at the OJA with Bialik!

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 18, series 3, file 1.

Arbeiter Ring I.L. Peretz school group, April 1965. Ontario Jewish Archives

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 18, series 3, file 1.

This past spring the OJA went to school!

Over the course of several months, and working with three capable museum studies students from the University of Toronto’s iSchool, the OJA has developed a curriculum resource guide that brings the archives into the classroom. The project was born from a 2016 program that the OJA piloted with Bialik Hebrew Day School’s grade seven and eight students. That program drew on the content in the OJA’s exhibition Benjamin Brown: Architect. This year, Bialik again agreed to partner with the OJA, using a new resource guide focused on the history of Jewish Youth in Toronto from 1910 to 1950.

The OJA’s new guide uses archive-based learning as a way of understanding the social, political, and cultural history of the Jewish community in Toronto. So what is archives-based learning? Put simply, archives-based learning is a successful pedagogic method that uses primary sources to encourage students to think critically, consider multiple viewpoints and perspectives, form reasoned conclusions based on facts and evidence, and understand their role in history-making. By using primary sources as a point of inquiry, students are provided with an unfiltered and first-hand account of the people, places and events under study. Focusing on the experiences of youth during this formative period in Toronto’s Jewish history further allows students the opportunity to make connections between the historical experiences of children and youth and their current-day lives. The OJA’s resource guide is tied to the Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum expectations. It allows the content to be taught as a whole unit of learning or as four individual lessons.

Piloted with the grade seven students in the Masoret program at Bialik, the teacher chose to implement three out of the four lessons over a period of several weeks. The first lesson included a visit from an OJA archivist who gave a presentation outlining the role of an archive, what kinds of records are stored at the OJA, what archivists do, and more. She then conducted a visual literacy activity with the students, instructing them on how to read an historical photograph, extract information and draw conclusions. The students had a lot of fun trying to figure out what was documented in photos created many decades before they were born. Even trying to figure out the date a photo was taken became an investigative challenge!

The students then participated in the OJA’s Stories of Spadina walking tour of Kensington Market, which provided them with further historical context within the geographic space occupied by much of Toronto’s Jewish community during the period under study. Students were encouraged to think about how youth may have lived in and moved through the market during the first half of the twentieth century.

A series of in-class activities followed that related to six distinct themes: home life; education, religion, work life, community involvement, and sports and leisure. The OJA guide provided content overviews for these six themes, supplementary readings, step-by-step lesson plans, teacher prompts, and of course, the primary sources used by the students to complete their assignments.

The Bialik students emerged from the experience with a better understanding of the local Jewish past as well as the challenges and opportunities that Jewish children and youth may have faced growing up in Toronto's Kensington Market. They learned how to read a primary source and how to think critically about its content and context of creation.

If you are an educator and would like to introduce archives into your classroom, please be in touch with the OJA at www.ojainquiries@ujafed.org.

Recent acquisitions: The organizational records of Reena

In 1973, a group of parents of developmentally disabled children founded Reena. At the time of its founding, Reena filled the need for specialized care that could function as an alternative to institutions, and today the organization continues to fill that need in the community.

Reena was founded during a period of radical change within the broader developmental care network, at a time when community-supported developmental services were still relatively new.  The policy of deinstitutionalization that began in the 1960s moved developmentally disabled persons from residential institutions into community-supported programs and care services. Individuals started to advocate for their rights to participate in their communities. But within the Jewish community, no organization existed that offered Jewish community-based residential supports to developmentally disabled individuals in Toronto, until Reena. With their mission to “enable people with developmental disabilities to realize their full potential by forming lifelong partnerships with individuals and their families within a framework of Jewish culture and values,” Reena filled a crucial need, and has done so for the last 44 years.

Reena provides programming and support to almost 1,000 individuals and their families through day programs, outreach, supported employment, respite services, Judaic programs, and residential programs. With over half of the individuals supported by Reena over the age of 50, the organization is deeply involved in efforts to provide the necessary training and care for those aging with developmental disabilities.

Reena’s programming flourishes within its rich network of facilities. The Toby and Henry Battle Developmental Centre in Vaughn offers developmentally disabled children and adults day and evening programs, a wellness and health centre, sports centre, creative arts workshop, computer lab, greenhouse and library, all with activities tailored to the individual skills and interests of its members. In 2000, Reena opened its first home dedicated to seniors, followed by a second in 2007.  2012 saw the opening of the Reena Community Residence, an innovative new housing alternative for adults intended as a community into which residents truly integrate through facilities and programming.

Several Supported Employment Programs provide youth and adults access to employers, job coaching, and training, to acquire employment and to achieve career goals. Reena is also committed to community engagement, encouraging volunteer participation through direct service, administration, and special events.

The acquisition of Reena’s archival records took several months and involved multiple conversations with those responsible for their safekeeping. Not surprising for an organization governed by strict record-keeping rules, Reena’s records date back to their very founding. In total, more than 9 metres of documents and photographs have been selected and acquired by the OJA.

While some may think that the records of Reena pose a challenge around issues of privacy, the opposite is actually true. While the OJA is committed to safeguarding the privacy of the individual, the records of Reena at the OJA document the operations of the organization and not the clients themselves. Information on policies and procedures, programming and high-level decision-making such as those found in the meeting minutes provide important insight into how the organization approached issues around disability care, especially during its early pioneering days in the community.

The OJA is in many ways the perfect home for the records of Reena, an organization with a profound presence in the Toronto Jewish community for over forty years. Many members of the community that are documented in other collections at the OJA have maintained a close relationship with Reena through volunteer, fundraising, or paid work, and for decades Reena has been a notable participant in UJA’s annual Walk with Israel. The integration and acquisition of Reena’s records into the OJA collection is indeed a critical step toward preserving a more complete historical record of Ontario’s Jewish community.

Researcher Spotlight: Gesa Trojan

Stirring the Pot in Toronto and Berlin: Researching Toronto’s Jewish Food History from Both Sides of the Atlantic

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 4495.

Bakers at Perlmutar's Bakery hold a 99 lbs. challah prepared for the Hadassah Bazaar, Toronto, 1938.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 4495.

I came to Toronto as an outsider. In April 2016, alien to the city and its Jewish community, I found myself standing at a bus stop on Bathurst Street, freezing in my light jacket, facing not only the Torontonian weather, but also the challenge of collecting source material for my dissertation on Toronto’s Jewish food history. For my thesis, I am employing food as a research perspective to study the linkages between Jewishness and class in everyday life in early 20th-century Toronto. Back in Berlin, I had prepared for my temporary stay in Toronto, but now that I had made it to the other side of the Atlantic, I felt nervous: How would I find my way through the city and, far more challenging, its Jewish history? When I arrived at the Ontario Jewish Archives I knew, though, that my nervousness was unwarranted. I have never found a warmer or more welcoming place to work.

My doctoral thesis is my first big archival project. During the months at the researcher’s table in the OJA, quietly sorting through the material that Donna, Melissa, Faye, and Michael pulled for me from the vaults, I learned how an archive works. For historians, it is important to understand how archival material is organized, stored, and made available. This was particularly true for me, working on a fuzzy topic like food. The relevant sources would not simply show up by typing in “food” in the search box. Unlike libraries, where I used to work, archives are not organized by subject. There was no box at the OJA labelled “food.” Not surprisingly, I regularly felt overwhelmed by my task. But I was lucky, because the whole staff patiently helped me locate relevant material for my inquiry.

The OJA records, which would help me pursue my research on Jewishness and food, were scattered islands organized into multiple fonds and accessions. Digging them up was a labor-intensive task. I didn’t mind spending my days like this, though, because the sources were so rich and palatable that I often became oblivious to everything around me while reviewing them. I hungrily devoured the Naomi Cook Books published by the upper-class Hadassah women of Toronto from 1928 until 1964. The struggles of the Jewish labor movement, which I encountered, brought forth another unexpected insight into Jewish foodways: heated debates about workers’ rights would erupt over hot split pea soup at United Bakers Dairy Restaurant, where the Jewish left often congregated. Box by box and document by document, the days of my research trip flew by, and soon I would return to Berlin. At this point, I felt the cornucopia of sources that the OJA held turning against me: How was I supposed to soak up all the information that was still there waiting for me?

Luckily, I discovered two insights that are life-saving for a PhD student. First of all, I don’t have to absorb everything. Secondly, the OJA’s staff have set up an excellent infrastructure that allows for archival research regardless of the oceans that may lie between the writer and her sources. Many records are digitized. From Berlin, I can order digital copies of oral histories, photographs, and films. Through its website, the OJA offers access to the Toronto Jewish City Directories, published in the 1920s and 1930s, which proved to be essential sources for my project. The OJA also has a team of researchers on site, allowing me to hire someone from afar to help me tackle the more demanding tasks. Notwithstanding this excellent setup, I hope to be back at the OJA soon, as I especially enjoyed the tactile dimension of working with historical records. Touching the fragile pages of a letter sent seventy years ago, noticing a detail that might have been ignored until now, made me feel completely contented.

Approaching the past with questions that have not been asked before is simultaneously the starting point and the impediment of all historiography. The historians’ endeavor is difficult, because their research interests change over time, while the source material mainly stays the same. We keep stirring the same pot with different spoons. Historical scholarship is based on the historical archive. Archivists preserve records in a storage memory that allow historians to interpret and reinterpret the multitude of stories that the letters, photos, and documents might tell. During the last weeks of my residency, Michael, one of the archivists, took me on a tour through the OJA’s vaults. For a short time, I stood at a spot where the dates on the materials around me transcended an individual lifespan; where past, present and future related. The acid-free boxes and folders that the OJA staff lovingly stores for generations of researchers to come are filled with endless stories waiting to be told. I feel humbled and deeply grateful for the warmth and support I encountered at the OJA during my endeavor to unravel one of those stories.

Gesa Trojan
PhD candidate, Center for Metropolitan Studies at Technische Universität Berlin

Researcher Spotlight: Christopher John Chanco

Remembering the Jewish Left

Jewish Labor Committee, [194-?]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 10, item 29.
Jewish Labor Committee, [194-?]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 10, item 29.

I am a Master’s student in Geography at York University, where I’ve developed an interest in modern Jewish history; in particular that of the 20th century Jewish left. For my thesis, I’m looking into the transnational practices and narratives of solidarity expressed by the Jewish Labour Committee (JLC) in Canada. Founded in the 1930s, the JLC emerged in response to the needs of refugees from war-torn Europe. It would later make leading contributions to the civil rights and human rights movements in Canada, working closely with the broader Canadian labour movement. The JLC’s origins can also be traced back to the Bund, one among many different tendencies within the Jewish left and an Eastern European Yiddishkeit.

Preliminary research at the OJA over the past few months has been useful in guiding the direction of my master’s thesis. Available at the OJA is an extensive collection on the Jewish left, with material on the JLC. This includes letters and correspondences, press releases, committee reports, newspaper clippings, opinion pieces, photographs, among other assorted material. There are, in addition, digital copies of oral histories from leading figures of the Canadian Jewish left, as well as archived publications like the New Fraternal Jewish Association’s (NFJA) Fraternally Yours, Outlook magazine, and the Yiddish-language newspapers Vochenblatt and Der Veg (The Way). Much of this material was produced, received, and collected by the JLC and other organizations with which it forged close ties from the 1940s up to the early 1990s.

As an outsider to the Canadian Jewish community, I never expected to be drawn to the story of the Jewish left as much as I have been. And it certainly is a story -- one of a people caught between the traumatic ruptures of the 20th century, attacked from both far left and right. Yet rather than turn inward, they would extend their solidarity to communities well beyond their own: from Black Canadians in Halifax to Chilean refugees from the Pinochet dictatorship to First Nations communities in BC.  They would see, in their experiences of displacement and oppression, a mirror into their own people’s struggle against injustice, and for acceptance in the places where they found themselves living.

In Canada, the pivotal contributions of the Jewish community, and the labour movement in general, to the country’s vision of itself (real or imagined) as something of a bastion for human rights, racial tolerance and multiculturalism, has sadly been neglected over the years. Returning to this history is more important than ever, I believe, as we enter a period of mutual hate, intolerance, and divisiveness worldwide -- where these hard-won gains appear to be increasingly under threat. That said, it is a topic that certainly deserves to be treated with an equal measure of critical objectivity and sympathy.

With that objective in mind, I hope to continue looking through the OJA’s collection, and pursuing further research along these lines. My gratitude extends to the archivists here -- Donna, in particular-- who have been warm and incredibly supportive.

Christopher John Chanco
MA candidate, York University 

Donation to the OJA Sheds Light on the Internment of Jewish Communists in Canada during the Second World War

Bill and Esther Steele Walsh pose with Michael and John Steele, late 1940s. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.
Bill and Esther Steele Walsh pose with Michael and John Steele, late 1940s. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.
Esther, Michael, John and Dick Steele, ca. 1941. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.
Esther, Michael, John and Dick Steele, ca. 1941. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.

Ideas, adventure, activism, internment, war, love: the lives of Dick Steele, Bill Walsh and Esther Slominsky hold the elements of an epic novel. Steele, a tank driver in the Canadian Army, died at the Falaise Gap during the Allied invasion of German-occupied France on 17 August, 1944. He left behind his young wife Esther and their twin sons Michael and John in Toronto. Bill Walsh, also positioned on the front, heard about his best friend Dick’s death after several anxious weeks in the chaos of war. Walsh had lost his wife Anne (Weir), just a year before. Bill vowed to Esther that he would come home from the war and help take care of the boys.

This aspect of their story alone is tragic and beautiful. But there is so much more to discover in the records. In another letter from the front Bill wrote to Esther on October 2, 1944: “Have my first souvenir for you. A German corporal’s stripes. He got on his knees begging not to be killed. He was my prisoner and so he’s still alive. I hope the next one doesn’t raise the white flag or drop to his knees so quickly. Love, Esther dear xxx Bill.”

Letter from Bill Walsh to Esther Steele, 2 October, 1944 with German Corporal stripes. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.
Letter from Bill Walsh to Esther Steele, 2 October, 1944 with German Corporal stripes. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.

With this expressed passion and proven example of fighting Nazis it is amazing that the Government of Canada and the RCMP worked so hard to prevent Dick Steele, Bill Walsh and over 100 of their Communist comrades from enlisting in the armed forces.

Dick Steele (short for Richard Kenilworth Steele) was the adopted name of Montreal-born Moses Kosowatsky. Dick met William “Bill” Walsh (born Moishe Wolofsky) while attending Commercial High School in Montreal. Bill’s father was Herschel Wolofsky, editor of the Keneder Adler. From the moment of Bill and Dick’s first meeting, their lives became entwined. Dick followed Bill to New York City to work and study at Columbia University. Bill was working as a runner on Wall Street and at Western Union on the day that the stock market crashed.

Having enough of the hustle of trying to survive in New York City during the Depression, Bill and Dick decided to travel to Europe. In 1931, they found a job on a boat sailing to Denmark, and from there hitchhiked though Europe ending up as factory workers in the Soviet Union. Their adventure is documented in their memoir “From the Land of Despair to the Land of Promise” and was commissioned by the Comintern (Communist International). The opening line of Chapter One, “The Making of Bourgeois Ideology in the School”, is addressed to “G” who had been elected Valedictorian of Montreal’s Baron Byng High School (the Protestant school with a 99% Jewish student population). The authors hoped that “the following reminiscences may perhaps help you in your criticism of a system which is responsible for the illusory dreams and stagnation of the middle classes and their total ignorance of the ‘Class Struggle.’” This journey inspired them to become Communists.

In 1933, Herschel went on a Canadian diplomatic mission to Poland and took a side trip to Moscow to take Bill home. Bill sought the guidance of the Comintern who advised him to return to Montreal with his father. Back in Montreal he waited to make contact with the Communist Party. At the time, members of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) were being targeted for arrest by R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government under Section 98 of Canada’s Criminal Code. Eventually Bill connected with other Jewish Communists and labour organizers Lea Roback, Sidney Sarkin and Fred Rose. At the request of Rose, Bill hosted members of the Worker’s Unity League who were in town for a convention including Joshua Gershman and Charlie Sims. Sims encouraged Bill to move to Toronto.

Bill arrived in Toronto in 1934 in time for May Day. On his first day of work as Education Director at the Industrial Union of Needle Trade Workers (a union whose leadership was dominated by communists), he met Esther Slominsky, the organization’s office manager. They became comrades and friends. Bill introduced Esther to Dick when he arrived in Toronto and they later married. Michael and John Steele were born in 1940.

Dick and Bill became active union organizers and worked in various locations around Ontario. Dick, a trained metal worker, became an organizer for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee of Canada and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Bill worked to organize rubber workers into an industrial union in Kitchener and the Auto Workers of Canada in Windsor. Both were members of the CPC.

Dick Steele giving a speech to steel workers, ca. late 1930s. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.
Dick Steele giving a speech to steel workers, ca. late 1930s. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.

In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. The following month, on 1 September, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war two days later. Following this, the Comintern ordered all Communist Parties around the world to oppose the “Imperialist” war. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government enacted the War Measures Act on 10 September which gave the RCMP greater power to crack down on communists who they claimed were pro-fascist and a threat to Canada’s security. Members of the CPC subsequently went underground. It is at this time that Dick Steele began to sign his letters to Esther as “Jack”, the name adopted by his brother Mortimer when he fought and died in the Spanish Civil War.

On New Year’s Eve 1941, after a secret rendezvous in London, Ontario with Dick and with Bill’s brother-in-law Charlie Weir, Bill was arrested by the RCMP. Dick had returned to Hamilton a few days prior and thus had avoided the arrest. Bill was sent first to the Ontario Reformatory at Guelph, and then to an internment camp in Hull with 60 other Communists.

In November 1941, after Mackenzie King's call for enlistment, Dick wrote to the Department of Justice to ask permission to join the army. He never received a reply. On 1 April 1942, Dick's home was raided and he was interned at the Don Jail until September 1942 when he was moved to the Ontario Reformatory in Guelph. 

Major public campaigning by communists and the wartime alliance with the USSR after 1941 shifted public opinion toward the CPC and the Canadian Government slowly began releasing internees in January 1942. Dick was released in October 1942 and enlisted at the end of the month.

Photo:Dick Steele enlists in the Canadian Armed Forces, 1942. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.
Photo:Dick Steele enlists in the Canadian Armed Forces, 1942. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-2/12.

Bill was released in October 1942. After getting married in Montreal, Bill and Anne were sent by the CPC to Windsor. In 1943, Anne died tragically in Bill’s arms, possibly from drinking unpasteurized milk. Bill enlisted in the Canadian army after her death. Bill and Dick were able to briefly reunite during the war while both were posted in England.

At the end of the war, and following Dick’s death at the front, Bill returned to Toronto and married Esther in 1946. Esther was working for the United Electrical Workers (UE), and Bill was invited to join their Hamilton region where he remained for 20 years. He was in Hamilton during the Stelco strike of 1946. Their daughter Sheri was born in Hamilton in 1956. Bill remained a member of the CPC until 1967, and the family were longtime members of the United Jewish People’s Order. Bill died in 2004. Esther passed away in 2010 at age 96.

The documents, photographs and sound recordings in the Steele and Walsh fonds help preserve an important part of Canadian Jewish history. The Canadian Jewish Congress, which started both the Ontario Jewish Archives (1973) and the Canadian Jewish Congress Archives (1934), expelled its Communist members after the Second World War and subsequently made little effort to collect the records of Communists during the following decades. Records of Jewish Communists were historically scattered to various Canadian archives. With the acquisition of the Steele and Walsh family fonds, the OJA helps expand the availability of primary sources on Jewish individuals involved in the Labour-progressive movement in Ontario, of Jewish Communists who were interned during the Second World war and of those who fought in it. 

Click here to learn more about the Steele and Walsh Family fonds.

Stephanie Tara Schwartz, PhD
Researcher and Writer, Ontario Jewish Archives

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