Researching the Standard Theatre at the Ontario Jewish Archives

By Tyler Wentzell

In the heart of Chinatown, on the northeast corner of Dundas and Spadina, there is a brown brick building with a Rexall on the ground floor. It does not look like much, but it is actually of considerable historical significance. It is the site of the first purpose-built Yiddish theatre in Canada and some very dramatic events during the Great Depression. The Standard Theatre, as it was originally called, became the subject of my recent research at the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre.

Standard Theatre movie poster collection, [between 1925 and 1935]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2012-10-4.
Standard Theatre movie poster collection, [between 1925 and 1935]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2012-10-4.

I should tell you a little bit about why I came to research the Standard Theatre.  My background is as a military historian.  I have mostly written about soldiers and battles.  I have never written anything about theatres or cultural history.  I stumbled upon the subject of the Standard Theatre while researching Canadians in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), specifically looking at one volunteer: Edward Cecil-Smith, the commander of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.

I had expected to write about Cecil-Smith’s command of his battalion in some of the key battles during the Spanish Civil War.  But in researching Cecil-Smith, I became equally fascinated by his career in radical politics in Toronto during the 1930s.  He was a journalist and newspaper editor, and very involved in the Workers’ Theatre.  He even wrote a play -- Eight Men Speak – in protest against the incarceration of the leadership of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC).  The play was performed only once – it was banned by all three levels of government after they tried to perform it again – and it was performed in the Standard Theatre.

I was amazed to learn that Canada – the country I love so much, with its deep respect for civil liberties – had banned a political party and then banned a play about the ban!  Canada was the only English-speaking country to formally ban a communist party in peacetime.  The trial of the CPC’s leadership is fascinating; they were actually put on trial for what they believed, not for what they had done (read Dennis Molinaro’s, An Exceptional Law to learn more about the law and the trial).

The play, Eight Men Speak, from what I could tell, was not seditious, hateful, violent, nor lewd.  It was just offensive to government authorities.  I needed to know a little bit about the Standard Theatre and the neighborhood as it existed in the 1930s in order to provide some context.

I am not from Toronto, so I was very surprised to learn how very different this neighborhood was in the 1930s.  Chinatown, at the time, was where Nathan Phillips Square sits today.  The area around Dundas and Spadina was the home of Toronto’s Jewish community, and the Standard Theatre was one of its key cultural hubs.  Theatres are always important, but they were particularly important in the days when televisions did not exist and household radios were too expensive to be common. 

Abe Goldberg collection, 1928-[ca. 1944]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 1982-7-6.
Abe Goldberg collection, 1928-[ca. 1944]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 1982-7-6.
Standard Theatre movie poster collection, [between 1925 and 1935]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2012-10-4.
Standard Theatre movie poster collection, [between 1925 and 1935]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2012-10-4.

The Standard Theatre was the site of a number of dramatic events as Toronto struggled with how it was going to deal with different kinds of people and different kinds of ideas.  For example, in 1929 the Toronto Police used tear gas in the theatre when Yiddish was spoken in violation of a police order.  Here, the fear of communism overlapped with anti-Semitic attitudes and it made for a very ugly picture.

I went to the Ontario Jewish Archives to learn more about the history of the theatre.  I had a great experience with the archives.  I found their online search tool to be very user friendly and thorough, and when it was time to make a visit I easily got a hold of a real person.  Donna was a big help.  She suggested interesting and useful resources, like an oral history interview with a gentleman who had worked at the Standard as a young man, and the original architectural drawings in the collection of Jewish architect, Benjamin Brown.  I was really impressed by the collection and the helpfulness of all the staff.  I would encourage anyone with a research question to check out their website and to book a visit.

The result of my research on the Standard Theatre is an article out in the May edition of Spacing magazine.  I was quite happy that by simple coincidence, the magazine was on shelves in time for the inaugural Canadian Jewish Heritage month.

Please check out and enjoy the article in Spacing magazine (you can find where to get a copy at http://spacing.ca/magazine ), and stay tuned for more on the Standard Theatre in my biography of Edward Cecil-Smith, coming out this November.

Postscript: I would add that the Standard Theatre continued to be an interesting place.  After the Second World War, the building became the Victory Burlesque, and when the neighborhood transitioned to Chinatown, it became the Golden Harvest Theatre.  My parents-in-law, from Hong Kong, told me that that was where they spent their Friday nights in their youth—it was the only theatre with its own restaurant and they had great prices on Cantonese double features.  The building has seen a lot and it really is a slice of Toronto.  It is important to the cultural history of Jewish and Chinese Canadians and the site of key events in Canada’s history of civil liberties.  Yet the building has no historical marker, and the theatre sits empty.  The second floor (once the theatre’s balcony) is presently unoccupied.  Perhaps this building deserves something more.

Tyler Wentzell is a historian in Toronto. He writes on military history and left-wing revolutionary groups, with a focus on the Great Depression and the Second World War. He is currently working on a book about William Krehm, the leader of the Toronto-based League for a Revolutionary Workers’ Party and a witness to the dramatic events in Barcelona in 1936-1937. Follow him @tylerwentzell

May is Jewish Heritage Month

In March 2018, The Canadian Jewish Heritage Month Act, known as Bill S-232, was passed in the Senate marking May 2018 the inaugural national Canadian Jewish Heritage Month. This gives us a great opportunity as Canadians to learn more about Jewish heritage across the country. Here in Ontario, the collections of the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre (OJA) contain thousands of stories that continue to impact our understanding of Ontario’s Jewish history.

Here are some interesting facts about what can be found at the OJA:

May is Jewish Heritage Month

Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII

Major Ben Dunkelman with unknown soldier, [ca. 1944]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 2, series 6, file 100, item 1.
Major Ben Dunkelman with unknown soldier, [ca. 1944]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 2, series 6, file 100, item 1.

Thirty-nine endnotes in the finished manuscript. One hundred and thirty two emails between the managing director and me. Three notebooks filled. A dozen videos watched. Too many photographs taken to count. One letter saying I was selected a recipient of the Dr. Stephen Speisman Bursary for 2017.

These are just some of the numbers that paint a picture of the extent to which I have benefitted from the invaluable resources of the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, in the research and writing of my new book “Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military and WWII”. The book was just released in March, 2018 by New Jewish Press, the publishing arm of the University of Toronto’s Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies.

It was in July 2015, when I began my sabbatical from Centennial College to write the book, that I first made my way up to the OJA offices at the Lipa Green building on Bathurst Street in Toronto. I had explained to the archivists what I was doing, namely trying to find original wartime documents that could help tell the stories of the 17,000 Canadian Jewish men and women who served in a uniform in WWII.

In the beginning, the staff set me up with family fonds, including Kate Devor’s files, where I found letters and other information from her son David “Tevy” Devor, who was killed in Italy in 1944. The boxes belonging to Howard Fluxgold’s family introduced me to his two uncles who died in the war, Zave and Sydney Brown, from North Bay, Ontario.

Eventually Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, the current managing director, brought out the vast Canadian Jewish Congress, Central Region's War Efforts Committee records and the Harry Moscoe fonds. Moscoe was a lawyer and the Executive Director of the CJC Eastern Region's War Efforts Committee during much of the war. I spent my days pouring through the yellowing typed minutes of meetings, the Congress press releases, and even the sombre news clippings when a Jewish serviceman was wounded or killed dating back from as early as 1941. It helped me get a feel for how Canada’s Jews not only served on the front lines, but also how Canada’s organized Jewish community stepped up to do their part at home. This included furnishing all the Canadian army recreation messes across the country with couches, ashtrays, radios and ping pong tables, among other amenities.

I discovered a fascinating collection of typed lists of names of Jewish military men overseas. These lists were a critical part of Congress’s comfort package operation in Ontario. At its helm was Bertha Allen, who oversaw a massive effort to collect a few dollars a month from sponsors at synagogues, women’s groups, brotherhoods, and labour organizations, in order to send parcels of goodies and cigarettes to the boys and girls who were so far from home.

Sometimes, the files produced treasures that surviving Jewish families had never seen before, such as a three page typed thank you letter from former journalist Willie Rosenthal of Montreal, written from England just before the artillery soldier embarked for the 1943 Allied invasion of Italy. He did not return.

1 March 1943.

“Getting a letter from home, and from you people, and ditto parcels, is to us here as a “bit of home”. I am not being a bit over enthusiastic when I say that getting mail from you is like seeing that Kosher stamp again. Your letter and gifts warm us as no sun has ever warmed the heart of man.”

It wasn’t only paper files that helped me paint a nuanced picture of the Jewish Canadian heroes and heroines who helped defeat Hitler and stop the Final Solution. I benefited from the extensive collection of oral history videos of veterans recorded for the “Memory Project”, including a remarkable interview with the late Dr. Joe Greenberg, who served in the RCAF, then came home to be a family doctor on Ulster Street at Bathurst until his death in 2017.

I consulted their library of videotapes (“No Greater Honour”) and books, including both volumes of Canadian Jews in WWII from 1947 and 1948, Dr. Gerald Tulchinsky’s biography of J.B. Salsberg, and books about the Ward, where thousands of Jewish families lived in poverty but from whose tenements and high schools the Canadian military would accept thousands of Jewish volunteers and conscripts. Ben Dunkleman’s fonds were the source of one of the glossy photos in my book, showing the Tip Top Tailor executive-turned-officer in uniform with the Queen’s Own Rifles.

The website’s online exhibits also were a tremendous help, as they helped me find stories about Jews in uniform from small Jewish communities, such as Saul Laskin, from Thunder Bay, who was at Bergen-Belsen. One of the days I was there I had the pleasure of interviewing the OJA’s dedicated volunteer, Bunny Bergstein, an RCAF veteran, who is also in my book.

During the course of the next two years, over email, the OJA helped me check references, put me in touch with veterans’ children, and even arranged two speaking opportunities to promote my first book. I say first, because there are years worth of military artifacts and files at the OJA that I still want to research, and who knows what stories these will help me tell one day?

Ellin Bessner is an Author and Professor of Journalism at Centennial College's Story Arts Centre, School of Communications, Arts, Media, and Design

New Collections: Max Hartstone and the Ostrovtzer Hilfs Farein

Crown Bread Company storefront, 311 Augusta Street, Toronto, 1952. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-10-5.
Crown Bread Company storefront, 311 Augusta Street, Toronto, 1952. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-10-5.

Max Hartstone (1907-1982) was the owner and proprietor of the popular Toronto bakery, Crown Bread Company also known as Hartstone Kosher Bakery. This recent collection donated to the OJA by his daughter, Nancy Freeman includes a fabulous collection of photographs documenting the Kensington Market business that Max first opened with partner Benny Richmond at 319 Augusta Ave., (the original location of Gryfe’s bakery), and its expansion and grand reopening in 1952 at 311 Augusta Ave. This part of the collection, on its own, is a treasure trove for OJA researchers who possess an insatiable appetite for all things Kensington Market.

Bundle of letters sent to Max Hartstone. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-10-5.
Bundle of letters sent to Max Hartstone. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2017-10-5.

But included with this cheerful set of photographs is a more sombre collection of primarily Yiddish language letters addressed to Max Hartstone, not in his capacity as bakery owner, but as secretary of Toronto's Ostrovtzer Hilfs Farein, a Jewish benevolent society established in Toronto in 1924 by landsmanshaften from Ostrowiec, Poland. Daughter Nancy recalled seeing these letters sitting for years in large bakery boxes in the family garage. Now unearthed, their contents may tell of the plight of Jewish refugees originating from Ostrowiec Poland seeking aid from Toronto’s Ostrovtzer Society.

The letters begin in 1946. They were sent from Paris, Sweden, various locales in Southern Italy, Romania, California, Tel-Aviv, Bergen Belsen and the US Zone in Germany to name but a few. Many bear the stamp of the Comité d'Entraide d'Ostrowiec, the Ostrovtzer Society’s counterpart in Paris. The reasons for the letters are still unclear, but they were no doubt in response to the great humanitarian need following the Second World War. The Ostrovtzer Society was actively engaged in sending relief to survivor refugees as is evidenced by the accompanying records documenting postage for parcels sent overseas, donation receipts, bank cash transfers, advertisements, relief committee contributions, parcel receipts and more.

This collection currently poses more questions than it answers. The OJA is prioritizing the letters for translation on our upcoming Yiddish Translation Hub and we will be updating this post with our findings.

A National Home: At Last, To Last

By David Matlow

Imagine that you have an impossible dream; a dream that you have had every night of your life. Then imagine you are told your dream will come true, and you are told this by a person who has the power to make it happen. How would you feel?

Now imagine everyone you know has the same dream, a dream that your parents, and their parents, all had for 20 generations. How would all of you feel when you are told by someone who can make it happen, that it will happen?

I imagine this is how the Jewish world felt on November 2, 1917 when Lord Balfour on behalf of the Government of England wrote to Lord Rothschild as representative of world Jewry that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”.

This important correspondence became known as the Balfour Declaration. It was a very big deal.

It is hard now, 100 years later, to sense the exhilaration that was felt at the time. It is impossible to feel how important the Balfour Declaration was, how thankful world Jewry was to Lord Balfour for doing this, and how, with this one letter, Jews around the world started to see their future in a totally different way.

However, it is important to try. As we now have the State of Israel, and most of us never experienced the world before it, we run the risk of not appreciating it enough. Thanks to the Ontario Jewish Archives, we can see how the Jewish community of Ontario celebrated the Balfour Declaration. From this, we can extrapolate the joyous celebrations in Jewish communities around the world.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 1980-12-8.

Toronto Zionist Organization Parade in celebration of the Balfour Declaration, Toronto, 1917.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 1980-12-8.

The Balfour Declaration was an important step towards the national home it spoke of. With Israel’s independence in 1948 we have a national home at last, and with our continued dedication and commitment to the State of Israel, we will have a national home to last.

This is what was celebrated in 1917. We should continue the celebration each and every day.

David Matlow is a partner at Goodmans LLP in Toronto. He is the Chair of the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto, a director of the Ontario Jewish Archives, and a past co-chair of Toronto’s Campaign for the United Jewish Appeal. He owns the world’s largest collection of Theodor Herzl memorabilia and together with Israeli film maker Eli Tal-El produced My Herzl, a 52 minute documentary film about the relevance of Herzl today.