Preserving our history

by Jordan Desai

As a young Canadian Jewish woman, I believe that it is my responsibility to research and write the history of Canada’s Jewry in order to preserve our unique history for future generations. My grandfather is Canadian-born, but his family immigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1920s with little trouble. My grandmother immigrated to Canada during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution after all of her family, with the exception of her mother, perished in concentration camps around Europe in 1944. Upon her arrival, she and her mother were greatly aided by local Jewish organizations in Toronto. It is my interest, as a Canadian nationalist and historian, to understand what happened between these two periods and ultimately question, why did Canada turn her back on Jewish refugees? This project was conducted for my MA research, a project that is still underway.

With an interest in foreign relations during the World War II era, I was drawn to understand what the role of William Lyon Mackenzie King was during the Jewish question of the 1930s and 1940s. King was a complicated man, and as he prepared himself to lead Canada through another war, he was focused primarily on one thing: national unity. King was so afraid to spark an anti-Semitic riot in the province of Quebec that he and his government turned his back on several thousand Jewish people seeking asylum in Canada, many of whom were women and children. King often expressed his sympathies for the Jewish people of Europe and even had personal and professional relationships with Jewish people. Within his private diaries, King expressed his conflict quite often.     

With Canada going through an economic crisis, the country was preparing itself for another war, and was increasingly becoming anti-Semitic, it is evident that many people advocated to keep Jewish refugees out. In February of 2019, I found myself at the Ontario Jewish Archives searching for some insight, and in a way, justification for Canada’s neglectful role in the refugee crisis. While I cannot say that Canada should be held solely responsible for the atrocities in Europe or the fate of 6 million Jewish people that perished at the hands of Nazis, it is evident that Canada’s handling of the issue was indeed horrific.

What I learned at the Ontario Jewish Archives was the importance of Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS). Annually, JIAS met in order to discuss strategies for i) assisting and sponsoring Jewish refugees from Europe, ii) aiding Jewish people in Europe iii) advocating for Jewish people on the home front. Upon reading through the minutes from annual JIAS meetings, I was able to discern that the organization was hopeful, yet realistic about Jewish immigration. Moreover, I learned about their strategies in aiding Jewish people around the world, which I was then able to apply to my own family’s history. However, the most notable aspect of JIAS was their dedication to the Jewish people. With insufficient funding and as Canada’s doors remained only slightly open for over a decade, the organization never gave up in their advocacy and support for the world’s Jewry and that, to me, was extremely admirable.

Upon arriving at the archives, I was met by an extremely helpful archivist who expressed much interest in my topic. She had files already set aside for me and continued to help me locate more files as I made my way through my research. Faye provided me with important documents including immigration records, minutes from notable organizations, and propaganda. It is at this point that I stress the importance of not only preserving any historical documents that you may possess, but to donate them to the appropriate archives. The organization and preservation of history is extremely important for future research into complex and sensitive issues and ensures that we can learn from our past.

Jordan Desai

MS candidate, History Department, Wilfred Laurier University

Volunteer Spotlight: Karl Mangune

Ontario Jewish Archives volunteer Karl Mangune

My time at the OJA was brief but fruitful. As a grad student at McGill University’s School of Information Studies, I wanted to gain experience in a professional archive. The OJA was gracious enough to allow me to volunteer there over the summer. “But Karl, what did you do there?” Well, imagined journalist interviewing me, I shall tell you.

My first day at OJA was admittedly nerve wracking, because before that point I had absolutely no experience working in an archive. Of course, I’ve been to archives before, used them for class assignments, and studied the theories and efficacies of being an archivist, but there’s no substitute for hands on experience. Anyway, Michael, my supervisor, (Boss? Manager? Overseer? That was never clear.) told me that he wanted me to experience as much as I could in terms of what a professional archivist would do. And I did. The whole nine yards.

I accessioned records, created finding aids, took part in preservation management, and site visits to pick up donated material. I assisted with research requests, I processed an archival fonds. I processed donated material and digitized photographs. They made sure that as an archive student, I would know exactly what I would be getting into if I continued in this profession. Did this deter me? Naw, but it did give me a gist of what I would enjoy and detest.

For starters, I did not expect to enjoy deframing photos and other material as much as I did. (Of course, that could probably be explained by the fact that it reminded me of old CSI episodes I used to watch.) No doubt deframing is an important part of preservation, without it material damage and storage issues arise, but it was never really mentioned nor highlighted in my studies. But I found a form of dissonant calm as I was ripping nails off the back of an old picture frame. Although I suppose I enjoyed the preservation management aspect as a whole. For me, there is something about interacting with material personally that’s enjoyable. Even if it’s just transferring material to acid free boxes. 

But, with all things, not everything was great. I did not like the coffee. This sounds hypocritical coming from someone who mostly drinks instant coffee in the morning, but I avoided it as much as possible. I did not like making the accession records. Or anything that had to do with the computer really. I always did those tasks last. Which was somewhat amusing to me when I learned that Michael held the opposite view on doing computer tasks. The most annoying was the digital scanner; quick enough that you couldn’t really do anything meaningful between scans, but slow enough that you got bored at times. Actually, wait, no, finding space in the vault for processed material. THAT was the most annoying. 

Although, side note, the vault was pretty cool. There were a lot of interesting things I saw in there. My favourite, as someone who reads comics sporadically, was an original Joe Shuster sketch. As a person born to Filipino immigrants, it was interesting to see the history of another immigrant group to Toronto collected and preserved.

Final Thoughts: Volunteering at the OJA was great. 9/10 would volunteer again. Needs better coffee.

Karl Mangune
MISt candidate, School of Information Studies at McGill University

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