A page of history

Big story about a Jewish community

by Jacques Abourbih

NOTE: While the content is facttual, some parts are my own impression on how historical events unfolded.

A page of history

Have you ever felt nostalgia for a time you never knew?

This is how I felt hanging as Mrs. Anna Kaufman and I spoke.  Anna Magder-Kaufman, herself a registered nurse, is now 83 years old. She left Sudbury many years ago for Toronto where she lived with her husband, raising her children.

I had called last Friday Dr. David Magder in Toronto, who was at first surprised about my request to speak to me about the history of the Jewish community of Sudbury. Dr. Magder kindly put me in touch with his aunt Anna.

As she speaks to me this Sunday morning, in September 2008, of the early history of the Jewish community of Sudbury, a long forgotten world comes to life once more if even only for a fleeting moment. As Anna speaks, she seems forlorn, rediscovering a world only she had loved and. She was searching her memory as if to try to find the people she once knew. I felt honored as she spoke that Anna whom I had just met a few minutes earlier, and only on the phone, entrusted me with her private memories.

Anna’s grandfather, Rabbi David Witchansky had studied at the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, also known as Etz Chaim Yeshiva. Perhaps he knew and even studied alongside Hayyim Nahman Bialik, and Chaim Soloveitchik. David (after whom David Street in Sudbury is named) had travelled to the New World. He would have landed perhaps at Ellis Island, at the mouth of the Hudson River in New York Harbor, the location of what was at one time the main entry facility for thousands of Irish, Jewish, Italian and so many other immigrants entering the United States in the 1890’s.

The Rothchild and Silverman families the first two Jewish families of Sudbury were looking for a Rabbi to teach their children. Rabbi Witchansky was hired. This job allowed him to bring his wife and children from the old country.

Mr. Gary Peck a retired Sudbury teacher and amateur historian writing for The Republic of Mining (April 4, 2008) about the first Jewish settlers of Sudbury says:

“Aaron [Silverman] first saw Sudbury when the camp was but a clearing with a few buildings, having arrived in either 1884 or 1885. Sudbury was not initially to his liking. Before returning [to New York], his wandering would take Aaron to Webbwood, Trout Creek, back to New York where he opened a store, and a return to the north, settling in Wahnapitae for two years, calling the Queen’s Hotel home.

On September 10, 1895, Aaron married Rosa Greenblatt of New York, her parents, also having come from Poland. The bride accompanied [her husband] to Sudbury – a town that definitely would have a degree of uniqueness to someone from New York. Shortly after, the bride returned to New York for the birth of their first child. Saul, born in Sept. 10, 1896. The next five children, Manuel, Jack, Mollie, Sylvia and Elaine, would be born in Sudbury, growing up in the community when the family home was at 8 Beech West, now Lam Optical.”

It was a tragic clash of personalities.  It led to the dissolution of the Silverman brothers’ partnership in 1901. Numerous quarrels followed between the two brothers Myer and Aaron. Neither, I am sure were convinced that the value of New York’s way to settle disagreements trumped the Saturday night good old fashioned fist fight. Both were fined $20 with costs. Nevertheless, the Silverman family will be remembered in Canadian history as having founded one of the four oldest businesses in Canada.

No novelist could have wished for better material for a romantic novel than these two stories of love at the turn of the century. It had all the right ingredients! Greenhorn immigrants from Europe, the Rabbi’s beautiful daughters.

The emigration of Romanian Jews on a large scale commenced soon after 1878; numbers rose with a major wave of Bessarabia Jewish refugees after the Kishinev pogrom in Imperial Russia in 1905. Land issues and predominantly Jewish presence among estate leaseholders led to the 1907 Romanian Peasants’ Revolt. Mostly however anti-Semitism motivated Romanian persecution of its Jews. During that same period, the anti-Jewish message first expanded beyond its National Liberal base to cover the succession of more radical and Moldavian-based organizations. A.C. Cuza and his Democratic Nationalist Party, created in 1910, had the first anti-Semitic program in Romanian political history.

Haskel Moses and Sol Magder left together Vaslui in the county (judeţ) of Romania, in the historical region of Moldavia between the Carpathians and Dniester River. They were seeking in America the freedom they did not find in Romania. They joined millions of Jews who began to flee the Pale of Settlement and other areas of Eastern Europe for the West. Canada was a destination of choice. The Canadian government and Canadian Pacific Railway made efforts to develop Canada after Confederation in 1867. Between 1880 and 1930, the Jewish population of Canada swelled to over 155,000.

Arriving in Halifax, the two young Moldavians were given tickets to Winnipeg. Their train stopped in Sudbury, where a fast talker convinced one of the two friends travelling together to “look no further, you have arrived at your destination, this is Winnipeg” and pocketed their tickets, no doubt cashing the remaining portion of their tickets.

The two trusting young Moldavians found themselves on the eve of Pesach in an unknown town thousands of kilometers from their home in Vaslui. Sol Magder who spoke French was able to establish that this was not Winnipeg and that there was a Rabbi in Sudbury.

It is tempting to imagine how Haskel and Sol fell in love with two of Rabbi Witchansky’s daughters.

She was sitting in the living room of her parents’ house with her sister, enjoying together a coffee. She noticed the strange young man who had been at her parents’ house often since he and his friend arrived “from the old country.” His awkward manners amused her. His wild-eyed looks intrigued her. But there were no thoughts of flirtation. The two sisters’ mother was always at their side, policing their every move. It was simply unacceptable for her daughters to have any dealings with young men who even hinted at romance. Neither sister had ever had a suitor.

This afternoon was not to be like the others. She allowed herself to engage in light banter with the young man. Her audacity smacked of old-fashioned culture and modest encouragement. He answered in monosyllables. Mother was not looking; it is tempting to add, intentionally.

Shortly afterwards the Witchansky family moved to Montreal. The new city was full of new diversities. However, mother would never allow her daughters to socialize especially with non-Jews. And she was to shun any advances from eminently respectable bachelors. Her mother had brought her and her sister up, as Rabbi daughters to be meek. She never chafed at the restrictions.

He had stopped on that fateful afternoon at the door of the living room to catch his breath as he looked at her loveliness. She sat with her sister sipping coffee. It seemed to him she didn’t even know he existed. Early on, he realized that he would never be able to find a way to reconcile life without her. And so, the long road to Montreal saw our two young Moldavians often as they went to visit the Witchanskies. Eventually Haskel married one sister in 1906 and Sol the other one three years later.  The two friends, now brothers-in-law lived side by side on Applegrove Street. Sol built a Mikveh in the basement of his house, the first in Sudbury.

Anna stops her story, I respect her silence waiting patiently for her to resume. Then she continues. “There were about 40 or 50 Jewish families in Sudbury when I was young. How many are there now?”

–About 20 families, I reply.

–There are many more you know, but they just don’t want to identify themselves as Jews.

–My parents were very strict. We kept Kosher at home. Once a week we would get meat form Greenspan in Toronto. In the early 1930’s after the market crashed life was very difficult. My father grew potatoes and carrots and we kept a chicken coop at the back of the house. One thing I can say is that all the time I lived in Sudbury I never experienced anti-Semitism.

Then she spoke of her family. “You know, my brother Harry Magder became a famous ophthalmologist. He worked at the Jewish General in Montreal. David, his son is also a doctor In Toronto. He has a daughter, Rabbi Ruth Magder-Abush. She was ordained in New York after completing her studies at Harvard.”

Then as we ended the conversation she adds, “Please say hello to my cousin David Witchell, how is he doing?”