Freedom; or, How a Family of Survivors Found Its Place in Jewish Montreal

Father brought us out of bondage, but Mother decided where we were to settle and how we were to live.

Ruth Wisse’s Jewish People’s School diploma, 1949.

Ruth Wisse’s Jewish People’s School diploma, 1949.

Observation
June 20 2018
About the author

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


We present here the second chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Chapter 1 can be found hereFurther installments will appear over the next months.

Ruth Wisse’s books include The Modern Jewish Canon, A Little Love in Big Manhattan, If I Am Not for Myself, No Joke, and Jews and Power. A Hebrew edition of Jews and Power is about to be released by Toby Press in Israel.

Escaping Europe in the summer of 1940 won for our family the gift of life, but the gift package came without instructions. My own template drew from the biblical story of the exodus—that is, the journey from slavery into freedom, but with a twist. After their flight from Egypt, the children of Israel are doomed to spend 40 years in the desert because it takes that long for the whining and backsliding rabble just to begin its transformation into a liberated people. Thanks to our parents, who were the farthest thing imaginable from those ancestral dawdlers and snivelers, it took us just four months to reach our destination, and we never looked back.

Still, it took much longer to adjust to Canada, the “true north” (as the national anthem has it), “strong and free.” Whereas our father had brought us out of bondage, it was Mother who set the terms for where we were to settle and how we were to live.

Montreal, an island city on the St. Lawrence River, is built around the eponymous Mont Royal that still more or less separates the French from the English, each community further stratified by how high up it sits on the mountain’s incline. When we arrived among them in 1940, Canadians sang two anthems—“God Save the King” as subjects of the British Commonwealth and “O Canada” affirming our nationhood. In the breathtaking expanse of this peaceful land, we thought ourselves the luckiest people on earth.

Of course, my older brother Ben and I were aware of, to put it mildly, the unenviable alternatives to our good fortune. Our ears were always cocked for news from abroad, eyes on the lookout for the thin blue aerograms telling of murdered relatives in Europe. When we were supposed to be asleep, Ben listened to his shortwave radio for bulletins of terrible things happening elsewhere. Once a letter arrived from some place or other in the Soviet Union addressed to “Leon Rojskes, Canada,” pleading for a rescue that Father was unable to provide. (Somewhat more cheerful tidings came from his cousin who had settled in Palestine in the mid-1930s.) At Mother’s urging, Father sent parcels to whoever had a known address.

It soon became our habit to take information from overseas more seriously than local news. Even during the few air-raid drills in the early years of the war, when we functioned by candlelight for hours at a time, we thought more about the dangers we had left behind than about any real threat to ourselves. After all, even though Canada was not focused on Jewish survival, it was fighting the war on our side.

Once, when I ran across the street at twilight almost into the path of an oncoming car, Father took me home, closed the door of the bedroom behind us, set me face down across his lap, and spanked me through my clothing with a warning never to cross a street without first looking in both directions. Compared with what was happening back there, ours was the security of historical irrelevance.

 

In anticipation of our arrival in Montreal, my uncle and aunt had rented us an upper duplex across the street from theirs at the outskirts of Westmount, the most affluent section of the city, where they and the rest of the Roskies family soon became established. The location also offered the most convenient route to Huntingdon Woolen Mills, the family’s textile factory 60 miles from Montreal where our father would join his three brothers as a director. According to the then-conventional division of labor, the husbands spent most of their time at work while the women handled home and family and everything else. Children were expected to stay out of trouble.

Landing in Montreal as we did in mid-October, Ben and I were immediately registered in the elementary school within walking distance of our flat. Ben would take me by the hand to Herbert Symonds School, where I was placed in kindergarten and he in fourth grade. This, my first foray into schooling, lasted at most a couple of weeks, as I vomited every day until our parents allowed me to stay home. No one thought to notify the school when I stopped attending.

Ben had a harder time, having asked Mother for long pants so that he could blend in with the other boys and been told that it was a frivolous concern at a time when his cousins in Europe were being starved and murdered. Thus he stood condemned on both sides, too unsuitably clothed for his present classmates and too unsuitably alive for his absent cousins. At least he was much quicker than I at switching languages, in his case from Romanian to English; I was much slower to give up my German, either for the family’s Yiddish or for the school’s English. But my retching proved more effective than his eloquence. He did not acquire trousers until he had outgrown the knickers.

Fortunately for all of us, Mother felt terminally uncomfortable living in the western section of Montreal, and within a year she moved us to Outremont—the other side of the mountain. The lower sections of Outremont, largely French, also contained the Jewish immigrant area, so we were now closer to the Jewish Public Library and to several Jewish elementary schools.

I sometimes joke about ours being the only immigrant family that chose to be downwardly mobile, but Mother did not relocate because she preferred poverty. In the throes of war, in a move almost as consequential as the one from Europe, she had swept us away to be among Yiddish-speaking Jews and French Canadians. There we lived as well as we could afford in an upper-story apartment, eventually moving higher up the mountain to the street where both the Trudeau and Bourassa families had their homes. (The former family needs no introduction; Robert Bourassa served as premier of Quebec in the mid-1970s and 1985-94.) On that street, our parents would buy the first and only home they ever owned.

I don’t know whether Father was equally keen to move away from the rest of his family or simply gave in to his wife. Each of his three brothers would carve out his own cultural territory: Shiye the eldest remaining religiously observant, Isaac joining a Jewish social club where he enjoyed playing cards, and Enoch, who had briefly directed a Hebrew school in Poland, becoming active in the cultural program of Westmount’s imposing Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue. Our father Leo, youngest of the four, joined the board of our Jewish school and supported Mother’s involvement in Yiddish institutions.

Though our move to Outremont extended Father’s commute to Huntingdon by about a half-hour in each direction, he accepted the arrangement, but spent two nights a week at the Huntingdon Chateau where he shared a room with Enoch. With its marble entrance and imposing dining hall, the Chateau had been built during Prohibition conveniently close to the border as an oasis for thirsty Americans, but by the 1940s it stood mostly empty. The two brothers, bunking in what felt like a haunted palace, planned the rescue of their father and sister from Bialystok, but by 1943 they knew they had failed. Together in Huntingdon, they must have wept.

 

The Jewish People’s School (JPS) or Folkshule that Ben and I began attending in 1942 stood in the heart of the Jewish immigrant district, a fifteen-minute ride by streetcar from our home on Pratt Avenue, which then still bordered on farm land. Sometimes, walking back from school to the streetcar stop, we had to run a gauntlet of Gentile boys shouting invectives at the Jewish kids; but they never physically attacked us and I don’t recall being very afraid.

Our school days were divided into three-hour morning sessions and two-hour afternoon sessions, with an hour-and-a-half break for lunch. There was no cafeteria. Although most of the other students lived around the school, Ben and I spent most of our lunchtime traveling to and from home—an arrangement necessitated by the otherwise pleasant circumstance that we were better off than others of our immigrant classmates. This prevented us from forming the sort of neighborhood friendships I imagined the other pupils enjoyed, but soon many of their families were also moving in our direction, and by seventh grade quite a few JPS kids were living nearby. Keen little sociologists, we probably could have told you where everyone belonged on the socio-economic grid, but the frontiers were so wonderfully fluid in those years that by the time I was in college, the school itself had moved “uptown.”

We were the beneficiaries of a weird educational system. Canada was not, like the United States, a homogenizing society with a single national history and a public-school system to support it. Rather, it was the political union of two founding peoples—the French and the English—each of which was dedicated to maintaining its separate religion, language, and identity. In our predominantly French-Canadian province of Quebec, education was therefore divided along confessional lines into Catholic and Protestant school systems; for these purposes, Jews were designated Protestant. It doesn’t take genius to infer some of the consequences of this arrangement. Jews who were being mainstreamed into English society invited resentment from the French who might not have welcomed Jews into their Catholic schools but were offended by their affiliation with the English.

This seemingly discriminatory system, however, produced—to continue the theme of unanticipated consequences that I introduced in the previous chapter of these memoirs—the most robust Jewish school network in the northern hemisphere. Unlike Jewish immigrants to the United States who enthusiastically entered the public-school system, those in Quebec, subject to taxation without representation and barred from teaching or serving on the boards of the Protestant schools attended by their children, proceeded to develop schools of their own.

Some, indeed, saw a chance to establish Jewish elementary schools like those that had existed in Poland. By the 1940s, Montreal had managed to replicate the political diversity within the Jewish community itself, having seeded, from left to right, the Morris Winchevsky School (Communist), Jewish Peretz schools (left-of-center Labor Zionist), Jewish People’s School (right-of-center Labor Zionist), United Talmud Torah (Hebraist-Zionist), and Adath Israel (Orthodox-Zionist). There was also a socialist afternoon school as well as a sprouting of ḥasidic schools that would multiply after the war. All of these institutions, serving well over half the Jewish children in the city, were in Outremont.

In keeping with its name and purpose, our Jewish People’s School stood for a holistic, indivisible, and inclusive Jewish people. Some classes were conducted in Yiddish, the language of most of our homes, while the Bible was taught in Hebrew, eternal language of the Jewish people. The general-studies curriculum was taught in English, and we prepared for full citizenship by learning French. No one pretended that by graduation we would be fluent in all four languages, but there were four valedictorians to vouch for the intention. My father used to say that a person needed two sets of goals in life—the achievable and the beyond achievable: in this framework, the four languages represented the school’s Canadian and Jewish ideal. Spoken Hebrew was additionally helpful should any of us choose to live in Erets Yisroel, a/k/a Palestine, where the principal’s son and several recent graduates were already members of kibbutzim.

The school’s idea of Jewishness was conveyed indirectly. Ours was not a kosher home, but the subject never came up, inside or outside the classroom. Did my classmates and teachers attend synagogue? Ben and I accompanied Father on the High Holy Days, and on Simḥat Torah we children paraded around with the Torah and with flags and apples, but the school did not prepare the boys for their bar mitzvahs or give us any kind of religious instruction.

At the same time, no one ever spoke disrespectfully of God or religious observance. Why would they, in a Jewish People’s School? The holidays we prepared for with greatest enthusiasm were the same ones we celebrated at home—Hanukkah and Passover, with the emphasis on their historical-national significance. Purim, the feast day commemorating the atypical political success of Queen Esther in ancient Persia, was the carnival day best suited for children, but during the early 1940s its celebration was subdued.

In school, both history and literature reinforced the idea of a people who had survived morally intact in many countries under varied conditions, and was about to reclaim its political sovereignty in the Land of Israel, a land that had been under foreign domination since Roman times. Thus we learned about the Roman sacking of Jerusalem, read stories about Jewish adaptation to life outside the Land of Israel, and sang songs about the pioneers who were rebuilding the homeland.

Every year we were given little booklets of the kind used for lotteries or raffles, except that the “tickets,” in denominations from 25 cents to $1, promised nothing in return for the donor’s contribution. Selling these tickets, which bore pictures of youngsters in shorts against a background suggestive of a kibbutz, was a highlight of my year. Not until many years later did I realize that the proceeds went to the Histadrut, the General Organization of Workers in the Land of Israel.

This was not exactly a scam: as one of the most powerful institutions in Palestine, the Histadrut was virtually synonymous with the Jewish government-in-waiting. Through its conglomerates it employed more than three-quarters of the workforce and ran the country’s largest bank and health organization. This association of Israel with socialism would hold firm until the Labor party suffered its first electoral defeat in 1977. Yet our school did not feel ideologically Marxist, and I suspect that in local elections most of our teachers, along with most Canadian Jews in the 1940s, voted liberal rather than socialist or Communist.

I took the sale of those Histadrut tickets as seriously as Girl Guides conducted their cookie sales, and went far beyond my neighborhood looking for mezuzahs on the doorposts of approachable homes. I could not have told you that the skinny little cases contained verses from Deuteronomy, but what they told me was that the families behind those doors were comfortable being canvassed by a fellow Jew. As it happened, I did best in the dense immigrant area where people were less wary, though it was always Father who contributed most by buying up all the tickets I was left with.

I should note here that I went canvassing alone, with no instruction or interdiction from adults. I must have experienced my share of fears and suffered some disappointments, but I remember best the satisfaction of bringing the proceeds of the sales to the teacher. The $450 our class of twenty collected one year (thanks to a boy who donated the winnings from his father’s poker game) did more to assure me of Israel’s security than the $38 billion in military aid recently pledged by the United States Congress.

 

Home and school were aligned—for better and for worse. When my first-grade teacher complained that my German was ruining the Yiddish of the other children in the class, he and Mother agreed that it was a sign of my stubbornness. They might have been right, too. I did resent adult discipline, and may have held on to my German “mother tongue” because the adults wanted me to give it up. In the upper grades, my favorite teacher Miss Schechter taught us to parse sentences with diagrams that dangled clauses from sentences, phrases from clauses, and adjectives below them like ripe detachable fruit. But her moods fluctuated, and once, when I must have truly annoyed her, she slapped me hard, causing my nose to bleed. I felt her reprimand in no way reflected on the degree of her affection for me, since Mother, too, sometimes struck me when she was on edge. Intimacy had its cost.

And school was sometimes better than home. There was the time our seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Mauer, became so irritated by the ignorant and vulgar graffiti of the boys entering puberty that she consecrated a morning period to a “hat box” discussion in which, from her answers to the questions she pulled out of the box, I learned almost everything I had wanted to know about sex but did not wish to ask Mother and could not ask Ben—like the meaning of “cherry” or why Kotex sanitary napkins came in three strengths and why some children were born twins. The nervous tension in the classroom broke when Mrs. Mauer, a great hockey fan, pulled out a question asking whether she thought the Canadiens would win the Stanley Cup.

It was from our school’s principal, Shloime Wiseman, that I learned about the relentless progress of the war. In the winter of 1943-4 the entire school was assembled in the auditorium to be told what was happening to our people overseas. The principal said: “If each of you took one of your notebooks and wrote on every line of every page the name of a child and if we then collected all the notebooks in this auditorium, it would still not equal the number of Jewish children who have just been killed in Europe.” Two of those names could have been Ben’s and mine, but instead there I was, wondering whether by tearing out a page or two from my notebook I could miraculously save some of those children.

Wiseman then told us about Shmuel Zygielbojm, the Polish Jewish leader who had been rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto and sent to London to represent the Jews as a member of the Polish government-in-exile. There, he had tried in vain to alert the Allies to the mass murder of the Jews and, unable to do it in any other way, committed suicide, leaving behind an accusation and appeal. Maybe because those children had just become my responsibility, the effect of this information on me was different from our principal’s intention: I was infuriated by Zygielbojm’s martyrdom—how dare he have given Hitler yet another victim, instead of staying on to fight in Europe or in Palestine!

My opposition to this elective death burned so strongly in me that decades later, when the Montreal suburb of Côte St. Luc decided to dedicate a park to Zygielbojm’s memory, I did not attend the ceremony. My anger lasted until the night before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, when I finally understood what had driven Zygielbojm to the breaking point—a story that will have to wait for a later chapter. As a child, I resisted the martyr with all my might and developed an antipathy to suicide that never left me.

Years after I left the school I read how Shloime Wiseman had prepared for the task of guiding our education. Ever since his arrival in Montreal in 1913 as a boy of fourteen he supported himself by teaching, which had been his father’s calling in Podolia in southwest Ukraine. Having decided to become a professional educator, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at McGill University. Whereas others tried to replicate or adapt the traditional religious ḥeder instruction of the Old Country, he developed a new model of Jewish education that would prepare informed Jewish citizens for Canadian life.

All that I took for granted in the Folkshule—the equilibrium of Jewish and general studies, the concept of a religiously-inspired, self-reliant Jewish people, the familial warmth balanced by respectful teacher-student relations, a political centrism so natural it seemed synonymous with Jewishness—all of this was thoughtfully designed by Wiseman and the instructors he hired. One or two generations earlier, they might have become rabbis, and a generation later college professors, but in that first immigrant generation, supported by a community that shared their need for modern Jewish education, we schoolchildren were the fortunate legatees of their wisdom.

We had arrived in Montreal af alem fartikn, everything ready-made for our benefit. The solid school building that was overflowing by the time I graduated had been erected the year of our arrival and had only then received the formal accreditation that allowed us to continue to Protestant high school upon graduation. In the upper grades of JPS and the afternoon Jewish classes I would attend through most of high school, the faculty was supplemented by survivors of the war. How could these men and women, who had lost their own families, reenter classrooms to teach Jewish subjects to Jewish children? Their nerve in coping with us impressed me more than what they taught.

 

Mother’s defiant energy propelled our resettlement. She bore two new children in Canada. Our parents thought of calling the girl Victoria because her birth in November 1942 coincided with the start of General Montgomery’s victory in North Africa; instead they named her Eva and used it always in its diminutive form, Evaleh, just as I was Ruteleh and Benjamin (Binyomin) Nyomeleh. The youngest child, Dovid Hirsh or David Gregory, born in 1948, was named both for our paternal grandfather David, who perished in the Bialystok Ghetto, and for Mother’s brother Grisha, murdered near Vilna. Mother was forty-two when she gave birth to Dovidl, and let it be known that she had not consulted Father in plotting his conception.

Since I never visited other children in their homes, I had no idea that ours was unusual. Mother raised us in Yiddish with the same sense of purpose that observant Jewish families obeyed the commandments. Unlike in Czernowitz, where Ben and I had respectively been taught Romanian and German so that we could join the surrounding society, all that mattered to her was that in Canada we remain steadfastly in our own culture. She did not let on that she herself was picking up English, or that she functioned perfectly well in French; she even spoke Yiddish with Ksenia, the Gentile Ukrainian girl who had spent the war as a slave laborer in Germany and whom Mother hired when she arrived in Canada as a seventeen-year- old refugee.

Ruth Wisse and her mother.

Mother’s insistence on Yiddish was independent of ideology. In fact, she bridled at being called a “Yiddishist” or being mistaken for a Bundist—that is, an adherent of the Jewish Socialist Bund that touted Yiddish as the language of the Diaspora. As against the common association of Yiddish with poverty, she insisted that everything about it must be sartorially elegant—Yidish muz geyn sheyn ongeton—and for that purpose she herself frequented the finest dress shops for European imports. Her message must have sunk in, because when I began teaching Yiddish literature I visited the Carriage Shop boutique in the best downtown store to buy the most fashionable outfits I ever owned.

No doubt there was some vanity in this sense of noblesse oblige, but our mission was to endow Yiddish with dignity, in the spirit of S.Y. Agnon’s narrator in the novel A Guest for the Night who finds the people in his native Galician city so demoralized by events of World War I that he undertakes to remind them of their noble ancestry:

Does the king refrain from putting the crown on his head because it is heavy? On the contrary, he puts it on his head and delights in it. . . . What good does this do the king? That I do not know. Why? Because I am not a king. But if I am not a king, I am a king’s son, and I ought to know.

In that summons to nobility I recognize Mother’s regard for the language of Jewish Vilna. Though I would later dispute the idea that Yiddish culture was a reliable vehicle or conduit for Jewish faith, she for her part took it for granted that her Jewishness was more authentic than that of many Orthodox Jews whom she suspected of using religion to conceal their misdeeds. While most Jewish immigrants to Canada wanted their children to acculturate as quickly as possible to take advantage of the free society, Mother took advantage of the free society to ensure that her children possessed the best of their inheritance.

By the end of the war, Mother was promoting the work of local Yiddish authors and artists. The North American marketplace for Yiddish high culture was never robust, leaving writers and poets dependent on the support of patrons. When the last local Yiddish bookstore closed in Montreal, Mother undertook to sell pre-ordered copies of books so that authors could pay for their printing and publication. Purchasers then received their finished copies at a reception in our home where the authors read selections from their work and others praised it.

Father’s earnings supported Mother’s initiatives. Our parents were not the only ones who provided such support, but Mother became one of the most prominent local hostesses of literary gatherings. These occasioned great excitement. At our home in 1951, the visiting poet Itzik Manger played up his role as the enfant terrible of Yiddish literature by telling us about the first time he got drunk in the back of a horse-drawn wagon by sipping wine through a straw from a hole in the barrel. (He was drinking at the time of his telling, and not through a straw.) When I later found the same account in Manger’s writings, I couldn’t be sure whether it confirmed the truthfulness of his memory or the consistency of his story-telling.

As Mother sanctified Yiddish, Father re-adopted some forms of observance that he had discontinued in adolescence, joining the nearest synagogue and, as I’ve mentioned, attending on the High Holy Days. Whatever our parents did was done without irony or the apologetic demurral that moderns often display when they participate in traditional rites. We understood our parents’ form of Jewish observance to be the regular practice of Judaism—but I remember one evening, around dinnertime, when Mother just happened to be serving an omelette with shinke, Yiddish for ham. The doorbell rang, and there on the front step stood our only religiously observant aunt, come on a surprise visit. Somehow, without being told, we felt that she had caught Mother in a sin and knew we had to keep Aunt from the kitchen. But how did we intuit this, when our parents had never even pretended to be “Orthodox”? I suppose that despite taking our practice as the national standard, we all recognized that we were not in full compliance.

For the record, Mother’s criticism of the hypocrisy and insincerity of Orthodox Jews did not extend to the God of Abraham: her non-attendance at synagogue, rather than religious protest, issued from a jealous wish to commune with God intimately in the privacy of her home.

The most important feature of our Jewish observance was that both parents celebrated Passover with a strictness that belied our usual practice. We did not have separate dishes for dairy and meat, but on Pesaḥ mother changed the tableware and silverware and allowed not a shred of prohibited ḥomets in the house. On the two designated nights of the seder, Father conducted the reading of the Haggadah in the chant and reading style—the nusaḥ—that he had absorbed as a child from his father. We children accepted the anomalous meticulousness of this holiday, and to this day I would no sooner eat unleavened products on the eight days of Passover than I would boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Indeed, Passover might have been invented so that our family could reenact our flight “from a tyrant far worse than the Pharaoh who oppressed our ancestors in Egypt.”

That quotation is from an insert to the Passover Haggadah that the Canadian Jewish Congress circulated right after the war to commemorate the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto that had been launched on the first night of Passover 1943. We included this tribute to Jewish martyrdom and resistance just before the point in the seder when we asked God to pour out His wrath—for a change!—on the nations that “knew You not.” The alignment of our experience with that of our ancestors was no doubt one of the reasons our parents observed Passover so religiously. When we recited, “In every generation let each man look upon himself as if he came forth out of Egypt,” there was no “as if” about it. This was when Father could imagine himself back at the parental table he had left at the age of fifteen and when Mother could luxuriate in the security of a “permanent” family and home.

Passover seders marked the passage of our years. As a child I was often impatient when Father repeated something he had already said the year before, but by adolescence I regretted when he skipped any of his usual commentaries. As a child I resented the presence of guests who sat next to Father at the head of the table, but by adolescence I looked forward to their melodies and comments. Normally modest to a fault, Father conducted the seder with decisive authority, always pausing on the passage, “And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt—not by the hands of an angel, and not by the hands of a seraph, and not by the hands of a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, in His own glory and in His own person.” Remember, Father would caution, even God did not delegate authority when it came to something important. I secretly hoped he was taking credit for the initiative he had shown in bringing us to Canada.

The wages of freedom is gratitude. At the seder we “thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol, and adore Him who . . . brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from, mourning to holiday, from darkness to light, and from bondage to redemption.” Mother lit memorial candles more often than Sabbath candles, but on this festival of spring, we felt obliged to celebrate also on behalf of the dead. To the miracle of Passover, I added the miracle that in the midst of war, our parents chose to observe the festival fully. With their broken hearts, I don’t know how they did it.

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