Mykhailo Chomiak edited a Ukrainian-language Nazi newspaper in occupied Poland. It happens that Chomiak was the maternal grandfather of Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister.
This fact is a matter of historical record, but apparently Russian operatives were shopping the story around as if it were fresh – and as if they believe Canadians will hold Freeland, and perhaps by extension the Liberal government, responsible for Chomiak’s past.
A writer on the Canadian online media outlet rabble.ca went so far as to accuse Freeland of a cover-up, which is nonsense, since she was acknowledged for her help editing an article on the subject that was written 20 years ago by her uncle, John-Paul Himka, an historian.
Freeland called it “public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system.… I think that Canadians, and indeed other Western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us.” She is absolutely correct. Russia almost certainly was involved in the U.S. presidential election and may indeed be responsible for the fact that Donald Trump is now in the White House.
Nevertheless, it seemed like a missed opportunity for Freeland not to use the chance to acknowledge some of the complexities and complicities around her grandfather’s history.
Let’s step back for a moment and realize that Canadians are relatively fortunate that, whatever enormous sacrifices Canadian families made during the Second World War, the war itself never reached our shores. For families in Europe at the time, many of whose descendants are, through immigration, now Canadians, the war impacted every aspect of civilian life. Possibly millions of people are responsible for acts of heroism or betrayal that are lost to history. Had it not been for the writings of a member of her own family, Freeland’s grandfather’s story might have been another largely forgotten piece of that war’s far-encompassing awfulness.
Who can estimate how many Canadians have ancestors who engaged in complicity (or worse) with Hitler’s regime, or with Stalin’s, or with any number of less-renowned tyrants and bad ideologies worldwide? We do not rest from seeking redress for the worst crimes during history’s worst times, but behaviours that do not constitute war crimes have rarely received the full attention of the media and public that Chomiak’s case has garnered in the past days. And we certainly do not – and should not – place any blame at the feet of grandchildren for events that took place before they were born. Freeland has done absolutely nothing wrong.
Still … she could have done something better. She could have (and perhaps by the time you read this, she will have) turned this into a teaching moment for Canadians.
The parents or grandparents of some Canadians may have chosen to, or been forced to, engage in actions we see as abhorrent. We cannot change the past. But we can potentially make a better future by acknowledging it, openly identifying wrongs and committing ourselves to better actions than that exhibited by some of our forebears. As examples, present-day Canadians have begun a process of reconciliation around the genocide perpetrated against indigenous Canadians, and Canadian governments have apologized for actions against Japanese-Canadians and the passengers of the Komagata Maru and the MS St. Louis.
In Freeland’s case, she is right to warn Canadians that Russia is attempting to undermine the credibility of our country’s foreign minister. But she should go further and insist that no Canadian – whether the country’s top diplomat or a new Canadian who was sworn in as a citizen yesterday – is guilty of acts undertaken by their grandparents. A few words about the complexity of historical memory could also be helpful. And it would be valuable for the federal government to make a firm public declaration that blackmailing or smearing a Canadian based on the acts of an ancestor will fail in its mission.
Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia archivist Alysa Routtenberg holds a minute book from Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El, circa 1920. (photo from Alysa Routtenberg)
The documents and artifacts collected, processed and housed by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia are part of “everyone’s story,” JMABC archivist Alysa Routtenberg told the Independent in a recent interview. She encouraged people to donate material, join museum walking tours and visit the archives.
Routtenberg, who was born and raised in Vancouver, did her undergraduate studies in history and art history at the University of British Columbia before heading to Montreal for two years to earn her master’s of library information and archival studies at McGill University. In the summer of 2014, she had the opportunity to work in her field at the JMABC and, when she completed her studies, the museum’s then-archivist, Jennifer Yuhasz, was getting ready to move on and Routtenberg won the job.
“I ended up moving back to Vancouver, and was lucky enough to get this position not that long after I moved back to start my career as an archivist here,” she said.
Routtenberg’s family has been very involved in historical societies and groups for generations, and she always has loved her family’s library and the study of history.
“We did a lot of trips – like Fort Langley and all sorts of museums and things – so I always knew I wanted a career in history,” she said. “It was just a matter of figuring out the practicality of what that looked like.”
The JMABC originally started out as the Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia in 1971. Its founding president was Routtenberg’s grandfather, Cyril Leonoff, who passed away last year. Since its beginnings, the museum’s mandate has evolved, but the core objective has stayed the same – to preserve, collect and share the history of Jewish people in British Columbia.
The museum and archives makes information “accessible so people can come in and research,” said Routtenberg. “Then, we try to use that material in our public programming, whether that be with walking tours, lectures or physical exhibits. It’s all about celebrating and sharing the history. It’s a fairly short history compared to Jewish people in other provinces, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.”
The oldest material in the archives is from 1862 – from Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria. While not Canada’s oldest synagogue, it is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the country. It’s been open and operational ever since it was started a couple years after Jews first arrived in the province.
“They were mostly coming up from California during the gold rush,” said Routtenberg of these pioneers. “And then, they developed businesses and, within a couple years, wanted to start a synagogue. So, that’s our oldest material. They are pretty special … very beautiful … handwritten notebooks and things.”
The first Jewish arrivals, she said, “set up businesses where they sold supplies to the guys who were going off panning [for gold]. So, that’s what allowed them to build a community. They built a business, a home, then a synagogue…. A couple guys called themselves wholesalers, selling every kind of supply. And then, as soon as there were actually people staying in Victoria and wanting to live there … I know there were a couple clothing stores and then a women’s clothing store, specifically, and a fur store … that sort of thing.”
As others did, Jews kept trickling into British Columbia, moving west with the hope of a better life, with more space. In the 1920s and 1940s, the Jewish community got big population boosts and communal groups began to be organized. Some community groups and businesses have now been around for three or four generations.
“There were furniture and scrap metal dealers … and we’ve collected a lot of those stories, fortunately, while those people were still with us,” said Routtenberg. “We’ve been able to write a couple of books about them,” she said, referring to the JMABC’s annual journal, The Scribe. The museum also publishes a newsletter, The Chronicle, twice a year.
Routtenberg’s job is to collect and preserve all the historical artifacts from the Jewish community, and the artifacts are divided into two major groups.
One group is family collections, which includes letters, photos, certificates and any other correspondence or paper material a family produced over the years. In that area, the JMABC has many great collections from a range of people.
“They were involved with any number of organizations,” said Routtenberg. “We’ll have their handwritten notes from meetings from the 1950s. We’ll have their letters back and forth with relatives across the country. Those are the sorts of things we have in the family collection.”
The second group focuses on community organizations, with collections from the Jewish Community Fund and Council, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Hebrew Free Loan Association, as but three examples. The material in these collections includes correspondence, meeting minutes, agendas, publications they produced, information relating to events, etc.
“We’re very lucky in that most of the synagogues in the city have agreed to donate their materials to us,” added Routtenberg. “We collect the material related to the synagogue’s administration, meeting minutes, member lists, committee minutes, photos, events and publications.”
One important aspect of Routtenberg’s job is to reach out to and speak with people and organizations, to explain what it is that the JMABC does, what types of things it collects and, at times, making house calls to help sort materials.
“Once materials have been fully processed, everything is in a file and we know exactly what it is, what the dates are, and where to find it,” said Routtenberg. “So, that’s the main job we do.
“We deal with a lot of research requests as well,” she added. “A lot of people call or email and they are researching their family, asking what information we might have about them. Also, a lot of students, from high school to doctoral students, contact us when they are doing projects and want to know about a theme.
“I’ll make notes about those. I’ll try to answer right away, but often it requires some searching. Usually, looking through material in the archives needs to wait for a volunteer to be available or I encourage people to come in themselves.”
Routtenberg especially enjoys getting to dig into a box, and she has made some exciting discoveries.
“Something I love finding are handwritten letters,” she said. “We have a number of collections in the archives that are very thorough. There’s one that’s [between] a couple who was in Vancouver and Montreal in 1920, and they wrote letters back and forth.
“They met in Montreal, I believe, and then were secretly engaged for I think six months or so. And they wrote letters everyday, sometimes twice a day, back and forth. It’s those kinds of things that people don’t necessarily think is important, but they tell us so much about what life was like back then – things they struggled with and thought about. They are just beautiful.”
The archives are meant to preserve everyone’s history, not just the visible part of the community, stressed Routtenberg.
“If we don’t preserve our history, no one else will,” she said. “That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. It’s really easy for people to think they’re not important, that their stuff isn’t important, thinking there is no reason why we would want it. People, all the time, bring stuff from the 1970s and 1980s, and they think it’s not important … but, if we don’t do it now, it never gets to be 150 years old.
“And we get so many research requests – we average 650 to 700 per year. These are all people with a wide range of questions wanting to know about the Jewish community. I don’t want to have to sit there and explain something, because I happen to know it – I want the evidence to back it up, providing the original documents for people to be able to come and look through.
“We’ve really been trying to promote community ownership of these archives,” she said. “They’re not this thing to be locked away from the public. They’re really everyone’s story.”
Ken Levitt, president of Jewish Seniors Alliance, and Leah Deslauriers, coordinator of JCC Seniors and L’Chaim Adult Day Centre. (photo by Binny Goldman)
On Jan. 25, a treat awaited all who attended the screening at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver of filmmaker Julie Cohen’s The Sturgeon Queens, the story of New York City’s legendary fish store (and restaurant) Russ and Daughters.
The documentary was presented by the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver in partnership with L’Chaim Adult Day Centre, and was the second session of the 2016/2017 JSA Snider Foundation Empowerment Series. With the theme of Nourishing Tradition: Food, the Doorway to our Culture, this year’s series is being co-hosted with the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
JSA president Ken Levitt welcomed the crowd with a groissen dank, todah rabah, big thank you to all involved, which set the tone and taam (taste) for what was to follow. Michael Schwartz, coordinator of programs and development of the JMABC, shared the news that the museum will soon be starting a Supper Club, which will take place at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, where the museum resides. He noted the important role that food plays in keeping traditions alive, in passing them on to future generations.
Case in point is Russ and Daughters. Four generations have not only kept the appetizer shop alive – selling smoked fish, lox, herring and sturgeon – but grown it into a restaurant, as well. Stan Goldman introduced the film on behalf of JCC Seniors. He said it was at Russ and Daughters that he tasted smoked fish for the very first time.
According to the film, Cohen first discovered the renowned fish store in 2007. Upon realizing that “the daughters,” sisters Hattie (Russ Gold) and Anne (Russ Federman), were still alive, Cohen flew to Florida to interview them. The Sturgeon Queens is a feel-good documentary about the start of the shop, which Joel Russ founded in 1914. Russ had come to New York at age 21 and, starting in 1907, used a pushcart to sell his herring. He went on to sell the fish using a horse and wagon, before finally opening his store. He enlisted his daughters – who were in their early teens at the time – to help him. The sisters became full-time workers and eventually partners with their father in the business.
Russ’s addition of “and Daughters” to the name of the shop was unusual for those years. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) states in the film that this move made her very happy, seeing this was an enterprise where daughters counted.
The Lower East Side, where Russ and Daughters has always been located, was the area in which immigrants arriving in New York first settled. And fish is what they ate – it was healthy and, more importantly, relatively inexpensive, as they struggled to make their way. Now, it is eaten not only because of its taste, but because it connects many to their ancestors; it is a comfort, or “emotion,” food, whose appeal goes beyond taste. Russ and Daughters customers sense this as they enter the shop, which seems to offer this same feeling.
The documentary was made to celebrate 100 years of Russ and Daughters, which survived many turbulent times, including the 1970s and 1980s, when things were most dire for them economically. The family still strives to maintain the traditions, quality and history of the shop, working to enrich the lives of their customers, who not only come to buy the food, but to linger and chat.
Nicki Russ Federman, who runs the establishment now, along with Josh Russ Tupper, said there was never anything glamourous about the store, that it was just hard work, but that Hattie and Anne had set the stage for their grandchildren to take over. Russ Federman was a health professional and Russ Tupper a lawyer, but they decided, after almost a decade away from the store, to return and make sure that Russ and Daughters continued.
Herman Vargas, who has been with the shop for almost 30 years now, is fluent in Yiddish and feels part of the family. The New Yorkers who frequent the shop also feel part of something, that they are connected to a living piece of the city’s history – some of the film is even narrated by several seniors who were gathered together by Cohen. Molly Picon, Zero Mostel and Morley Safer are just a few of the famous people who have come to the shop according to the documentary.
“It was powerful to watch the expression on my grandmother’s face as she watched the movie – she was watching her life affirmed,” says Nicki Russ Federman in the film. On Jan. 25, as the audience at the JCC watched, we, too, felt just how entwined are food, family, love and tradition.
When the JSA’s Shanie Levin thanked all those who made the screening possible, she asked if the film had been enjoyed and was greeted by a huge round of applause. Over coffee, tea and a nosh, comments overheard were “It warmed my heart!” and “It made me happy to be Jewish.”
The next session of the Empowerment Series takes place March 8, 11:30 a.m., at the Unitarian Centre and will highlight Israeli cuisine. For more information about it or the JSA, call Rita Propp at 604-732-1555, email [email protected] or visit jsalliance.org.
Binny Goldmanis a member of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver board.
The Canadian military helped liberate Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps near the end of the Second World War, a fact that was omitted for decades from recorded history.
The experiences of Canadian liberators – and the meaning of the term “liberation” itself – were the subject of the keynote address at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day observance in Vancouver last week.
Prof. Mark Celinscak, a Canadian who teaches at the University of Nebraska Omaha, delivered the address Jan. 18, at a commemoration presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) in partnership with the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre.
Celinscak’s book, Distance from the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp, was recognized as the best nonfiction book of 2016 by the Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature. In his lecture, he explained how he stumbled upon the facts of Canadian involvement in the liberation of Nazi camps.
Researching the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, he encountered multiple conflicting narratives, but none involved Canadians, he said. In archival research, he found references to Canadians encountering Nazi camps and so he consulted leading Canadian military historians, but all assured him there was no Canadian role in the liberation of concentration camps.
Through further research, Celinscak identified a few soldiers who confirmed the Canadian military’s involvement. These connections led to more and, eventually, he had identified 1,000 individual cases of Canadian military personnel who participated in the liberation of Nazi camps. Seven decades after the end of the war, this aspect of history is only now coming to light. The oversight, said Celinscak, was likely due to the general sense of chaos in Europe at the end of the war.
In introducing Celinscak, VHEC executive director Nina Krieger said: “Were it not for the tenacious scholarship of this evening’s presenter, future generations might never have known of the Canadian role in this aspect of the Second World War.”
Celinscak believes his research helps right an omission in the record. He reflected on an incident from 1997, when plans for a new Canadian War Museum included a Holocaust memorial gallery. Controversy ensued, and Senate hearings were held on the appropriateness of including the Holocaust in a museum devoted to Canadian military history.
“Upon conclusion of the hearings, the plan for a Holocaust memorial gallery was promptly abandoned,” Celinscak said. “In the view of many who testified, the Holocaust either had no place in the country’s war museum or it held no direct connection to Canada and its military.”
His research, however, indicates that the Canadian military did indeed have a connection to the Holocaust, as liberating forces.
Celinscak’s local address was related to the exhibition currently being presented at the VHEC, called Canada Responds to the Holocaust, 1944–45. The exhibition, Celinscak said, reflects “a recent growing body of research that explores how the Canadian government, Canadian organizations and average Canadians responded to the Holocaust.” Celinscak wrote the exhibition’s panels related to Bergen-Belsen, while the overall exhibition was developed by Prof. Richard Menkis and Ronnie Tessler.
Canadians helped liberate camps in the Netherlands and in northern Germany, Celinscak said, though Bergen-Belsen was not taken by military force.
“Simply put, the Allies became involved in Bergen-Belsen because the Germans turned it over to them,” he said. Recognizing that the war was all but lost and that the disease-ridden camp presented a public health hazard to the surrounding German population, a representative from the German army crossed British lines and said that inmates in a nearby concentration camp were ill. The Allies entered Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945.
“In the ensuing days, weeks and months, British and Canadian forces from the surrounding area arrived at Bergen-Belsen to assist, to witness and to document,” said Celinscak. “Clearly, military personnel were unprepared for what they were to find in the camp.”
The “liberation” removed the Nazis from the scene, but life improved slowly for the survivors of the camp.
“The war, of course, still continued,” he said. “As a consequence of that, supplies were limited, personnel were largely unavailable and many resources were occupied elsewhere. Those who remained to work in the camp were left with monumental tasks.”
The victims of Bergen-Belsen continued to die. In the two weeks after the Allies took over, 9,000 people died of disease. The next month, 4,500 inmates succumbed, and another 400 perished the following month.
“In total, approximately 14,000 people died in the camp after its transfer to Allied control,” said Celinscak. “In other words, nearly a quarter of the total number of prisoners still alive when the British and Canadian forces first arrived in the camp ultimately met their demise.… While the situation slowly improved, the conditions in the camp remained grim even weeks after its surrender.”
This reality is partly why Celinscak’s research also focuses on the meaning of the term liberation.
“Liberation was an experience that transformed the lives of both liberators and survivors,” he said, noting that this is another newly emerging field of academic inquiry.
“What does that word mean in relation to the Holocaust?” he asked. “If we consider some popular representations of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, we often see it framed as a jubilant event, one that brought to an end the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust. In films such as Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, in history books and in some museum exhibits, liberation is frequently depicted as a homogenous, joyful moment in time. But how accurate is this portrayal?”
Liberator narratives, he said, “are overflowing with shock, grief, confusion, disgust and rage.” For survivors, life did not turn for the better instantly. Public health considerations meant the camp inmates were effectively quarantined.
“The prisoners remained behind barbed wire,” he said. “Initially, the survivors were not given autonomy to leave the camp whenever they saw fit. Instead, in the weeks – and, for some, in the months and even years that followed – they continued to live behind the barbed wire of these camps. Places like Bergen-Belsen became displaced persons camps. The survivors were still guarded, only by men in different uniforms.”
In extensive interviews with many survivors, Celinscak came to realize the nuance in the concept of liberation.
“Liberation was a highly ambivalent experience,” he said. “They understood that they were no longer prisoners of Nazi Germany, but many would remain in displaced persons camps long after the war, learning that many of their friends and family had not survived what we now refer to as the Holocaust. For both survivor and liberator, they would contend with these experiences for the rest of their lives.”
Phil Levinson, president of the board of the VHEC, welcomed visitors and introduced a procession of Holocaust survivors carrying Yahrzeit candles. David Schaffer led the Mourners’ Kaddish. Councilor Raymond Louie read the proclamation from the City of Vancouver.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was designated by the United Nations in 2005, is officially on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Pat Johnsonis a communications and development consultant to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
The remains of the Sobibór extermination camp. (photo from Israel Antiquities Authority via Ashernet)
In a recent discovery made at the site of former Nazi extermination camp Sobibór – where more than 250,000 Jews were killed – remains were uncovered in what is believed to be the location where victims undressed and their heads were shaved before being sent into the gas chambers. The findings were discovered by Polish archeologist Wojciech Mazurek and Israel Antiquities Authority archeologist Yoram Haimi with their Dutch associate, archeologist Ivar Schute.
The archeological excavations, underway since 2007, are underwritten by the steering committee for the international project to establish a new museum and memorial site in the former German Nazi extermination camp, in coordination with Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. The extermination camp was located near the village and railway station of Sobibór, in the eastern part of the Lublin district in Poland.
The remains of the building unearthed by the archeologists are located on the “Pathway to Heaven,” the path along which Jewish victims were forced to tread to the gas chambers. The personal items found in the foundations of the building probably fell through the floorboards and remained buried in the ground until they were discovered this past fall.
Among the personal items found in the area were a Star of David necklace, a woman’s watch and a metal charm covered in glass with an etching of the image of Moses holding the Ten Commandments; on the reverse side of the charm is the inscription of the essential Jewish prayer, Shema. Also found was a unique pendant, probably belonging to a child from Frankfurt who was born on July 3, 1929, which bears the words “mazal tov” written in Hebrew on one side and, on the other side, the Hebrew letter hey (God’s name), as well three Stars of David.
Leading experts at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, together with Haimi, revealed in an announcement on Jan. 15 that the pendant discovered in Sobibór bears close resemblance to one owned by Anne Frank, who was murdered in the Holocaust and is well known for the diary she wrote while in hiding in Amsterdam. Through the use of Yad Vashem’s online pan-European deportation database, Transports to Extinction, they were able to ascertain that the pendant might have belonged to a girl by the name of Karoline Cohn. Dr. Joel Zissenwein, director of the Deportations Database Project, found that Cohn, born on July 3, 1929, was deported from Frankfurt to Minsk on Nov. 11, 1941. While it is not known if Cohn survived the harsh conditions in the Minsk ghetto, her pendant reached Sobibór sometime between November 1941 and September 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated and the 2,000 Jewish prisoners interned there were deported to the death camp. There, along the path to the gas chambers of Sobibór, the pendant belonging to 14-year-old Cohn was taken, dropped and remained buried in the ground for more than 70 years.
Additional research reveals that, aside from similarities between the pendants, both Frank and Cohn were born in Frankfurt, suggesting a possible familial connection between them. Researchers are currently trying to locate relatives of the two families to further explore this avenue.
Over the past decade, the archeological excavations at Sobibór under the guidance of Yad Vashem have made several important discoveries, including the foundations of the gas chambers, the original train platform and a large number of personal artifacts belonging to victims. Among the unique items are metal discs attached to charm bracelets typically worn by children. Engraved on the discs was contact information in case the child went missing.
The most recent excavations have uncovered the remains of the building where victims undressed and their heads were shaved, as well as other areas bearing signs of the use of mechanical equipment to dismantle the camp. In one specific location are imprints left in the ground where trees were planted in order to conceal evidence of the camp.
Prof. Havi Dreifuss, head of the Centre for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, said, “These recent findings from the excavations at Sobibór constitute an important contribution to the documentation and commemoration of the Holocaust, and help us to better understand what happened at Sobibór, both in terms of the camp’s function and also from the point of view of the victims.”
According to Haimi, “The significance of the research and findings at Sobibór grows with every passing season of excavation. Every time we dig,” he said, “we reveal another part of the camp, find more personal items and expand our knowledge about the camp. In spite of attempts by the Nazis and their collaborators to erase traces of their crimes, as well as the effects of forestation and time, we enhance our understanding of the history previously known to us only through survivor testimonies. In this way, we ensure that the memory of the people killed there will never be forgotten.
“This pendant,” he continued, “demonstrates once again the importance of archeological research of former Nazi death camp sites. The moving story of Karoline Cohn is symbolic of the shared fate of the Jews murdered in the camp. It is important to tell the story, so that we never forget. I wish to thank my Polish partner Wojciech Mazurek and the researchers at Yad Vashem for their dedication to the project, as well as Tel Aviv University for supporting the project, and the Polish-German Foundation who made the excavations possible.”
Relatives of Karoline Cohn, or any member of the public who can assist with details regarding her family or Sophie Kollmann, who filled out Pages of Testimony in April 1978 for Richard Else Cohn and Karoline Cohn, are requested to contact Haimi via email [email protected].
An ancient water reservoir at Petra. (photo by Orli Fields)
Desert living is tough. The toughest part of it is having water fit for consumption. Nobody knew this better than the Nabatean people. The desert was their home.
Some 2,600 years ago, the Nabateans daringly accepted the challenge of finding and supplying water to their people. They did this by building desert towns with life-sustaining water systems.
Archeologists and hydrologists have studied the waterworks at the Nabatean town of Petra. They report that Petra stood in a huge desert canyon, in what is today the country of Jordan. This area receives little rain. Petra gets only about six inches of rain a year. Temperatures go from a low of 34°F to a high of 94°F (1.1°C-34.4°C). For about half the year, the daytime temperatures are quite high. Yet 30,000 people once lived in Petra.
Petra is far from any ocean, sea, river or lake, but the Nabateans did not lack for water. Three things made this possible: the Nabateans had very smart water engineers, they had skilled builders and they had talented water managers.
The engineers’ biggest worry was getting Petra to save as much water as possible. So, first, they designed a water system covering the whole city. The system collected a maximum amount of water from two sources: from rain and from local springs.
The engineers had several considerations. For instance, they had to worry about the ups and downs of yearly rainfall. They had to take into account the ups and downs of temperature. And they had to overcome the ups and downs of Petra’s mountainous surroundings.
The engineers also had to lower the risk of the system getting blocked. They realized that water pipes that ran along the side of a mountain would be hard to clean. Thus, they designed special water filters. These filters made it easy to trap and remove rocks or silt. If there were particles, they would settle in the reservoirs, not in the pipes. The engineers’ design was practical. It functioned throughout the year and, importantly, provided for a lot of water storage. It included crisscrossing water pipelines, channels, dams, tunnels, reservoirs and cisterns (totaling some 200 surface and underground units).
When looking at Petra’s water system, it is important to note how it was built. There were no motorized digging machines or hauling trucks, of course. All work was done by hand. The chisel was probably the most commonly used tool and, with this simple tool, builders carved an amazing water system.
Water managers had to maintain good water pressure and water flow. Too much pressure, for example, would cause a pipe to break, and that would result in wasted water. The managers’ goal was to maximize flow while minimizing leakage. They did this in part by operating a partial flow of water.
Also to reduce water leakage, the water managers used a particular kind of pipe. This pipe was often made from clay baked at high temperatures; it was short, with thin walls. Even with this innovation, Petra’s mountains and its irregular rainfall and temperatures must have meant that water managers were always on the alert.
And, sometimes, they were really “put to the test” – for example, when a large camel caravan entered Petra. When a large group of dusty and thirsty traders and animals arrived, it meant one thing: a sudden increase in the demand for water. Water would be needed for drinking and bathing. For such situations, water managers needed to ensure that back-up water sources were working.
In times of real emergency, the Nabateans had numerous storage centres. Scientists figure that some sites held three weeks’ emergency supply while other sites held several months’ supply. Thus, inhabitants had some insurance against a siege or drought.
Scientists have estimated that about 12 million gallons (or more than 45 million litres) of fresh spring water ran through Petra’s water channels daily. Water was relatively plentiful and also accessible – residents could easily reach the water that ran into nearby fountains.
The Nabateans also traveled through present-day Israel. Along what is today recognized as the UNESCO World Heritage Incense Route, the Nabateans established forts and settlements. In agricultural communities such as Shivta, they “captured” rainwater to grow grapes for wine production.
Both in travel and at home, the Nabateans’ water systems were as complex as they were practical. Even in ancient times, they overcame the harshness of desert living. They harnessed its unpredictability and thrived.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
The interior of Bevis Marks Synagogue looking towards the ark and with the bima in the left foreground. The ark is made of oak, but painted to look like Italian marble, as are the supports to the ladies gallery. (photo by Edgar Asher)
Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks, was built in 1701. Now situated in the heart of London’s Square Mile business district, the synagogue has been in continuous use since its foundation.
In 1655, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel arrived in London from Holland with a petition to Oliver Cromwell asking that Jews be allowed to once again to settle and live in England and begin to trade – they had been banned from the country some 366 years earlier. In 1656, Cromwell agreed, despite opposition from London merchants.
Jews had been living in England since Roman and Anglo-Saxon times. In 1066, William the Conqueror encouraged Jewish craftsmen and merchants to move to England from northern France. However, in 1290, Jews were banished altogether from England.
Bevis Marks Synagogue was, from its very beginning, an Orthodox congregation set up to serve the Sephardi Jews in the area. The need to build the synagogue came about because of the increase in the Jewish population of the neighborhood and the lack of other synagogues in the area.
In early 1698, a committee was set up, consisting of the leading Sephardi leaders in the neighborhood to look into the possibility of building a new synagogue to cope with the influx of Jews moving into this part of London. In February 1699, a contract was signed for the building of a new, larger synagogue and, in September 1701, Bevis Marks Synagogue was dedicated. The interior décor, layout and furnishing were based on the design of the main Sephardi synagogue in Amsterdam, which had been completed in 1675. The central candelabrum, one of seven that hang in Bevis Marks, was a gift from the community of Amsterdam at the time of its original construction.
The prominent Renaissance-style ark was painted to look as though it is made of colored Italian marble; in fact, it is surprisingly made entirely of oak. The 12 pillars, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, which support the ladies gallery, are also made of oak and painted to look like Italian marble.
Bevis Marks became the centre of the English Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community and was also the home of the community’s chief rabbis.
Bevis Marks has always been intimately associated with London, so much so that on the eight occasions when a Jewish lord mayor has been elected, Bevis Marks has been the destination of the new lord mayor’s first official duty. It has made no difference if the mayor followed the Sephardi or Ashkenazi rite. Many notable Jews have had association with Bevis Marks, including Moses Montefiore, who was also a big benefactor of the synagogue; prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s father Isaac; and Daniel Mendoza, who was an English boxing champion in the late 18th century.
Several seats in the synagogue, even today, are roped off with a red cord to be reserved for notable people who have been associated with Bevis Marks. One seat in particular was the reserved seat of Montefiore. Now, this seat is a seat of honor reserved for a distinguished visitor, such as a Jewish lord mayor. In 2001, Prince Charles occupied the seat during the synagogue’s 300th-year commemoration ceremony. In 2006, prime minister Tony Blair was guest of honor at the synagogue during the ceremony marking the 350th anniversary of the resettlement of Jews in England.
London, from a Jewish standpoint, has undergone many changes. Over the years, Bevis Marks, apart from being the flagship synagogue of the Sephardi community in Britain, has had a large catchment area around London’s Square Mile. Two things happened to affect the attendance at the synagogue, however. First, many Jews who had become more affluent moved to other parts of London and, second, the city itself and its financial district were redeveloped from being primarily residential to large office blocks.
Nonetheless, Bevis Marks still managed to hold regular but less well-attended services. At one point, the once proud centre of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews looked like it might become an historic landmark, rather than remain a vital house of prayer. After all, the community itself designated Lauderdale Road Synagogue in northwest London as the community’s administrative headquarters. In addition, the number of British Jews claiming affiliation with any Jewish community organizations fell precipitously over a span of 50 years. Many British synagogues were on the verge of closing down or amalgamating with other synagogues in the same district.
In 1955, there were an estimated 410,000 Jews in the United Kingdom; by the time of the national census in 2001, this figure was down to only 270,000. The question on the census form asked, What denomination do you consider yourself to belong to?
Bevis Marks still attracts many visitors from all over the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish. With a few exceptions, its interior is exactly how it looked some 315 years ago. When all is said and done, the building remains a place to offer up prayer, despite some trouble, in recent times, to gather a minyan of 10 men to hold a prayer service. However, the rebuilding of London’s Square Mile and its surrounding neighborhood has brought new blood to Bevis Marks, as the developments have included up-market expensive homes, particularly in the nearby dockland areas. Young Jewish businesspeople are once again making use of the synagogue and Bevis Marks is secure in its future both as a unique architectural building and an active synagogue.
When the Second Temple was destroyed, its menorah was said to have been taken to Rome. This is depicted, with the menorah being carried by Jewish slaves, in a carving on the inside of the Arch of Titus. (photo by Steerpike via Wikimedia Commons)
In the Temple of Jerusalem stood a seven-branched candelabrum or menorah, which was lit each day by the high priest. There were also other candelabra for ornamental purposes. When Antiochus removed the Temple menorah, Judah Maccabee had a duplicate built – called a candlestick with lamps upon it, in one Apocrypha translation – and he lit it, although there is no mention of oil to light it.
When the Second Temple was destroyed, its menorah was said to have been taken to Rome. This is depicted, with the menorah being carried by Jewish slaves, in a carving on the inside of the Arch of Titus.
Lighting a chanukiyah, or eight-branched candelabrum with one to serve as the shamash (one who lights the others), is a popular Chanukah custom. Originally, eight individual ceramic or stone lamps with wicks were lit with olive oil. Jews from Yemen and Morocco also used rough stone lamps with scooped-out places for the wicks and the higher one for the shamash.
At some point, people began the custom of hanging their lamps on the left side of the door, opposite the mezuzah, because Jews were commanded to affirm the miracle in public. When it became dangerous to display the chanukiyah out of doors, people began lighting them inside the house, frequently placing them by a window.
A wide variety of those chanukiyot, in diverse decorative styles and materials, have been preserved throughout the years.
As early as the 12th century, replicas of the Chanukah menorah, with the two additional branches, were found in synagogues, so that poor people and strangers could still benefit from lighting. Eventually, this design was used for home chanukiyot, but some people criticized the custom of lighting in the home. As well, discussions ensued about on which wall to place the synagogue chanukiyah – by the 16th century, lighting the candelabra in the synagogue became established as an addition to lighting one at home.
According to Michael Kaniel in A Guide to Jewish Art, in Morocco in the 11th century, the chanukiyah was the most widely used ritual object. They were made with a wide variety of materials: gold, silver, brass, bronze, iron, lead, glass, wood, glazed ceramics, terra cotta, bone, pomegranate shells, walnut shells and bark. Then, the brass style became popular, with North African Arab designs of flowers, foliage, fruits and animals. Those from Iraq often used the hamsa, the open hand symbol against the evil eye.
Chanukiyot dating back to 13th-century Spain and southern France display a straight row of holders with a back plate. One can also find chanukiyot made of bronze from the time of the Renaissance (14th century), depicting Judith with the head of Holofernes, who she killed, thereby saving her people, but that’s a story for another time.
European chanukiyot, mostly after the 17th century, were made in brass with animals symbolic of Jewish folk art. Later on, they appear in silver and were commissioned from silversmiths; European artisans often created chanukiyot from silver, using plant designs.
An 18th-century lamp from Germany depicts the prayers for lighting the candles. A 19th-century lamp, either from Libya or Morocco, is made of ceramics. Twentieth-century designs in Morocco were of silver and used animals and plants in the design.
Originally, wicks and oil were used, but, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many people replaced these with candles. Traditional Jews, particularly in Jerusalem, still use wicks and oil and hang the chanukiyah outside the house in a glass-enclosed container.
Electric chanukiyot atop public buildings are also customary in Israel as are home-style chanukiyot of all varieties, displayed in stores, offices and public places.
The primary rule for a “kosher” chanukiyah is that all eight holders should be at the same level, with the shamash placed higher than the others.
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads walks in English in Jerusalem’s market.
Cambie Street, looking south from 41st Avenue, 1952. (photo from City of Vancouver Archives via jewishmuseum.ca/oakridge)
On Nov. 23, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia had both its annual general meeting and launched its newest online exhibit, Oakridge.
JMABC board president Perry Seidelman called the AGM to order and noted a major absence.
“Forty-five years ago,” he said, “Cyril Leonoff became our founding president and was at our side throughout all of those years. However, sadly, this ongoing support ended this year with Cyril’s passing. There is so much that can be said about Cyril but tonight I will only say that he has been and will continue to be missed. It goes without saying that we would probably not be here tonight if it was not for Cyril Leonoff.”
Seidelman then went on to list some of the year’s accomplishments, including ongoing speaking engagements and historical tours, as well as the recording of 35 new oral history interviews and the digitization of “various family fonds, the Mountain View Cemetery Restoration Committee fonds and the Temple Sholom fonds.”
He noted that the digitization of “the oldest books from Congregation Emanu-El (1861 through 1901 approximately)” was complete and they will be online soon, that several online exhibits had been mounted during the year, and that the museum’s “largest collection by far, the Canadian Jewish Congress, Pacific Region, fonds, has begun to be processed, with immense research potential.”
The museum handled hundreds of research requests, he said, and “received donations ranging from fiction manuscripts to synagogue records to WWII records.”
Seidelman noted that longstanding JMABC member (and a past president) Bill Gruenthal was recognized by “Jewish Seniors Alliance for years of extraordinary volunteer work” and that archivist Alysa Routtenberg had “recently completed her first year as archivist as Jennifer Yuhasz’s successor. It has proven to be a nearly seamless transition with a continuing and increasing inflow of documents and interviews and regular transmission of the vast history of which we are guardians.”
He thanked JMABC administrator Marcy Babins, JMABC coordinator of programs and development Michael Schwartz, Shirley Barnett for her leadership in the restoration of the Jewish section of Mountain View Cemetery, Cynthia Ramsay for editing the JMABC’s annual journal, The Scribe, and donors and funders, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. He bid farewell to three members of the board – Barnett, Chris Friedrichs and Barbara Pelman – and welcomed four new members: David Bogoch, Alan Farber, Alex Farber and Carol Herbert.
After the AGM was the Oakridge launch.
“With this exhibit,” said Schwartz, “we set out to document an important period in our community history; a moment when a population boom coincided with financial stability and postwar optimism to cause our community to grow both in size and stability in a way rarely seen before or since. This era set a new foundation for our community that we have built upon and relied upon ever since.
“This exhibit places this period in context with events happening both before and since. It asks why and how many Jewish families and institutions chose to establish themselves in Oakridge.”
Compiled over two years, the Oakridge research team was Erika Balcombe, Junie Chow, Elana Freedman and Josh Friedman, with Schwartz. A large portion of the exhibit comprises oral history interview excerpts from community members Harry Caine, Vivian Claman, Irene and Mort Dodek, Gail Dodek Wenner, Wendy Fouks, Debby Freiman, Sarah Jarvis, Ed Lewin, Sandy Rogen, Ken Sanders, and Seidelman.
“Irene deserves double thanks,” said Schwartz, “as we have included an excerpt of an interview that she carried out with Bea Goldberg and Marjorie Groberman in 1996. Naturally, I thank Bea and would certainly thank Marjorie were she still with us.”
Schwartz also gave thanks to JMABC colleagues Babins and Routtenberg, as well as Yuhasz, “each of whom devoted much time and energy to this project,” and the board of directors.
At the turn of the last century, explained Schwartz, “there were essentially two interconnected Jewish communities: the affluent Reform Jews in the West End and the Orthodox, working-class Jews in the East End, what today we call Strathcona…. Over time, the Jews of the East End grew more financially stable and began to relocate to the new neighborhood of Fairview in the 1920s and ’30s.”
He noted, “If the Great Depression hadn’t hit, it seems likely that Oak and 12th Avenue would have been the heart of the Vancouver Jewish community. Instead, campaigns to build Beth Israel, Talmud Torah and a new Schara Tzedeck were put on hold until after the war. All three projects were completed in 1948. By that time, the city had continued to expand southward, so these three facilities were built closer to King Edward Avenue.
“This southward shift was further encouraged by another important event,” he continued. “In 1950, the CPR, the Canadian Pacific Railway, released a parcel of land stretching from 41st Avenue and Granville Street to 57th Avenue and Main Street. The city identified the middle third of this land for residential development and worked with Woodward’s and other developers to construct Oakridge Mall as an anchor for the new neighborhood.
“This neighborhood didn’t attract exclusively Jews, but it arrived at a perfect moment for our community.”
There was a lot of material from which the researchers had to choose. “The work was to pare it down to a manageable size, a representative cross-section of the community,” said Schwartz. “As you can imagine, everyone we spoke to had a very different experience. For instance, Vivian Claman and Ed Lewin shared with us the experience of survivor families.”
In the exhibit, said Schwartz, Lewin comments, “The survivors and their children were almost like a sub-community of the Jewish community. We kind of did everything together, we were like an extended family.”
“In general, the Baby Boomers we spoke to had happy memories of their childhoods,” said Schwartz, giving the example of Claman.
“We played in the street – we would be gone all day,” she says in the exhibit. “We played kick the can! I mean, those were the days that you would go outside and you would just play till it was dark or till your parents yelled and said come in for dinner. There was a lot of hanging out.”
That’s not to say everything was perfect. Schwartz noted Mort Dodek’s comments in the exhibit.
“One other thing that you have to understand is that there was a lot of antisemitism at that time,” says Dodek. “There were people who were uncomfortable living in Shaughnessy, a lot of Jewish people were not comfortable there. The Shaughnessy Golf Course was there, and it was restricted, no Jews were allowed to join that club.”
And Irene Dodek notes, “When we first moved to Vancouver in 1947, my parents went out with a real estate man to look at a house at 25th between Oak and Granville, and the real estate agent told my father, ‘This is a good neighborhood because no Jews or Chinese are allowed.’”
Schwartz also pointed out that there were divisions within the Jewish community, citing Seidelman and Mort Dodek’s comments from the exhibit.
“The rabbi of Schara Tzedeck would not go to Beth Israel, would not be seen to enter, whereas today they have the Rabbinical Association, all the rabbis get on really well together and they seem to respect each other’s different levels of observance, whereas in those days they didn’t,” says Seidelman.
“If you want to talk about splits in the community,” says Dodek, “there was a terrific split between the people who were involved with the Peretz shul and people who were involved with, say, Talmud Torah…. It was not religious and believed that the main language to speak for a Jewish person was Yiddish. And, of course, the people at the Talmud Torah, the language to speak, of course, with the establishment of the state of Israel, was Hebrew.”
“Another theme that emerged through our interviews,” said Schwartz, “was the way gender roles were changing and have changed since the 1960s. Men always worked outside the home, but women rarely did. This was beginning to change, but very slowly. Without full-time jobs, women had the time to dedicate to volunteer organizations like Hadassah and National Council of Jewish Women. Both organizations accomplished a great deal in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, but have struggled in the years since, as fewer young women have the time to devote to this type of work.”
For anyone wanting to know more about the role of women in the community, Schwartz recommended the museum’s 2013 exhibit More Than Just Mrs., which can be found online.
“Oakridge, like each of our exhibits, serves three functions,” said Schwartz, listing those functions: a chance to grow the museum’s archives, to increase awareness of the JMABC and of Jewish life in the province, and to reflect on how the community has changed over time.
For the Oakridge exhibit, he noted, the majority of the oral history interviews “were undertaken by volunteer and student interns, giving them valuable experience in the art and science of oral history interviews. Thanks to projects like this, including other exhibits and our annual journal, The Scribe, our oral history collection has grown substantially in recent years, bringing our current total to 762 interviews.
“Just this month,” he added, “we held two interviewer training sessions as the first phase of our Southern African Diaspora Oral History Project…. Through this project, we intend to interview hundreds of community members who arrived here from South Africa and the neighboring countries in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.”
With respect to increasing awareness, Schwartz said, “Many of you will remember the launch of our modern architecture exhibit New Ways of Living back in January of this year. This event had an attendance of over 150 people, many of whom were not Jewish and found out about the event through our partners, Inform Interiors and the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Similarly, our 2015 exhibit, Fred Schiffer: Lives in Photos, attracted more than 800 people over its two-week run, again with much thanks to our partners, Make Gallery and Capture Photography Festival…. Each new exhibit has a specific thematic focus which draws in a new audience.”
As for reflection on the Oakridge years, Schwartz pointed to the expansion of the Jewish community. “Families,” he said, “have settled into neighborhoods throughout the city and the region in general.”
Referring to the Oakridge area, he concluded, “[I]f fewer and fewer Jews live in this neighborhood, does it make sense for the Oak Street corridor to remain the hub of much Jewish activity? This remains to be seen.”
This fall, a select number of Langara College students embarked on a project to write the memoirs of local Holocaust survivors, capturing personal stories from the Second World War. The project is called Writing Lives: the Holocaust Survivor Memoir Project.
Writing Lives is an eight-month collaboration between Langara’s English and history departments, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC) and the Azrieli Foundation. In the first half, students learn about the history and impact of the Holocaust. In the second half, students are paired with local Holocaust survivors associated with the VHEC.
“Writing Lives provides an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in the history of the Holocaust beyond physical textbooks,” said Rachel Mines, Langara English instructor, and project coordinator. For example, on Nov. 9, students commemorated Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) by lighting candles in memory of the violent anti-Jewish events that took place on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. The course also regularly features a series of guest speakers from different organizations giving their perspective on the events surrounding the Holocaust.
“I feel grateful for the opportunity to investigate the events and prejudices that served as a catalyst for the Holocaust. With the help of survivors, professors, librarians and fellow students, I am learning that individuals, communities and organizations all have agency when it comes to fighting racism, and how we can work together to prevent such tragedies in the future,” said Lucille Welburn, a peace and conflict studies student who is taking the course.
Robin Macqueen, a Langara instructor and chair of the health sciences division, is auditing the course out of personal interest. He said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to engage with and honor people who survived a time of unimaginable prejudice. I’m getting a lot out of the course, and enjoy being a student again.”
For the VHEC, survivor testimonies are seen as a useful and powerful method for teaching about the Holocaust.
“Holocaust testimony provides a connection with people, culture, persecution and survival,” said Ilona Shulman Sparr, education director for the VHEC. “Eyewitness testimonies have proven to be a powerful and effective teaching tool, which affords a personal connection to the events of the Holocaust as we hear survivors’ accounts of their experiences. Testimonies provide a way for students to connect with survivors’ stories and gain an understanding of events that other sources can’t give them.”
This spring, students will be matched with Holocaust survivors to write their memoirs. The memoirs will be archived at the Azrieli Foundation and the VHEC, with a possibility of being published for public awareness.