At the age of 80, after 40 years of researching and collecting material on the Jewish farming colonies of Saskatchewan, scholar Anna Feldman donated the entire body of research to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. Among the materials are audiocassettes with songs, interviews and oral narratives, personal memoirs and other textual documents. It’s a rich contribution that sheds light on those small colonies and the hopes and dreams of their Jewish inhabitants, said Judith Klassen, music curator at the museum.
“It really makes sense for it to be here,” Klassen said. “The breadth of Anna’s work is really exciting. For example, she didn’t record only one particular genre of song as she looked at Yiddish song and culture. Rather, she recorded different types of music from a broad spectrum of people, including cantorial training, ornamentation, traditional song and storytelling.”
How Jews ended up in Saskatchewan
Jews arrived in Saskatchewan in the 1880s, many fleeing from persecution in Europe. They established farming colonies with names like New Jerusalem, Sonnenfeld and Edenbridge and, by 1930, those colonies were populated by thousands of Jewish farmers and their families. The Jewish colonies’ decline started in the 1930s with the Depression and drought. By the 1960s, most of the farm colonists had left the land for larger cities. Today, all that remains is open prairie where homes and settlements once were, small cemeteries marking the graves of the original settlers. In Edenbridge, the Beth Israel Synagogue, constructed in Carpenter Gothic style in 1906 and used until the 1960s, is now a municipal heritage site. But for any kind of context about the lives lived here, you have to go to the museum.
Fortunately, material like Feldman’s, which is being processed for the public archives, is accessible. To immerse yourself in the collection you have to travel to Gatineau, but for those who are looking for specific documents, those can be ordered, copied, scanned or mailed. “We’ve already had inquiries from people interested in this collection, even from outside of Canada, which shows it’s of interest beyond our borders,” Klassen said.
The origins of the research
Feldman’s interest in the Jewish pioneers was sparked when she married the son of a pioneer family from the Sonnenfeld homestead. Her late spouse was attached to Sonnenfeld all his life and Feldman’s first interview was in 1978, with his mother.
An accomplished scholar, Feldman returned to university as a mature student and obtained an ARCT in singing, a bachelor of music and a master’s degree in Canadian studies from Carleton University. In 1983, she received the Norman Pollock Award in Canadian Jewish Studies. Today, she lives in a seniors residence in Toronto.
Feldman began donating her collection of music to the Museum of History’s Centre for Folk Culture Studies in early 2000. The first 188 audio cassettes containing interviews with Jewish musicians, homesteaders, merchants and professionals who were part of the rural farming communities in Saskatchewan have been processed and are available in the catalogue. Part two of her collection is still being processed.
“In terms of Jewish cultural expression and settlement in Saskatchewan, this collection is foundational,” Klassen noted. Partly, that’s due to Feldman’s skill as an interviewer. “She’s very pointed in her questioning and very thoughtful in how she asks questions. She allows her subjects to talk about their background and interests, but guides them so she covers the key areas she is interested in. In the breadth of her fieldwork and interviews, you get a nuanced perspective on the experiences people had; for example, on antisemitism, but also on mutual respect. You see there’s a broad spectrum of opinions even within the particular settlement. That’s one of the really unique things about this collection.”
The importance of Feldman’s work
“I don’t want the people of Canada, especially the Jews, to be unaware that we had pioneers in Canada who came here when there was no one else in the land. Jews don’t know about this and neither does the general public, and I think people should know about it,” Feldman has reflected.
After her first interview, she traversed Canada twice looking for Jewish pioneers and their children. “I remember visiting one family in Winnipeg whose elderly mother was a descendent of a Jewish pioneer family,” she recalled. “She was blind and unwell, but when she heard about my interest she met me and we had a wonderful time. She was reminiscing and we sang songs together until 2 a.m.!”
What she learned from those interviews is that the early Jewish pioneers in Canada suffered a great deal. “They had the economic depression, problems with weather, land and soil, and all sorts of plagues, but they had the strength to survive,” Feldman said. “They weren’t farmers when they came, and Canada didn’t want Jews, but the Canadian government was afraid the Americans would take over the Prairie provinces, so because of that they allowed the Jews to come.”
She continued, “I think people should have pride in all [that] those Jewish pioneers accomplished. They survived in spite of all the difficulties they had and they made a tremendous contribution to Canada – them, their children and their children’s children.”
A list of the material catalogued thus far is available on the museum’s website at historymuseum.ca. Search the archives by author Anna Feldman to find a description of the material in each box.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.