Don’t Break the Chain is the first publication of what the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia hopes will become a Family History series.
The Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia has released the first book in what it hopes will become a Family History series. Don’t Break the Chain: The Nemetz Family Journey from Svatatroiske to Vancouver was published in collaboration with the Ben and Esther Dayson Charitable Foundation, and was researched by Shirley Barnett and Philip Dayson.
Barnett described her family as founders and workers behind the scenes of the Vancouver Jewish community.
“One of my mother’s sisters helped build Congregation Schara Tzedeck, the Louis Brier Home and funeral chapels, while another sister founded Jewish Family Services and visited the poor, people in prisons and mental hospitals. My mother ran charity events for Jewish Vancouver from the age of 18 and her brother started Camp Hatikvah,” she said. “They brought a lot of strength to the community. The next generation, which was mine and included 23 of us, has made significant contributions to Jewish Vancouver, too.”
There was plenty of raw material to draw from for the book, given the fact that Barnett’s six brothers had created memoirs and Dayson had begun creating family trees 25 years ago. The project became challenging when she opted to include charts and photographs of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I established contact with members of the family I never knew, siblings who’d had arguments and people estranged from the family, and it took a very soft approach, getting them to respond with photographs,” she explained. “I wasn’t looking to mend fences or interfere in anyone’s life, I just wanted to write a book!”
Ultimately, with the assistance of graphic designer Barbi Braude and Facebook, she was able to source all the photographs required to complete the book.
Michael Schwartz, director of community engagement at the JMABC, said the Nemetz family journey would resonate among many other Jewish families in Vancouver.
“The story of leaving Europe, getting here and eventually bringing their family to Canada has parallels for many in our community and is a fascinating tale,” he said. “The Nemetz family has a very interesting history and many siblings of the early generation have accomplished great things and had an important impact on the community as a whole.”
The museum is hoping to partner with other families who are interested in creating similar books. Barnett described the creation of the book as a joint venture. “My brother and I contributed the money to the museum and archives, which then allowed us to use their name, resources, and to co-publish this,” she said. “I’d like to see the Wosk, Groberman and Waterman families – all large, extended families with deep roots in Vancouver – do a book like this.”
The launch of Don’t Break the Chain is being celebrated at a hosted brunch at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on April 2, 11 a.m. If you are interested in attending, call the museum 604-257-5199.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
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.”
Left to right, Harry, Joseph, Benjamin and Rachel Seidelman, in approximately 1906. (photo from JMABC L.25670)
The following is an edited version of remarks presented at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia (JMABC) Intersections speakers series on Dec. 15 about the museum’s online exhibit Letters Home.
Recently, my wife Shelley and I were on a tour of Italy that stopped at the Cassino War Cemetery for soldiers killed during the Battle of Monte Cassino, a battle which resulted in 55,000 Allied casualties. In the 15 minutes we were there, we found two headstones with a Magen David, for soldiers from British Columbia who were killed in this Second World War battle. These headstones commemorate just two of many soldiers who have died in the fight for democracy but whose bodies are interred far away from family. My Uncle Joe was even less fortunate. Since his body was never found, there is no grave and, therefore, no headstone.
The First World War claimed the lives of 38 million civilians and soldiers alike. Approximately 2,700 Canadian Jews served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, with about 1,200 seeing combat. Of those, an estimated 123 died in battle.
In late 1917, Gen. Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, insisted that the key to victory on the Western Front was capturing the area around the village of Passchendaele, near Ypres in Belgium. Even though bad weather had turned the battlefield into a quagmire, Haig was determined to proceed.
At Passchendaele, on Oct. 26, 1917, 15,654 Canadian soldiers were killed. Among those who paid the terrible price for this hopeless decision was Pte. (Edward) Joseph Seidelman, 20, of Vancouver. His father, William, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who, after living in Kansas and Seattle, had settled in Vancouver in the 1890s. There, he met Esther Pearlman from Winnipeg. The two were married in 1896. Joseph was born a year later, followed by four more children during the next decade. Their father unfortunately died in 1907, leaving Joseph, Rachel, Harry and Ben; William was born after his father died and was named after him.
In 1916, Joseph was a student at the University of British Columbia. He would have graduated in 1918, the final year of the university’s transition from being an annex of McGill University to being a fully independent UBC.
Yearbooks are meant to celebrate successes at the institution but the 1918 edition also records the experiences of students who went to fight in the war and returned home, and it laments those students who went to war and did not return. One section is entitled “Military” and includes a copy of the Roll of Honour in Memoriam plaque that hangs in the foyer of the UBC War Memorial Gymnasium. It also contains brief biographies of those who were killed in action, including Joseph. Seventy-eight UBC students lost their lives during the war, and are commemorated on plaques in the War Memorial Gymnasium.
Compelled to do his patriotic duty, Joseph enlisted in the Western Universities 196th Battalion, which was made up of more than 150 students from universities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Joseph was in England by November 1916. Early in 1917, he was sent to northern France and found himself in the muddy trenches of the Western Front.
So, how much do we know about someone who lived and died so long ago? Well, because of the letters featured in the JMABC online exhibit Letters Home, we have come to know Edward Joseph Seidelman better. In addition, in the 1918 yearbook, there is also a short mention of Joseph in a message from Prof. Lemuel Robertson, the first chair of the classics department at UBC. “Do you remember those little talks on socialism with Coughlan, or when Norman Hughes came into class the day after a dance, in the hope that he wouldn’t be asked anything? And Seidelman, too?” There are only three words but they give us a clue into his personality, that perhaps he liked to party.
In the letters Joseph wrote to his sister Rachel over nine months, he discussed family business and Vancouver affairs – in one letter, he expressed surprise at being a candidate for a Rhodes scholarship – and stated his hope that the war might end soon, though his optimism about the war varied. Even though he was in the centre of the action, he seems, in retrospect, to have been somewhat ignorant of how the war was actually proceeding.
The following letters are only examples drawn from the 87 he wrote. The letters from May 7, 1917, and are part of the JMABC online exhibit.
Camp Hughes, Man., Oct. 2, 1916: “I am going to Brandon again on Thursday afternoon and will stay over Friday, the 6th of October and also Saturday. I stayed with a Jewish family named Kisner and they were glad indeed to have me. Five or six decent-looking Jewish families wanted me to stay with them but Kisners had me first. Mrs. Kisner is only about 30 years old and she comes from the same city in Russia where mamma comes from, Novgorod. Mrs. Kisner introduced me to her 18-year-old sister….”
Dec. 24, 1916: “I knew Mr. Gibson’s son who was reported killed. Mamma has no reason to worry about me. It looks as though Germany will surrender to the Entente Allies…. I read in a London newspaper to-day called Lloyd’s Weekly News that a very high official of the German government … has confessed that Germany is starving and will give to England all that England demands even surrendering the Kaiser himself if necessary. It is quite possible, therefore, that the war may stop within a month or two by Germany’s sudden and complete surrender.”
Joseph stated that he applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps but they were not taking any more applicants at that time. Instead, he was taking a lieutenant’s course and would perhaps go to a military training school later.
Feb. 17, 1917: “Two large Trans Atlantic liners carrying about 12,000 sacks of mail were reported torpedoed and sunk by German submarines and so let me tell you once again not to send anything valuable, for a German submarine might put an end to it.”
Feb. 27, 1917: “No doubt there are still many fellows hanging around in Vancouver who should be in the Army. I cannot understand their state of mind unless they have no self-respect or sense of honour. Let them go their ways while there is no conscription but I certainly am glad I am not in those times in civilian clothes. The B.C. University will have to wait until the end of the war for me at least.”
March 4, 1917: “France is certainly a muddy place. You ought to hear our artillery guns hurl death and destruction into the rank of the Huns [Germans]. The artillery makes most of the noise at night and then, when you wake up, you hear the terrific reports of each shot as quickly as the pat-pat-pat of a typewriter.”
March 11, 1917: “Things are somewhat interesting around this part of the world. British aeroplanes fly over us about as thickly as birds. To-day the Huns were firing at our aeroplanes and the puffs of smoke from the enemy’s shells bursting around the aeroplanes could easily be seen. It is very regrettable though that one of the enemy’s shells must have pierced the petrol tank of one of our aeroplanes, for it came down a mass of flames with a thick black column of smoke shooting out behind it. I never saw a single German aeroplane since I came to France. No doubt they have their wits scared out of them.”
April 7, 1917: “The chances of peace do not … look as rosy as I thought but the Huns will be defeated ultimately.”
April 17, 1917: “To-day after returning with a party from a certain part of France where the Germans were once expelled from and the ground all cut and plowed up with trenches, I found waiting for me a parcel containing a broken biscuit tin with some of mamma’s home-made confectionary (including many crumbs) and a tin of strawberries and coffee.”
May 7, 1917, datelined “some other place in France this time”: “I suppose it must have been reported to you that I was very slightly wounded by two very small pieces of shrapnel and, as I feel that you folks at home are very anxious to hear particulars, I want to assure you that there is absolutely nothing whatever for you to worry about. The two wounds I got are on the outer side of my right leg, one above the knee about the centre and the other below the knee about the centre. Although each wound has the appearance of nothing more than a [scratch?] on the skin, nevertheless I had to come to the hospital, where it is a pleasure to be for a change. One of the attendants told me that the leg will be alright again in about 5 days. So tell mamma to be happy and cheerful at home.
“I received three letters from you while I was in the firing line. I was much surprised to hear of the murder of Chief of Police McLennan. I guess Vancouver was shocked at the time almost as badly as a war event.”
On May 22, 1917, from “somewhere in France,” Joseph writes that he still has not rejoined his battalion after his leg injury, as another shrapnel piece was found in his leg, and required more medical attention at the hospital. Joseph tells Rachel that the shrapnel was found with the aid of an X-ray, and the doctor let him keep the shrapnel as a souvenir.
On July 3, 1917, again from “somewhere in France,” Joseph has returned to his battalion. In this letter, he tells Rachel that, on the night of May 5, 1917, when he received his leg wound, he still made the effort to help out a wounded officer. A telegram indicating Joseph’s return to the battalion from the hospital was sent to Joseph’s mother, Esther, on July 5, 1917.
On Oct. 14, 1917, still “somewhere in France,” Joseph reports “nothing to write about.” It is the last letter he writes home.
Joseph fought and survived the Battle for Vimy Ridge, was wounded in the leg in another battle and spent several weeks in an army hospital before being sent back to the front. On Oct. 26, the first day Canadian soldiers fought at Passchendaele, he was killed. Joseph was the first Canadian Jewish soldier from Vancouver to die fighting in the war.
UBC Remembrance Day Ceremonies have been held since 1951, when the War Memorial Gymnasium was opened. Since that time, I have attended nearly every ceremony. At first, I went with my brother and our father, Harry, who was too young to be part of the First World War and too old to be part of the Second World War. In the early years, my father would speak with veterans who knew Joseph. Over time, they all have passed away, but I have continued to attend the memorial ceremony with various members of my family as a way to remember my Uncle Joe, who is lying somewhere in France with no grave or headstone; our own kever avot (tradition of visiting the graves of our fathers).
Perry Seidelmanis, among other things, president of the board of the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.