Special to The CJN
It all started as a mystery. We were driving along Highway 18 in southeastern Saskatchewan when we noticed a sign on the side of the road: Hirsch. A small village, a few houses. "Strange name for a Sakatchewan farming community," I thought. All around us, phosphorescent yellow canola fields as far as one could see, ahead the highway, straight as an arrow, and above all, the enormous prairie skies.
Unexpectedly, on our left, there was a tall gate with a big sign above it: "Hirsch Community Jewish Cemetery," topped by a large Magen David. In front of the gate stood a burnished bronze commemorative plaque; beyond the wire fence of the cemetery, tombstones - some newer ones, some crumbling under the weight of the passing years - shared a vast expanse of dry grass with rows of young trees rustling in the gentle prairie wind. Another mystery: a Jewish cemetery on a deserted Saskatchewan road in the middle of nowhere?
Time stood still and we stepped into history. The bronze plaque read as follows:
Reverently, we opened the cemetery gate and stepped inside. Simple tombstones attested to the passing of these Jews who came from all over eastern Europe in search of a life free of persecution and who found it far away from their native villages and shtetls, in a cold and unforgiving land. Some tombstones only told a name and a date: Judah Blank, died December 16, 1904; Himie Barnblat, died April 4, 1908. Other ones mentioned the age as well: Israel Berner, age 20 years; Nathan Muscovici, age 17. Untold stories of hardship and of hopes. We found out all this and much more when, a few hours later, we met the indomitable Gertie Lev who almost singlehandedly had saved the Hirsch Community Jewish Cemetery from disrepair and oblivion.
Over coffee and cookies in Gertie's hospitable living room filled with family pictures and Jewish memorabilia, wc plunged ourselves into the intertwined histories of the Hirsch Community Jewish Cemetery and Gertie's busy life as the only Jew in Estevan, a lively southern Saskatchewan town. As we pored over her well-documented scrapbook, chock full of old papers, articles and yellowed photographs, the story of the Hirsch settlement came to life and we discovered a slice of Canadian Jewish history.
Why would eastern European Jews come to settle in far-away Saskatchewan - then known as the North West Territories - more than 100 years ago? In 1881, Russian Czar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries who made the Jews their scapegoats; the "May Laws" of 1882 expelled the Jewish population from villages and prohibited Jews ftom renting or buying land for agricultural purposes. A series of pogroms followed, prompting a large scale emigration. In 1884, an immigration handbook in Yiddish found its way in eastern Europe encouraging settlement in Western Canada, where the Canadian Pacific Railway was opening vast agricultural lands. Sir John A. MacDonald, the Prime Minister of Canada, was persuaded by Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, one of Canada's Fathers of Conferation, to accept a number of eatern European Jewish refugees, offering them land and the freedom to practise their religion.
Between 1886 and 1906, six farming communities were established in Saskatchewan. The first one, dubbed by the local population "The New Jerusalem," did not survive after six years of inadequate winter shelter, heavy snowfalls, and drought. Other colonies were more successful; among them Wapella, of early Bronfman fame: Ekiel and Mindel Bronfman arrived there as colonists, but shortly afterwards they moved east, eventually founding the Bronfman dynasty, well known for Jewish communal leadership and, of course, Seagram whiskey.
Another successful colony, Edenbridge, was established by Lithuanian Jews who had previously settled in South Africa. Although this colony does not exist anymore, most of the members of the founding families still live in the area and the colonists' synagogue - Beth Israel, built in 1908 and an active place of worship until 1964 - was subsequently declared a Saskatchewan historic site. And this brings us to the Hirsch colony and to its namesake, Baron Maurice de Hirsch.
Baron de Hirsch, a rich financier and philanthropist, regarded the creation of a Jewish state as a fantasy. He believed that the violent outbreaks against eastern European Jews were due to the fact that they were different from others and, therefore, they should strive to become more like their neighbours. Consequently, he established the Jewish Colonization Association, with the purpose of helping Jews become farmers in North and South America. Because he favoured Argentina as a preferred colonization site, the village of Hirsch remained the only Canadian farming community supported and funded by Baron de Hirsch's charity.
The first wave of colonists arrived in l892 via Montreal, where some of them had been residing from one to five years. According to Mrs. Lev's records, this group also included "30 daughters and 43 sons." More colonists joined them, refugees from Russia, Poland, Romania, Austria. Although some of them eventually left to work as tailors, shopkeepers or peddlers, most of the settlers persevered in their backbreaking labour and tried to cope with poor crops, difficult living conditions, and loneliness.
They continued to receive material and technical support from the Jewish Colonization Association and soon the community grew to include a school, a hotel, a synagogue. Also during the first year of the settlement, one of the colonists, Mr. Blank, donated an acre of his farm for the Hirsch Jewish Cemetery where, over the years, about 150 Jews from Hirsch were laid to rest.
About 100 decendants of the colonists from the Jewish farm colony of Hirsch as well as family and friends, gathered 88 years later to attend tbe consecration and designation of the Jewish Cemetery as a historic site. They came from Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Estevan, and Hirsch. After the dedication ceremony, all the participants drove to Estevan where Gertie Lev and her husband Morris, the only Jewish couple left in town, hosted a reception.
At the time, Morris and his brother Gordon were still working on their farm in Hirsch where a number of families had managed to survive and prosper, despite the initial lack of farming experience and lean years of drought and crop failures.
When Gertie married Morris and moved to Estevan, just 18 km west of Hirsch, her family worried how a "city girl" like her would cope with being a farmer's wife. Not Gertie. She took her life in stride and got involved. One of her first endeavours when she arrived in Esteyan 27 years ago was the restoration of the Hirsch Community Jewish Cemetery, which was in a terrible state of neglect at the time
Gertie reminisces: "How can Jewish people let a Jewish cemetery go to such disrepair? I went to the boys [the Kleiman brothers, fourth generation farmers in Hirsch] and I said 'My God, how can you, being Jewish, not see to it that this was taken care of?' So I went to the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society [in Winnipeg] and I told them how disappointed I was that the cemetery was not being taken care of... I feel that it's a stigma against my being Jewish that they've got a Jewish cemetery that's so terribly looked after."
And look after it she did. As a designated historic site, the cemetery is now a reminder of ann important period in the history of the Jewish people and Saskatchewan. For the descendants of the original colonists, it serves as a focal point, a concrete way to stay in touch with their cultural and historical roots.
Years later, Gertie lost her husband Morris, her brother-in-law Gordon and his wife Irma. To fulfil their last wish, she arranged to have trees planted in the cemetery and had a plaque made in their honour. Displayed at the cemetery entrance, the plaque reminds visitors of the Lev family "who pioneered and farmed in the Hirsch Area since 1928."
We told Gertie how impressed we were with the cemetery, the memorial plaques and the young trees growing among the weathered old tombstones. Surrounded by her memories and the warmth and friendship of her community, she answered: "I am a Jewish ambassador without portfolio."
We had arrived in Estevan with an unsolved mystery; we were leaving with our mystery solved and had acquired a wealth of knowledge and a new and gracious fiend.
Myriam Shechter is currently a travel writer living in Toronto.