Larry Lavitt
Pioneer Stories from Sonnenfeld Colony

By Mottie Feldman of Ottawa

dq126 at
January 2002

In the challenging Saskatchewan winters of the early 1940's, I was well sheltered and secure in our simple farmhouse, but without today's technology and no neighbours closer than one mile, a pre-school aged child could sometimes get bored. I used to whine to my busy mother "I don't have anything to do!" One of her innovative replies was "Ask Pa to tell you a Pioneer story".

Pa was well qualified to tell pioneering stories. I gradually learned that my father came to Canada "from the Old Country", with 2 or 3 other Jewish young men, and along with a wide variety of immigrants to "The West", brought agriculture and civilization to the native prairie grasslands of Southern Saskatchewan. Each challenge of nature, each learning experience error, each accomplishment, was a potential pioneering story, and Pa could bring alive these incidents like a storybook for a little kid.

For me, the most vivid of Pa's Pioneer stories was an incident that could have resulted in no Mottie on this earth. Majer Feldman (my Dad) and Philip Berger had earned enough money working their way across Canada (for 2 or 3 years) to pay the $10 homestead fee, in 1906, and had located their respective quarter sections (160 acres) in the end moraines of Southern Saskatchewan.

As late autumn closed in on them, they rushed to construct basic one-room wood shacks on their respective new properties. They worked cooperatively. Together they had constructed Majer's abode at the bottom of the southern slope of a small hill in the middle of NE-4-2-15-2W (the north-east quarter of Section 4, Township 2, Range 15, West of the 2nd Meridian). One mile to the East, on SE-10-2-15-2W, they were making good progress on Philip's structure, when out of the fading light of the day came the cutting edge of a surprise whirl of snow driven by a strengthening North West wind.

It was the first blizzard of the winter, and the first of many blizzards that would severely test their families in the many years to come. They dropped their tools, and struck out for the shelter of Majer's shack. They traveled by the only means they had available - their own feet. They navigated by the only means available - the lay of the land and the direction of the wind.

The falling darkness and the driving snow soon obliterated any landmarks they could use. The shifting wind soon confused their directions. Cold and exhausted, their desperate march took them ever farther from where they thought they were, yet each step hoped to reveal a sighting of Majer's shack. That was the way that many blizzards claimed the lives of unprepared or unlucky people in the pioneering years of the developing prairies.

On the edge of that fate, Majer and Philip finally spotted the light of a kerosene lamp shining through a window frame in the darkness. Safety! By a miracle, they had reached the completed shack housing another Pioneer, miles from their intended destination. When the 3-day blizzard finally lifted, they had to dig their way out of the completely snow covered shack.

Later, Majer's shack was nowhere to be found, buried in snow somewhere in the lee of a hill. They eventually trudged their way 50 miles to Estevan to live for the winter. In the spring, Majer found his shack floating in a newly formed slough at the foot of the small hill. This pioneer story told of lessons learned about surviving blizzards and reading the lay of the land on a Saskatchewan prairie.

Such were the pioneering stories that helped me learn how these two Jewish immigrants overcame considerable adversity to build successful farms and raise their families in the developing freedom of the new land. They met the same challenges experienced by the wider community of Christian settlers from several European countries, as they all carved a new agricultural industry out of the virgin prairies. Except that in addition, the Jewish farmers, with their newfound right to own land, had to face the latent anti-Semitism that old country immigrants imported with them. But the New World was different, and Jewish colonies grew and made their mark in history.

Majer and Philip improved their land furrow by furrow. They managed to bring members of their families across the sea to the new land. Philip's sister Bertha married Majer in 1914, and Majer's sister Rebecca married Philip in 1916; soon, Feldman and Berger offspring helped turn the homesteads into family farms, and the family farms into a community. Alongside the increasing number of Jewish pioneers in their area, they helped form and develop the Sonnenfeld Colony.

Like many Jewish Colonies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Sonnenfeld was a haven for Jews escaping persecution in Europe. As it grew, before and after World War II, Sonnenfeld provided a Jewish life for its farmer Pioneers. They built a synagogue, sometimes had a Rabbi, and sometimes a shochet. They enjoyed many kinds of social gatherings, and formed local chapters of Jewish organizations such as Young Judea.

But as Sonnenfeld was a haven, it was also a stepping stone for its Jewish population. Whether through preference for the city, or due to drought, financial depression, and many farming hardships that drove all kinds of farmers off the land, Sonnenfeld Colony grew, thrived, then faded away. Many former Sonnenfeld residents moved to Winnipeg, but their descendents can be found around the world. Sometimes one of them brings their family back to Saskatchewan to reconnect somehow with their unique Sonnenfeld roots. The only tangible thing left for them to see are some scattered older buildings and the Sonnenfeld Cemetery, on the South East corner of SE-15-2-15-2W.

Meanwhile, the Feldman and Berger farms stand as watchtowers on the edge of the rise and fall of the Sonnenfeld Colony, and as living history of Majer's pioneering stories. Both farms have been expanded considerably from their homestead and pre-emption half section sizes - the only way for farms to be viable today. After Philip's very untimely death, in 1932, youngest son Usher eventually helped his mother rescue the farm from the depression, and later took it over. Usher farmed until 1999, and still owns the land.

On the Feldman farm, 4th son Nachman began his own farm enterprise in 1947, with a strategy of cooperative farming with Pa, and a critical transition completely to mechanization from mainly using horses as the source of power. Much later, Majer, at age 76, was finally convinced to leave his Pioneer story and bring Bertha to live in the city. Nachman, with his own family, built a successful farm operation. Eventually worsening allergies made him leave active farming, but he ensured the continuation of the farm business by forming a mentored rental agreement with a young Russell Torkelson of Beaubier in 1969. Russell gradually added land of his own, and now operates one of the most successful and strategically managed farms today in southern Saskatchewan, under the most difficult farm economic conditions since the depression of the 30's.

The Feldman children today each own a piece of Majer's Pioneer homestead estate. Some of them, and some of the grandchildren also, own additional land in the area. All the land is in crop production, and Nachman manages the entire rental agreement with Russell.

The exact history of the formation of Sonnenfeld Colony is not all that clear. Anna Feldman (wife of Majer's oldest son Keiva) wrote:

"Until conclusive evidence is found, it is, at the present time, only a matter of speculation as to whether Sonnenfeld evolved naturally, the result of chain migration, or as a consequence of a plan to organize another Jewish colony."

The version which gained the widest acceptance described how three young graduates of the Slobodka Lesna agricultural college, Philip Berger, Majer Feldman, and Israel Hoffer, and possibly one or two others, after some exploration made the decision respecting the community's site 'because the land was pretty well vacant, the closest neighbours being twenty miles east, so that we could establish a Jewish settlement without difficulty.' (Anna Feldman. Sonnenfeld - Elements of Survival and Success of a Jewish Farming Community on the Prairies 1905-1939. Canadian Jewish Historical Society Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pages 33 - 53.)

Many more pioneering stories, commemorating all the pioneers of the area, including the Jewish farmers of Sonnenfeld Colony, can be found in The Saga Of Souris Valley, R.M. No. 7, published by Souris Valley No. 7 History Club, Box 22, Oungre, Saskatchewan. "Our book is a history from 1906-1976 of the Pioneers and their families who homesteaded or lived in Souris Valley municipality No. 7."

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