THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents
Jews in Small Towns:
Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada
SAUL BERGER--ESTEVAN, SASKATCHEWAN,
I have always felt that the experience of Jews living in small towns in the United States or Canada has been totally different from that of Jews living in large American or Canadian cities. I believe Jews living in large American or Canadian cities enjoyed a protective cocoon because of their large numbers in these cities. There was a comfort in large numbers and there was an emotionally sustaining environment in being Jewish among Jews, although in many cases the larger environment was hostile.
Large Jewish communities in large cities could and did support institutions that foster Jewish education and traditions and promote Jewish values. Also in these cities Jews could marry Jews and the erosion of intermarriage was not so acute. Jews in a small town were indeed an isolated entity. Many places they lived in were isolated communities. There was physical insecurity as well as intellectual and emotional insecurity. Jews in small towns huddled together as in a perpetual storm, bracing themselves from a hostile environment.
I was born in 1919 in a town called Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada, near the North Dakota border. Estevan in 1919 had a population of about 3,500 people and about ten to fifteen Jewish families.
My father came to Canada about the year 1912 at the age of fifteen. He came from Kolomai, which is now a part of Russia. Kolomai had a population of 35,000 people and was an all-Jewish city. My father was expelled from his school because he protested an anti-Semitic remark from his teacher.
What brought my father to this isolated, relatively unattractive town of Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada? Baron de Hirsch, a Viennese philanthropist, started and supported agricultural schools in Vienna and environs with the hope and expectation that Jews would become farmers and settle on the land. The Canadian government, at that time, was giving free land to settlers who would farm and establish farm communities in unsettled Western Canada.
Fifty miles west of Estevan was a Jewish farm settlement called Hoffer, named after two Jewish families that settled and became successful farmers. Twenty miles east of Estevan, a Jewish farm settlement called Hirsch was established. In Hoffer there were perhaps ten Jewish farming families and in Hirsch perhaps twenty Jewish farming families. Estevan was unique in the way that it was anchored by all-Jewish family farming communities.
One of my father's brothers established a farm in the Hoffer area and my father made his way there when he left Kolomai. He didn't care for farming, so he made his way to Estevan where he eventually became a small town merchant. He married a local Jewish woman and raised a family of five--three boys and two girls. I was the second child born of that marriage.
My mother was born in Romania and came with her parents to Estevan when she was four years of age. Her family arrived a few years before my father. My mother, Rhoda Steinberg, was one of seven children. The Bergers and Steinbergs were alike only in that they were Jewish. The Bergers were intellectual and neurasthenic. The Steinbergs were passionate, quick-tempered, kindly people.
The union of my father and mother might have seemed incongruous in a large city, but in Estevan, Saskatchewan, the choice was limited. Nevertheless, the union was a happy one and their children loved and respected their parents and realized the sacrifice they made in rearing them. I cannot recall my parents taking many holidays. Their aim was to raise their children in a Jewish way, to educate them, knowing that when their children left for university education far from home the inevitable estrangement would take place. Despite the long years of the Depression and eight or so years of crop failures and drought, their three sons became physicians and their two daughters both got their Bachelor of Arts degrees.
Some have said one is forever shaped by the environment that surrounds one's early years. Our home was strictly a kosher Jewish home. We observed all the Jewish holidays and were the envy (the only time) of the Gentile children because we had our holiday from school as well as theirs. We were never ashamed of our Jewishness.
Our town supported a Jewish teacher who was also the Shochet. We had a Jewish butcher. On one side of the establishment were Jewish meats, and on the other side meats for his Gentile customers. We had a synagogue and Jewish communal gatherings. We celebrated the ritual of circumcision, Bar Mitzvah, and, as children, we observed burials in the old Jewish cemetery in Hirsch, Saskatchewan.
My parents, who spoke fluent English. did not participate in their town's social and communal life. In all the years living in Estevan, Saskatchewan, we never entertained one Gentile family and we were never invited to a Gentile home. My father was a fine, respected merchant, introverted and no respecter of the Gentile. To him, intermarriage was equivalent to the crime of murder.
As a child growing up in Estevan, I had my share of fights when I was called "dirty Jew," but as I excelled in school and in sports, I earned the respect of the Gentiles. However, I never achieved friendships that lasted into adult life.
There were in Estevan five or six Jewish families that were extended families to us and we to them. They helped nurture us and gave us emotional and intellectual sustenance.
One family, the Krivels, became famous for their athletic and pugilistic abilities. They made Estevan safe for the Jews. Jake Krivel, the father of three husky boys and one beautiful daughter, was in his youth a professional boxer from New Jersey. He was unlike the other Jewish families in that he and his children participated in all the activities of the town. It became well known that if anyone said or did anything against Jews, the Krivel boys would be there with their fists. Of course, every Jew had to establish and protect a turf of their own but the Krivel presence was comforting.
I am now seventy years old but still keep in close contact with the children of the extended Jewish families of my youth. I have no contact with Gentile families of the town where I was born and lived for over twenty-five years. I still write to "Chanah," who was my companion in school from grade three to grade twelve and the only Jewish person in my class. My closest friend is Marty Lewis, whom I have known from birth, and I golf constantly with Manuel Brucker, whom I have known since age ten. I am in contact several times a year with the Mandel family, who figured prominently in our growing up years. We were like the cactus plant; we took our nourishment wherever we could get it.
Being raised in a different environment than Jews in large cities, when I met them I have to admit it took some getting used to. They seemed more ghettoized than I could imagine. I disliked some characteristics Gentiles accused Jews of having, such as their loudness, their brashness, their pushiness. The only difference was that I understood the reason for this behavior, and it bred no animosity.
As I became absorbed in a larger Jewish community, I appreciated the safety-in-numbers environment. My father, who had, perhaps, one or two Jewish women to consider in marriage, was a pauper compared to me. I reveled in the many beautiful and talented Jewish young women I could date.
Today there are no Jews in small towns in the Canadian prairies 0f western Canada. The Jewish merchants sold their businesses to return with their children to live in large cities, where their children were successful and respected professional people.
I am intensely Jewish, but not religious. I love the State
of Israel and pray for its well-being. I have four children, all married to
Jews, all very pro-Israel, and a son who has made his home in Israel. My
experience in being raised in a small town strengthened my conviction that Jews
need the homeland that is Israel, that Israel needs support, and that Israel is
refuge and a bulwark against the ever present hostility of the outside world.
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