‘We Never Looked Back’: Ruth Wisse on the Jewish Refugees Who Built New Lives in Montreal
The author with her parents in Lisbon, en route to Canada in 1940.

‘We Never Looked Back’: Ruth Wisse on the Jewish Refugees Who Built New Lives in Montreal

Ruth R. Wisse
Ruth R. Wisse
14 min read

After their flight from Egypt, the children of Israel are doomed to spend 40 years in the desert: it takes that long for the whining and backsliding rabble to begin its transformation into a liberated people. The Bible seems to mock their trek from one watering hole to another as they set out from Rameses to camp at Succoth, from there to Etham, then on to Pihahiroth ... and so on for 44 verses.

Thanks to our parents, it took us just four months to reach our destination after fleeing our home in Romania, arriving in Montreal on October 19th, 1940; and we never looked back. Still, it took much longer to adjust to Canada, the “true north” (as the national anthem has it), “strong and free.”

Whereas our father had brought us out of bondage, it was Mother who set the terms for where and how we were to live.

Montreal, an island city on the Saint Lawrence River, is built around the eponymous Mont Royal that still more or less separates the French from the English, each community further stratified by how high it sits on the slopes.

Canada was not, like the United States, a homogenizing society with a single national history. Rather, it was the political union of two peoples, French and English, each dedicated to maintaining its separate religion, language, and identity. In this respect, Montreal resembled multiethnic cities like Vilna and Czernowitz. Jews were under no great pressure to assimilate where others were maintaining their separateness. I thought it symptomatic that Robert Allen Zimmerman of Duluth, Minnesota became Bob Dylan, but Leonard Cohen from Montreal remained Leonard Cohen.

Though the first Jews had arrived in Canada in the mid-18th century, it was not until the United States severely restricted European immigration after the First World War that the Jewish population quickly grew. That lasted until the effects of the Depression, and local animus against foreigners hardened Canadian immigration policy, so that we were among only several hundred Jewish immigrants admitted in 1940. By then, local Jews had already established a national Jewish congress headquartered in Montreal, a YM-YWHA, two Yiddish newspapers, the Jewish General Hospital, a federation of social services, a Jewish library, and a network of Jewish day schools.

Uncle Enoch and Aunt Mandy had rented us an upper duplex across the street from theirs at the outskirts of Westmount, the most affluent section of the city, where they and the rest of the family soon established themselves. The location also offered the most convenient route to Huntingdon Woolen Mills, 60 miles from Montreal, where Leo would join his three brothers. The husbands spent most of their time at work while the women handled everything else. Children were expected to stay out of trouble.

My older brother Ben and I were immediately registered in the elementary school within walking distance of our flat. My brother would take me by the hand to Herbert Symonds School, where I was placed in kindergarten and he in fourth grade. This lasted at most a couple of weeks, as I vomited every day until our parents allowed me to stay home. No one thought to notify the school when I stopped attending.

Fortunately for all of us, Mother felt uncomfortable in the western section of Montreal, and within a year she moved us to Outremont—the other side of the mountain. The lower sections of Outremont, largely French, also contained the Jewish immigrant area, so we were now closer to the Jewish Public Library and to several Jewish elementary schools. It was a less prestigious neighborhood, but Mother did not relocate because she preferred poverty. She had swept us away to be among Yiddish-speaking Jews and French Canadians. There we lived as well as we could afford in an upper-story duplex, eventually moving higher up the mountain to the street where both the Trudeau and Bourassa families, later to produce two prime ministers, had their homes. On that street, our parents would buy the first and only home they ever owned.

I don’t know whether Father was equally keen to move away from the rest of his family or simply gave in to his wife. Each of his three brothers carved out his own cultural territory: Shiye, the eldest, remained religiously observant, Isaac joined a Jewish social club where he enjoyed playing cards, and Enoch, who had briefly directed a Hebrew school in Poland, became active in the cultural program of Westmount’s imposing Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue. Our father, youngest of the four, joined the board of our Jewish school and supported Mother’s involvement in Yiddish institutions.

Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, photographed upon its dedication in 1922.

Due to the long commute, made even longer by our move across the city, Father spent two nights a week at the Huntingdon Chateau where he shared a room with Enoch. With its marble entrance and imposing dining hall, the Chateau had been built during Prohibition conveniently close to the border as an oasis for thirsty Americans, but by the 1940s it stood mostly empty. There the two brothers planned the rescue of their father and sister from Bialystok, in Poland; but by 1943, they knew they had failed.

The Jewish People’s School or Folk shule that Ben and I began attending in 1942 stood in the heart of the Jewish immigrant district, a 15-minute streetcar ride from our home on Pratt Avenue, which then still bordered on farmland. Sometimes, we had to run a gauntlet of Gentile boys shouting invectives at the Jewish kids, but they never physically attacked us and I don’t recall being very afraid.

Our school days were divided into three-hour morning sessions and two-hour afternoon sessions, with an hour and a half for lunch. Although most of the other students lived around the school, Ben and I spent most of our lunchtime traveling to and from home. This prevented us from forming the sort of neighborhood friendships I imagined the other pupils enjoyed, but soon many of their families were also moving in our direction, and by seventh grade quite a few were living nearby.

Unlike the United States, Quebec had no public schools. Education was divided along confessional lines into Catholic and Protestant school systems; for these purposes, Jews were designated Protestant. As a result, Jews who were being mainstreamed into English society invited resentment from the French, who might not have welcomed Jews into their Catholic schools but were offended by their affiliation with the English. This seemingly discriminatory system produced the most robust Jewish school network in the northern hemisphere: some saw a chance to establish Jewish elementary schools like those that had existed in Poland.

Despite the absence of European-style Jewish political parties, the Jews of Montreal managed to replicate their spectrum of diversity within their educational establishment, ranging from the Morris Winchevsky School (communist) to the Jewish Peretz schools (left-of-center Labor Zionist), the Jewish People’s School (right-of-center Labor Zionist), the United Talmud Torah (Hebraist-Zionist), and Adath Israel (Orthodox-Zionist). There was also a socialist afternoon school, as well as a sprouting of more orthodox schools that would multiply after the war. All of these institutions, serving over half the Jewish children in the city, were in Outremont.

Our Jewish People’s School stood for a holistic, indivisible, and inclusive Jewish people. Without conforming to any of the formal divisions within the Zionist movement, it was politically centrist, ideologically close to both David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister, and his sometime rival, Chaim Weizmann, its first president. As against Ben-Gurion’s aggressive effort to replace Yiddish with Hebrew as the unifying national language of Israel, our school conducted some classes in Yiddish, the vernacular of our homes, while the Bible was read in Hebrew. This followed the natural functions of the two languages, Yiddish as the everyday spoken language of most Jews before the war while Hebrew stayed the eternal Jewish medium through time and space.

The Yiddish of our school was not the vehicle of “Yiddishism” or “Bundism”—ideologies committed respectively to the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish socialism—but the repository of Jewish literature and culture, of Sholem Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz. It was as though the school had emerged from the Jewish enlightenment of the nineteenth century without the factionalism that splintered Jewish communities—and many Jewish families—in Europe. This was also the culture of our home.

Y.L. Peretz (1852-1915)

The teachers did not coddle us. Who could forget Peretz’s story of “The Three Gifts”? A soul that has earned neither heaven nor hell is condemned to limbo unless it can find three gifts that will be acceptable to the guardians of heaven. Behavior on earth is so disappointing that it takes the soul eons to find them, which it can only do one at a time. The first: a Jew is robbed at knifepoint and slain when he does not let the robbers take a little sack—containing not the jewels they anticipate but earth from the Land of Israel. The second: a Jewess condemned to death requests pins to pin her skirt to her flesh so that when she is dragged through the streets by her hair tied to the tail of a horse, her modesty will be protected. The third: a Jew is made to run the gauntlet and has almost made it through to safety when a whip sweeps the skullcap from his head; he goes back to retrieve it and does not survive. The guardians of heaven accept the “beautiful” gifts: a grain of that earth, one of those pins, and the skullcap. We discussed what each of them represented in Jewish nationhood, morality, and faith. Only years later, reading the story as an adult, did I catch the complicating irony of those blood-stained presents and the Jewish heaven’s questionable standard of martyrdom in accepting them. How gutsy of teachers in the upper grades to trust us with such modern folk tales. The Peretz of elementary school prepared me for the Peretz I later studied and taught.

The school’s idea of Jewishness was conveyed indirectly. Ours was not a kosher home, but the subject never came up, inside or outside the classroom. Did my classmates and teachers attend synagogue? Ben and I accompanied Father on the High Holy Days, and on Simchat Torah, we children paraded around with flags and apples, but the school did not prepare the boys for their bar mitzvahs or give us any kind of religious instruction.

At the same time, no one ever spoke disrespectfully of God or religious observance. Why would they, in a Jewish people’s school? The holidays we prepared for with greatest enthusiasm were the same ones we celebrated at home: Hanukkah and Passover, with an emphasis on their historical-national significance. Purim, the feast day commemorating the political success of Queen Esther in ancient Persia, was the carnival day best suited for children. But during the early 1940s, its celebration was subdued. Lessons in both history and literature reinforced the idea of a people who had survived, morally intact under varied conditions, and were about to recover the Land of Israel that had been under foreign domination since Roman times. We learned about the Roman sacking of Jerusalem, read stories about Jewish adaptation to life outside the Land of Israel, and sang songs about the pioneers who were rebuilding the homeland.

Our general studies curriculum reflected the same inclusiveness, most of it taught in English, and we prepared for full citizenship by learning French. No one pretended that by graduation we would be fluent in all four languages, but there were four valedictorians to vouch for the intention.

Spoken Hebrew was additionally helpful, should any of us choose to live in Erets Yisroel, aka Palestine, where the principal’s son and several recent graduates were already members of kibbutzim. If the school had an unarticulated ideal, it would have been the Israeli kibbutz. The Jewish pioneers had formed these collective settlements as a response to the challenges of transforming urban dwellers into an agricultural people, a dispersed minority into a unified nation, and endangered Jews into a potential army. Nowhere else in the world has the experiment in communal living been tested in greater freedom or variety. The absence of coercion allowed these settlements to change and eventually dissolve almost as readily as they had formed. But in those early postwar years, they were an inspiring alternative to the ashes of Europe.

Our attachment to the Land of Israel was reinforced by what we learned, like the Zionide of 12th century Spanish-Jewish philosopher poet Yehuda Halevi, whose own journey to the Land inspired generations of Jews:

My heart is in the East
But the rest of me far in the West—
How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?
How, in the chains of the Moor,
Zion bound to the Cross,
Can I do what I’ve vowed to and must?
Gladly I’d leave
All the best of grand Spain
For one glimpse of Jerusalem’s dust.

We sang this poem not in its original Hebrew, here translated by Hillel Halkin, but in the Hebrew poet Chaim Nahman Bialik’s Yiddish rendition, Kh’hob fargesen ale libste: “I’ve abandoned all my loved ones/ Left behind my cherished nest./ I’ve given myself over to the sea:/ Bring me, sea, to mother’s breast.” We learned that Bialik was our great national poet despite his reluctance to assume that title. Mother in childhood had sung his song of the bird from the Land of Israel that comes calling at his window—our version of Poe’s Raven. Bialik’s poem of rage, In the City of Slaughter, written in response to the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, had roused Jews to undertake stronger self-defense. Eight centuries after Halevi set out for Jerusalem, Bialik quit his native Russia to settle in Tel Aviv, the first modern Jewish city. Our bilingual teachers found it natural that the poet had transposed a Hebrew poem into his native Yiddish so that it could be sung by Jewish schoolchildren in their native tongue. Zionist multilingualism, like Zionism itself, was taken for granted.

Every year we were given little booklets of the kind used for lotteries or raffles, in denominations from 25 cents to one dollar. Selling these tickets, which bore pictures of youngsters in shorts against a background suggestive of a kibbutz, was a highlight of my year. Many years later I learned that the proceeds went to the Histadrut, the General Organization of Workers. This was not exactly a scam: as one of the most powerful institutions in Palestine, the Histadrut was virtually synonymous with the Jewish government-in-waiting. Through its conglomerates, it employed more than three-quarters of the workforce and ran the country’s largest bank and health organization.

Histadrut fundraising poster from 1947.

This association of Israel with socialism would hold firm until the Labor party suffered its first electoral defeat in 1977. But our school did not feel ideologically Marxist, and I suspect that in local elections, most of our teachers, along with most Canadian Jews, tended liberal rather than socialist.

I took the sale of those Histadrut tickets as seriously as Girl Guides conducted their cookie sales, and went far beyond my neighborhood looking for mezuzahs on the doorposts of approachable homes. I could not have told you that in those skinny little cases was parchment containing verses from Deuteronomy, but what they told me was that the families behind those doors were comfortable being canvassed by a fellow Jew. As it happened, I did best in the dense immigrant area where people were less wary, though it was always Father who contributed most by buying up all the tickets I was left with. This assignment, a form of conscription, inducted me into the Jewish people more effectively than any classroom instruction.

In contrast to Herbert Symonds School, the Folk shule felt like home. In the upper grades, my favorite teacher, Miss Schechter, taught us to parse sentences with diagrams that dangled clauses from sentences, phrases from clauses, and adjectives below them like ripe detachable fruit. But her moods fluctuated, and once, when I must have truly annoyed her, she slapped me hard, causing my nose to bleed. It never occurred to me to complain about this, nor did I feel her reprimand lessened her affection for me, since Mother, too, sometimes struck me when she was on edge.

One memorable day, our seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Mauer, became so irritated by the ignorant and vulgar graffiti of the boys entering puberty that she consecrated a morning period to a discussion in which, from her answers to our unsigned questions that she pulled out of a hat, I learned almost everything I had wanted to know about sex but did not wish to ask Mother and could not ask Ben—like the meaning of “cherry” or why Kotex sanitary napkins came in three strengths and why some children were born twins. The nervous tension broke when Mrs. Mauer, a great hockey fan, pulled out a question asking whether she thought the Montreal Canadiens would win the Stanley Cup.

Only once did home and school come into conflict. In seventh grade I was summoned to the office of the principal, Shloime Wiseman. Since my grades were stellar, I foresaw no problem. He asked me what had been taught in yesterday’s Bible class. I went over the lesson as well as I could. Suddenly, I realized that this interrogation must involve my mother, who often found insult where none was intended.

When I protested that I had uttered no word to my parents that could have been construed as a complaint against our teacher, Wiseman believed me. He knew Mother well, and Father sat on the school’s board of directors. He told me that in the future I should come to him and no one else with criticism, implying that I would have to speak more circumspectly at home.

I believe it was in June of 1943 that Principal Wiseman assembled the entire school in the auditorium to tell us what was happening to our people overseas. He said, “If each of you took one of your notebooks and wrote on every line of every page the name of a child and if we then collected all the notebooks in this auditorium, it would still not equal the number of Jewish children who have just been killed in Europe.” Two of those names could have been Ben’s and mine. I wanted to tear out at least a page or two from my notebook to save some of those children. I felt closer to them than to the ones around me in the hall.

Wiseman then told us about Shmuel Zygielbojm, the Jewish leader who had been rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto and sent to London to represent the Jews as a member of the Polish government-in-exile. There, he had tried in vain to alert the Allies to the mass murder of the Jews, which included his wife and child, and, unable to do it in any other way, committed suicide, leaving behind an accusation and appeal. Maybe because those children had just become my responsibility, the effect of this information on me was different from our principal’s intention: I was infuriated by Zygielbojm’s martyrdom—how dare he give Hitler yet another victim, instead of staying on to fight in Europe or Palestine!

Shmuel Zygielbojm's last letter, and suicide note, dated May 11, 1943.

Decades later, when the Montreal suburb of Côte Saint-Luc decided to dedicate a park to Zygielbojm’s memory, I did not attend the ceremony. My anger lasted until the night before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, when I finally understood what could have driven Zygielbojm to the breaking point—a story that is told elsewhere.

Ever since his arrival in Montreal in 1913 as a boy of 14, Principal Wiseman had supported himself by teaching, which had been his father’s calling in Ukraine. Whereas others tried to replicate or adapt the traditional religious cheder instruction of the Old Country, he developed a new model that would prepare informed Jewish citizens for Canadian life. All that I took for granted in the Folk shule—the equilibrium of Jewish and general studies; the concept of a religiously inspired, self-reliant Jewish people; the familial warmth balanced by respectful teacher-student relations; a political centrism so natural it seemed synonymous with Jewishness—all of this was thoughtfully designed by Wiseman and the instructors he hired.

One or two generations earlier, they might have become rabbis, and a generation later, college professors. But in that first immigrant generation, supported by a community that shared their need for modern Jewish education, they bestowed their wisdom on us.

We had arrived in Montreal af alem fartikn, everything ready-made for our benefit. The solid school building that was overflowing by the time I graduated had been erected the year of our arrival and had only then received the formal accreditation that allowed us to continue to Protestant high school. In the upper grades and the advanced supplementary school classes I attended through most of high school, the faculty was supplemented by survivors of the war. How could these men and women, who had lost their own families, re-enter classrooms to teach Jewish subjects to Jewish children? Their nerve impressed me more than what they taught.

Excerpted, with permission, from Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, by Ruth Wisse. © 2021 by Ruth R. Wisse. Published by Wicked Son, an imprint of Post Hill Press.


Ruth R. Wisse

Ruth R. Wisse, a scholar of Yiddish literature and Jewish history and culture, is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University emeritus.