Samuel Rothstein: Living and Working in Strathcona
Date:Wednesday, June 16, 1999
ID:Digital audio recording #: 19-99:09
SR: By the time we got to Vancouver at the very end of 1922. Say the beginning of 1923. I remember when I was kid growing up in Vancouver and I don’t think things changed very much in say, the 15 years that intervened. I remember believing, being told somehow or other that Vancouver had a population of about 500 Jewish families. Maybe 2500 people in all in the 1920s and 1930s. So I should think that they had maybe 1500 or so before the war (WWI). But I’m just guessing. I really don’t know.
JG: Well, they certainly had enough to build a synagogue on Heatley Street…
SR: I think the Heatley Street one was built after the way but I remember it very well of course. And next to it was the hader that I attended. The Hebrew school where we would go to for instruction several times a week.
JG: So your parents came here because your father’s family had already settled?
SR: Yeah, that’s right.
JG: What did they do for a living?
SR: Well my uncles did various things but soon at least after they got here they got into the sack business. I think they may have had to do peddling at the beginning but they got into the sack business. And each of them had a pretty good business dealing in bags, burlap and twine, that being the name on the window. Mostly it was used burlap bags, they also did some new bags and some other things, but it was used burlap bags which they would buy from the peddlers and then fix up, that is, repair, because many of them had holes, and then in turn sell them to people who wanted the burlap bags, people like farmers or many other people. So that was the business my uncles were in. When my father came here, he in turn became a peddler which must have been a tremendous hardship for him to have to start from scratch after have been a man of some substance and means. And I remember going with him as he would go from customer to customer. And these would be sometimes farmers out in Lulu Island or people with various stores who would have bags and he would sell them to my uncles, mostly my uncle Abe, who had a bigger business. And that was the way in which my father made a living. Not all unusual. It was practically the standard operating procedure for immigrants coming to at least Vancouver, probably all over North America, I should think. But at least in Vancouver, this is what you saw people doing. Later, they would try to—if they were young enough and vigorous enough—they would try to get on to other things. But that was a very common fate for the immigrants. Tough life.
JG: Yes, I’m sure it was. The business was downtown in East Vancouver?
SR: We lived at 641 East Georgia Street. The house is still there, which would be about two blocks from the shul. The shul was at Heatley and Pender, we were on Georgia, half a block from Heatley. So, my uncles’ business premises were on Powell Street and Pender Street, respectively. My father didn’t have a place of business, in so far as he did operate one, it would have been from our house, the garage.
JG: The neighbourhood was largely Jewish? Describe the neighbourhood a little bit.
SR: The neighbourhood was, it’s now called Strathcona. And it was a couple blocks south of Strathcona School. The neighbourhood was Jewish but not by any means mainly or exclusively so. It seemed to be the locale for all immigrant groups. So I remember when I went to Strathcona School, where I went until I was 8 years old, there was a statement going around then that Strathcona was the home of 95 different nationalities. And it may very well have been true. So I went to school with Chinese and Japanese, there were substantial colonies there. There were Italians, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, lots of immigrants of various kinds. But it was the centre of Jewish life. Though already by the end of the 20s quite a number of the East End Jews had moved west to places like Fairview, and if they were well-to-do, to Shaughnessy. Some to the West End. Scattered in places like Kitsilano and so on. Mostly to Fairview in the vicinity of the first Jewish Community Centre on 11th and Oak. The centre was built in 1928, we moved to Fairview in 1929. So we were very much a part of the sort of standard ebb and flow of Jewish community life in Vancouver and probably in that sense shared characteristics and so on with many other Jews in the world.