Interviewer: Jean Gerber & Cyril E. Leonoff
JW: So it was after my second year of university here that I decided to go into medicine which made my mother and father very happy.
CL: Did this school have a pre-med at that time?
JW: No, no. No, couldn’t take any…I stayed here ‘til the end of my second year then I tried to get some pre-med and they had nothing here. They…In those days you had to have the equivalent of high school Latin to get into medical school. And I hadn’t taken Latin, I had taken French in high school. Only two schools in Canada that had a preliminary course in Latin which was the equivalent of high school Latin; one was University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and the other was Halifax, Dalhousie. So Saskatoon, I’d come from there so I went back to Saskatoon and took my pre-med there. And then I got into the University of Toronto Medical School.
JG: Now these were days towards the end of the Depression beginning of World War II when Jews did not enter medical school so easily.
JW: No, very difficult.
JG: How did you overcome this quota system?
JW: I just got very good marks. Didn’t get such high marks at the University of British Columbia. I was too busy fooling around, having a good time. But once I decided to go into medical school, my final year in my pre-med year I really got very good marks.
JG: Were there other Jewish—I guess at that time it would have been mostly boys, some girls maybe—trying to get in?
JW: Out of 120 in our class there were five girls. That’s all.
JG: So they would have had to be very good.
JW: They were very good and they were nice girls.
JG: Any other Jews went into medical school with you?
JW: Yes, yes, there were a few, not many. The University of Toronto strangely enough, although the city was an anti-Semitic city, and there many of the doctors were personally anti-Semitic and showed it, the policy of the school wasn’t that bad. I had difficulty finding a place to stay because many houses had ‘restricted’ signs on them. And restricted didn’t mean blacks because there were no blacks, restricted meant there were no Jews allowed. So I had difficulty finding a place to live.
JG: Where did you finally settle?
JW: Well, when I went to Toronto I stayed at the YMCA which is right near the University of Toronto in Toronto. And I stayed there, it was a dollar a day I remember. And I wandered around looking for a place. The university had lists of places that you could go to board and room. I wandered around to a lot of these places and a lot of them had restricted signs on them. And I was getting very discouraged.
I was in swimming one day, you know, at the Y, you go swimming with no clothes on, the YMCA in those days. So I see another guy swimming, he looked Jewish to me.
JW: So I got talking to him and I was telling him my problems and he turned out to be a medical student also and living in Toronto. And he says, “Well,” he said, “look, I’ve got a place for you to live.” He says, “There’s a Jewish medical fraternity.” He says, “Come and live at our place.” So I lived there for five years, cost $35 a month.
JG: What was the name of the fraternity?
JW: Phi Delta Epsilon and that is an international, Jewish—only Jewish students…
Interviewer: Naomi Katz & Cyril E. Leonoff
CL: Well on the Prairies—Winnipeg, populated by Russian Jews primarily and Eastern European Jews, Yiddish was the language spoken. I have the impression that in Vancouver Hebrew was emphasized. Did you speak Yiddish with your parents?
NB: No, no, no. Until we the children introduced English into the home, we knew no language except Jewish. And one of the things that you and your generation might find a little difficult unless you’ve thought about it seriously is the problems that youngsters who don’t have English have when they go to school. I recall going to school and the second day that I was there they called a roll and as they called the roll each of the children had to say ‘present.’ Well, when they called my name and I wouldn’t say ‘present.’ When the teacher asked me why I wouldn’t tell her and she punished me, and she asked me to stay after school and I told her that the only reason that I wouldn’t say ‘present’ was that I wasn’t going to give her a present because that was the only connotation that I knew present in. [Laughter]. That’s why I think that some of these intelligence tests are so ridiculous. Because connotations is all important.
CL: So you spoke Yiddish in the home and when you started to go to school you learned English.
NB: Then my parents learned as well. And ultimately…
BB: That is always the history. The children learned, came home, wouldn’t speak the Yiddish and so the parents had to learn English.
Interviewer: Irene Dodek & Ron Stuart
ID: You said that your mother encouraged you to go into law. Did you ever at any time consider another field? Did you ever consider medicine?
NN: No, no.
ID: Never. And how did law school change you?
NN: Well, I think the discipline of law was a thing...
ID: The work load?
NN: The work was heavy. In those days, this was after you had a degree but before we had a full fledged law school, we had something, people wanted to go back to a system...You would go to law office...
ID: Before you went to law school?
NN: No, after you went to law school. You would go into a law office.
ID: As an articling student?
NN: As an articling student, and you’d spend three years if not four years there. Then you would proceed to go to lectures, and lectures at four o’clock. They’d get real money out of you by working you. And you got a real princely sum of $15. I eventually got $35 a month.
ID: What did you do as an articling student?
NN: Well, as an articling student you did everything that you knew exactly things that many young lawyers don’t know. You’d know how to draw wills, you’d know how to draw all of the practical things.
ID: You mean young lawyers don’t learn this?
NN: Well no, because they’re in a different milieu. They learn all about jurisprudence, you know, and all the fancy problems that arise in famous cases but as for doing the actual work there was a change. But that disappeared, that’s disappeared.
ID: So the work load really...Did any of your professors influence you in a particular way?
NN: Yes, well they did, because we had a very fine group of professors at the school and the Vancouver Law School and they did, they’re very, very good.
Inteviewer: Irene Dodek & Ron Stuart
ID: Do you remember your first grade in Watrous?
NN: Oh, I went to Grade 1 to 4 in Watrous.
ID: Tell me about those years. What do you remember about them?
NN: It’s interesting you should question me about that, because I just saw a picture I was showing my daughter-in-law the other day of me at school. My teacher—who has the same name as my successor in the courts, [McEacran], I must tell him. I’ve forgotten to tell him the other day—she was my first school teacher and she took a liking to me. And boy, oh boy. The schools then were different than now.
ID: In what way?
NN: Well, because you had three classes in one room. You would shift your chair sideways to get out of the way when she did the next class. [Laughter]. I said to somebody who asked me once they were telling how difficult it is to teach a single class nowadays in a school when I was on some commission. I said, “You don’t know what it’s like when I took schooling.”
ID: So you really had to block out,
NN: You had to block out.
ID: Or else listen.
NN: Or listen.
ID: Or you’d be in the next grade already.
NN: That’s right, that’s right. One way of getting promoted [laughing].
ID: How many children in the classroom?
NN: I would think in those classrooms about 30 kids. So you’d have a mixture of about ten in each class.
RY: So I was very lucky and both my parents were crackerjack communicators, so we moved out to a village called Ituna in Saskatchewan, population four hundred, and one of the conditions of my parents’ employment was that my mother would run a school…
BB: In English?
RY: No, no, not in English, teaching the kids Jewish and Hebrew so every day after school from four to six she ran a school, there were eight Jewish children in the village and they all attended school and of course the pride of all these parents was for the rest of their lives was the kids would write home in Yiddish. Her least successful student was yours truly, there was no time for me because come six o’clock she had to make dinner for my father, but I picked up everybody’s lessons along the way but my way of rebelling was “So I don’t read Yiddish,” that was my way of rebelling. But I found it very interesting when I was out in Ituna, the Anglican minister came to my mother one day and he said to her, “I understand you are teaching Jewish and Hebrew.”He says, “I would like to read the bible in the original Hebrew, I’ll make a deal with you…you teach me Hebrew, I’ll help you with your English.” So every Saturday noon they had an appointment where they would get together and exchange language skills. So I had a very interesting childhood and luckily picked up good communication skills, my mother was also a poet, used to write poetry and it was published in the Jewish paper in Winnipeg and I think she once submitted something to [The Torgen], New York.
SC: I think I’ve mentioned before that Rabbi Pastinsky brought us to Vancouver because we were only one of two Jewish families living in New Westminster. That was in 1933. Our more of an involvement with the Jewish community started. We used to go to school at Strathcona and take two lunches. One was for the noon hour lunch and the other was after a two hour Hebrew class or Yiddish, I can’t remember which—our second lunch and then we would have two hours of Hebrew or Yiddish.
NK: Can you I ask you who’s ‘we’?
SC: The children, the young people, everyone lived…
NK: Your friends?
SC: No, all of the Jewish, there were only five hundred Jewish in the city, which meant that there were a few only not that many young children. All of the kids went to the Heatley Avenue synagogue. Jewish…
NK: Friends from school?
SC: Mm hmm. I believe Mr. Katznelson was the principal and Ms. Jaffe, Sylvia Jaffe was our teacher. We went for three years and then the Jewish community moved from the Schara Tzedeck which as I said was the only synagogue, the Orthodox, it moved from there to Oak Street.
SB: I was married in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-four. There wasn’t too many Jewish people in the city, but what there was usually concentrated at the Schara Tzedeck shul at the corner of Heatley and Pender Street. That was the centre of all social affairs and that was, a few years afterwards, the community centre was built on Oak Street. And that place then was the place where all the Jewish people had their social affairs. But the shul on Pender Street and Dunlevy was the only one in Vancouver at the time where on special Jewish holidays the people came to daven and hold prayers and meet others. A few years after I arrived they built another shul in the area now…
AK: Where the present Schara Tzedeck is?
SB: Yes, yes, you know where it is?
AK: At Oak and 16th.
SB: Oak and 16th. And then they built the other shul, Beth Israel, and they had a few different rabbis since that shul has been built. During those years, from 1924, many Jewish people came to Vancouver from all parts of Canada. At the first shul at Pender and Dunlevy the number of Jewish people living in Vancouver was very limited, but as the years went by and the people living here told their friends how beautiful the climate was and so on, by the year 1930 there was about 10,000 Jewish people in the city of Vancouver. People of very Orthodox and others progressive but they all came to the same shul. Later on a more progressive school opened up on Broadway. It was called the Peretz School. They done away with a lot of Orthodox principles, it was quite modern, so parents sent their children to the Peretz School where they were taught Jewish and Hebrew, and not many of the Orthodox things that the…learnt years ago. Most of the activities at that time was carried on at the Schara Tzedeck synagogue, social affairs and so on ‘til eight or ten years later the first community centre was built on Oak Street near Broadway. That was a gathering place for all social affairs. But on special holidays the very sacred ones and so on, all the Jewish people in the city of Vancouver until the community centre was built, met at the Schara Tzedeck at the corner of Heatley and Pender.
BS: Now Vivian, I’ll turn to you. Did you go to secular school or religious school?
VG: I went to Talmud Torah, the day school, from kindergarten to graduation I went to Talmud Torah.
BS: And what memories do you have of those days of going to school?
VG: I didn’t love school in general but I actually did...my favourite teacher was Mrs. Kron, I loved her and what was really interesting is that my older daughter also had Mrs. Kron, both my daughters went to Talmud Torah and Ariel had Mrs. Kron and Mrs. Kron would regularly call her Aviva which is my name, well she looks like me and acts a lot like me and Mrs. Kron kept saying, “Well it’s like having you back in my class again.” She was lovely, I really enjoyed her and she was of course incredibly Zionist, all of our projects were doing the map of Israel and knowing all the cities in Israel, and all the customs of Israel, that I enjoyed tremendously so it was the only part of school that I really liked. And I remember we had to go until four o’clock and we would be sitting and looking out the window at all the public school kids getting out at three o’clock and marching away but it’s better I guess than having to go to afternoon school which was worse, we only had the one extra hour.
BS: Were you able to read Hebrew?
VG: Yes, all of our Hebrew teachers except for Mrs. Kron were Israeli so we actually learned Hebrew very well, I’m trying to remember the name of this really lovely young woman... maybe Mrs. Klausner, she was married to a Canadian, to a Vancouver boy, but she was Israeli and she taught us really excellent, I find languages pretty easy so when I graduated I could speak Hebrew really well and with a very Israeli accent which was very convenient.
BS: Reva, early education – did you go to a Talmud Torah or what kind of school did you?
RH: Well I went to Talmud Torah but it was before the days that Talmud Torah was a day school and when I grew up I went to the Talmud Torah for kindergarten and then I started in the public school for Grade 1 and I think when I was in about Grade 3 they opened the Talmud Torah day school but I was already at Grade 3 and they only started at Grade 1 and then they kept adding a year later but I was always two years ahead of them. So I went to the evening school, so I went to elementary school, public school Grade 1 and then I started at Talmud Torah which was four afternoons a week after school, which I hated, and I went until about Grade 7 all the way through and I remember I hated it every minute. But I definitely did get a good grounding in Hebrew, I learned the basic fundamentals of Hebrew and when I went to Israel after high school I very, very quickly started speaking and the foundation that I had received in Talmud Torah served me in good stead and it really all kind of came together. And the negative attitude that I had about going to school all those years was very much transformed when I was living in Israel and it became a living language instead of a torture to go to school.