Technically, this is not my original writing, but my grandfather's. This biography was found after he died. He never told anyone in the family that he was even writing this. This is the relative I feel I have the most in common with, intellectually, and it is a great read, in my opinion, with tons of history. While the family works on considering it for conversion into a screenplay, I post it here, in his honour (be patient with the scrolling, it is 98 pages, but that is double-spaced, and apologies for strange characters...they were in cyrillic in the original manuscript
This all started at a Sunday brunch hosted by Toots and me. The occasion was in honour of Jonathan Strauss's Bar Mitzvah. There were our own families from Toronto and Winnipeg as well as almost all our Winnipeg friends.
When lunch was done Arla rose to thank our guests and then asked for Alex to come to the lectern.
I was startled to hear him bring up my approaching 80th birthday which doesn't come till the end of August. He had recalled my previous tales of my adventures in Russia and my early school days in Winnipeg - life on Pritchard Avenue and my Bar Mitzvah. He recalled my boasting of getting gifts of 4 fat, orange Parker Pens. Nothing had greater status value than one of those Parkers.
He forthwith presented me with a collectors item of a replica of a Parker Duofold. I was dumbfounded with surprise. I have no recollection as to what I said in response. Perhaps it's just as well.
The children have goaded me often to write something of my long life. Now that I have such a fine writing instrument I can't resist the challenge.
What follows is an unusually long letter addressed to my children and grandchildren both Natural and acquired by virtue of my second marriage to Toots.
I'd imagine that strangers trying to read this long and rambling epistle would find it boring and tedious. But the more immediate family may find parts of it informative.
In any event as a family chronology it may prove useful.
According to my mother my birth was the most dreadful experience of her life. The pain and suffering she experienced was beyond description. The whole neighbourhood for blocks around was aroused by her agonizing screams. This scenario lasted for two whole days until I was finally expelled. The telling of this tale was probably intended to instil a sense of deep quiet in me. Strangely it never did.
This even took place deep in the heart of the Ukraine in a small city called Uman, south of Kiev - the capital and half way to the Black Sea City of Odessa. My world atlas, which is at least 30 years old lists its population at about 70,000. It must have been a fairly presentable little city with a public park called An Sofiafka; there were banks and a public lending library.
My birth certificate states that I was born on August 10, 1912. This being the Gregorian calendar converted to the European as August 23rd. And so it has always been.
Being born prior to World War I gives me a feeling of historical proportions particularly when watching an Edwardian movie or a play by Shaw or Oscar Wilde. I feel somewhat awestruck - that's how people dressed and lived when I was a small child. And people used hansom cabs and cobblestone streets were this "modern" paving method.
My father Jacob was 26 when I was born. His birthday and mine coincided on August 23rd. He was an only child. His father Abraham and mother Rose were "dirt" poor. So poor that hunger and severe deprivation was a constant companion. Charitable neighbours kept an eye on them to ensure that there was a fresh baked loaf of bread for the Sabbath.
In the years preceding my grandfather surnames were unknown. Men were identified as the "son of". Or for further clarification also the village or town of their origin. My grandfather's people came from the city of Medzhibosch in the far western reaches of the Ukraine. Amongst the religious Jews it was noted that this town was the home of the B'Sl Shem Tov a noted sage of the 17th Century. Consequently by my grandfather, he became known as Abraham the Medzhibezar. How my father became fluent in Russian and how he became an excellent bookkeeper remains a mystery to me. Moreover, how he managed to get a job in a Russian bank is also a mystery. In view of the fact the anti-Jewish laws and regulations were extremely restrictive in Czarist Russia it was a great accomplishment for him to have done what he did. To Russianize his name he acquired the surname Medzhbeezer - which of course was derived from the name Medzhibosch - the ancestral town.
My mother was 20 when I was born. She came from a much more affluent family. Her father was AKIBA Freivoch - a wine merchant. Most of his wine was imported from western Russia from a district now called Moldavia. He usually made 2 trips annually to the capital town of Kishiriev. The wine was shipped home in huge caskets which were moved to the basement of his house. A dark, damp, cold and spooky place. I was forbidden to ever venture down there - on penalty of some dreadful punishment. My mother was the eldest of twelve children --
She was named Brushka which in Yiddish is a diminutive of the Hebrew word Brucha - which in literal translation means Blessed.
Only 3 of whom survived. My auntie Jenine who married Max Schwartzman and settled in New York. My uncle Zalman (Sam) who joined our family in Winnipeg. My grandmother was Esther. She died in her thirties of the complications of diabetes.
The dwelling in Uman must have been quite modern by the standards of that day. I recall quite clearly a solitary bare electric light bulb hanging from the centre of the ceiling in the most important room in the house - the kitchen, living room and dining room combined. An enormous oven occupied the furthest wall. It was built as part of the kitchen. Above it as far as the ceiling was a spacious crawl space which served as a bedroom for the "shiksa". The lucky girl had the warmest, cosiest place in the house. Bread baking day was the highlight of the week. The smell of baking bread permeated the house. A smell delicious and mouth watering beyond belief. Entrance to and from the house was from the kitchen. The gate from the street led to an enclosed garden dominated by a cherry tree. The door to the kitchen was at right angle to the street.
The language of my grandparents was Yiddish and I imagine that this was the language I first learned as an infant. There is absolutely nothing that I can recall about a teacher or a school. I doubt that I was ever taught anything formally in my early childhood. One of the mysteries which has always perplexed me was how I learned to speak Russian and read and write the language before I was six.
There was a library close to home where I was known and the lady in charge would let me borrow books. I must have been a fairly precocious child for I read everything I could lay my hands on.
One day while reading a book I was started and bewildered by coming across the word "жид" in page after page all underlined by some previous reader. The word (zhid) is a highly derogatory term for Jew in Russian and Ukranian. I recall crying when I showed my mother the book. It was my first encounter with open Anti-Semitism.
In some way I became aware that the family to which I belonged was different than the people inhabiting the rest of the community. I became frightened at the sight of an approaching priest. The blackness of their long cloaks, their black shirts acting as a perfect foil for their long and heavy necklaces suspending a very ponderous cross. Their black beards and tall black hats added to their ominous appearance.
At the sight of one I tried desperately to cross to the other side of the street. I had many friends my real best friend was Grisha Freivoch - my mother's uncle's only child. We were the same age and were inseparable. I think it was he who taught me how to jinx the evil spell that a passing priest might cast. You ran into the nearest "back alley" and emptied your bladder simultaneously with your friend. It was essential that the two urine streams intersected to form a cross. Another friend was a girl called Paula. Also a relative of sorts. We enjoyed playing doctor and patient. Naturally, I was the doctor. One day I decided to vaccinate Paula. I found a sharp piece of broken glass on the street and proceeded to scratch her upper arm with it. When blood started to stream down her arm she ran screaming into the house. I was punished sufficiently to never do it again.
Grisha and I also participated in our first sex lesson. Another little girl in the neighbourhood proposed a challenge to us. If we showed her our penises she would show us her genitals. We readily accepted but were terribly perplexed how anyone could urinate without a penis.
One day I nagged my mother dreadfully to allow me to do something. She continued to deny me my wish so in desperation I threatened her. If she continued to say "no" I would go to the pantry and start breaking jars of jam which had laboriously been "put out"; when this thread didn't produce results I calmly went about smashing some jars. This serious misdemeanour did not go unpunished. Another embarrassing episode occurred when I overheard my parents plan to go to the cinema to see the famous comedian Max Linder. This would be about 1917 before Charlie Chaplin displaced him. Naturally I was ignored and put to bed. I awoke an hour or two later to find my parents gone. Fortunately it was a warm spring or summer evening. I knew perfectly well where the cinema was. I ran barefooted in my night clothes to the cinema and yelled and screamed at the doorman to let me in to find papa and mama. Those were silent movies so I don't think I disturbed too many. My parents were mortified and embarrassed. I don't know how this tale of a wilful child ended.
Ominous clouds began to gather over the life of our little family. My father was fortunately spared the draft into the army. The reason being that being a bank employee was considered an essential service. Jewish boys would try every possible avenue in their efforts to avoid being drafted. This desperation was not prompted by fear of action or enemy fire but by the fear of the cruelty inflicted on them by the Christian soldiers.
In 1917 Lenin returned to Russia to head the Bolshevik revolution. His first act other than murdering the Czar and his family was the signing of a peace treaty with Germany. All I can remember about those distant days were endless discussions amongst the grownups. What would life be like under German occupation. Surely it couldn't be worse than under the Czar. Little did they know what was in store for them.
During the period of 1917-18 I contracted my first serious illness. A classical case of scarlet fever. A disease which no younger doctor has ever seen. After this fever and rash subsided came the period of desquamation. Huge pieces of skin peeled off, particularly my hands and feet. But I was far from finished with the disease. About a week or two after I thought I was fully recovered I had a classical complication. The condition is called nephrosis. I became enormously swollen. I had to rest for another several weeks until I was pronounced cured.
Life for our family became progressively far difficult and complicated. In late summer 1918 the War in Europe came to an end. But not in Russia. Allied forces fearing the spread of Bolshevism invaded Russia from all sides. Russian soldiers led by various generals loyal to the ousted monarchy and called "White Russians" fought on various fronts against the hated Bolsheviks. In the Ukraine the situation was the worst of all. There a whole variety of murderous leaders fought the White Russian soldiers, the Bolsheviks and quite often each other in their efforts to establish an independent Ukraine. All these factions terrorized vast stretches of the Ukraine. Pillage, destruction and murder dominated their activities. The slaughter of Jews became a game to avenge the death of Jesus the Saviour. I can recall vividly the days and nights of hiding in various cellars. One day while in our kitchen the family was surprised when a group of drunken soldiers invaded the house. In those days the most dreaded of all the Ukranian partisan armies was one headed by a notorious anti-Semite called Petlura. The mounted soldiers most of them sporting fierce bushy moustaches, tall caracul hats, rifles on their backs with crossed ammunition belts on their tunics. Often flashing their curved sabres provided a spine chilling fearsome spectacle. When lubricated with booze, they became executioners of anyone in their way.
One day, quite unexpectedly a group of them burst into our house. They had heard that there was wine to be had. I have no idea where my father was but at home was my grandfather and my uncle Sam. The kitchen table was very large and could easily seat a dozen or more people around it. The wine jugs and glasses were on it. The two Jewish men were forced under the table while the drunken orgy became more and more boisterous. When they decided to go elsewhere one of them began taking pot shots with his rifle at the two men beneath the table. Soon they all joined in the fun. When it was time to go my grandfather lay dead and my uncle lay bleeding profusely from a cheek wound. Undoubtedly they thought he too was dead.
I find it hard to believe that the recollection of these horrors remains so vividly etched in my memory. After all it was probably 1919 and I couldn't have been more than 7 years of age.
Events which followed bring nothing to mind. All I know and recollect was that suddenly my father appeared in a uniform and the three of us were on a train headed for the big city of Kiev. There my father had secured a bookkeeping job in a military hospital. Now life seemed to undergo a complete change. We spoke only Russian and my parents acquired a group of friends and frequently participated in raucous parties. After being put to bed, I could hear laughter and singing coming from another part of the hospital.
Before long I acquired a Russian friend. He must have been somewhat older than me. He taught me a great deal about the hospital. It was not only a place to help wounded soldiers but was also a place where undesirables were shot. Executions took place every morning. The roof above "our" building was flat and easily accessible. If you got there early enough you could watch the execution squad march their victims to an adjoining room and listen with bated breath for its sound of the rifle shots.
Later in the day when it was safe we would search the nearby wood for the discarded shell casings. My education was very grizzly for a child my age.
Unknown to me, my parents were busy planning a way to escape from the nightmare of life in Russia.
Russia was in a dreadful state of violence in 1919-1920. The "White" Russians who were the remains of the Imperial Army were led by the aristocratic officer corps. They were financed, armed and helped by the victorious allied and American forces. The revolutionary Bolsheviks were led by a self taught general called Leon Trotzky. The man was undoubtedly a genius. Leading his scattered ragtag armies he not only deported the invaders from western Europe but also the expeditionary American forces attacking him in Pacific Siberia. It was not until these victories were achieved that he turned his energies to pacifying the Ukraine. During their constant warfare political warfare raged in Moscow. The democratic movement had temporarily gained the upper hand under the leadership of one called Kerevsky in 1917. New currency was issued to replace the Imperial ruble. But when the Bolshevik revolution triumphed in October 1917 he fled the country and with his departure died any hope of a nascent democracy.
Naturally I knew nothing of these events and was totally unaware of the plans my parents were secretly hatching to escape from the bloody turmoil around them. It must have been during the winter of 1919-20 that they started the long trek westward.
It being winter I was clothed in a voluminous coat. Little did I know that my mother had sewn bundles of paper currency inside the lining. I now know that the objective was to reach the vicinity of the Dniester river. This was the political border between Russia and Roumania. It was heavily patrolled by both Russian and Roumanian troops. It was strictly prohibited to cross the river. Guards were instructed to shoot on sight at any intruder.
Apparently the plan commonly tried was to bribe a farmer along the riverbank to transport you by row boat across the river. The boat ride had be done in pitch darkness in utter silence. Once you were across the river on the Roumanian side, you were on your own.
The area we were dropped off was heavily wooded and because of this pitch darkness almost at once I was alone and lost. My parents didn't dare shout for me and I wandered about in the darkness by this time too frightened to cry.
I do know that at day break two women approached me and asked if I was Yosh and Brushka's boy. Soon we were reunited and were fed and sheltered in a farmer's dwelling.
The next hurdle was getting to Kirshinev the main city in that part of Moldavia. How we got there I have no idea. I now know that the main purpose of establishing residence there was to be free to communicate with the rest of the world.
My auntie Jenine and her husband were already safe in New York and were anxious for us to join them there. Unfortunately for us the open door for European refugees had just been closed by US immigration.
Fortunately my mother remembered an auntie who had emigrated to Winnipeg, Canada years before. Naturally there were married cousins there, the closest one to her age was Sonia who was married to a Barney Portigal. Letters between my parents and her Winnipeg cousin began to flow. An immigration permit had to be secured. Then there was the booking of passage across half of Europe, across the Atlantic and then again by train across Canada to Winnipeg. My parents were quite ignorant of world geography, they had never heard of Winnipeg and as for Canada they had heard of it as a cold and distant part of America. The fact that it was in America made them glow with eager anticipation. After all if the community was in "America" it couldn't be that far from New York.
How we got to Kishinev or how we managed to get living accommodation there is an unknown chapter to me. By this time it was already 1920 and my resistance to disease must have been very low particularly after being so ill with scarlet fever. This time I became gravely ill with lobar pneumonia. The doctor attending me told my parents to wait for the "crisis" to occur for without it I would surely die. The phenomenon of a lobar pneumonia crisis was a dramatic occurrence. Particularly in children it was the difference between life and death. Once has to visualize a child desperately ill with severe difficulty breathing and a fever of at least 40°C, sometimes higher. Within an hour the same desperately ill child undergoes a remarkable change. The temperature drops precipitously to normal levels, the difficulty in breathing is alleviated. Nothing is more dramatic in medical history. Since the advent of antibiotics few if any doctors have witnessed this phenomenon.
My convalescence must have been slow. To Eastern Europeans oranges represented the ultimate food for a quick recovery. Every day I was given an orange and watched by everyone as I consumed the fruit. Another daily ritual was the washing of my hair followed by meticulous combing with a special fine tooth come to ensure the elimination of head lice. My mother was a firm believer in the spontaneous generation of all kinds of tiny creatures - including mice.
I continued to have health problems. In order to secure visas to emigrate to Canada we had to submit for health examinations. On examination it was diagnosed that I was developing trachoma of my eyes. This is a contagious disease which untreated can lead to blindness. It is endemic in Africa and in Egypt in particular where it was the leading cause of blindness. I recall very vividly being put on a stretcher and immobilized with restraints. The doctor and his female assistants were socializing and babbling away in some strange language, probably Roumanian. My eyelids were everted and scraped vigorously with some sort of curette. Then the raw areas was cauterized with a chemical. I had no anaesthetic. My screams still ring in my ears after more than 70 years. The treatment was quite inhuman but nevertheless probably effective.
What is the purpose of writing of personal events occurring three quarters of a century ago? My life's accomplishments are much too modest for that. Genealogy seems to have acquired a fashionable resurgence in America and Canada. My distant "cousin" in Chicago Paula Gordon has written me many times regarding family roots. Toots' family the Comisaroffs have a very large company stretching from Australia, the U.S., Canada and Israel. There have been reunions of this far flung membership - although Toots has never attended but the Gutkins and Strausses were at the last one in San Francisco. Even my brother Ken has recently written inquiring about our family roots.
Whether this exercise in autobiography will be of interest to my children or grandchildren only time will tell. Certainly the clock is running out on me. I'll be 80 in August and if I don't make the effort now I'm afraid this opportunity will expire. I certainly can't afford the luxury of an experienced ghost writer to dramatize and embellish the simple events of one's life.
To return to the evens in Kishinev. After surviving the horrors of Trachoma and lobar pneumonia the wherewithal to travel to America arrived. There were passports and visas to secure and passage to be booked.
Finally our long voyage westward began. Our first destination was Antwerp where it was hoped passage could be booked to Canada.
The trip across the continent was long and very arduous. Getting food was a constant challenge. After several days of moving and stopping we finally reached the German city of Cologne. My parents discovered that the train would have a stopover there of several hours. This was a great opportunity for them to try and get some food.
I was given strict instructions not to leave my seat during their absence. I don't know how I amused myself during their absence, but I did as I was told. Suddenly, to my horror the train began to move. Unknown to me of course we were in a huge marshalling yard. I became hysterical with fear at being abandoned in a strange foreign land. I have no idea how long it took for my parents to find our train and, me. Whether or not they secured some food was quite uninallred to me.
Finally we arrived in Antwerp. Another strange city in another foreign land. Our arrival there was in the winter of 1920-21 and I was now a mature child of 8. One of the problems faced by my parents was finding shelter and provisions. Then there was booking passage for the long trans-Atlantic voyage to Canada. Passage was finally found and booked on a steamer called the "Scandinaves". It was a nightmarish voyage. The accommodation was steerage. Everyone was deathly ill with seasickness. No sooner were we halfway across the Atlantic when again I became very ill with a classic case of red measles. I was isolated by the ship's doctor. Immediately, on arrival in Quebec City we were transported to a quarantined island in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence called Grose Isle. My illness was further prolonged by a relapse and recurrence of the kidney disease nephrosis. My convalescence was not unpleasant. The quarantine station on this island was clean, the food was good and the surroundings were beautiful with lush greenery, flowers and trees all around.
Finally, after being cleared by the authorities, we were transported to Quebec city where we boarded a train for the interminably long trip to Winnipeg.
I have absolutely no recollection of the three or four days we spent on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. I presume it was the CPR because I do recall clearly getting off at the Higgins and Main station.
We were met by a delegation of Portigal cousins. All were total strangers babbling to each other in an incomprehensible lingo. I was dutifully kissed and patted on the head.
We were welcomed at the station by my mother's first cousins Sonia and her husband Barney. Another cousin Clara, cousins Fanny, Becky and cousin Fanny and finally the youngest one Anette. The only male cousin was Sam. All were called Portigal. I don't know why. Their mother, my mother's true Auntie, didn't show and her name is long forgotten.
The Portigal house was a frame house west of Main Street on a street called Burrows adjacent to a fire hall. Our taxi ride from the station to the Portigal house revealed a north main Street of unbelievable ugliness. To add to the bleakness of the street was the constant explosion of firecrackers. We didn't know they were firecrackers we thought it was gunfire. It took a little explanation to reassure us and explain that it was traditional to celebrate May 24th with fireworks.
Having come from a relatively handsome European city such as Kiev the initial impression of Winnipeg was extremely poor. In any event we were reassured that Canada was a peaceful happy country and that it wouldn't be long before we were established. Sonia and Barney had two children, Aubie their little boy was about 4 or 5 years old and Esther their daughter was 7. Communication was difficult. I was forbidden to speak Russian. The hatred for that country was too great for my parents to think clearly and objectively. I communicated to the grown ups in Yiddish. To the other 2 children in the house I have no recollection of communicating with them at all.
I must have had an aptitude for languages. When it was time to enrol me in Macaray school sometime in August my command of English was reasonably good. I turned 9 on August 23, 1921 and a week later I was already in Grade I.
Life was beginning on a more predictable pattern. Two important events took place. My father got a job as a bookkeeper with a financial institution and we managed to rent 2 or 3 rooms on Redwood Ave. near Salter and next door to Dyson's vinegar factory. By this time my uncle Zalman or Sam, as he became known, had arrived in Winnipeg. He got a job and moved in with us. It was only with the money he contributed for his board and room that "we" were able to make ends meet.
My father's salary was $35.00 per month. I have no idea how his employers communicated with him. His knowledge of English was zero but his ambition to learn was infinite. He would practice words and phrases endlessly. It was my duty to correct his mistakes. He enjoyed strolling down the street and read signs and billboards. He would hold my hand and we'd walk along Salter till Selkirk Avenue. There were many signs along the way. It was very difficult for him to "unlearn" the Cyrillic alphabet with its phonetic spelling and pronunciation to the Roman alphabet and the intricacies of English spelling and pronunciation.
School proved very pleasant. At first I was one of the big boys in class. I had just turned nine and almost all the other children were either five or six. By Christmas I was in grade 2 and shortly after that in grade 3 and in grade 4.
After our arrival in Canada my mother's cousins decided to Anglicise our surname. The decided on MESBUR and so we became known. Jacob was easy. My mother became Bertha and I remained unchanged as Boris.
Life on Redwood avenue was very difficult. The stench from the vinegar factory was at times overpowering. The kitchen which was the dominant room consisted of a sink and a cold water tap. The stove was a wood contraption, water for washing had to be heated in a tub. Serving a cup of tea meant lighting the stove to boil the water. In spite of this hardship my mother became pregnant. Esther was born in July 1922. She cried constantly and needed rocking to keep her quiet. I became a full time helper. After school I was busy with household tasks. I became adept at washing the kitchen floor and hanging the washed diapers on the clothes line. Once or twice a week I was delegate the task of baby sitting. I dreaded being left alone with the baby. She invariably cried, sometimes so violently she would hold her breath and frighten me to tears. Life became increasingly difficult in our primitive cramped quarters. To compound our difficulties my parents quarelled constantly. It was impossible for me to escape the perpetual insults, the nagging, the blaming of all our troubles on one another. School was a wonderful respite and a refuge from the domestic turmoil. My command of English was totally in keeping with my age and I was told I had no trace of a residual foreign accent. But I had no friends. I think it was my shyness and inferiority complex which stifled my social instincts.
My parents' social life was much better than mine. My mother had her cousin to visit with and my father became a founding member of the Achdus Free Loan Society. Naturally he became the society bookkeeper. Many of the members of the Achdus were new immigrants. Most of them were in dire circumstances all striving to extricate themselves from the poverty which was the lot of most of them. Many tried to become established in little businesses. Naturally some needed a bookkeeper and my father began to acquire a reputation as a "wonderful" accountant of impeccable credentials.
Sometime after my sister's birth probably in 1923 we moved to a "suite" on Prtichard Avenue. The house accommodated 3 families. Two immigrant families lived on the main floor and we occupied the top floor. Entrance was through a side door and up a narrow steep flight of stairs. I now had my own bedroom There was a bathroom with a sink and a tub as well as a toilet. The water was icy cold from the single tap. In the kitchen the stove which burned both wood and coal was in constant use. I became the chief hauler of wood and coal from the outdoor storage. Not only were there more floors for me to wash but also the steep stairs leading to our home had to be kept immaculately clean.
Fortunately I was never burdened with homework. Whatever was assigned at school I did during school hours. I was an excellent student and before long I joined the more select students in classes with a higher standard. Particularly those who would go on to high school and possibly university.
My social life finally took off. Our neighbours were all Jewish and with many children my own age - I acquired real friends and for the first time in my short life I became a member of a social group. We played games together and engaged in occasional warfare with Catholic children attending the adjacent Holy Ghost School on Selkirk Ave. Then I was enrolled in the Talmud Torah Hebrew School. The social life there was great but I hated the teachers and the compulsory subjects in Hebrew. It was an additional burden I had to endure.
I continued going to Macaray school. The teachers were excellent and although I continued to do no homework my grades were uniformly in the high 80s or 90s. Grades 7, 8 and 9 were considered "Junior" high school. In junior high one achieved the privilege of different teachers for different subjects.
In 1925 I went into "training" for my Bar Mitzvah. I acquired an elderly Jewish tutor who came to our house 2 or 3 times a week. He taught me the basics and I managed to learn the monotonous chanting of the mathir. Following this service at the Talmud Torah synagogue our relatives and my parents' friends trudged up the stairs for lunch. The lunch had been laboriously prepared by my mother just prior to the celebration. Refrigeration was with a block of ice which in the summer's heat had to be replaced daily. Electric refrigeration or freezers had not yet been invented. I was more interested in the gifts which I anticipated getting. There were only two gifts which thrilled me. Fat, yellow, Parker pens and watches. The Bar Mitzvah netted me 4 Parker pens and a CYMA wristwatch. There were also some other miscellaneous gifts which didn't particularly interest me.
The lunch food which had been laboriously prepared the week preceding was "gefilte" fish, herring and I presume the complimentary items. The birthday which was in August - a season when garden fresh produce were bountiful. On the whole this affair was judged to be successful and my performance in the synagogue satisfactory. I was thrilled at the thought and anticipation that my compulsory religious and Hebrew education at the Talmud Torah was coming to an end. My parents wanted me to continue but apparently only halfheartedly because my refusal to go on was grudgingly accepted. I now was free to play and fool around after school. I was still my mother's helper. There were floors to wash, wood to be brought to the kitchen, garbage and ashes to be disposed of and dishes to be dried after meals. I can recall that I was actually happy.
One day a bombshell fell. My father had been doing fairly well with his bookkeeping and had managed to save several hundred dollars. What better investment to make that to move us out of the slums and buy a real house. One that we could call our own. One was found for the outrageous sum of $2,000.00. It was at the northern outskirts of the city. In a muddy unpaved street called Junster. The street cars ended their routes a block or two behind our house in what was then called the "North End" car burns. The house itself was a two storey white house dwelling. The main floor consisted of the kitchen, living and dining rooms. On the top floor were 3 bedrooms and a bathroom. The house was heated by a real coal fired furnace in the basement.
There was even a ramshackle garage in the backyard. The front of the house was dominated by a verandah which was not screened. During the summer Winnipeg was already famous for the hordes or mosquitoes which descended on any unprotected warm blooded animal. Humans were their favourite target.
Macaray school continued as my educational home. We had some excellent teachers. Particularly in English, French and Latin, History and Mathematics. My class was considered to be the brightest and most promising in the entire school. I also achieved some notoriety as an "artist" and I has chosen to decorate various school projects. My class was also noted by the fact that with the exception of one pupil it was entirely Jewish. The one pupil was a girl called Cicely Skinner. She had the knack of getting 100 in almost all the subjects. She was not a particularly attractive child but I held her in awe.
My artistic notoriety led to my enrolment in the Winnipeg Art School My teacher was the subsequently famous artist Jerome Fitzgerald. Mr. Fitzgerald was hardly aware of my presence. I learned nothing and showed little inclination to pursue an artistic career.
During this period I became a Boy Scout. I recall our scout master, a very young one called Dan Krindle. The number of our troop was the 49th and as to be expected was all Jewish. Our main preoccupation was achieving a badge designation. I had the distinction of being the only one having an Artist Badge. The badges were attached to the upper sleeve below the shoulders. During the summer we went camping on the shores of lake Winnipeg at a place called Boundary Park. My only footwear were canvas running shoes. Our scout master decided that we were to go hiking one weekend. The distance we were to cover was about 10 miles and at the end of this trek my feet were badly blistered and bleeding.
I was still in Macaray school but in Junior High. One day we were shown a primitive radio receiver called a crystal set. My imagination was fuelled with excitement. How could something pluck speech and music from the air?
Radio was a new phenomenon at the time and had barely arrived in Winnipeg. There was one station opened by Manitoba Telephones for only a few hours per day. I come across a plan for building a home receiver. I needed money to buy parts. The only convertible asset I had was my stamp collection. A dealer took advantage of my youth. I was 14 at the time. He offered me $15.00 for the lot. This was not a trivial sum at the time. I learned may years later that some of the very early Queen Victoria issues were subsequently worth as much as $1,000.00. In 1926 $15.00 represented the wherewithal to buy my coveted components. Radio continued to be my passion for some years to come. While I was assembling my set my parents were ridiculing my efforts. In desperation I challenged my father to put up or shut up. He agreed to give me a dollar if it worked. It finally worked and I collected my bet. My mother who had joined my father in belittling my efforts became busy on the phone to her relations and friends boasting of her son's accomplishments.
Radio became an all consuming passion. I would spend countless hours fiddling with the dials and entering new and distant stations. To this day I recall familiar call letters like KDKA Pittsburgh, KSL Salt Lake City, WCCO Minneapolis, WBBM Chicago and hundreds of four others which I logged over a period of time. These were also the days when my musical career flourished. Shortly after moving to Inkster Blvd. my father decided that a musical instrument was an essential possession in a cultured family. He bought a Heinzman upright and was immediately accepted as a pupil by a young woman called Miss Kidd. We got along well and my progress was very rapid. I enjoyed playing pieces much too difficult for me to play.
Unfortunately as often happens my mother began to interfere. I was constantly nagged to practice and worst of all my mother insisted I perform for her friends at every opportunity. I detested her friends and relations. They were so patronizing and condescending.
By the time I was in Grade 9 my final year at Macaray school my mother became pregnant. I was disgusted and ashamed that people their age would stoop to having sexual intercourse. My mother would blame my father for this unwanted pregnancy. Ken was born in September 1928 shortly after my sixteenth birthday.
Our grade 9 class was singled out as outstanding and was chosen to take grades 10 and 11 in one year at St. John's High School. As it happened that summer became notorious for its epidemic of poliomyelitis. The epidemic raged on into September. The school board decided to postpone opening the new school year till Oct. 1st. The shortened year did not interfere with the proposed grades 10 and 11 combination. Most of us did not sense any challenge in the increased work load. I continued to do no homework but managed presentable marks at exam time. My graduation was a forgone conclusion. I was fascinated with Hans Zinsser's book about the great men who make momentous discoveries regarding diseases ravaging mankind. There was Koch and tuberculosis, Pasteur and rabies, Erlich and syphilis and others. I made up my mind that I would be a doctor and hopefully make some discoveries to help mankind. My father agreed to medicine but my mother kept nagging me that engineering was a much superior career. Her friends were very knowledgeable about careers and they insisted about the merits of engineering. There was really no urgency in deciding. I needed 2 years of pre-med studies which could be converted to engineering if necessary.
University was considered to be very expensive. The registration fee for all necessary classes was $100.00. I recall taking botany, zoology, mathematics, English, German and physics. I had still not learned proper study habits and my marks although adequate were far below my potential. In those days the University was located downtown along what is now Memorial Boulevard. Hazing of freshmen was now an established custom. I did not escape and joined a large group of other freshmen in the time consuming task of rolling peanuts across Portage Avenue using only our noses.
I enjoyed the life at University. All my friends were Jewish. I had still not been exposed to a Gentile milieu. My social life was a challenge to me. I became exposed to girls and went to small parties always in a Jewish home. Some girl began teaching me a few tentative dance steps to the scratch music played on a rickety gramophone. Girls fascinated me not just because they were "different" but because of their sexual attributes.
We were not well into the first full year of the Great Depression. Little by little my father'' bookkeeping income began to shrink and the necessity for economising was a major requirement. Bargains were constantly sought after. A loaf of bread was 5¢. A tin of Brunswick sardines was 4¢. Potatoes, onions, flour and sugar were bought in large quantities and stored in the basement. With 3 children in the house my mother did need help. We usually had a "live in" maid, a (shiksa). Almost always a Ukranian girl sometimes a fresh immigrant girl who didn't speak a work of English. In those days my parents were fluent in Ukranian, which gave my mother ample opportunity to berate at and belittle the poor girl in a language she could understand. The standard wage for foreign domestics in those days was $8.00 per month.
My parents continued to treat me as an adult, Ken and Esther were the "children". When Esther was about 10 she became seriously ill with rheumatic fever which targeted her nervous system. It was caused St. Vitus' Dance because of the constant agitation it produced in children. Her recovery was very slow and many years later as I observed her behaviour I would wonder if the stigmata of this childhood illness did not affect her adult life.
I finally completed the second year of "pre-med" and became eligible for admission to the Manitoba Medical College. The school was adjacent to the Winnipeg General Hospital and William Avenue. The tuition fees were extremely high for those days and several of my school mates who had every intention of pursuing medicine as a career could not enrol because of their inability to finance the fees. My father's solution to the dilemma of financing my career was to sell his holding of stock in International Nickel. He had been caught up in the euphoria of the stock marked preceding the crash of 1929. His last remaining asset was 1000 shares in the nickel company. In 1932 when he was desperately short of funds he sold his shares for $500.00. This was enough to finance my first year. There was tuition, books and a mandatory purchase of a Zeiss microscope.
The enrolment in the first year was open to all who fulfilled the requirements. A quota system for Jews and other undesirables in the Faculty of Medicine had not yet been established. The method used to achieve the same purpose was quite effective. In the first year one third of the class was failed. In the second year, another third was eliminated. Naturally, this "failing" process was highly selective with the Jewish students bearing the brunt of discrimination.
For the first time in my life I became exposed to crude anti-Semitism. The Dean of the Faculty was a psychiatrist called Mathers. Every student was exposed to an interview with the Dean. The Jewish students were subjected to a humiliating interview. Much of it was devoted to the sexual fantasies of the student and his masturbation practices. The interview usually ended with a statement about the student's unfitness for medicine as a career and a strong recommendation to call it quits before it was too late to get a tuition refund.
The Anti-Semitism became more evident after the interview. Jewish students were assigned their own segregated cloakroom. In the anatomy dissecting, laboratory students were assigned cadavers strictly along ethnic origin. Even the few Ukranian students were assigned their "own" cadavers.
In physiology laboratory the same segregation was practised.
My studies were not going well. I was never able to memorize facts without having a thorough understanding. It was particularly important for me to have a visual image of the subject. I managed Biochemistry and physiology by anatomy I found difficult. It remained difficult for me until I learned to visualize the relationship of one structure to another. In order to pass the year it was necessary to have marks at least in the upper 50% of the class. The Jewish student had to perform appreciably better than the Gentile to pass into the second year. I just managed to pass the year. I was satisfied with this and looked forward to the second year.
Financing the year remained a serious problem. A conventional job was totally inobtainable. The only employment I would find was as a news agent on the train. At first I would try selling prepared sandwiches, chocolate bars and soft drinks from Winnipeg to Moose Jaw. Business was very poor and I could barely make ends meet. I had to pay the CPR for a night's lodging in Moose Jaw which left me precious little money for the return trip to Winnipeg. In an effort to improve my lot I switched employers. I left the CPR and began hawking for the CNR on what was then known as a "moonlight" excursion to Grand Beach on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg. It was a relatively short run which left Wpg. in the early evening and returned sometime after midnight. The train was fairly full, mostly with young couples in their late teens or early twenties. They weren't interested in spending money on food or soft drink but had a decided interest in sex. I wasn't permitted to roam up and down the aisles hawking "safes or condoms" but I would let it be known that I had a good supply available for sale. I soon did a good business in this commodity. The mark up was very small - perhaps a nickel a condom. In those days to earn $2.00 for a night's work was considered good pay. The season was a short one. The excursions would not begin till July and end the first week-end in September.
Our first year in Medical College diminished the class form about 90 students to 60. The second year was equally demanding when it was whittled down to 40 students. The reason give form the high casualty rate was to allow for the admittance of about a dozen students from the University of Saskatchewan into their year medicine. Apparently some sort of reciprocity arranged had been made by the two provincial universities.
In our second year the Jew "baiting" became very pronounced. Occasionally this baiting became so violent that open warfare erupted. Fortunately we had two protectors. Both were powerful athletes. One was Harry Coleman who I believe is in Ottawa and the other "Tubber" Kabrinsky who tragically lost his life many years ago in a boating accident.
Psychologically the situation became very serious. In 1933 Hitler came on the scene in Germany and his public utterances in the press gave our local Anti-Semites an aura of legitimacy. The pall of depression deepened. R.B. Bennett became the prime minister. His stupid speeches fanned the growing influence of Communists and Socialists.
After completing the second year the entire atmosphere changed. We were rid of the overtly Anti-Semitic teachers and were now into Pathology and clinical subjects. Our pathology professor was the noted author William Boyd. It was truly inspirational to have him as a teacher. For our clinical teachers we had the cream of Winnipeg's medical profession. For the first time I began to relish and enjoy the studies. My marks improved dramatically and I no longer studied with the fear of failure. Before starting our third year I spent several weeks at the main tuberculosis sanitorium at Minette, Manitoba. The chief was a Dr. David Stewart, a noted physician and a truly outstanding administrator. I enjoyed the few weeks there so much that I managed to get accepted for another summer session between the third and fourth years. I continued to do well scholastically in the fourth year but another hazard loomed on the horizon. Where to intern?
Both major teaching hospitals in Winnipeg the Saint Boniface and General had strict Jewish quotas for junior interns. The quota was a magnanimous 2 students at each hospital. My chances of being accepted there was close to zero.
The only other option left in Winnipeg was what was then called a rotating internship. Every two months one changed hospitals. It was a most unpleasant choice and many of my classmates chose to try and intern out of town. One hospital the Regina General had some openings and moreover had the tantalizing offer of a $25.00 per month stipend. My parents financial situation was in dire straits. Not only had my father's income dropped precipitously but the drain of tuition fees and books and a $7.00 allowance a month to me for pocket money brought him almost to the point of bankruptcy. The economic outlook in 1935 was extremely dismal.
In an effort to establish himself in some sort of business to supplement his dwindling income from bookkeeping my father entered into a partnership with a German gentleman called Mr. Maron. The firm was called WORLD TRAVEL BUREAU and their office was on the main floor of the confederation Life Building on Main street almost directly opposite City Hall. An additional firm called MARON & MESBUR also existed in the same premises. I believe its chief function was to facilitate the transfer of money from Winnipeggers to their destitute relatives in Europe. It was a hand to mouth existence but nevertheless a meager income. The German and the Jew got along well together. Their main travel business was booking travellers to Europe on the North German Lloyd steamship line. In those days it had an excellent reputation for service and price. By the time I left Winnipeg there were some serious questions about my father being in business with a National German firm. I believe the partnership lasted about 5 years and on or about 1936 the German consul informed Moran that unless he terminated his partnership with a Jew they would lose the Agency for travel on the North German Lloyd. Fortunately my father had signed the leas on the office. Maron and Mesbur disappeared but father continued a variety of enterprises until well after the onset of the 2nd World War.
I had two months of summer holidays and I was most anxious to get away from Winnipeg. I applied for a summer internship at the Brandon General and my very best friend Alec Lerner also applied. We were accepted. The small staff of doctors were actually quite helpful and gave us as much to do as was permitted. There was a laboratory staffed by one technician. At night and on week-ends we were expected to do the work which consisted almost entirely of a simple urinalysis and a white blood cell count as well as a haemoglobin. There was no blood chemistry nor were there any tests for the various enzymes and proteins. The most complicated test was one called a Basal metabolism. It was a crude breathing apparatus which only confirmed what was obvious to clinical observation. In retrospect it was an important learning experience. For the first time I saw cases of eclampsia, a dreaded complication of pregnancy as well as witnessing the death of a young Greek woman pregnant with her first child. She was beautiful and it was heartbreaking to see her repeated convulsions before she expired. I also witnessed thyroic crises ending in death.
Our duties at the hospital were hard but left ample time for "dating". For the first time in my life I acquired a "girl friend". One of the nurses called Margaret and Alec acquired one too. Also a nurse called Evelyn.
Towards the end of the summer I contracted a very severe cold. It settled in my sinuses and I saw the leading otolaryngeologist in Brandon called McDiarrind. He strongly advised me to have a submucous resection to the septum of my nose. I agreed and he operated on me forthwith under local anaesthetic.
Little did I know what was in store for me. Almost immediately following the surgery I developed a series of complications. First these was a middle ear infection followed by mastoiditis. The mastoidities required surgery under general anaesthetic. My convalescence was slow and I began to have a chronic fever. The hospital administration was very kind. I was given a very nice private room and everyone waited and watched for my recovery. This did not take place. A variety of doctors were consulted and it was decided that I had a fatal disease called lubacuts bacterial endocarditis. Fortunately repeated plantings of my blood on special growths meter to isolate the offending germ all proved negative. In the interval my parents had been summoned from Winnipeg to be with their dying son. By that time the weather had become bitterly cold. The excuse to my parents of staying in Brandon was for more than they could afford. I made up my mind that I had to recuperate in Winnipeg in the relative comfort of home. The doctors in Brandon were glad to be rid of me and the responsibility of caring for me. In the meantime I had the problem of a very late start interning and also the problem of being late to write my final exams both for Manitoba and for the LMCC. The doctors in Brandon gave me the covering letters of my prolonged disability. I was given the option or writing my exams in the fall instead of in the spring.
Little by little my strength returned and I began to study for my final exams with renewed confidence. I not only passed all the exams but passed them with the qualification "with honours". I was very proud of my accomplishment and looked forward to interning in Regina. The hospital was an institution of about 600 beds in those days. We had comfortable intern's quarters and had a rotating schedule which gave us a little experience in all fields. Moreover there was a real pathology department with the resultant higher standards. It was an "approved" hospital for internship which was most important to me.
In November 1936 a delegation from the village of Francis came to the hospital superintendent to recommend to them a young graduate to be the community physician. I haven't the foggiest notion why I was chosen. I was truly frightened with the prospect of starting to practice. I was penniless. All I had for equipment was my stethoscope. Events began to unfold very rapidly. I was guaranteed a minimum monthly stipend of $125.00 plus other incentives to increase my income. The community was predominantly a WASP enclave with a dominant United church, a Masonic temple and two general stores. Naturally there was a post office, a telephone exchange, a Chinese restaurant but most important there was running water and electric power from a real utility. The village was only 39 miles from Regina. We had excellent communication for those days. The highway although a gravel road was considered good. There was a sporadic bus service but most important there were two trains daily to Regina and two trains to return.
The "fringe" incentives were very tempting. I was offered the entire second floor of the Bank of Commerce building on the main street. The floor was subdivided into several rooms. There would be more than enough space for me to have a waiting room for patients, a consulting room as well as an examining room. Then of course there was my "own" living quarter. The adjacent building to the quarters I was to occupy was the pool hall, the barber shop and the living quarters of the proprietor and his wife. The were a young childless couple called Hazel and Alf. They offered me 3 meals daily, plus laundry and housekeeping of my premises for $35.00 a month. The furnishing were all donated to me gratis by the community.
The representative of Ingram and Bell, and instrument and drug company offered to fully equip me for practice. I could repay them in any way I chose from future income. The few drugs available then were also supplied to me to dispense to my patients - all on the same basis of repayment. There was no drug store in the community so I was the dispenser by necessity. The needs were really very simple. There was aspirin of course. Then there were two types of cough syrup - one for adults and one for children. Then there was iron for anaemia and an Oil of Wintergreen rubbing compound for muscular aches and pains. Then there were the usual exotic necessities like Vitamin A & D capsules which were very popular at that time for arthritis and skin disorders. For eczema there was a tar ointment and for infections like impetigo I had a good supply of an amnoriated mercury compound. Considering how few tools doctors had in those days it amazes me today how highly the medical profession was held in those days.
Patients were grateful for what little one could do for them. No one expected a miracle. People appreciated being listened to. Kindness and caring could work wonders. An important part of practice was of course a home visit. I had purchased a 1928 second hand Chevrolet sedan. I paid $300.00 for it with no down payment. I don't recall how much I paid in monthly instalments but I do recall that I had it fully paid for at the end of my first year.
My first winter in practice were nightmarish. My greatest anxiety was the unexpected labour of a woman of whom I knew nothing. I had some very close calls. I was called one night to attend a woman in labour. When I arrived at the farm house the woman was bleeding profusely with no sign of a baby. I realized that she had a placenta praevia. It's a dreaded complication of pregnancy. In those days it was one of the leading causes of maternal death. At this time I must have had a guardian angel looking after me. Shortly after arriving she expelled the placenta first and then a stillborn infant. This dreaded complication is one where the placenta or afterbirth is implanted wrongly at the outlet of the uterus making a normal birth impossible. The patient survived but just barely. It was a harrowing night I spent in that lonely farmhouse. It somehow got around that I had saved the woman's life, which of course didn't hurt my reputation. Then of course there was George Koronkiewicz. George was Polish and was a large landowner and reputedly very well off. Prior to my arrival he had been to see several opthamologists about increasing blindness. None of them could do anything for him so he decided to seek advice at the Mayo Clinic. Shortly after my arrival in Francis he came in to see me with the question "Do You know anything about eyes, doc?" I said "not much" and then asked him what he had come to see me about. He pulled out a vial of murky solution and a piece of paper outlining the injectable dose schedule of this vaccine which had been given him at the Mayo Clinic. I asked him what was the diagnosis made in Rochester. He said he didn't know but had been instructed to have the vaccine administered to him once a week. I said to him that I really didn't like the idea of giving a vaccine without knowing the reason for giving it. "So what do you think I've got, doc?" he asked. I said maybe it's "retrobulbar neuritis". He looked at me somewhat perplexed and said "write it on a piece of paper". He then pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and compared what I had written with what was written on his paper. He was amazed that I had guessed correctly. He became a devoted fan and extolled my brilliance to all who would listen.
The winter of 1937 was a dreadful one for me. Pneumonia was of epidemic proportions. It probably had the characteristics of the deadly �'flu' epidemic of 1919.
The earliest Air Ambulance in Canada was started by a funeral director in Regina called Speers. People thought he ran it as a public service but in fact it helped him corner the bulk of the funeral business in a large area of southern Saskatchewan. If I had someone desperately ill in winter, I would phone Speers and his pilot would arrive in a little flimsy single prop plane accompanied by a nurse.
He had both skis and wheels. With snow on the field he would use the skis. If the field was bare he would land with wheels. Never did he have an accident. The nurse and he would carry the patient out on a light stretcher and off they'd go. In less than half an hour they'd have the patient in hospital, most of these patients died anyway but I would get credit that everything possible had been done. That first winter I lost 8 patients to pneumonia.
My basic stipend from the community was $125.00 per month but the majority of patients were not members and therefore were expected to pay me something. Most of the time I accepted what was offered. The summer of 1937 was climactically the most dreadful of all pervious summers on the prairie. The heat was unbearable and broke all previous Canadian records. In early July the temperature topped 110°F in many parts of the south. The winds were ferocious with dust storms blackening the sky and blocking roads for days on end. To aggrivate the misery the winds brought in huge hordes of grasshoppers from the States. They were everywhere. The plugged the radiators of cars, they fouled the windshields and appeared in the most unexpected places. The few trees around, the fields and gardens were totally denuded of living plants. It was like a Biblical plague foisted as punishment. John Steinbeck captured the mood of despair in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.
As in Arkansas and Oklahoma many Saskatchewan farmers simply picked up their families loaded them onto their trucks and silently stole away on a very long and arduous journey across the prairie and across the mountains for greener pastures. The suffering was dreadful. The animals suffered as well, for lack of fodder, thousands of horses and cattle starved to death. The crops continued to be adequate in Ontario and the railroad offered to ship spare food for free to the prairies. Bags of apples, potatoes and cabbages began to arrive. It was a drop in the bucket but nonetheless much appreciated.
The misery did not subside that fall. An epidemic of equine encepholomyelitis broke out. It seemed as if hardly a family escaped. I became adept at doing spinal taps and would do the cell count on my Zeiss microscope. Fortunately the vast majority of patients survived without any residual aftereffects. There was no treatment which was probably just was well. But there was a vaccine available for horses and the government purchased a large supply and provided it gratis to farmers who were expected to administer it themselves. I was immediately given the status of a veterinarian. I was expected to administer the vaccine intravenously. The only handy veins were in the horses neck. I was truly frightened and so was the horse. A snorting, shaking animal that size makes a city slicker no match. After a few failures I got the hang of it and managed to do it properly, but I never got over my anxieties. I can't recall whether anyone ever paid me for my suffering.
It was amazing to me when my patients ever got the few dollars some would slip me in gratitude. At the end of my first year in Francis I had earned around $4,000.00. This was a considerable sum in those days and I paid off my debt for the car and for my office supplies to Ingram and Bell. I decided then that I would never again purchase anything on credit. And tried always kept my promise.
My education was expanding. I began to do tonsillectomies. It was understood that I would be paid $15 for the operation. And most of the time I actually collected.
During that terrible summer of 1937 someone in the community go