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Winnipeg History from 1905: The Writings of Ben Miller who opened The People's Book Store in Winnipeg before first Yiddish Newspaper

by Ben Miller

Winnipeg History from 1905: The Writings of Ben Miller who opened The People's Book Store even before the  first Yiddish Newspaper "Dos Yiddishe Vort" was established in Winnipeg

[Editor's note: While in Israel, Michael Patchen sent me this writing of his deceased uncle Ben Miller who came to Winnipeg in 1905 which is published here for readers to learn about the opening of the People's Book Store.]
by Ben Miller

I came to Winnipeg in 1905, at the time when Jewish pioneers, many of whom had escaped from the persecutions of Czarist Russia, sought to find a home and establish cultural centers in this new country.
Before even the first Yiddish newspaper, "Dos Yiddishe Vort", was established in Winnipeg, I had opened the Peoples’ Book Store.  To this day I am not sure what compelled me to choose a business which, at that time, was far removed from earning a comfortable living.  Other choices were available.  But I believe that the drive to be involved in cultural activity was too strong to be denied.
In 1910 I opened the book store in partnership with J Gurevitch and we operated it together for 5 years.  The community was relatively small.  There were no Jewish schools, nor school children buying Jewish books.  There were, as yet, no plans to establish the Talmud Torah, so that prospects for business were limited.
But the small, cramped store played a vital role in helping to mold future organized Jewish life, and contributed toward the development of the Jewish community.  The newly-opened book store became the gather –place, the hub, for various groups and provided a forum for the philosophies, goals and ideals of the newly-arrived immigrants.  The small, cramped store became the address of the Jewish community in Winnipeg.

In those years, the stream of immigrants swelled, bringing Jewish young people from various countries and regions; all strangers, all lonely and alone, torn from the mainstream of their lives and deposited in an unknown wilderness.  Each yearned for a friend to talk to, for a word of comfort.  He had only to ask for 824 ½ Main Street – there he was assured of finding others like himself.  In that cramped, small store the lonely immigrant could form relationships and find friendship.
Even though the stock in the store was limited, the store itself was filled to overflowing  with people, so that a legitimate customer had difficulty pushing his way through.  As you can well imagine, it was hardly quiet and peaceful there.  The shouting and raised voices could be heard for blocks around.  All were young and enthusiastic; each committed to his own ideals, to his own brand of "ism", to which he sought to convert others.  Although the heated and spirited discussions were deafening, they were friendly.  You would find people stubbornly defending their dogmas.  Zionist, Socialists, Labor-Zionist, Anarchists, Territorialists, and just plain radicals.  Meeting were conducted with people standing about or seated on upturned crates.  It was boiling, broiling mass of new arrivals seeking a constructive way to express its ideals.
These stormy sessions led to the founding of such important institutions as the Peretz School, the Arbeiter Ring School, the Jewish Library and many others.
When a group of young people organized the Youth Branch of the Arbeiter Ring, I served as secretary of the organization and meeting were held within the crowded walls of the book store.
In addition to the specific Jewish problems which absorbed us, we were also concerned with certain international political problems and developments.  Thus it is worth referring to the "Federenko Case", which lasted for months.  I can remember the turmoil that was created by the Russian revolutionary who had escaped from Czarist detention and sought refuge in Winnipeg.  He was arrested at the request of the Russian government, which sought to extradite him.  Of course, the young people who were filled with hatred for the Czarist regime would not be quiet, oh, no!  We shouted that we would never permit a revolutionary to be turned over to those blood –stained hands.  We called meetings – held at our store, - collected money circulated petitions which were forwarded to the Canadian government, until Federenko was released.
I could recall many events in which the store was invol.ved, but will mention only a few of the important issues in which the book store played an integral part.  It was there that the idea of a Congress to represent the totality of the Jewish population in Canada was born,   I had the honor of being one of the 10 delegates elected to represent Western Canada at eh founding conference.
The book store was always, over the years, a vital, living, meaningful institution.  Any time a writer, speaker or poet came to the city, he met the community in my small, cramped book store.  We had the privilege of having with us such great thinkers and leaders as Ab. Goldberg, Glantz-Leiles, Baruch Zuckerman, Dr. Nachman Syrkin, Dr. Chaim Zhitlowsky and many other who provided leadership and guidance to the young community.  At such times, the book store served as headquarters, introducing the guest-artist to the community and helping to sell tickets in order to assure a successful turn-out at the lecture or meeting.
Local groups, too had free use of the premises.  The Chess Club met there for many years and the Jewish Choir used it as a rehearsal hall.  Later, during World War I and again in World War II the book store served as headquarters for the Jewish Women’s Division of the Red Cross.  Here, too, was the collection point for money to aid the devastated Jewish communities of Europe after World War I.  Thus the tradition of the People’s Book Store as a community meeting place existed for many years.
My wife, Bertha, was equally devoted to Jewish cultural and educational activities and worked alongside me at the store.  Together we celebrated 50 years of existence of the People’s Book Store.  We retired in 1962, content in the knowledge that we had a share in laying the foundation for the great Jewish cultural institutions of Winnipeg and Western Canada and helped to contribute to the growth and development of w healthy Jewish community.

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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