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Max Roytenberg

Max Roytenberg: Remembering Winnipeg

Max Roytenberg, Dec 19, 2012

In the dying days of 2012 I was reading Winnipeg Jewish Review on my computer. I chanced on the page of obituaries and the list of Jewish Winnipeggers who died in August of this year. I was shocked to read of the passing of a number of my contemporaries that I knew. I was shocked because they were dead and I was still alive to be shocked by their passing. I knew they must have had some stories to tell and I wondered if they told them? It would be a pity if they had not. There must be some people out there who know their stories, who could tell their stories. It would be a pity if they did not. The people who would most appreciate their stories would be their contemporaries and they are fast dying out. Their stories should be told sooner rather than later. Now approaching my eightieth year, why not tell one of them now?
I was born in 1934 with the economic depression reaching its nadir. Things must have been tough. I don’t know of them but I do remember the years afterward being old enough to walk with my father over Salter Bridge to the Logan side to get some shoes at Welfare, before winter set in.
Before that, we lived on Magnus in the North End. It must have been near McPhillips because I remember a steam engine coming down the lane behind our house. Then we moved to Powers Street, at the lane that led to Aberdeen School. We always ran for school when we came home for lunch - only when the bell rang of course. We rented a terrace house initiating a life-long habit of tardiness that took me seventy years to overcome. Our neighbours in the terrace home were the Chapnicks. The Litmans lived across the street. The Mishnayish Shul was a few blocks away on Stella and Robinson. It was there that I had my Bar Mitzvah, where my future and current bride Miryom Kushner had her grandfather as the Chazan. We ate our chicken-pieces lunch as kids at back during Yom Kippur.
Things may have got worse for us economically because our next move was to a house on Jarvis street. The landlord, our neighbour Mr. Eisenstein, had a junk yard in the back which he ran as his business. I spent many happy hours after the yard was closed picking through the salvage for treasures, floating bottle caps in the puddles, building streamways and dams and sailing my pretend boats. The real treasure I found was a volume of the collected plays of Shakespeare that lost its cover. It started me on a voyage of discovery that continues to this day. I emptied shelf after shelf of libraries searching for substance that might match the golden vein of value in that mine. Books proved to be my escape and refuge from a world I found less than desirable.
The move to Jarvis heralded not just a geographic change but a cultural one as well. The neighbours were no longer Jews, they were refugees from the same hostile environment our parents had fled in eastern Europe. We were back in an environment of hate where the neighbours’ children ridiculed our names, our behaviours and our very presence. My sisters and I were the only Jewish children on the street. They threw stones at our doors and windows, paraded in front of our home, shouting catcalls and abuse. We were accosted by the schoolmates from the street and forced to fight to protect ourselves from their physical violence, going through their ranks one by one to earn the respect that bought respite. We learned what it was to be Jews in the world. Here at least we were allowed to defend ourselves.
When the War began our fortunes changed. My Dad got a job at the Dominion Cold Storage shovelling coal into the furnaces that were being used to dry eggs being shipped to Britain. The young men running the operations were soon drafted. My father who had no formal education beyond Cheder, was recruited to take the courses necessary to become the stationery engineer required by law to be present at all times. I remember him studying at the kitchen table during the War years, Sixth Class, Fifth Class, Fourth Class- by the end of the War my Dad was a Second Class Engineer. When the boys returned no end of study would move the needle any further. Nevertheless, there he was supervising the vast arrays of expanded facilities powering all manner of technical processes. It had been not long before my mother scraped together $900 for a down payment on a house. We moved up to St. Johns St-back among Jewish people and a transformed way of life.
We always felt enveloped by the womb-like Jewish community. We had our synagogues. We went afterschool to the Peretz Shul, run by Dr, Zolf, and the Talmud Torah, for our Jewish education, not to mention the little red (communist) schoolhouse. Mar Finklestein prepared me for my Bar Mitzvah with the help of his wooden stick. We had Jewish doctors, dentists and lawyers, Jewish city councillors. Remember Joseph Zuken and the Orlikow family? The corner grocer was Jewish where we bought on credit using paper strips representing money. When I was older I attended St. Johns Tech where the school practically closed down at the Jewish Holidays. The same was true for Miryom at Machray Elementary school.
Remember when Len Meltzer was the quarterback and Normie Mittleman was on the line? We were champions! What about Miss Handel, and all those Gilbert and Sullivan operettas? And those St. Johns tech reunions. I attended one in Israel. Remember David Steinberg, Allen Blye, Aubrey Tadman and the others who went to Hollywood. Remember Chaim Kushner, our famous criminal lawyer and the Mayor of West Kildonan.We shared in their glory. The “Y” was the place for our teen-agers and after the war, every description of Zionist movement with their clubhouses.
Then there were all those small Jewish businesses out there, and some that were not that small. We had Oretski’s and Gunn’s, the Surplus store, the shmatteh places, and O so many more. Oscar’s for smoked meat, and the White House, the Pool Hall and the Bowling Alley, the Good Earth, and Kelekis. (Oh horrors! And I even ate kolbasa.) The Starland and the College Theatre were where we went for movies. At the Starland when I was young we brought a lunch and stayed the day-two features, two shorts, the news and a cartoon). We had all our Jewish events at the Playhouse or the Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall. And what about Winnipeg Beach when our places out there were not much more than shacks?
Many of us flourished in this fertile soil. Others ventured outside, and, well prepared by this heritage, gave a good account of themselves. I know of some who succeeded well in Ottawa and the wider circle.. We knew we lived in a hostile environment, but we also knew there was a territory where we were among friends, even though there were sometimes arguments.
Is there anybody else out there still alive who remembers some of these things? Why not tell your story?
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