A Collection of Stories and Poetry
By Members of the Echenberg Family
On the Occasion of the 4th Echenberg Family Reunion
August 25th-27th, 2006, Orford, Quebec
Contributors: Ruth Tannenbaum, Myer Kitner, Deborah Sheppard, Ann Echenberg, Leon Echenberg, Hope Finestone, Peter Tannenbaum, Sharon Weinstein, Jackie Friedman, Murray Richman
©Echenberg Family Reunion Committee, 2006
The Kitners of Ostropolye
Family picture, Ostropolye, circa 1910
The Gems We String Together
Leon’s Winter Boots
Ready for Passover.
One Way Ticket.
A Difficult Beginning and Easier Endings.
Lighting the Gas.
The Weinstein Family
Family Picture, Sherbrooke circa 1910.
The IODE in My Life.
Russian Songs My Father Taught Me.
The Hills of Home.
Dr. Tannenbaum, I presume.
La Boulangerie Saint Laurent.
Letter from Murray Richman.
My Mother’s Cousins.
Jessica’s Bat Mitzvah.
Welcome to the fourth Echenberg family reunion. It is now twenty years since the first one we celebrated in 1986, the centenary of the arrival of the first Echenberg ancestor, Moses Echenberg, in North America. It is an amazing accomplishment that we still manage to get together on masse every six years or so to renew our ties and connections, and reaffirm the specialness of being “an Echenberg”.
Every family has its history, but I don’t know of any other that has chronicled it so completely and thoughtfully as have we: a collection of photographs and other memorabilia, maintained to date by our archivist Hope Finestone, our massive and complex family tree that continues to grow and flourish with an ever more splendid variety. And now we add this addition: a book of poetry and short stories about Echenbergs by Echenbergs.
In undertaking this project, we were very fortunate to already have a store of wonderful stories and anecdotes recorded in writing or taped by relatives who sadly are no longer with us, but have left us a precious legacy of their memories. The story by Myer Kitner is actually an excerpt of his autobiography. My mother made a point of putting to words many of her childhood memories dating back to the twenties. Most of her stories are found here. As well, we have received submissions from a number of you, all of which have been included here. I hope you enjoy them.
This collection of stories and poetry is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more stories out there, waiting to be told and heard. It is my sincere hope that we can continue to add to this modest opus, so that it remains a perpetual work-in-progress as we live out our lives and remember those who are dear to us. If it is the collective will of the family, I will happily continue to receive stories from any of you, and add them to what we already have.
Reading these wonderful stories, remembering the people who figure prominently in them (and those who told them), I am filled with a sense of belonging, and with pride of who we are and what we have accomplished. Not only do they describe where we have come from, but they also give a sense of what we have become. Our family has evolved over the decades. But in the end, we remain close because we love one another, and that is the best definition of what being a family means.
My family history is bound up in a commonality, rooted in the shtetl of Ostropolye, situated in the Pale of Settlement, a territory variously ruled by the Poles and Russians. I rely on oral history; there are no written documents. My cousin Dean Echenberg recently went to Ostropolye while on a visit to the Ukraine. He brought back pictures which captured some of the features of the town and countryside. They gave a physical reality to the stories I had heretofore experienced as childhood memories of my father and uncle.
Ostropolye was situated on the Slucz River, and had a population of about 10,000 people. It was a market town, and thus it had strong ties with the surrounding countryside. The farmers and peasants made up the clientele of the town’s wares. The residents consisted mostly of merchants: millers, watchmakers, shop keepers, and so on. The Jewish community was pretty self-sufficient. It had within its confines the human and material resources needed to be fairly independent. I don’t know if there were any “professionals” — doctors, lawyers and so forth — living in Ostropolye. There probably were not; it was likely the villagers had to travel elsewhere to seek out those kinds of services. For education the town had the cheder or Jewish school and the Russian Gymnasium to prepare students for the professional schools.
The big towns in the region were Berdichev and Zhitomir. My paternal grandmother, Hanna Shochet, came from another shtetl. Her father was a rabbi, probably a schohet. His family was reputed to have descended from the Bal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism. Great emphasis was put in my father’s family on Balibatischkeit, on being refined or finer Menschen. There were all kinds of social rankings in the Jewish community. My father’s father married a woman who had class. She met the criteria for the son of Baba Rachel and Fette Alter. My great grandfather was named “Alter” or eldest in order to fool the devil. It was a way of protecting the newborn child, according to some superstition.
Baba Rachel, like her daughter-in-law, had also come from another shtetl. She brought enormous prestige to the family, since she was more highly educated than most of the women of her generation, especially in bookkeeping. Her father had been a wealthy merchant in a neighbouring town. He may not have had sons, so he taught the art of double entry book keeping to his daughter. This was a source of great Iches, or family pride.
Ras dva driche tereya piat
Pistev zychick pogolyat
The Kitners of Ostropolye
By Myer Kitner
Meyer Kitner was firmly standing on the clay cliff in Ostropolye1. The year was approximately 1906, at the turn of the 19th century. He looked toward the great ball of fire on the eastern horizon that slowly emerged as the rising sun. The sky was brightening, illuminating the horizon with a line of gold as the sun was crept up, higher and higher, turning the rainbow colours into a beautiful view.
The different shapes of the clouds were framed in gold and as the sun kept rising they kept changing in shapes and colours, beautiful purplish hues, red, orange, and changing the different shades of blue in the clouds. He could never stop marvelling at the beautiful sun gradually lighting up the sky. He turned his back to the sun to see the effects it was having on his little town of Ostropolye. Like magic, as the sun was throwing more light into the shtetele. It was waking up.
Doors were starting to open to welcome in the warmth and comfort of the sun. People were awakening, starting into their regular routines. Now and then, you would see someone throwing a pail of dirty water out onto the grass. One after another chimneys poured streams of rising smoke, curtains were withdrawn and windows opened to greet the warm sun.
That western part of Ostropolye had three of four rows of homes on parallel streets, all running from east to west. All the streets had wooden lateral sidewalks and most homes had wooden fences. Some had wooden frames and others were made of clay. They were all more or less in a straight line. The first street was a row of small shops all facing a very big stretch of land which was used for a market. All of these shops had clay floors and were kept warm with hot coals in pails. You also had to dress warmly to sell your wares in these shops when it was cold.
Meyer Kitner felt good this morning. He was a man of God and very grateful that his living him provided him with a comfortable way of life, and most important of all gave him lots of free time to be home and study the Talmud.
Russia during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II contained many large tracts of land, owned by members of the aristocracy, or Pritzen as they were called. Very often they bought and sold property between them, sometimes many, many square miles in area. When a parcel of land like this was put up for sale, the prospective buyer would hire Meyer Kitner to evaluate the land. He would walk the area, examine the ground, judge the quantity of lumber, and note the quantity of the water in the streams and their contents.
Because of his impeccable reputation as an honest, fair and capable man, he was amply paid and could choose the jobs that best suited him. He worked when it was convenient for him, avoiding jobs around the Jewish holidays.
When he was not working he spent his time in Ostropolye, where, widely respected in the shtetl, he acted as a judge to settle estates, arguments, and was very active in the welfare of the Jewish community.
No wonder he felt good today. He was looking at a small piece of land on which he would build a home for his loving wife Maita Libbe, and his precious sons, Neevtou (Nathan) and Shama (Charles). He had seen it the day before and had come back to examine it in the bright sun, and conclude the purchase. He was standing on a clay cliff. Before him a narrow road wound down a small hill and curved almost at right angles onto a bridge. About four hundred yards behind him, the river broke into a waterfall just under the bridge, pouring a thin stream of water that pounded the rocks below in a steady, powerful flow, creating a welcome sound that felt like a heartbeat, a sound that he associated so strongly with the village that if it stopped it would lose its identity. The river was starting to sparkle with the reflections of the sun.
On the other side was the eastern part of Ostropolye, called Kalenev. The poorer people lived there in rows of shacks, including the infamous horse thieves of Ostropolye, who could steal a horse and change its colour, so that when the owner would see it the following week he would not be able to recognize it or identify it as his own.
The river some two hundred yards behind him was glistening with the sun’s rays, which cast a long shadow from Meyer’s body onto the piece of land that lay directly across the road running downhill to the bridge at the east end of the large market place. It was approximately two hundred yards south of his daughter Zlata’s home. All his precious family would be together, including Dora, who would be living with them. Yes, he would build and his sons would help.
And so with the help of Neevtou, Shama and a few carpenters, they built the house in the angle of the road leading to the bridge. The location was perfect – smack in between the two sections of Ostropolye on either side of the river, with the bridge connecting the two. Meyer’s home abutted a large court in front of his balcony. Facing it was the home of his daughter Zlata and son-in-law Yossel (Joseph). It was a nice cottage with beautiful roses growing on each side of the entrance.
Meyer’s home was more or less the same as Neevtou’s. Neevtou’s home was attached to Meyer’s home at right angles, with a large porch overlooking the marketplace. Shama’s home was attached partly to Meyer’s home at the back. Each home had good lighting, built in ovens in clay walls that were very efficient, about twelve feet high, four feet deep and four feet wide.
Shama Kitner, Meyer’s son , was a lucky man. He was fortunate to come back from the Czar’s army unharmed. He was broad shouldered with arms like iron, six feet tall, well muscled, and strong and adept enough to be honoured with a special medal of bravery. He was very well respected by his fellow soldiers, well liked and appreciated for the saving of not one, but two, officers’ lives.
One of the officers presented him with a beautiful silver wine cup adorned with the Russian eagle. The other officer gave him a gift of unusual scissors, made of very good quality steel. These gifts were presented during a special evening of celebration, in honour of Shama’s bravery. The best gift of all was the release of his commitment to the Czar so that he could come home to his family and to his childhood sweetheart Nechuma (Naomi), build his home, marry and start a family.
Moishe (Moses) Echenberg was Nechuma’s father. He was a tall goodlooking man, very muscular, with wide shoulders, piercing large black eyes, and with dark hair and a long dark beard that tapered to grey. He, like his father Zaida Alter, was very religious. He was well respected by the whole village, not only because he was Ostropolye’s commissioner, but because he was involved, with Meyer and Zaida Alter in the establishment and construction of the only synagogue in the area. He was a wonderful provider and a devoted husband and father, besides being loyal to the whole family.
Hanna was sixteen years old when she married Moishe. She was a beautiful woman with a tiny figure, beautiful complexion, and pleasant- looking face. She was always devoted to her large extended family. The oven built into the clay wall of the kitchen was a continuous source of baked goods: fresh bread, cherry and potato verenekes and kiggel and meun (poppy seed) recipes from Humentaschen to honey sweets that melted in your mouth.
They were both believers in education, and all their four girls learned to read and write Hebrew and Yiddish. Their two boys also received the same education. Duddy (David), the eldest son, liked to be immaculately dressed, and fell in love with the beautiful soft leather Russian boots his father had made for him. He vigorously refused to go the Gymnasium (school) because he had to walk on muddy roads and he did not want to get his boots dirty.
They always glistened. His father actually hired a man to carry him to school on his back, because he did not want him, or any of his children, to miss any time in school.
Lusye (Leon) was the younger of the two boys, a very active child, very much involved in school. He was also interested in the garden. As a little boy he watered the flowers with a small pail, and raised pigeons in the attic of the bam. He studied pigeons and knew every species. He enjoyed it when his mother asked him to pick vegetables from the garden, and became the one designated for that task.
Munye, Buzye and Nechuma, the eldest of the children, were three beautiful girls, very intellectual, bright and excellent in their studies. They were very forward thinking, and were responsible community members, helping at the school and during times of sickness.
Reva was the youngest of the family. She was fourteen years younger than Duddy. Excellent in studies and eager to go to school, she was a studious little girl, very quiet at home and being the baby she was loved, cuddled and entertained by all. Very sweet and intelligent, she warmed herself into your heart.
Nechuma had a beautiful face with delicate skin, dark hair, and big dark brown eyes that made you see beyond their physical beauty. Through them you could see that in her heart she was a kind, generous, and loving person.
The three older girls were very popular with the boys and girls in the neighbourhood. They were very devoted to their parents, their family, and contributed more than their share to help the elderly. So much did the sisters sympathize with the plight of the poor, that they joined the small group of intelligentsia in Ostropolye in hopes of creating a wonderful and brave new world. As time went by Munye and Buzye found boyfriends that shared the same beliefs, and so became more and more involved in the Communist movement.
Nechuma, the youngest of the three, was not involved like her sisters, because she was more interested in that young soldier in the Tsar’s army. She was gradually becoming more and more enchanted with Shama Kitner. When a group of teenagers gathered to talk, sing songs, go on hay-rides, or picnics, they found themselves drawn to each other. Shama strove more and more to get leaves from the army. She felt her heart skip when she beheld this handsome young man and looked forward anxiously for his visits.
As the news of the Tsarist government’s instability grew, some in the village grew afraid. Thus Meyer saw his family gradually depart. Neevtou and wife and his family, Yossel and Sonia, decided to leave for a better life in a distant country. It was easy for him to get a passport and proper documents, because of his Father Meyer’s close affiliation with Moishe Echenberg, the commissioner of Ostropolye. They left for the United States of America, much to the disappointment of Meyer and Maita, whose sorrow in seeing their loved ones leave forever was tempered with the hope of what opportunities awaited in the Goldene Medina. They were soon followed by Neevtou’s family. Another blow for Meyer and Maita. However, they derived great pleasure from Shama, who was courting the beautiful Nechuma, daughter of their friends, Moishe and Hanna Echenberg.
Shama was setting himself up in business, in preparation for marriage. The living room in the front of his house was converted into a large watchmaker’s shop with a large window looking onto the front porch. He ingeniously made the large dial on the clock out of plate-glass, with big minute and hour hands. The clock’s mechanism was so small it was hardly noticeable. It looked like there was no clock there, just the two big hands indicating the time.
The clock was the only one of its kind in the village and it was in a prime location. It was in comer of the house Meyer built facing the road going to and from the bridge. In back of this modest shop that eventually grew into a substantial jewellery store was a corridor leading into the very large kitchen in the back. A door on the right wall led into a very large bedroom with a big luxurious bed in the centre facing the entrance. On the wall next to this door was a beautiful silver tray that was made by a well- known Ostropolye sculptor depicting the story of Ivan Ivanovitch, a Russian peasant who tricked Napoleon’s army by leading them into the woods instead guiding them into Moscow.
The oval silver tray was all embossed with a sharp steel nail and showed one of Napoleon’s generals offering a bagful of gold coins at the feet of Ivan Ivanovitch. The story was embossed around the oval tray. The peasant preferred to be shot to death, rather than lead the army out of the woods and towards the road to Moscow.
Opposite this wall, on the right and in the middle, was a round glass set in a brass bezel that opened up into the parallel corridor in Meyer’s house. It was the connecting link between the two families. Underneath this window, which was about twelve inches round like a boat’s porthole, was a black leather couch. There was no ceiling in this hallway connecting the shop and the large kitchen, but a very large skylight that threw sunshine into the house.
The kitchen was very big. The left wall contained the oven, built into the wall. The right wall as you came in contained a few steps that led into a very big room called the Komer, like a large storage area. It was built over the stable, into a sloping hill that ran alongside the road to the right (eastern) side of the building.
It was an ingenious concept that was most likely Shama’s idea, since he was very capable in these matters. It made it very easy to drive into the stable with horse and buggy from the side road, without taking away living space from the house above. On the left wall further away from the oven was a large bathroom, with a toilet complete with chain, unique to the village. There was also a large bath and a window that provided fresh air and light for the bathroom. A back door lead out of the bathroom into the little passage.
The back wall of the kitchen, facing you as you walked into the kitchen from the hallway, was another ingenious invention of Shama’s. It had a false window at the very top near the ceiling. By climbing a ladder to the window, you could push it open by means of a spring hinge, go through, and then climb down the other side into a secret chamber. There you were surrounded with shelves that contained expensive jewels, clocks, watches and other valuable items. This room was built a few years after Shama married and his jewellery store had expanded.
Shama now was courting his love Nechuma almost every night, and when he was overloaded with work, she would come to visit him and keep him company, sitting next to his bench. It was very pleasant for him to do the work he liked so well and with the girl he loved beside him. And so during his free time in the evenings, Shama started to make a gold chain for his future wife, patiently making four rings into one link, and connecting these links by patiently soldering them together, until he had a chain that was approximately thirty-six inches long.
Meyer and Maita Libbe were pleased with Nechuma and her esteemed family, with whom they were already friendly. Because of their involvement in the founding of the synagogue, the Rabbi of the synagogue was honoured to perform the wedding ceremony. However, Nechuma, being modem-minded, would not agree to go to the mikvah. She stated she would not bathe in water other women had used, claiming it was not healthy, much to the disappointment of her parents, as well as Shama’s parents.
Because of that, it was deemed unsuitable to have the wedding in the synagogue. Much to Nechuma’s preference, she and Shama requested to be married in Moishe’s large mill on the outskirts of Ostropolye. It was very spacious and could be cleaned up very easily, decorated nicely and could easily accommodate the large party family and the friends. And so it came to pass that Nechuma realised her wishes. The mill was transformed into a beautiful hall, elaborately decorated with hanging ribbons. The beams were covered with colourful cloth, an platform set up for the klezmers (musicians). The wine was flowing with the merriment of everyone and the mood was high. The food was delicious and both mothers, Hannah and Libba, added to the tables their dishes they were renowned for.
Although it was unusual to hold a wedding outside the synagogue, it was a great success. The music resounded merrily through the hall and everyone danced and drank into the early morning. All their remaining relatives were there. Shama’s friends including Yosef Pugach and Shmielick Echenberg, his buddies from the army, and the chief of police was there. He was more than a chief of police: he ran the village, like a mayor and chief of police combined.
The wedding lasted until early morning and all had a great time. It was a good idea, because the synagogue could never have accommodated all of the guests. It was the most outstanding wedding of Ostropolye, the biggest in the Jewish community, and the first one to be conducted outside the synagogue. Nechuma and Shama moved into their home, the house that Meyer built with Shama, to build their lives together.
Since they were always together, Nechuma watched Shama consistently as he dismantled watches and remounted timepieces with great precision. She started to learn the trade, working together with Shama to become better and better. Gradually the business progressed and became more profitable to the point where his walls were full of nice watches and clocks. That’s when he built the secret wall built in the back of the kitchen to hide he kept his excess inventory. Shama used to go to Kiev for his purchases, and this hiding place served more or less as a vault.
Because Nechuma was familiar with the business, it was easier for Shama to leave for a few days to Kiev. He would come back with the latest in jewellery, watches and clocks and their workshop flourished. He would also come back with rare gifts for Nechuma and family, as well as with stories from the big city.
On one occasion he told the story of a bearded man that ran up to him on the busiest street comer of Kiev and pulled out of the inner part of his coat the most beautiful sable hat you ever saw!
“This beautiful hat can be yours for one hundred roubles,” he said.
Shama took the hat in his hand, felt the soft shiny sable, admiring the lining and fur, and in his head he said, “This hat is a give-away for one hundred roubles -1 must buy it.”
But before he had a chance to bring his money out, a young man ran over, grabbed the hat out of his hand and said to the bearded salesman, “How much for this hat?”
“One hundred roubles,” the man answered, and in the flash of a minute he said, “I’ll take it!” and he handed the money to the salesman with the beard.
Shama was left standing, disappointed.
“Don’t worry”, the man exclaimed, and with that he pulled out of his inner vest pocket a big gold pocket watch with an elaborate gold chain.
“You can have this prize for only three hundred roubles. Its value is more than one thousand roubles.”
Shama took the watch and chain in his hand, and immediately realized it was a fake.
“No thank you,” he said, rejecting the salesman’s insistence.
Every time he went to Kiev and passed the same or nearby comer, he saw the same bearded man selling the sable hat, and the young man quickly buying it in exactly the same way.
Shama and Nechuma were married in 1909. Before Shama married Nechuma he knew that she was bom with a murmur in her heart, and had to be careful of over exertion. However, being newly married, they consulted a doctor for the possibility of starting a family. The doctor stunned them with the news that Nechuma’s life would be in danger if she had a baby. The following year they both went to Kiev and sought out a heart specialist only to be given the same sad news. As the years went by Nechuma found her lives empty without a baby. She decided on her own to take the chance, in spite of the doctors’ warning. She took the matter in her own hands, and with the blessing of God, she became pregnant in the fall of the year 1913.
Shama also as a sideline dabbled in stocks. In that era, when you purchased stock, you purchased the actual merchandise, whether it was a carload of copper, flour or whatever. Shama’s very good friend was Yossel Pugach, who came from a wealthy family, but he himself was not a businessman or a craftsman. He was a very well educated young man, interested in history, astronomy, etc. Shama and he both pooled their resources and purchased stock together, and shared the profits or losses.
On one of the occasions that Shama left for Kiev, Yossel Pugach purchased a carload of honey while Shama was away. This time Shama was delayed in Kiev and stayed longer than usual. In the meantime, the carload of honey kept going down and down in value every day and Yossel got nervous and figured its best to sell it even at a loss of 25,000 roubles.
When Shama came back, he did not tell him about the purchase, or the sale. When Shama found out about the incident he asked Yossel, “Why didn’t you tell me you acquired a carload of honey when I was in Kiev?”
“Because,” Yossel replied, “I did not have a chance to ask for your opinion when I bought it and took upon myself to sell it at a loss of 25,000 roubles.”
“Tell me honestly,” said Shama, “If you would have made 25,000 roubles, would you have split it with me?”
“Of course,” said Yossel.
”So then”, said Shama, “It is only fair that being your partner, I should also share half the loss.”
This was how business was done in that era. Deals were struck with a handshake, and one’s word was a holy commitment to be kept.
Other members of the Kitner family decided to pull up stakes and depart for the new world. Dora made her decision to leave with Yossel Tretiak and her mother Maita for America. Neevtou and his wife, K., with his little son Yossel and daughter Sonia were also leaving. The Kitner family was being dispersed, and it took is toll on Meyer. They decided to leave as most of the family were excited to leave, and one convinced the other. It was easy to get the documents from Moishe Echenberg, but they could not convince Shama and Nechuma.
Shama had more invested in Ostropolye than his did sisters or brother. His home was precious to him. The jewellery shop business that he built was dear to him. He had worked very hard to build this foundation. Mostly, he felt secure. The Chief of Police was a very good friend of the family, and especially of Shama, and he laughed at the talk of change in the government.
It would never happen, according to him. The Czar’s Imperial government was too powerful. His army was well equipped, well trained, well fed and well armed.
Nechuma’s elder sisters, Munye and Buzye, close to her in age, really believed in Communism. They and many of their friends, the new generation, wanted to reach out to the people. They chose the benefits of Communism over the faults of imperialism: high taxes, preferential treatment of the elite, corruption among the politicians, the aristocracy, the royal family, and others.
It was hard to leave Ostropolye, to leave your friends, the village where you were bom, the market, the synagogue, and the community that you knew by their first names. After all, although Shama’s family was leaving, Nechuma’s was still there: her three sisters, her two brothers, her grandfather Zaida Alter and her loving father Moishe and mother Hanna.
They too were set on remaining. Moishe the commissioner was busier than ever, as some people were starting to leave. Zaida Alter was busy in the egg business with Munye and Buzye living under the same roof. Reva, under the wings of her parents, loved school, was loved by all. Lusye, happy in school was outstanding in the Hebrew studies, and very happy raising his pigeons.
Duddy, fourteen years older than Reva, had ideas of his own. He was the only one in that family that believed in starting his life in a new progressive country like America. He was a very popular young man, very handsome with a muscular agile body, very dark brown eyes and a head full of curly hair, an admirable ice skater, who took every opportunity to demonstrate his skills on the spacious river nearby. Even though he his family and many friends in Ostropolye, he made the decision to leave shortly after he finished at the Gymnasium.
Everyone was very sad when he said goodbye, and wished him well in the new country. Moishe gave him a generous amount of money that would help him to get started. His goal was Montreal, in the country of his choice,
Canada. His mother Hanna helped him pack his beautiful clothes and quality leather boots, with tears.
Ostropolya, circa 1910: Shama Kitner, center back row, Nechuma Kitner second to the right, Alter Echenberg, sitting with white beard, Moses, sitting with dark beard, Leon centre front row, Reva right front row.
By Deborah Sheppard
August 26, 2001
In memory of Myer
You were our bridge
to the world of village,
the last one to remember,
to remind us of
the long-ago journey that
brings us all
to this place,
here, in this moment.
Our palms are cupped
to hold all
the stories of boyhood,
daredevil little one,
memories of the man –
friend, cousin, uncle,
hus band, brother,
grandfather, father –
heart big enough to hold
each one of us,
uncounted acts of
gentle kindness that glisten,
gems we string together to measure the length of
your rich and loving life.
By Leon Echenberg (as retold by Peter Tannenbaum)
Throughout most of his adult life, Moses Echenberg, son of Alter, was the chief magistrate of the Jewish population in the shtetl of Ostropolye in the Volinye province of Tsarist Russia, in what is now within the Ukraine. It fell to him to intervene with the local authorities on any issues that affected the Jews of Ostropolye. He was a proud man, with an iron will and a fierce temperament. This made him ideally suited to deal with the local constabulary, and he was well respected by them.
In one critical matter his influence was crucial. Every year recruiters from the Tsar’s army came — known colloquially as khuppers — and fingered all those eligible, which meant any young man not already enlisted, for enrolment into the ranks of the army. For young Jews, this was a catastrophe. Enlistment into the Tsar’s army was a twenty-five year commitment. Once removed from their homes, Jewish recruits were weaned away from their religion and culture, and lost all connection with their families.
Thus it was not surprising that each winter, when the khuppers came calling, young Jewish men mysteriously disappeared. In the local jargon they were referred to as chichiks – chickadees – who flew the coop at the first sign of danger. If a chichik was unfortunate enough to be caught, the only recourse was a substantial bribe to be paid by their family to the authorities. And it was in this regard that Moses was often called upon to serve in the capacity of negotiator. 3
One such instance involved Moses’ benighted young cousin Yitzik. Despite the evident risk of being out and about during the dangerous enlistment period, Yitzik decided to pay a visit to his cousin Moses, thinking to sneak in through the back entrance, so as not to be seen.
The front room of the house, one of the grandest in the village, served as Moses’ “office” where he received local dignitaries and members of the Jewish community to discuss matters of business. It was there in this room that the local police chief happened to be awaiting Moses’ return when, through the side window, he espied the unfortunate Yitzik attempting to sneak in through the back.
Not wasting a moment the Police Chief tore through the house and grabbed Yitzik as he made his entrance. He stuck his forefinger through the top buttonhole of Yiztik’s winter coat in order to firmly secure him.
“Now, I’ve got you!”, he cried triumphantly, and dragged him to the front room.
At the moment Moses arrived. Taking in the scene, he understood in an instant what was happening. His face immediately clouded over, and his temper broke like a furious thunderstorm. Lashing out with his fist, he landed a tremendous blow on the Police Chiefs hand that landed on the offending finger that held poor Yitzik captive, causing the Police Chief to relinquish his hold. He clutched his throbbing hand and grimaced in pain.
“Alter-ovich!”, he exclaimed, calling Moses by his patronym in the Russian vernacular. “What gives?” He was astonished, never expecting such behaviour from his good friend and colleague.
Moses glared angrily at the Police Chief and pointed to the door.
“Get out!”, he roared. “How dare you do this? In my house? To my kin? Don’t you ever do anything like that again!”
As soon as Cousin Yitzik found himself out of the Chiefs clutches, he beat a hasty retreat, as you can imagine.
Some years later, Moses was stricken by a terrible stomach illness that would cause him to take to his bed for days at a time in excruciating pain. On one such night, at three o’clock in the morning, his household was awakened by frantic pounding at the door. Who could it be at such a late hour?
It was Tsitsinye, the miller’s wife. Now, being the miller’s wife was not something to be proud of in the caste-ridden world of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Jewish shtetl of Eastern Europe. They were reputed to be gonifs, crooks. In the winter, when the farmers would bring their grain to market to be milled, Tsitsinye would hock her services in a loud, grating voice. To keep warm, she clasped a great earthenware pot to her belly, filled with the burning embers of roasting wheat chaff. It was said that the millers secretly siphoned off some of the farmer’s grain, secretly stealing from them. Thus they were relegated to the bottom of the social pecking order.
And here was such a one – Tsitsinye – pleading for Moses’ aid. Her son had been seized by the khuppers. What was she going to do? To everyone’s great surprise, Moses rose in great pain from his sick bed, donned his clothing and went out into the cold, bitter night to attend to this situation. He was out all night long, returning only in the morning, ashen-faced and wracked with pain. He immediately took to his bed.
That evening, after he had slept and eaten a little, his young son Lusye came to visit his bedside.
“Father,” he said. “I don’t understand. Tsitsinye is the lowest of the low. Why, of all people, would you go and help her, when you are so sick and suffer so much? Why, Father, Why?”
“I’ll explain to why, my son,” replied Moses. And he told Lusye the following story.
Twenty years earlier, when Moses’ wife Rachel was heavily pregnant with their first child, Lusye’s older brother David, she ran a dry goods store in the market place. It was winter, and the khuppers had already made their rounds, seizing mostly non-Jewish youths. That meant that there were crowds of young Goyim milling around the market place looking for trouble.
Once chosen for the army, these young hoodlums could act with a great deal of impunity, knowing that the local authorities would turn a blind eye, preferring to see these miscreants ushered into the army barracks than languishing in a jail cell. Thus they were allowed to run riot. This was a bad time for the Jews who were often targeted by these thugs.
A group of twenty or more of them had gathered that day and ransacked Rachel’s shop, leaving her in a hysterical state. Moses arrived soon thereafter, and seeing the shambles and his poor wife distraught, immediately lost his temper and ran outside to confront the attackers who were still milling around in the street. Although he let fly many telling blows, at twenty to one the odds against him were too great, and Moses was dragged away by the mob.
They took him down to the banks of the river, where they intended to beat him to death. They chose a spot at the bottom of the clay cliff, where they thought they would not be seen. But at the top of the cliff, on the road on her way to the market that day with her earthenware pot filled with red-hot embers, was Tsitsinye. She looked down and saw what was transpiring. Without a second’s hesitation she tipped over that earthenware pot, sending the scalding embers tumbling down onto the heads of the young ruffians.
They scattered like leaves in the wind. She saved Moses’ life that day. That is why twenty years later, he rose from his sick bed to return the favour.
Leon’s Winter Boots
By Anne Linds Echenberg
During the war of 1914-18, Leon was a youth of nine years. His father was ill, food was scarce as were wood and fuel. At this point there was typhoid fever in their home, the only two who were not ill were Leon and Reva, two years younger. It was winter and it was very cold, so the two children went out with a small child’s wagon which they both pulled.
Reva dressed in her Mother’s fur jacket which came down to her ankles and Leon with his winter boots. They managed to find some wood, pieces of coal and roots from the gardens. Leon wore his wonderful boots for six months, never taking them off for fear of tearing them if he had to pull them off each night. When he finally was able to remove them, his poor legs were white and thin. It took months before they healed. Poor kid!
Ready for Passover
By Hope Echenberg Finestone
My Dad’s grandfather, Zeda Alter was a pious man. So it is understandable that the holiday rituals would have been carried out religiously in Ostropol. My Dad never failed to recount this story each Passover as my maternal grandmother, Bessie Linds, did her preparations.
All cooking and eating utensils had to be kashered (made Kosher) to be utilized for Passover. Dad remembered the silverware in particular was polished and rinsed. Then each piece was tied to a long cord and dipped into boiling water into which a very hot piece of iron was dropped.
Without fail, Zeda Alter would advise Dad and his younger sister Reva that their mouths needed to be kashered for Pesach too. He would line them up with their eyes closed and their mouths wide open. Anticipating a hot piece of iron, they were so relieved to feel something cold and refreshing on their tongues. Zeda Alter placed an orange cube in their mouth, a special treat he acquired while traveling to Kiev.
I: The Journey
Father Ken Nowakowski, president of Caritas Ukraine and Rabbi Reuben Azman, of the Great Synagogue of Kyiv, arranged for my visit to the Echenberg homeland. They assigned a multilingual driver named Tolik who was fluent in Russian, Ukrainian, English, German, and Polish.
I met Tolik in Kyiv, where I had convened meetings with Rabbi Bleich of the Orthodox Synagogue, and Rabbi Azman, of the Great Synagogue.
Kyiv is home to Babi Yar, a ravine in which 100,000 Jews, Communists, and POWs were killed in Sonderkommando 4a of Einszatzgruppe C. I have been to Kyiv many times in the past nine years; I have always disliked visits to Babi Yar. Tolik and I began our journey from Kyiv to the Echenberg city of origin at 7 a.m.. on a wet, foggy day. We headed southwest, anticipating a four-hour trip by car.
The road from Kyiv was not yet crowded with commuters, and we left the city limits without difficulty. Ukraine is comprised of 60+ oblasts, similar to states or provinces. Each of the Oblasts has villages, cities, and towns. The local demographics of each vary considerably. I had reviewed Dean’s notes the previous evening, and I was well prepared for the trip.
I was assigned the role of navigator, and Tolik gave me the Russian/Ukrainian language map to read. With the Kmelnitski Oblast as our target, we headed toward the city of Starokonstantinov (Old Konstantinov).
We stopped at a local apothecary along the way in the city of Zhitomir. Not trusting the cash register, the clerk checked her figures with an abacus, similar to the patterns of 1990 USSR. Zhitomer was once the home of hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens. Although a synagogue, holocaust museum, and cemetery remain, the Jewish population now numbers 2,000 persons. Zhitomer served as an Army base during the war. There were many Soviet-style buildings, in stark contrast to modern-day Kyiv. Tolik pointed out the local administration building, which was graced by one of the few remaining statues of Lenin. After completing our purchases, we headed west once again.
Tolik talked about his life in Lviv. He said that he had been a national swimming champion. His instructor in Lviv was Gregori Mikhael Weinstein, who at age 55, left for Haifa. His other instructor, Vira Lipman, now resides in Tel Aviv. The city of Lviv (in Ukrainian) or Lvov (Russian) in southeastern Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939, under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact. Lviv was subsequently occupied by Germany after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. In November 1941, the Germans established a ghetto in the northern sector of the city. Thousands of Jews were killed in the ghetto and in the Belzec killing center.
As we traveled, we passed a magnificent birch forest. Nazis had occupied the area during the war. During Soviet times, if you had a fruit and produce garden, you paid taxes on the quantity of fruit your garden produced.
We drove through Chedani; the name of the town means ‘miracle’ city. We shared the highway with horse-drawn wagons and carriages, and saw very few cars. Tolik offered some geographic boundaries. Ostropol was 50 km to the Austria-Hungarian territory during the time that our ancestors lived there; it is now 1400 km to the town of Brody, where many egg exchanges occurred. Tolik suggested that egg exchanges might have been in violation of local law. The town of Luba was our next stop; Luba is the home of the Roman Catholic Church and the Caritas Center. Residents have received substantial aid from the U.S.. and Canadian governments. We approached a stop sign that was in English, rather than Russian. It marked a traffic circle and a main intersection. Chickens, roosters, and geese crossed the intersection quite slowly. Tolik pointed out a flourmill that is still in use; it was as if time had stood still in Luba. He also showed me the Transfiguration Church.
In Volhynia, more than 142,000 Jews were murdered between May and December 1942. Some, who had been given refuge in Polish homes, were murdered along with their Polish protectors in the spring of 1943. In many villages, Poles and Jews fought together against the Nazis.
As we approached the Kmelnitski zone, we were greeted by a dull green tank. The words inscribed in front of the tank were: “Who set them free for the good of Ostropol.”
Traveling throughout the region, we searched for Kalinin Street in Staryostropol. We passed the main administrative building, a school (where Dean had visited), and the central bus stop. Stopping to ask several people along the route, we were directed to a fork in the road. Just west of Slobodah village and Adampil (town of Adam), we found a music school and a post office. Tolik entered the post office and asked a customer for directions. He returned to the car accompanied by Victor Sergeivitch Gorbachuk, who led the way to our destination. Victor Sergeivitch told us that mail is delivered on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It costs 4 hgryna to send a letter to the U.S.., and the monthly pension is only 45 hgryna, from which utilities must be paid and groceries must be purchased. He also said that in 1959, there were 10,000 people in the district; the current population is less than 2,000. He pointed out a small hospital, four stories high and Stalinesque in style. Apparently, there are two physicians in the area. Originally opened as a 100-bed hospital, there are now twenty staffed beds.
Turning onto a cobblestone road, we saw the mud-covered Kalinin Street sign and we approached the home of Anatoly Polansky and his wife, Katerina (Katya).
Anatoly said that he had been eagerly waiting for us. He greeted us warmly, and led us through the outer yard to a pile of shavings, currently used as a doormat. After scraping the mud from our boots, Tolik and I entered the vestibule of the modest home. The cold, dampness, and lack of light did not matter because the light shining from Anatoly’s eyes was enough to warm the entire room. Anatoly is 69, and his wife is 60. They have been married for nearly 20 years. His first wife was Jewish; Katya is Orthodox Ukrainian.
He led us to his desk, and immediately spoke lovingly of his visit with Dean five years ago. He had written a letter to me, in which he described his current situation. Tolik translated it onsite.
“My name is Anatoly Ostropovich Polansky. I ask to describe my situation in which I permanently care for the Jewish cemetery and guard it from vandals. I took this responsibility on my own. I am the only Jew in Ostropol. Soldiers killed as many Jews as they could locate in 1942. All of remaining Jews moved after that time. The local authorities take care of only orthodox cemeteries (Greek and Roman Catholic). No one takes care of Jewish cemeteries except me.
In 1997, Dean Echenberg came and promised to support me financially for my activities. He was contacting with the Peace Corps where he registered the necessary documents. The documents said that Polansky would be receiving $15.00 per month and a one-time payment of $100.00 for his (my) work. The manager of the office, Bob (Robert) called me and invited me to his office where I met with him. Thanks to an interpreter, I understood him and he gave me all necessary documents to sign. Those documents were about money and wages. He did not give me a copy of the documents. I read them and signed them over 5 years ago. Russian people say, “if there would be some honoraria for his work, it would be appreciated and would support my poor status.”
In spite of all this, I am still believe that Jewish people lived properly, and will be cared for properly when they die. I am working for the principle and means without bread. These people, in spite of their death, deserve my care. Now, I need an operation. I have adenoma. I did not have the surgery yet because I have not enough money, and for other reasons I can tell about. One year ago, when I was ready to go to the hospital, my son, Ihor, died in the Russian war, and I had to use the money to go to Moscow to return his body to this region.”
Anatoly and I discussed his need for surgery, and whether or not the local hospital could provide it. He told me that the main hospital in Stantinokov would do it for 700 hgyma or $140.00 (including the doctor bill and all medicines). He said that he has several bottles of heart medicine, including cardiodine, validol, and others. He takes what sounds like nitroglycerin as needed. He said that Dean had given him $60.00 during his visit, but of course, it was gone a long time ago. I gave him a total of $630.00 in cash; $150.00 for the surgery, $100.00 wages (honoraria), and $15.00 per month for two years. He was surprised, but so very pleased. He turned his head and you could see that he was shielding his tears from my sight. He and Katya embraced me and held me tightly.
The Polanskys survive on a $25.00 monthly pension and food parcels that he travels to Kmelnitski City to obtain from Chessed Beth. They grow potatoes, fruit and some other vegetables in their yard. Polansky then led Tolik and me to the cemetery sites while Katya prepared tea. Polansky has served as cemetery caretaker since the death of his Uncle, Avram Lessek.
Lessek was responsible for the engravings on the stones, many of which had eroded with age. He lived on the grounds of old (starry) cemetery; the Nazis took his house and he was killed at gunpoint in 1942. Polansky erected a brick fence around the old cemetery. Neighbors took the bricks, and parts of the remaining headstones to construct their own homes. He has asked neighbors not to let their animals roam throughout the cemetery, and according to him, “no one listens and no one has respect for the dead.”
We walked from one end to the other; he pointed out where people, including our ancestors, who died prior to 1909, would have been buried. He estimated that 10,000 bodies were buried in the area. He also showed us the burial ground of his grandparents, and the rabbi of the community.
We then crossed the road to the new (novy) cemetery, adjacent to the Polansky home. He had erected a fence to surround and protect the property. Although it was a cold winter day, you could see that plantings and trees added beauty to the site. He recently expanded the burial area; there are 400 bodies at present, including those of his parents. He has a small dacha-like building where he keeps his supplies. He also has a plank of wood laid across two large rocks on which he sits to reflect on his work during the warm weather. It is a source of peace for him because when he is there, no one can see him or hear him or his thoughts.
We returned to the home that he had built with his bare hands. Trained as a carpenter, he was employed as a driver for the Germans during the war. As a Jew, he was given the oldest, most unreliable car to drive. We washed our hands and sat down for tea. Katya had prepared plates of her own pickles, perogi, walnuts, and tea. We enjoyed homemade wine and home-distilled vodka, and we shared stories about our families. Polansky told me that there were two “Weinstein” families in the Ostropol region. They left prior to the Nazi invasion. Their relatives were buried in the old cemetery. He asked if I might be related to them, and of course, I did not know. He wrote a letter to Dean, with whom he was very impressed. I plan to send the translated version to him next week.
We remained with the Polanskys for photos, more stories, and camaraderie for several more hours. We agreed to take a 50 pound bag of potatoes, carrots and apples from their garden to Anatoly’s sister in Lviv. She has breast cancer, and she recently lost her daughter and son-in-law. She is caring for a one-year old grandchild alone. Polansky hoped that we might locate some used clothing for the child. I promised nothing, but I planned to pursue the purchase of clothing when I arrived in Lviv on the 21st. We hugged and kissed like old friends who had recently been reunited after many years’ absence. I felt as if I was truly ‘with family.’ Polansky asked me if all of the Echenbergs were ‘so warm and wonderful.’ I replied that not only were the original Echenbergs wonderful, but so too were those who joined the family through marriage.
Tolik and I re-arranged the car to make room for the potatoes and fruit. Anatoly and Katya accompanied us to the car and gave us a bag of walnuts for our journey. It has started to snow lightly, and the white flakes on Anatoly’s red face created a wonderful sight. We then departed for Temipol and the Caritas guesthouse, our overnight accommodation.
We encountered a severe snowstorm along the way, making the road slippery and travel difficult. Snow is not removed form the roads; there is no budget for snow removal and no equipment. The local officials believe that after several cars pass, the road will clear somewhat.
Because of the storm, we arrived in Temipol two hours later than expected. The guesthouse, home to an orphanage and other Caritas programs, had five guestrooms, no heat, and no hot water. We lit a fire in the main living room, and sat there with pots of tea to remove the chill from our wet, cold bodies. I planned to gather as many blankets as possible for what promised to be a very cold night.
Despite the cold, I felt warm within. The day had been long, but wonderful. My visit to Ostropol was a moving experience, and one that I shall not soon forget. In my work in the former Soviet Union over the past nine years, I have been a part of many life experiences. I have witnessed birth, death, surgery, and illness. I have met and known some very wonderful human beings, and the Polanskys clearly earned a place among the very best. We are fortunate to have them caring for the cemetery and home of our ancestors in the former Ostropol region. They now have money to last forawhile. Some of it, I’m certain, will be used to visit his sister in Lviv and to make plans for the care of her grandchild when she is gone.
I plan to communicate with Anatoly in Russian by e-mail to Caritas Ukraine. They have promised to download the letter, and mail it from Lviv to Staryostropol. I want to follow up with Anatoly about his surgery and his plans for a physician visit. I want them to know that the Echenbergs are their friends and that we value what they have done and will continue to do in the homeland of our forefathers.
Anatoly’s sister died two years later; she received care in the Lviv Clinical Oblast Hospital under the direction of one of my colleagues, the chief physician.
I sent follow-up letters via mail through Caritas, Ukraine on an annual basis through 2005 when my work in that region decreased and when Father Ken was transferred to Ottawa. Management and oversight of Caritas Ukraine changed substantially, but Tolik, who remains, told me that the child had been cared for by other very distant family members.
An additional $400 was transferred to Polansky through my contacts at Caritas Ukraine.
One Way Ticket
By Peter Tannenbaum
One of the last groups of Echenbergs to emigrate from Ostropolye to Sherbrooke consisted of the widower Alter Echenberg, his grand-daughter Nechuma Kitner with her husband Shama, himself a distant cousin, their two boys Meyer, aged six and Mussie, just an infant. Also accompanying them were Nechuma’s two youngest siblings: Lusye, a boy fifteen years old, and Reva, her twelve-year-old sister.
It was an arduous journey across the Ukraine, Poland and Germany to Antwerp, and then finally by boat across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia. By the time they arrived in Canada, they had been travelling more than a year. Their brother David Echenberg had preceded them years before, and having established himself among his landsmen in Sherbrooke, had been instrumental in sponsoring his family’s immigration to Canada.
He therefore travelled from Sherbrooke to Halifax in order to greet them upon their arrival. It was 1921, the year his daughter Ruth was bom, and in those days the train trip from Montreal was more arduous, taking up to a week to accomplish. With great anticipation he arrived at the pier in Halifax as the ship bearing his grandfather Alter, his siblings, brother-in-law and nephews came to dock.
On board too, the family felt great anticipation. But there was trouble. Shama had come down with a rasping cough, and was diagnosed with influenza. He was deemed unfit to enter Canada, and was told by the immigration officials that he would have to return to Europe.
“Well, if my husband is going back,” cried Nechuma, “then so am I and my babies with me!”
“And if my grand-daughter isn’t staying,” declared Alter, “then neither am I!”
Naturally there was no question of letting young Lusye and Reva disembark on their own. It looked as if the whole family wouldn’t make it ashore after all.
Back on the pier, David watched anxiously as the passengers deboarded. One after the other, he looked into their faces in the hopes of recognizing his long lost family. Nothing! No sign of them at all! He was beside himself with worry. Where could they be? It was now a long time since the last passengers had left. Were they still on board? Could they have missed the boat? He began to pace up and down the pier frantically.
Suddenly he heard his name shouted out. “Hey, Mr. Echenberg! What are you doing here?”
He looked up to see a customs official striding towards him with open hand. It was a colleague from his early days in America, when he worked for a chandler in New York City, loading goods onto ships. He had often dealt with this gentleman. What a coincidence! Imagine meeting this man here, of all times, of all places!
David quickly told his story to his friend, the customs officer, who listened attentively.
“Let me look into it,” he said when David finished. “I’m sure there’s some explanation.”
He boarded the ship and after a long, long while that seemed to last forever, reappeared and came down the gangplank to where David was waiting. He explained the situation to David.
“So, what can I do?”, exclaimed David.
“Do you have ten dollars on you?”, asked the man. “I’ll pass it to the medical officer who examined your brother-in-law. That should take care of it.”
Ten dollars was a lot of money in those days, more than a week’s wages. David willingly handed over the money and watched anxiously as his friend disappeared once more into the bowels of the ship. In the interim, the family had been herded into a holding area where they awaited the outcome. Leon, as Lusye was later known, remembered seeing a man in uniform slouched on a bench, chewing and chewing and chewing, but never swallowing. He was fascinated by this. He couldn’t understand it. What happened to the food in this man’s mouth? Of course, he had never heard of chewing gum.
Finally the situation was resolved. Alter, Nechuma, Shama et al were ushered into the welcoming and relieved embrace of brother David. They travelled back to Sherbrooke together where they were received like royalty by their long lost relatives
My mother and father were both bom in Ostropolye (in Villini Gabemi) in 1911 and 1900 respectively.
My mother’s family was well established and was considered well to do. Her maternal grandmother Billya was owner and “CEO” of the only mill in town. The home of my grandparents was furnished opulently. The interior described as “being in Paris”. There were servants attending the household.
Because her parents were barren for fifteen years, there was great celebration when a son was bom. Money was handed out in the streets to the needy. Joy abounded when two years later my mother was bom. Her early childhood was uneventful although she told of almost drowning when her father took her swimming in near by rapids and she let go of the chain she was told to hold. A big celebration followed.
At the age of six, the first of many tragedies befell my mother. She caught smallpox, which was transmitted to her mother, who died from the disease. Two years later, the Bolsheviks marched into the family home and shot her father before her eyes. She told of begging the soldiers to shoot her instead and of the looting of the house by the so-called loyal servants. My mother and her brother were sent to live from home to home. They lived with aging grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
My mother’s uncle (maternal brother) was sent to study in England. He became an important translator of Russian literature and a member of the infamous Bloomsbury gang in London. His intimate friends were H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence (whose manuscript of Sons and Lovers he had published while the author was out of the country), James Stevens, James Joyce, Aldous and Julian Huxley, and Virginia Wolfe were among his intimates.
Throughout the war years, my mother sent packages of food and clothing to her uncle. He and his friends were sustained by these. H.G. Wells’ granddaughter- Catherine Stoye and I became pen pals. We have met in person several times during the passing years. This family was like family to my mother’s uncle S.S. Kotiliansky.
My mother’s uncle Samuel (Kot) remained a bachelor all of his life. He thought it wise to send the orphan children from the Ukraine to live with his brother Moshe in Montreal. The first attempt failed as passage paid for was never legitimized. On the second attempt in the fall of 1927, the teenagers stopped in London for a few hours where they met their uncle for the first time.
A second tragedy struck when a few days after arriving in Montreal my mother’s brother Eli drowned in a bathtub. He was asphyxiated by carbon monoxide escaping from a hot water heater in the bathroom.
Life was not easy for my mother at her uncle’s home. Her arrival displaced her cousin’s “only child status” and there was rivalry. After a few years at school, my mother went to work, sensitive to her uncle’s struggle as a custom peddler, out with horse and buggy in all weather. She made this decision on her own to the surprise of her family members.
My Father’s Background
My father was bom the last child of Joseph Smith’s second marriage to Michele. At the time of his birth, my grandfather was seventy-five years old. His half sibling, Leah, married Moshe Echenberg and their offspring (Bertha, Becky, Bessy, Sam and Abe my fathers cousins) were all older than my father. Life in Ostropole was a struggle. My grandfather was a deliverer of fish and meat. My father had worked for my mother’s family. He told stories of delivering meat and lobster to the estate of the landlord of the district.
Because he was charming and cute, the woman with all the keys allowed him to visit the kitchen, which he described as being an amazing experience. My father, his parents, and two siblings immigrated to Canada, arriving in Montreal and moving to Sherbrooke in early 1917.
Soon after my mother’s arrival in Montreal, my father went to her uncle’s home with a package to be dropped off that someone would take to Ostropole. My father saw a beautiful blond and blue eyed teenager (sixteen) and he waited five years for her to mature. They then married.
My father was bright, energetic, and young when he came to Canada. He was a sole support of his aging parents and siblings. He began to work wherever he could- custom peddling, clerk at Echenbergs furniture store. He soon realized that he too could be a storeowner and he opened stores in Thetford Mines, Coaticook, Kateville, Stanstead, and environs. Before long, in 1930 he opened a men’s clothing store on Wellington Street, which he owned and operated for thirty-seven years.
My father spoke of pogroms in Russia and how some young men even shot themselves in the foot to avoid army service. His father, an observant Jew wore a kittle and yamilka. He was the butt of name-calling and stone throwing from kids on the streets of Montreal and Sherbrooke. My father’s natural acumen allowed him to succeed in his endeavors. I recall car trips to Rock Island, Vermont with my brother Marvin. We would go with an empty car and the return trip found the car filled with what is so popular today, blue denim overalls, and the two children stretch out lying atop a pile of clothing that filled the trunk and back seats of the car.
My father was active and well liked in both the Jewish and Non-Jewish communities. He was a mason, belonged to B’nai Brith, and the president of Agouda Achim Synagogue for over thirty years. Visiting rabbis and dignitaries often came to our home and my mother was always a proud hostess. My father spoke Russian, Yiddish, French, and English fluently. When he retired and moved to Montreal in 1967, he was already emerged in the stock market and mortgage business. Unfortunately, he died just two years later in June of 1969.
Life in Sherbrooke
I was bom in 1935, a year after my parents’ marriage. My brother Marvin followed fourteen months later. Eric was bom eight years later and my sister Sharon eight years after that.
Life in Sherbrooke was active. The Jewish community (60 families at its peak) was a social one. Men and ladies often met to play cards. The women were homemakers in the morning got dressed up for their daily afternoon stroll downtown. Following my mother’s example, we all worked in my father’s store on weekends and holidays. This continued right through university.
Education was a must in our family and we all obtained graduate degrees. Rice Beach was a great communal Sunday picnic spot. Later, in 1942, my parents built a cottage on Little Lake Magog. Happy times and fond memories abound and luckily my sister and her husband Neil now own and enjoy “the lake”.
My mother was to face two more tragic events in her life. My father died of a heart attack in 1969 and my brother Eric in 1991. These events haunted her the rest of her days. My mother’s great fortitude, inner strength, courage, and adaptability helped her through a long widowhood. These traits helped her confront her own terminal illness. My mother was a remarkable woman, deeply caring for her immediate family and fiercely proud of them and their offspring. She was very independent and in my eyes possessed of a noble presence and great beauty.
My mother once told me that some people have “difficult beginnings and easier endings”- such was her lot.
In the old country, once a week people would come to see my paternal grandfather, Moses Echenberg, who was the elected leader of the community for more than twenty years. In Sherbrooke, it was my maternal grandfather, also named Moses Echenberg, who was consulted in the same manner. A whole parade of community members, relatives and others, would come calling on my grandfather at the house at Five Prospect Street. A conclave of five, six or seven people would sit in his living room around the oak table and discuss community affairs. Or people would come to him individually about their problems. He became a Justice of the Peace in order to be able to carry out certain notarial functions, such as witnessing the signing of contracts.
Many wonderful characters would come to see my grandfather. One of my duties, when my grandfather received visitors, was to serve a small collation whenever it was called for. “Ruthie, bring me Eier Kichlich (‘egg cake’) mit Schnapps ”, he would say. Or I would bring out a bottle of Scotch with shot glasses. The discussion was always in Yiddish, and although I couldn’t understand, I still got a sense of the qualities and characteristics of the lives of those who sat at my grandfather’s table. My father would often make comments to me afterwards, in private.
One of these wonderful characters was my uncle Max Weinstein. His wife was my grandfather’s sister Sarah, known as Baptsie. It was her son Sam who went to Boston during the depression. He had worked at Echenberg Brothers with the other children of Baptsie. He married Rose Factoroff in Boston. She was the one who eventually introduced Ida to Abe. But to get back to Max Weinstein.
He was a short, stocky man with a big head. He had a full head of curly hair, cut short. His face was deeply ridged and creased and he had a big nose. He had a voice to match his big, heavy face. He gurgled all the time, as if he were coming up for air from the bottom of a pit. He smoked endlessly. I can’t remember, but I think he had emphysema.
He was a very kind and gentle man, warm and friendly by nature. He always asked after me. His children were like that, too. They were very warm towards me, especially Bessie, who paid a lot of attention to me. Often I would walk with my mother to the library and the family story, where Bessie and Sam were employed. When they saw me, it was as if the sun rose, talking to me and offering candy. They were always very good to me.
95 Belvedere Street
Another person who often sat at my grandfather’s table was my uncle Menasseh Echenberg, my grandfather’s brother. He was a tall, elegantlooking man. His wife Eva Holdengraber was a tall craggy woman with a face that looked like Mount Rushmore, carved out of stone. She had kinky blonde hair that had faded to gray. She always wore a house dress with an apron and constantly smoked, with the cigarette dangling from the comer of her mouth as she talked. The rising smoke would make her squint her eyes.
Aunt Eva and Uncle Menassah lived on Belvedere Street, next to where Sherbrooke Pure Milk used to be. A picture of the family taken about 1910 shows a modest brick facade with a group of perhaps 35 or 40 members of our family then living in Sherbrooke (see page 56).
Our house on Prospect Street was ample, with six bedrooms. Nothing was square; it was broad as well as long, with the living room and dining room side by side. There were windows all around admitting natural light.
By contrast, Menasseh’s house was very plain as seen from the front. Inside, it was long, but not broad.
As one entered the front door a central corridor led to the heart of the house, a day room and a huge kitchen. To the right of the corridor was a living room, quite small, which was rarely used. Opposite it was the parlor, whose door was always shut. The day room had couches and divans, tables and straight chairs which provided the family with space and place for naps and visiting. Behind these were the living and dining room, and finally in the back a spacious kitchen.
Proceeding into the kitchen one was aware of a door leading off to the right, into a “summer kitchen”, where meals were prepared during the hot weather – it was a well ventilated terrace surrounded by vines which gave off a greenish coloration, adding to the feeling of coolness.
Returning to the passageway leading to the kitchen one passed two armoires that held dishes, but more importantly, jars of cookies and sweets which were produced in abundance by the fine hand of Aunt Eva, an accomplished pastry chef. She was Rumanian, and had lived in the Near East – many of her recipes were North African. And best of all, she actually made her own Turkish Delight and Rose Water, which she used extensively. This was a source of great awe for me as a little girl.
The kitchen held a huge wood stove as well as a large table and chairs, and it was here that the women of the community used to gather to play poker on Saturday night and sample Eva’s outstanding baking. Aunt Sarah Weinstein, Mindel Niloff, Ethel Smith, Sophie Echenberg, Basel Echenberg, my mother, Rebecca Echenberg and my grandmother, Leah Echenberg, were among the players, all chattering away and consuming the delicious pastries that were being served.
But there was a parallel house – on the other side of the corridor. From the day room there was a door, always kept shut and probably locked, behind which was a richly furnished dining-room, where the fine china, crystal and silverware were kept, and which was opened and used only on “state occasions” – very formal events which I was never to observe. It led back towards the front of the house to a stately salon or parlour furnished in red plush overstuffed sofas and chairs, mahogany sideboards and darkened windows. These rooms were used only for very serious occasions and retained an air of musty mystery.
Eva’s nieces and nephews were all good looking. Her brother Adolf was very handsome. One of her nieces, Edith Holdengraber from Detroit, married Sydney Echenberg in 1936 or 1937. Sydney was good friends with my uncle Leon. This was before Leon met and married Anne Linds. The two of them used to take me and Sydney’s little sister Sarah “ski-joring”. This was an extremely dangerous practice, where they would tie ropes to the back of the car on a cold winter day. We would put on our skis and they would pull us along the snowy streets.
Aunt Eva had other relatives who were to figure in my life – Cousins Beryl and Tullie who were “butchers” on the passenger trains, C.P.R. which ran between Montreal and Halifax, passing through Sherbrooke. Their function was to sell sandwiches and drinks, as well as candy bars and magazines on the train, all the while wearing white jackets and a trainman’s cap. As soon as I was able to travel alone, at about the age of ten, I would visit Montreal for the Christmas holidays or for medical consultations, staying with Aunt Bess Usher or Aunt Bertha Levinson. Often I would be discovered by either Beryl or Tullie who would greet me with loud cries of “How’s Mama? – How’s Papa? – Have a sandwich – Here, take some more!”.
Train trips were sometimes occasions for ingenuity or embarrassment. On one such occasion I was coming home from holidays with the Levinsons. Aunt Bertha had given me 50 cents to buy something in the dining car, so I promptly seated myself and ordered a hot chocolate. Imagine my dismay to find that the bill came to 60 cents – what to do? I spied a large merry gentleman who looked very familiar but whose name I didn’t know. I approached him with a short biography -I’m Ruth Echenberg – Rebecca and
David’s daughter, and I haven’t enough money to pay for my hot chocolate. Could you lend me 10 cents and my mother will pay you back as soon as we get to Sherbrooke. A loud laugh, and a confirmation – “So you’re Ruthie!
Here you are – is this enough?” I retreated to my seat with the right change, and rushed off the train as soon as we got into the station, dragging my mother to the steps where my benefactor was descending. My discomfiture was complete when my mother thanked Senator Charlie Howard for his kindness – for it was the eminent representative to the Senate who had rescued me. It turned out that my mother, as the daughter of Moses Echenberg should be, was a good Liberal, and had worked in Senator Howard’s campaigns when he was a Member of Parliament. Such are the values of political activism -1 learned early!
Visiting the Kitners
My aunt Naomi and Uncle Charles, known to me as Huma and Shama, settled in Megantic, a town at the edge of the wilderness of the Maine woods, where Shama had a watchmaker and jewellery shop, above which they lived with their sons Myer and Murray (known as Mussie). They lived there in the 1920’s and our family would visit from time to time during the summer, driving the over sixty miles on dusty dirt roads, through villages and forests, to arrive in Lake Megantic, a pretty town on the shores of a large lake. The CPR rail line came through the town on its way to St. John’s, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here the train was sealed as it headed across the Maine woods that reached up into Quebec. No one was allowed on or off the train until it got to Canadian territory again. Megantic was at the end of the road – nothing but forest out there. Lumbering operations were extensive in the area, and the camps were supplied by seaplanes based on the lake. These were flimsy aircraft on pontoons, and they were tied up at the dock, next door to the Kitners’ store and residence.
Huma and Shama were busy store and home keepers and their two mischievous sons soon became familiar with all the possibilities for adventure. On the occasion of one of our visits, Mussie went missing for several hours. Soon the whole town was looking for him, and they were preparing to drag the lake, when a seaplane landed, and out stepped Mussie with his new friend, the pilot. The outcome was a familiar one, a good thrashing from Shama, who had a very heavy hand.
There were two other Jewish families in Megantic – the Gillmans and the Greenspons, whose daughter Adele was to become the object of perpetual teasing and mischief by the Kitner boys. Whenever I visited we would walk over to the Greenspons, find Adele sitting on the stoop, beautifully dressed and wearing long sausage curls on her head. I might have found something to do with her had my cousins not inhibited me completely. We made her life miserable until she ran in crying, and we went back to the Kitners with a heavily edited account of what we had been playing with Adele.
Myer and Mussie were wonderful athletes and participated in the sports program of the High School, particularly in the pole vault. There were Track Meets – competitions between the High Schools of the Eastern Townships every spring. The teams would travel to Bury, Scotstown, Lennoxville, Sherbrooke, Richmond for a day of events such as broad jump, high jump, races and of course, the pole vault. Here the Kitners shone. They were good looking boys and the girls would follow their progress and cheer them on. I was part of the cheering section – very proud to announce they were my cousins. Watching them run full tilt at the vault, carrying their pole and plunging it into the ground as they soared upwards, extending their legs and straining to twist their bodies as they let go of the pole, and over the bar and drop down perhaps ten or twelve feet into a pile of sawdust, they seemed like winged beings soaring into the light.
Megantic was a real frontier town, where the lumberjacks would come to spend their pay, and life could be quite riotous on a Saturday payday.
Uncle Shama was a strong, fit man who could defend himself if needed, and was able to survive the hardships of life and the torments of two sons who alternately adored and provoked their parents. Aunt Huma was not strong physically but was known for her intelligence and wisdom, and her boys would go to some lengths to win her approval. Myer used to tell a tale about a report card he “embroidered” for her benefit.
The family moved to Drummondville in the 3O’s and were able to open a fine jewellery store. Mussie continued his High School education in Sherbrooke while keeping a jewellery store in Magog, living with our grandmother Baba Hannah Echenberg. They went on to develop a chain of jewellery stores in Sorel, Drummondville and Montreal, one of which is still functioning today. The Kitner warmth and love of family still illuminates our lives – a wonderful heritage from their parents who came to Canada after the First World War having lost everything in war and revolution in Russia.
My parents and I lived in the home of my grandparents at 5 Prospect Street, Sherbrooke. My parents, David and Rebecca Echenberg, my mother’s parents, Leah and Moses Echenberg, my mother’s brothers, Abe and Sam Echenberg, and Rose and Jeanette Arsenault, the live-in maids, meant that there was always a guiding hand or a cautionary gesture to lead me or constrain me, and often to teach me. This meant a ratio of eight adults to one child. There were certain consequences to this – a constantly changing power balance, with the maids and me usually at the lower end, and my uncles trying to impose their views, criticisms and demands in the face of reticent parents and benevolent grandparents.
Abe, a tall lean man, took his responsibilities to me seriously. He instructed me, informed me and kept me in line. He was an important figure at Echenberg Bros. Furniture store, often going back to the store after supper to catch up on what seemed to be onerous responsibilities. It was later that I realized he had spent the greater part of the day not at the store, but at Greenshields’, the stockbrokers, and so, indeed needed to catch up at night.
He was the son who advised his parents and everyone else in the family who needed his counsel. He was serious, even lugubrious, and gave his opinions at length. After his marriage to Ida that his life lightened up considerably, and I must say we were all very happy for him.
In contrast, Sam seemed to play a great deal. He was also tall, but somewhat stout, had a ready laugh and did not seem aware of a generation gap between us. He was a voracious reader, as was my mother, and he owned a complete library of Rudyard Kipling works, as well as a collection of Thackerey. He encouraged me to read the Just So stories and so Kim, the Indian boy, became my childhood companion. He participated minimally in life at 5 Prospect Street, preferring St. George’s Club and the Sherbrooke Regiment Officers’ Mess, for he had made a career in the Canadian Reserve Army where he thrived.
He rose through the officers’ ranks of the Regiment, attending summer courses and other military activities, to become the Commanding Officer of the Regiment, and subsequently in command of a Brigade, consisting of the Sherbrooke Regiment, Les Fusiliers de Sherbrooke, the Regiment de Trois Rivieres and the Eastern Townships Field Battery. He was also awarded the prestigious Order of the British Empire (OBE).
There were many social events in the military life of the times, and my mother served as his hostess since he was not married. These occasions were precious to my mother since they provided social opportunities she valued. Having grown up in Sherbrooke herself, she was on familiar terms with the families of Sam’s fellow officers, and she enjoyed the ceremonial formalities.
Once the maids had retired for the night, the task of lighting the gas jet to heat the hot water fell to me. “Ruthie, just run down and turn on the gas” – a command which I was obliged to obey. It sounded so benign, but in reality launched a series of actions which as a child of nine or ten I dreaded.
The hot water tank was located at the farthest comer of the gloomy, ill- lit basement, a space used for the rough work of housekeeping. It was lit by two hanging bare bulbs which illuminated the metal table and sink. Here the meat was koshered and the chickens plucked. The smell of singed feathers was always present, mixed with the odour of cleaning fluids and soap, since the laundry was done here in vast wash tubs and put through the wringers and mangles.
A door from the main room in the cellar led directly outside to a space under the veranda behind the kitchen. This was where the schechting (ritual slaughter) was done. Each bird was decapitated, and then held in a barrel until its death throes were ended. It was then packed with coarse salt to draw the blood out of the body. Once this was done it was cleaned, and the process was finished.
The cellar was like a catacomb, with bare cement walls. The fearful journey began at the top of the steps which had no backs – the first frightening possibility that I would somehow fall through. Once down, I had to negotiate the length of the basement, passing first the dark aromatic root cellar, where bins held the winter’s supply of potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, onions and apples. Shelves were laden with jars of jam and jelly, and vats of dill pickles rested on the floor.
Next I passed the coal cellar, where the furnace, which by then was fed by gas and thermostat controlled, would roar into life. A chute connected it to the outside, so that the coal man could back his wagon up and unload the coal directly into the bin. By then I had reached my nemesis, the water tank and gas burner. The order in which the ritual was to take place was to strike a wooden match, turn on the gas jets and bring the match close to the gas. The smell of the gas was sour and I knew it was poisonous. My goal was to carry out the sequence as rapidly as possible, avoiding the escape of too much gas.
If that happened, lighting the match would ignite a ball of fire and risk a conflagration. My strategy was to light the match, hold it gingerly as close to the jets as I dared and turn the knob. This held the risk of letting the match bum too close to my fingers, which would oblige me to blow it out and start again. Soon a small pile of burnt matches would accumulate until I was finally able to synchronize the match with the ignition. Eight blue flames would erupt with a load roar, and the water in the tank would slowly heat through.
My mad dash for the stairs and safety was rewarded by the bright kitchen lights. I can’t remember if I was expected to turn off the gas. Probably not, as I would be well in bed by the time the water was hot.
Aunt Sarah, my grandfather’s sister, was married to Max Weinstein.
She was known as Babtsie and was a typical Echenberg in appearance, with a flat broad nose and black eyes. Max had a full head of very curly hair: he was a short stocky man with a deep gravelly voice and a rolling throaty cough. They were both frequent callers at Five Prospect Street, Max in particular coming every Sunday morning for the men’s conclave.
Their children were the childhood companions of my mother’s generation, although they were somewhat younger. They were also my companions, since Sam and Bessie worked in the Echenberg Bros. Store, where I hung out a lot. Sam had a most infectious and charming smile, and both he and Bess allowed me to play in the office. Bess and I went to concerts together as I grew old enough to appreciate cultural events.
Their sister Kate went to New York for nurse’s training, since there was no facility in Sherbrooke or Montreal which would accept Jewish girls (hard to believe, but true). She died there of a sudden and fatal infection, and one of my early memories is of my mother holding the telephone and weeping as she heard of this tragedy. It was the only time I ever saw her cry.
Sam went to Boston and settled there, marrying Rose Factoroff. They came for summer visits, and we spent happy times in the country together.
Ida Fishman was a close friend of Rose’s, and she introduced Ida to Uncle Abe.
Henry remained in Sherbrooke — he was the youngest — and married Lillian Finkelstein. Bess married a man from California and left Sherbrooke – -1 don’t recall her coming back. She was a dear and loving relative, as were all the Weinsteins.
Sherbrooke, circa 1910: Moses Echenberg in the light suite, fifth from the left in the middle row, Bessie fourth from the left, Sam Echenberg in the front row with his arms crossed, Becky standing on the far right, Abe standing second from the left.
By Ruth Echenberg Tannenbaum
My aunt Ida Fishman was the Princess of Iches . She came from a nice family; they were not bala gullem (common people) . They were hard working people who ran a laundry in Boston. But they were able to send Ida to college. Ida made herself into a cultivated person. She was a top-notch bookkeeper and also played the violin. This was quite a feat for a young Jewish woman in Boston in the 1920s and 30s.
Ida married my uncle Abe Echenberg. They were introduced by Abe’s cousin Sam Weinstein, who had moved to Boston and married Rose Factoroff. Ida couldn’t find a suitable husband in Boston. So she accepted Abe’s proposal of marriage and moved to Sherbrooke. For her, it must have been a godforsaken place, with little of the cultural activity she had known at home. Occasionally there would be a musical evening, but other than that there wasn’t much to speak of. Ida came loaded with Iches. She had known many refined people — her violin teacher, doctors and other professionals, and so on –and always made a big issue of this. She wasn’t just any old person. And her children were the heirs to this.
She had to put up with a lot from the Echenbergs. Except for my father, the Echenbergs were all very distant, cold people. Abe, my mother’s brother, never interfered with how I was raised, but often felt an uncle’s prerogative to correct and edify. Sam, his younger brother, treated me more as an individual. He would lend me his books to read. However, he also remained quite distant.
I had two duties that I had to perform regularly for Sam. He was very active with the militia, and he often came home tired out from an event, usually at the officer’s mess. At those times he would ask me to help him remove his boots. I would go into his bedroom, which had a stuffy, sleepy smell. He would be seated on the bed. Turning my back to him, I would grasp the boot by the heel and toe. He would place his other foot on my backside and push while I pulled, and together we would get his boots off that way. I also had to wake him up in the morning before going to school. Sam helped out at the family store, but he would never get there before 9:30 in the morning, earliest.
Anyway when Ida and Abe got married, I was fourteen years old. It was an exciting event for me: I got to go to Boston. The couple moved into the house at Five Prospect Street in Sherbrooke. It took Abe forever to find them a place to live. Finally they moved into an apartment on Moore Street. Ida was quite lonely. “Come and see me”, she would ask, so I would visit on my way home from school. We developed a one-on-one relationship. She really needed a friend, but I was only a fifteen-year-old kid. One day she offered m a drink: “This is a special cherry cordial made by my mother.” I took a taste; it was delicious. It was, in effect, Slivowitz (a Schnapps liqueur) with cherries. By the time I got home, I was sloshed, but nobody really noticed.
Ida and I always had a kind of egalitarian relation. She never acted like an “aunt” but treated me as a contemporary, which continued as I grew up.
Ida never really confided her feelings to me. She just needed someone to talk to. She never had any feedback from the Echenbergs, and sometimes found them oppressive, but her Abe was a prince. In effect, she really made a life for him.
I used to play with her first son Arnold when he was a baby. He was, of course, the focus of attention. When their second son Gordon came along in 1939,1 was already studying at Bishop’s University. The family life was no longer my centre of gravity. By that time Ida and Abe had moved to Portland Street. Gordon was like his uncle Harris, who was full of life and energy, always joking and convivial. I always felt I could pick things up again with Ida and be comfortable. Of all the family, she was closest to me; she felt an intimacy that she couldn’t feel with others in the family.
One summer day many years later in the 1960s, Ida and I were driving back to Montreal from Sherbrooke with Gordon in his convertible. We all sat in the front seat and Ida and I began a debate as to who had the most Iches. Poor Gordon was in convulsions of laughter all the way home. To this day he says it was the most fabulous car ride he ever had.
My father David was also full of Iches. He had lost so much of his own capacities due to crippling arthritis that it was all he had left. So, he was full of stories. He knew who was linked to whom, who had claims on whom, going all the way back to Ostropolye, the village in Russia from whence our family came. This network of relationships began in Ostropolye and came over with the whole mishpucha (family) when they immigrated to Canada.
The same community structure was maintained.
The IODE in My Life
By Ruth Echenberg Tannenbaum
To those who are uninitiated in the arcane world of small town social life, the IODE stands for “The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire”. My mother, Rebecca Echenberg, was active in many charitable organizations in Sherbrooke. She was known as a good organizer and a hard worker, who never refused an invitation to contribute to the good and welfare of the community. Her efforts benefited the Jewish community, as a member of the Ladies’ Aid of the Synagogue, as well as Hadassah.
Her commitments extended to the Victorian Order of Nurses, the Sherbrooke Hospital Auxiliary, the YMCA and the IODE, raising money by various means such as teas and bridge parties, rummage sales and more specifically by selling special items. I was always secretly entertained by the idea that my mother and grandmother were really immigrants from the Ukraine, and had somehow become Imperial Canadians.
The IODE was welcomed to our home at 5 Prospect Street for teas and bridge games, staffed by the young Jewish girls who passed the tea and delicious squares and cookies. My mother would canvas the neighbours and nominal members of the IODE to buy playing cards, and these orders were to be delivered by me. One day my mother asked me to drop off some cards with Mrs. Brooks who lived across the street, but in a very secluded house on a huge lot, heavily shaded by large old trees. I had never met Mrs. Brooks, who was by this time quite an old lady.
My instructions were to bring the cards over and collect the payment, and so I climbed the stone steps off the street and proceeded down the slate path to an imposing brick house. A uniformed maid answered the door, and I stood in the small vestibule while she went for the money. I became aware of a presence behind me and turned, to come face to face with a black bear – as tall as I – carrying a red lacquer tray. Not only was this bear tame – he was stuffed! As my racing heart slowed down the maid arrived with the money, and I turned and ran pell-mell down the walk, the stairs and the road till I got to the safety of 5 Prospect Street!
Among the many charitable activities, the rummage sales were most successful. They were usually held in church halls in the North Ward where we lived. They offered household discards (still usable) and merchandise contributed by various storekeepers. Since most of the merchants were Jewish and most likely to be relatives, my mother was able to obtain quality goods which were always a feature of the rummage sale. There was a lot of work involved, getting the pledges, picking up the items, pricing them and displaying them, all in anticipation of the day of the sale.
The ladies of the organization were there to do the selling, and my mother oversaw the operation in a benign, capable and occasionally flustered style – making sure there was change, seeing that items were not stolen, and arbitrating prices. My father and I would sometimes assist, mostly as the sale drew to a close and it was being packed up. On one of these occasions my mother, who was ready to leave, couldn’t find her coat. We regretfully concluded that it had been sold, and could only hope that the price was right.
Shortly afterward, as we walked downtown to the Library, to Woodard’s (for ice cream) and to Echenberg Bros, for a ride home, my mother and I observed several ladies wearing stylish wine coloured berets.
The following Sunday the choirmaster at St. Peter’s was dismayed to find the choir caps missing. Voila! Sherbrooke matrons were now hatted courtesy the Anglican congregation!
This did not in any way affect my mother’s desirability as a charity sponsor. During the war she was asked by our dressmaker, Mrs. Grey, who was Polish, to be a patron, along with Mme. Bachand-Dupuis, a local heiress and concert singer, for a fund-raiser for the White Eagle society. This organization supported the Polish Government in exile, located in England, which was raising an army to invade Europe. The event was a dinner at which the guest of honour was Count Brzezinski, the Polish consul in Montreal and his wife.
It should now be said that the Polish government, at home or in exile was no friend of the Jews, a fact of which my mother was blissfully ignorant. My father found this outrageous and tried to dissuade her, but the mission was launched and the dinner – a gala event for Sherbrooke – went ahead.
Madeleine Bachand-Dupuis and I were classmates at Bishop’s and her family lived on Prospect Street not far from us. Her mother hosted a reception for the Count and his wife at their home, before the dinner, and Madeleine and I were asked to pass the refreshments (a prevalent custom of the time). My father, who was sizzling at the whole notion of our family being associated with the Polish Government in exile, plotted one of his ruses to somehow stand for the right. He wouldn’t confront my mother, who was in full spate as one of the principals of the event, so he enlisted me as his co-conspirator.
He taught me a few words in Polish which he assured me would be welcomed by the Count -1 was to learn subsequently that they were an insulting play on words signifying that the only good Polish soldier is a drunken one. I delivered my Polish phrase and retired rapidly down Prospect Street to the safety of our house. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the American political scientist and Secretary of State for President Carter, and his brother were brought up in Montreal, and I take pleasure in recalling how my father felt he had struck some kind of blow for our side – a pinprick!
By Deborah Sheppard
Her rounded writing stands upright
in faded ink: date bars, lemon squares,
flower garden cake,
genteel food for bringing over
to the Anglicans’ church bazaar
or the Catholics’ piano recital.
The cards nod discreetly to an indebtedness:
Sponge Cake (Bessie),
Dessert Cake – Bernice Engel,
Ann’s Banana Bread.
My grandmother went to England in the Great War,
nursing in the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade.
at the canasta games,
women’s auxiliary lunches,
she sat at the head of long tables,
pouring tea and water into translucent china,
a pot in each hand,
revealing her to be a true member
of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.
What I want are the muscular immigrant foods,
the military-perfect squares of dough
that only my grandfather was privileged to cut,
in victory over his swollen, locked joints.
From his command post at the flour-strewn table,
He’d criticize the seasoning,
oversee how the filling was placed
precisely in each center,
the dumplings crimped,
fried, boiled, devoured.
My tongue longs for the soft cylinders
that slide from marrow bones,
fished from the cauldron of thick beans and barley
and spread on challah bread that my mother gave me.
I want to breathe in sweet onions,
seared golden in schmaltz
to anoint the fat-veined, purple-red brisket,
cushioned by lima beans, carrots,
potatoes, garlic, ginger, paprika, pepper,
sealed in its black pot on Friday,
ready for the village baker’s oven,
and carried home for Shabbos dinner after shul.
The cholent surrenders its secrets
through the shtetl streets,
fragrance of diaspora floats to me,
mother tongue I have only begun to learn.
Russian Songs My Father Taught Me
By Ruth Echenberg Tannenbaum
Tam dali sarockoy svoyidyes kisovyo
Cookoo Cookoo Cookoo
Tam cookoo schapoyod svoidietz kisovyod
Cookoo cookoo cookoo.
Hyam hyam hyam, hyam ze elinenika
Tamooralla divchinenko naskripotch Koorata
Tamooralla ralla tyna niela hel tsu ka ata
Tyna niela zulta tinka la la la la la-a
By Ruth Echenberg Tannenbaum
My cousin Anne was the daughter of Jack Echenberg. He was one of five siblings, four brothers and a sister. They all had a very strong family resemblance, and were clearly identifiable as brothers. They had the “Echenberg nose”, broad and flat, not big, but with flared nostrils. It is not particularly attractive, and tends to dominate the face.
There is some question as to where this nose comes from. My material grandmother and her siblings had it, but also her half-cousins who were not Echenbergs, but the children of Joseph Smith and Mechlie Cohen. They also had the nose. This leads me to speculate that Joseph Smith himself was related to the family, to the original Moses Echenberg, or his second wife. Others who had it include Menasseh, David, Reva and Leon. It was most pronounced in the children of Samson Echenberg, but it didn’t continue down to my generation. Of my cousins, Harry had it a little bit.
Jack Echenberg was a favourite first cousin of my mother and her siblings. They did many things together. Jack had a special quality of sweetness. He was a big, tender-hearted man who made much of the children. Sophie Shrier, the woman he married, was equally open, loving and hospitable. Their children were Havela, Richard, Anne and Edwin. Anne and I are the same age. We are second cousins, bom six months apart. We were always in the same class in school, along with Paul Niloff.
Jack and his family lived in a small Jewish enclave in the North Ward of Sherbrooke, at the comer of Prospect and Victoria Streets. They lived in a multiple dwelling building, with about six units. I think Sam Echenberg,
Harry’s father, owned it. A number of relatives lived there: Sam and Faigel, Ethel and Sam Smith, Jack and Sophie, and the Gillicks, who were relatives of Sophie.
Around the comer on Beckett Road, which was a continuation of Victoria Street, lived the Edgars and Greenbergs, as well as Miriam and Isaac Gillman. All these families had links with one another. Mr. Greenberg and Mrs. Gillman were brother and sister from Ostropolye. Mr. Edgar was the brother of Auntie Smith, Isaac Smith’s wife Naomi. Auntie Smith, after she was widowed, married Mr. Liebling of Quebec, himself a widower. She became Gussie Shapiro’s stepmother. Gussie later adopted my two future brother-in-law, Ernest and Bill Shapiro. The Jewish community in Quebec was intertwined… geknipt und gebinden .
Five Prospect Street was at the bottom of a hill, at the comer of Queen Street. The high school that I attended was on one of the heights in Sherbrooke. I would climb Prospect Street, walk past the cemetery, through a little hollow to Victoria Street. It was a continuous ascent to the plateau at Jean-Talon Street. It was all farm country in my day. The high school was further south, though still in the North Ward. It was closer to the Magog River. There was a general store called Vallee’s across from the “enclave”. It was our neighbourhood store. Rudy Vallee, the famous American singer, was one of their relatives. He came from Island Pond, Vermont. Whenever he came up to visit, it was a big deal.
We would buy most of our big supplies from the market on Fridays, while milk and bread were delivered to the house. We got our meat from Nichol’s. Though owned by a non-Jew, Nichol’s was the butcher for the Jewish community. A schochet would come regularly to kill animals according to the proper ritual. Then orders would come in from the Jewish housewives for various cuts of meat.
On my way to school I would pick up Anne at her house, and on the way home I would stop off there. Jack’s children and the Mittlemans, who lived south of us, were my playmates. The whole experience of stopping off at Anne’s house was very pleasurable. Sophie was not an especially good housekeeper, but the place was full of life. Havela, the eldest, was four or five years older than me. She was quite sickly. She had rheumatic heart disease, as did Maurice Echenberg, as a result of scarlet fever. They both died young. She played the piano, and was a good sight reader. They had books full of the popular songs of the day. She would play while we stood around the piano and belted out these old chestnuts, like “Love’s Old Sweet Song”, and tunes by Stephen Foster.
Sophie would get out the most scrumptious sweets. She spend her time baking sweets. My favourite was a seven-layer cake. It consisted of thin layers of cake with chocolate filling between. There was also other cookies and candies. There was always kibitzing going on. Sophie was not a disciplinarian, and the kids lived like birds in a tree.
But Anne’s house was like heaven. My place in that “little society” was that I was a sort of representative of the Ichesdich family. At Jack and Sophie’s, I always had a sense of warmth and acceptance. The atmosphere in the house I was brought up in was cold and distant. However, my father made up for everybody else. He hugged me and patted me on the head, but the others more or less ignored me, except when they sent me on errands, and so forth. My grandmother and mother were always praised as role models in the Jewish community. But my experience was that they were very preoccupied with keeping the household running. My grandmother never spoke English well, and I never learned Yiddish. So she tended to be undemonstrative towards me.
In my family everyone aspired to higher education, and in some cases succeeded. Sam and Abe had tried college, but quit. My mother and Bertha had teaching diplomas from the “normal” school. This allowed them to teach at the public school level. Bessie was the only one in that family that actually got a B.A. She won the Narcissa Farand scholarship to Bishop’s University, and went on after her B.A. to do an extra year for her B.Ed. This allowed her to teach high school. There was an “awesome respect” held by the rest of the family for the inhabitants of Five Prospect Street. They were a group of people of whom to be proud, because they were successful intellectually. All the women had careers, including Claire Echenberg, my mother’s best friend. The social leadership of the Jewish community came from Five Prospect Street, through the charitable and social activities of my mother and grandmother, but also within the commercial community.
Anne’s house was like heaven for me, because there were no demands made on me. I always got lavish praise. Anne and I did may things together. We went sledding in winter, near where the Edgars and Greenbergs lived on Beckett Road. Although it was a very steep hill, we called it “the flats”.
There would be Rita Greenberg, Anne and I. It was really a neighbourhood thing, including kids like Gerald and Miriam (Mimi) Smith who lived in the same block as Jack’s family.
In high school I chose the Latin option, which lead to the college matriculations. Anne chose the commercial option, so we were no longer in the same class. I was still in the same class as Paul Niloff. Most kids would go for the commercial option, because they didn’t envision going to college. For me there was no question: I was committed to college. There was an unspoken expectation that I would get the Farand award. I don’t recall putting too much of an effort into school, but I always managed to get good marks, usually placing first or second in the class. My nemesis, a boy named Charles, came in the ninth or tenth grade. In the end, it was he who one the Farand award, not me!
Of the five children of Moses and Leah Echenberg, Sam was the next to last. He was preceded by his sisters Rebecca and Bertha and his brother Abe, and was followed by sister Bessie. Both Abe and Sam married late in life, at least by the norms of their times. In Sam’s case, it came as a surprise since he had seemed predestined to live out his life as the prototypical bachelor uncle.
He had chosen the military life as a career, and had risen in time through the ranks to become a colonel. During the Second World War he was placed in command of the military installation at Longueuil, where Canadian foot solders were trained to face combat overseas. Sam served his country with distinction. Throughout his adult life, he was always referred to as “the Colonel”.
His elevated position in society redounded to the family, and had tremendous implications for its social advancement within the upper crust of mid-twentieth century Canadian society. Indeed, it led directly to what may be considered the pinnacle event of Sam’s generation. In support of Canada’s contribution to the war effort, King George VI of England and his wife Elizabeth (know to later generations as the Queen Mother) embarked on a whistle-stop tour of Canada in 1939. This included a brief visit at the Sherbrooke train station where, debarking for only a few minutes, the Royal Couple would be presented to some of the local luminaries. Sam, as the commandant of the local Regiment was one of the fortunate few. As a bachelor, he could invite a female member of his immediate family to accompany him. This would be older sister, Becky.
For Becky, this represented the culmination of years of effort to implicate herself and her family into the upper echelons of Quebec society, which in that era meant English, and more specifically British, society. She and her sisters were active members of the IODE – the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire. They participated in auctions, bake sales and charity drives to aid the cause of England and its loyal colonies. Thus it was with great anticipation that she awaited the glorious day of ascension into the Royal Presence.
The event is captured in a black and white photo that holds a prominent place in the collective family psyche. With the train behind them, King George and his consort are surrounded by a flurry of people. The king himself is hidden by the tall, lean figure of Sam in dress uniform, bowing stiffly as he is presented to the Queen. On the far left edge of the picture, somewhat blurred as she strides towards the centre, like a torpedo zooming in on its target, is Becky, dressed in a conservative yet stylish dress, with a hat and veil.
That picture hung on the walls of 5 Prospect Street for years, where it was duly reverenced, save for Becky’s husband David who viewed the whole affair with a somewhat jaundiced eye. He never could buy into the “British” obsession of his in-laws. To his daughter Ruthie, he always mischievously referred to the picture as “The Moment”.
In her twenties, Ruth became committed to the cause of socialism. It came to pass that she helped to organize a soiree in support of The Worker’s Vanguard, the voice of the trade union movement in Montreal. There was a young local jazz pianist just starting to make a name for himself by the name of Oscar Peterson, whom she wished to hire for the occasion. At that time, he
I can’t remember the exact name of the journal in question. PT.
was a solder stationed in Longueuil. The only difficulty was in getting him a weekend pass to allow him to attend the party, so naturally Ruth appealed to her Uncle Sam, the Colonel. Of course, he had no objection. Anything for his niece, Ruthie. But unbeknownst to her, there was a price attached. At the height of the festive proceedings, who should show up at the door with a bottle of scotch in hand but Uncle Sam.
“Well, aren’t you going to let me in?”, he smiled to a chagrined Ruth. She obviously had no choice.
About a week later, through the intervention of her Aunt Bertha Levinson, Ruth was invited to dine at the Westmount abode of one of the greatest lights of Montreal Jewry, Mrs. Saidye Bronfman. Ruth understood all too well that she was being presented by her aunt to higher society, and knew how to behave accordingly. However, Sam who was also present, inadvertently threw a wrench in the works.
In the course of the dinner conversation, he turned to his young niece and remarked, “That was some party you threw last week, Ruthie. Those kids at The Worker’s Vanguard sure know how to have a good time.” Mrs. Bronfman immediately blanched.
“The Worker’s Vanguard!,” she exclaimed aghast. “You don’t mean those horrible people. Those… those… communists! They want to take away all our money! Everything we worked for all our lives! How awful! How horrible!”
The poor woman was so beside herself that Ruth was required to leave and the carefully planned evening was ruined. The next day Ruth got an angry call from her aunt.
“You had better do something!”, she said crossly. “Mrs. Bronfman is very upset. You must apologize to her.”
“Me!”, retorted Ruth. She was not to be cowed by her formidable aunt. “It was your brother with his big mouth that caused the ruckus. Let him apologize!”
In the end, Ruth wrote an apology to Mrs. Bronfman.
When Sam married, it was not to someone who would have been an obvious choice for the family. The girl he decided to wed was June Blackwood, a lovely, vital young woman, intelligent and outgoing. But she was not what the family would have envisioned for Sam. She had to jump through hoops to win their acceptance. She did so with grace and good humour, willingly converting to Judaism. She endeared herself to all. I remember with great fondness the puppet theatre she made for my sister and me when we were quite small. She was always a ray of sunshine.
After his military days, Sam eventually became a salesman for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, not an inappropriate choice, given his dedication to the British cause during the war. Upon reaching a certain milestone – so many sets sold – he received a complementary set with his name “S. Echenberg” engraved on each volume in gold lettering. He gave it to our family, and it sat on our bookshelf for many years as I was growing up. Believe me, it was put to good use!
As I leave Montreal, island city encrusted on an extinct volcano, tall buildings over which hovers a brightly lit cross, I swim across the Champlain Sea, now the home of bedroom suburbs, apple orchards spilling down the flanks of stand-alone mountains, and roads and rivers leading north back to le fleuve — the mighty St. Lawrence, I head for the hills of home.
As I leave the ancient seabed I begin the ascent, long slopes upward leading to Mount Shefford and then Mount Orford, I thrill with the rediscovery of my land, the place which gave me my identity. Every rise and hollow holds some special meaning for me. The first I come to is the place where, at a public telephone, I learned from my doctor that I was to bear a second child. We spent a summer at Libby Lake, I got a ride from our cottage with Eddie who delivered groceries, and made the phone call. Such life altering events were always linked to landscape for me.
I skirt the base of Mount Orford, a real mountain, part of a chain that stretches down the length of Lake Memphremagog — Owl’s Head, Elephant Back, down across the border to Jay Peak and west to Mount Sutton, Pinnacle and isolated little border crossings which linked Vermonters and Quebecers in international intimacy. As I approach Magog I catch sight of the narrow slash of blue which reaches thirty-two miles to Newport — it exhilarates me as I prepare to drive through the town and then take the road to Katevale. I pass the hangout where we went for the Saturday Star and an ice-cream soda, then the butcher who sold us prime rib steaks and who spoke through a hole in his throat.
I pass the Dominion Textile plant, scene of picket lines and set among industrial housing, then begin another climb as I ascend the next ridge. The land lies in folds — one can see successive elevations all the way to Megantic – – sixty miles away. These are the continuation of the Appalachians — the eastern spine of North America — which keeps on going to the north and east to fall off the continent in the Gaspe. Soon I come to the really long and steep hill which defeated many a driver in the early days. My father taught me how to shift my way up, deft feet working the clutch and the brake while I steered and shifted.
From the top the view is breathtaking — back to Mount Orford and down to Little Lake, lying at the foot of the heights and reaching to Lake Park, nine miles away. I drive through Katevale — also known as Ste. Catherine de Hatley — past the general store cum gas station, a compulsory stop, across the road from the imposing church which served the rural community by offering “Messe de dimanche samedi apres-midi”. Then, past the three or four houses of the village, I would begin my swoop down, down again to the level of the lake — well almost — since the shoreline rose and fell, and after passing the right turn to North Hatley, I come first to the Tannenbaum cottage which lay down a short hill.
I return here in my daydreams and remember the days and weeks of summer here with my children, my mother and Phil. Here was where friends and family came for visits, here is where we picked wild raspberries, crab-apples and blackberries to make jam and jelly, here is where we lay under the stars trying to identify the constellations. From here we took the rural bus to Sherbrooke via Rock Forest to go to the library where we were greeted by Miss Farmer and Mrs. Lebeau. In late August we went to the Sherbrooke Fair where we saw the livestock, visited the industrial and domestic arts pavilion where we collected samples, where Deborah rode the elephant, and we all rode the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round.
On weekends when we had “wheels” we shopped in Sherbrooke and stopped at SPM — the Sherbrooke Pure Milk dairy counter for our favourite ice cream — black raspberry. The rose garden and the rock garden were ample reward for the care and work they required. But the vegetable garden provided us with tangible products until the racoons got to eat our com on the cob before we could.
A mile or so along the road we would come to the agglomeration of cottages first settled in the 1930’s when my father built his summer home between Cooper’s and Labonte’s. Here my cousins Ed and Joan, Bob and David and I would spend sun-drenched summers seriously occupied helping Cleo and Mr. Labonte ran the farm. The season’s highlight was haying time, when we got to ride on top of the hay wagon and scrunch down not to get knocked off as we barely made it into the bam. Then the fun began, as we rode the scoops of hay raised to the roof peak and dropped strategically in the hay loft.
Many family friends of the Ushers and Levinsons would spend the summer boarding at Labonte’s – there were many children for playmates and the summers would pass in a dream, filled with adventures, games and most of all water activities – fishing, and sailing with the Cooper boys, swimming across the lake and doing water tricks. Sometimes we had to face the risks as well.
Tipping the canoe in fun was all right, but tipping the sailboat while in the middle of the lake, all clothed for a cool day on the water was cause for parents to read the riot act. Riding our bicycles to Katevale presented a real challenge – pumping for a mile uphill, and then screaming down at a dizzying rate. Playing tennis on the court at the Cooper’s and later at Labonte’s meant shagging balls and being laughed at by those athletes – once in a while winning a set.
Trying to save a drowning man while his family stood screaming on the shore at Fleury’s, pulling him out of the water with Cleo’s help, going through the whole drama of getting the doctor from North Hatley, and seeing the whole event through from the first frantic cries to the final moments at the hospital was a sobering experience for a 16 year old. Several months later, when I had begun my college years at Bishop’s I was awarded a certificate from the Royal Life-Saving Association at a ceremony during a Community Concert, at the Granada Theatre. That made me an official heroine.
It was here, in 1945, that Phil and I were married, under sunny skies and in the presence of 250 relatives and friends. I still hear echoes of the wedding from the younger cousins who were excluded, to their great chagrin. The ceremony took place on the lawn and the reception and dinner in the Labonte dining room. We left for our honeymoon in Quebec City in the rumble seat of my brother-in-law Bill’s roadster – wind blowing for 185 miles.
I spent a couple of days in our room at the Chateau Frontenac recovering from my cold – not the “honeymoon cold” fiction but the real thing. We embarked here for a three day boat trip up the Saguenay River, the last boat trip I was to take until 1965 when Phil arranged for me to take my mother on a Christmas cruise on the Niew Amsterdam to the Caribbean. Three freighter cruises followed, only one of which was with Phil, when he retired.
In 1953, when Deborah was 5 and Peter 2, we rented a large cottage near “The Gaiety” – a landmark property on Little Lake – and spent a summer in the daily presence of my parents, warm closeness for parents and grandparents. However the summer was to be marked by illness and tragedy. In August we learned that Chester Irony, the beloved son of Reva and Charlie had been stricken with bulbar poliomyelitis and was to expire after a week or so in an iron lung. Reva and Charlie had lost their first child, Gail, to meningitis, and there remained Donna, Chester’s 13 year old sister. Becky and Dave went to New York in the dog days of August to comfort Dave’s youngest sister and her husband. They were inconsolable and retreated into a silent world where they attended to their business – a grocery store – and expected Donna to manage herself, which she did with remarkable strength.
We had moved our family back to Montreal at summer’s end, but made an offer to purchase the cottage in the expectation that Becky and Dave would be able to spend several months a year there, and that we would be there summers. We had barely completed the purchase when Dave took ill, and faced emergency surgery. His brother-in-law, Charles Kitner was terminally ill and died that week. While his sons sat Shiva at Leon and Anne Echenberg’s home, Dave lapsed into a coma and died. While sitting Shiva for Dave at their apartment on Court Street in Sherbrooke we received news that June Echenberg’s sister, Ariane Blackwood – only 18 and the apple of her big sister’s eye – had been killed in the crash of a small plane at Montreal. The superstition that death will strike three times seems to have had some meaning for those of us who mourned.
In February, 1954 I had a serious operation for a long-standing thyroid problem. Becky came to Montreal to look after Deborah and Peter, and in May we moved to Carlton Avenue. We were able to persuade Reva and Charlie to send Donna to McGill, with the understanding that she would live with us until they we able to make the move and come back to Canada to be with family.
During this period I was working part-time in the Social Service Department of the Jewish General Hospital, relying on Becky for child care. Deborah attended Van Home School and Peter went to the Westend Cooperative Nursery School. We spent summers at the cottage and these were the sun-kissed days. There were children nearby to play with and many relatives down the road to visit. There were relatives and friends who spent weekends with us, and during this time I managed to complete my course of study to qualify for the Master of Social Work degree. These were good years for Becky, too. She went to Europe and Israel, and spent winters in Florida, coming home with suitcases full of exotic Florida clothes and knick-knacks for us all.
I was fortunate to be working as a Field Instructor for the McGill School of Social Work, first part time, then full time, but free during the summer to spend those precious months with the children and my mother at the cottage. We bought our house on Iona Avenue in 1960, and welcomed the challenge of renovating, gardening and enjoying the spacious and sheltering grounds. Phil was a dedicated gardener, and grew roses in every nook and cranny of the garden. His favourite story tied country and city experiences – the gift of well-rotted manure from the Bellavances, a family of local farmers whom we occasionally hired to work at the cottage, and how it got from Little Lake to 5020 Iona, shipped in plastic bags by Smith Transport and dumped in our garden over the school fence.
Time passed, Mother’s ageing brought senile dementia and she had to be moved to Maimonides Hospital in 1965. Deborah and Peter attended various camps and the cottage was rented out, to be sold in 1968,1 believe. Thus ended our sojourn on the western flank of the Massawippi escarpment, the long geographic feature which arose south of Ayers’ Cliff and continued through North Hatley, Capelton, Lennoxville, Sherbrooke and beyond.
Years later, when we returned from our celebratory year in Europe, we set out to find the perfect Townships spot for our retirement home. Although Phil was having recurring bouts of flu, we searched the area and quite quickly located a darling house on Moulton Hill, a beautiful country road leading out of Lennoxville and passing Bishop’s College School. The “flu” turned out to be the early symptoms of leukemia. Here we spent the last 18 months of Phil’s life, enjoying the magnificent view from the eastern aspect of the Massawippi escarpment, gazing south to the American border and to the east to the Dominion Experimental Farm — a most nourishing landscape.
There were roads leading onward towards Ascot, on the ridge where ruins of old copper mines littered the landscape, and down to Sherbrooke, steeply inclined through maple woods. After one and a half years I sold the house, as I had moved to Quebec to re-establish my career. It was charming, cosy and secluded, but no longer in consonance with my life.
The Massawippi escarpment continues north and east, East Sherbrooke, Fleurimont and Ascot, adorning it. At one of its high points lies the Jewish Cemetery, across the road from the big Catholic cemetery. It is there that I will find my last resting place, in the bosom of the Hills of Home.
Across alluvial flat, I move toward places that rise and sing themselves into my mouth, rosary of steeple and field:
Saint Benoit du Lac,
Sainte Catherine de Hatley,
Through soft dust
a humming tractor tells the beads of Rock Forest,
Tidal rhythms of Massawippi,
pull me from mapled pastures.
I climb the long Katevale road.
Fields fall away from the height of land, rivers change their flow from east to west.
The hill plunges down to Little Lake, wind-ruffled, sun-blessed, as I sing the hymn of names.
Dr. Tannenbaum, I presume…
By Peter Tannenbaum
When Ruth Echenberg and Philip Tannenbaum met, they knew at once that they were destined to be together. It was literally “across a crowded room” as the song goes. They met at a gathering of like-minded young people, mutual friends with a mutual commitment to the socialist cause in Canada and across the globe.
Ruth had begun her career in social work, and Philip was active in the trade union movement. They were instantly drawn to one another. It seemed like an obvious match to their peers, but Ruth’s family was another story. The Echenbergs had established themselves as the pre-eminent Jewish family in Sherbrooke – the proverbial big fish in a little pond – and garnered aspirations to extend the ripple effect of their influence beyond to the Jewish community in Quebec and Canada, as well as within the general populace of Sherbrooke.
They had great hopes for Ruthie, an attractive, intelligent and strong- willed young woman, possessed of a college education and the scion of both major branches of the extended Echenberg family tree. In fact, she was the first who could claim direct lineage through both parents to the progenitor of the entire Echenberg clan, Moses who had lived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The fact that she had chosen Phil, an orphan with no family connections, a man without a college education or even a clear-cut career path, did not bode well. And Ruth understood this all too clearly.
Nevertheless, it did not deter her from her choice. She was a fiercely independent young woman and was determined to make her life with the man she loved. Thus, although it was only a couple of months since they had met, Ruth and Philip decided that they would marry, and it was in this light that Ruth first presented Philip to her parents, Becky and David.
They were naturally somewhat perturbed. Becky, who was fretful by nature, wrung her hands in dismay. What future could her daughter possibly have with this seemingly unaccomplished young man, a complete stranger to her who was now being presented as her future son-in-law! What were his prospects? What were his connections? WHAT WOULD THE FAMILY SAY!?
David, in an attempt to mitigate this delicate situation, took what he considered to be a more pragmatic approach. Taking Philip to one side, he tried to dissuade him from his course with the following argument:
“Look, son,” he said. “You don’t want to marry my daughter. She’s not the wife for you!”
“But why not?” exclaimed Phil. “We love each other.”
“She’ll never keep a house for you,” replied David. “She can’t cook. She can’t sew. She can’t even clean. You’re much better off with someone else!”
Fortunately, Phil was not persuaded by these arguments, which he discretely kept to himself until many years later. (I recall the moment when he finally told Ruth, Deborah and me of this conversation with his then future father-in-law. Ruth roared with laughter.) So the engagement went forward, and was announced by Becky and David to the rest of the family.
The first hurdle for Philip was to meet Ruth’s Aunt Bertha, the dowager queen of the Echenbergs, regally ensconced in her elegantly appointed Westmount apartment, with her fine collection of crystal, porcelain and other chachkas. It was agreed that Phil would pay her a visit alone, and he was made to understand the importance of “passing mustard” with Bertha, who would be sure to make a pronouncement of Philip’s fitness as a future in-law to the rest of the family.
In order to keep his rendezvous with Bertha at the appointed hour, Phil spent half of his week’s pay on a taxi. Looking dashing, and on his best behaviour, Philip succeeded in charming Bertha. All was going exceedingly well until, having lit up a cigarette, Phil began to look around for a place to deposit the ashes. With his free hand delicately cupped under the lengthening ash, he espied an empty dish and moved his arm towards it.
“Young man!,” exclaimed Bertha in all her hauteur. “That is NOT an ashtray. THAT is a bon-bon dish!!!” Quel horreur!
Despite this obvious and glaring^Mx pas, Phil succeeded in making a good impression. Bertha reported that Philip was eminently suited to be joined in matrimony to one of the blood. And so followed the next hurdle, meeting the extended clan at the family bastion in Sherbrooke. Thus, a gathering was arranged for that specific purpose.
Phil and Ruth travelled by train to Sherbrooke, and when they alit at the station bumped into by Ross Vineberg, the husband of Claire Echenberg, a first cousin to Ruth’s mother Becky. Ruth made the introduction and Ross, a rather lugubrious fellow, extended a hand in formal greeting.
“Dr. Tannenbaum,” he intoned with great dignity. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Of course, it would be “Dr. Tannenbaum”. Whom else would Ruthie possible marry but a doctor! Such were the expectations awaiting poor Philip. It was to his great credit that he managed to win over the family so completely within a short span of time. Ruth and Phil were married soon thereafter in an elegantly simple outdoor ceremony at Becky and David’s cottage on the shores of Little Lake Magog, with the majestic profile of Mount Orford in the distant background.
Philip fit naturally into the Echenberg scheme of things. He came to assume the important role of “conduit” for future Echenberg in-laws, steering them through the sometimes-rocky shoals of Echenberg mishigas.
For my mother Ruth
Our house was a depot
for containers of baby teeth
to be tested for Strontium 90.
We drank powdered milk
to avoid the fallout,
went on the marches.
It was hard good work,
living in the crucible,
daughter to a woman who cared for the world.
My mother knew all the roads,
unmarked dirt ones
with covered bridges,
She gave me a map outlasting
politics and geography.
We’d spread our blanket
under a star-salted sky, turn our charts to find
the ancient pictures.
She gave me a universe of
brilliance and delight.
They give her something to breathe in
and later, an injection.
She lies under the machine
that reads radiation,
while drugs squeeze her
like a sponge.
I point to the monitor,
a dark mass
on a grainy image of lungs.
The technician smiles:
It’s just the shadow of her heart.
La Boulangerie Saint Laurent
By Ruth Echenberg Tannenbaum
Whenever a family member went to Montreal from our 100 mile distant town of Sherbrooke, he would return with fragrant bags of many kinds of bread – kimmel, pumpernickel, Challah, bagel – and my favourite – cinnamon rolls. These would have come from the bakery on St. Lawrence, on the west side, above Pine Avenue. My father or my uncle would have greeted their landsman – Myer Richman from Ostropolye, Volhynia Gubernia, not far from Kiev in the Pale of Settlement in the Ukraine. There was warm family connection, since we shared Richman cousins – Benjamin (Benumin) the adventurer who went back to find the remnants of our family after the First World War, and arrange for them to join the already established Echenberg family.
The special quality of the Richman bread came from the leavening agent, and this was the secret of their success. The yeast, which is perpetually renewed from each batch of bread, by putting aside a small bowl of dough, was the original yeast which Myer had brought with him from Ostropolye. It was a heritage we enjoyed along with many thousands of Montrealers. It fascinates me to think that, for almost a century, the yeast of Ostropolye nurtured us. Such links with the past are precious, and I am saddened to learn from today’s paper that the Bakery is no more. (Dated October 23, 2002)
Letter from Murray Richman
Regretfully, my wife Sophie and I will be unable to attend the upcoming reunion but we will be there with you in spirit. At age 84 we aren’t traveling as we did in past years. We may be a couple of the oldest descendants of Moses Echenberg still enjoying life but you can correct me, if I am wrong, hopefully. If you have a copy of the Family Calender created for the first reunion, I am in picture #7 on the July page. I am the infant being held by my parents Joseph and Leah Richman on my first of many visits to Canada. It was taken in the year 1924 and your grandmother and grandfather are in that photo. I loved them very much since they always made me feel at home.
Also pictured was my revered Zayda Alter Echenberg who eventually came to Brooklyn, NY to live his last years with us. As a 5 and 6 year old I used to walk him to shul each morning so that he could daven in a minyan.
He passed away in our home. I still have his Siddur which was published in Russia in 1855 and which he gave to my Father and I place it on our Seder table every Pesach.
If the family tree is being brought up to date, we have a few additions and in September we will have one more since we are expecting our first great granddaughter. Best wishes for a happy and successful reunion.
Murray Richman August 3rd, 2006
By Deborah Sheppard
They turned gray without my noticing, faces grew lines and soft folds of ancestral photos.
Edward turns seventy-five tomorrow.
I still see him as a boy of eight, says my mother, the readiness for adventure, he’ll try anything once.
Myer is the oldest, the one who remembers
the old country,
the bandit always in trouble,
his good heart now beyond the doctors.
I did not agree to this.
I want the pull of a different gravity: cousins all gathered lakeside,
Adirondack chairs under poplar rustle,
crunch of Mandelbrot,
powdered rainbow of Turkish delight.
With them I will always be Ruthie’s child,
free to play until dinner time on the flagstone patio,
write messages on birchbark,
to stuff into a bottle, float down the lake
to the river
Jessica Echenberg’s Bat Mitzvah was a very special occasion for me, not only because we were recognizing the arrival of our dear young cousin at the first thresholds of maturity, but also because it was the first time that my future wife, Hermine Ashton, met any of the family members, including my own mother and sister.
Gordon and Penny naturally threw out all the stops to make this an extraordinary event. The ceremony, held at the Shaar Hashomayim was followed by a luncheon at the synagogue, then a gala affair at Gordon’s home in Westmount. There was a tent set up in the back yard with seating for the two hundred plus guests and a platform for the musicians and the DJs (or “party animators”) that would take over after the meal. It was a thoroughly elegant affair from start to finish.
I had told my mother that I had met someone, and that I had invited her as my guest. But aside from that, she had no idea what to expect. We arranged that Hermine and I would pick my mother and sister up in her car. My mother awaited our arrival at the entrance of her abode at Place Kensington with some trepidation. Who was this person that Peter was bringing? I suppose she may have thought, knowing me, that I would arrive with a flower child dressed in a denim skirt and tie-dyed shirt.
Hermine, if I do say so myself, is a woman a natural sense of style, who always dresses beautifully and is also imbued with a grace that still astonishes me daily. She was dressed in an elegant navy blue and white outfit. The car pulled up and out stepped Hermine, dressed to the nines. My mother, overjoyed, clutched my sister’s arm and exclaimed sotto voce, “She’s wearing a hat!”
The stories of the first encounters of new Echenberg spouses with the family are legion. (I included one here of my late father’s experience.) However, I don’t know of anyone who got to meet practically ALL of the family first time around in one shot as did Hermine. She sat with us, looking exquisite, at the lunch reception following the ceremony. Echenberg cousins made their way over to Ruth or Deborah and ask them, “Who is this stunning woman with Peter? How did he meet her?” I don’t think they quite believed it. So, one by one, they made their way over to where we were sitting to be introduced. More than once Hermine was warned (albeit in a friendly manner) that her recall of Echenberg names would be tested.
But the night really belonged to Jessica. It was such a pleasure to see her in the limelight, and enjoying the occasion with her friends. After the dinner party came the speeches. Ruth had prepared some special comments for Jessica, touching upon her entry into the company of accomplished and esteemed women of the Echenberg clan, whether by blood or marriage. It was a very moving speech and it follows now in its entirety…
“Dear Jessica, the remarks I am about to make are designed to look at the past in order to catapult you into your future. I hope you will find the inspiration to be the best you can be, to be true to your own hopes and aspirations and to live the best of lives along the way.
Looking back, there are on your father’s side two traditions which merged. Ida Fishman, your grandmother – an intelligent, funny lady – left a successful life as a teacher and musician in Boston to bring fulfillment and love to Grandpa Abe and her two sons. Her parents and her brothers, Harris and Bobby, their wives Beverly and Frayda, enlivened the Echenberg summers out at Little Lake Magog with their humour, charm and good looks. It is with much pleasure that I see their sons and dear Beverly here tonight.
The family Ida joined has a talent of making sure that its women, bom or wedded, know that when opportunity knocks, you answer. Leah, you greatgrandmother, began buying and selling second-hand furniture when she and Moses had to leave the farm in Danville and settle in Sherbrooke, in 1893.
She laid the foundation for that celebrated enterprise, the Echenberg Brothers furniture store, from which flowed our economic and social security. Becky, my mother, Bertha, Ed and Joan’s mother, and Bessie, Bob and David’s mom, were the next generation of women to demolish barriers and to chart new territory. They were among the first Jewish teachers in Montreal. I still hear Bertha Echenberg’s name on the lips of former pupils for whom she was an indomitable inspiration.
There were two Claire Echenbergs – one, Paul and Howard’s aunt, was one of the four Miss Echenbergs of the Protestant School Board – each of them a brilliant beauty. The other Claire, Harry’s aunt, who later married Dr. Horn, trained as a nurse in New York because she was denied admission to the Montreal Hospital Nursing School because she was Jewish. She returned to Canada to establish and direct the Montreal Maternity Hospital, the first hospital in Canada respecting Jewish tradition, later to become incorporated as the Jewish General Hospital. These women were true pioneers in finding a place where their talents and vigour could take them beyond the traditional place for Jewish women.
My mother Rebecca was perhaps the boldest: she enlisted in the First World War in 1916 as a nurse’s aid, and went overseas to England as a member of the St. John’s Ambulance Corps. Ill health brought her home before the war’s end, but her heroism was always remembered.
The next generations of Echenberg women are those who were bom to Echenbergs and those who were chosen by Echenbergs – all expressing the values and the energy which animate our lives – teaching (Joan Myer, Eva Echenberg, Lillian Echenberg, Deborah Sheppard, Judy Echenberg), nursing (Michelle Echenberg, Anne Usher), creativity (Lorraine Levinson, Lonnie Echenberg, Michelle, Rachel, Andrea Leland) and social activism (Anne, Havi Echenberg, Lynn Echenberg).
Jessica, you are the daughter of these remarkable women, those of us here tonight embrace you and bless you with our wish that you too will fund the fulfillment which is your due. Tonight is only the beginning. We are here to light your road to the future. We love you.”
The term bala gullem was one of several used by my father to describe the social standing of someone in the community. A bala gulla was a common person, like a carter who hauled things with his horse and wagon. This was pretty low on the totem pole. The worst were ganaven, horse thieves!