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Neighbourhood struggled to accept immigrants

We are continuing with Irwin Block’s memoir of life for a young Montrealer growing up on Querbes Ave. in Outremont in the 1940s and 1950s.

February 2011

On the Jewish High Holidays, the neighbourhood closed down. Many, though not all, took days off to attend the local synagogue, the Beth Moishe, at the corner of Lajoie and Durocher. We also attended the Beth David on St. Joseph, now an Orthodox church, and the Beth Jacob on Fairmount, now part of Collège Français.

Immigrants who survived the war would promenade along the street in spring and summer with their European clothes and bulky baby carriages. Our Talmud Torah principal, Melach Magid, had to lecture the whole school one afternoon on why we should not make fun of the newcomers, whom some called “mockies,” presumably because they didn’t dress like us, or spoke with accents.

Yes, kids will be kids. They can be cruel. But this mockery was shameful.

Nobody wanted to talk about the war, the concentration and death camps. The community was stunned into silence, as the full extent of the carnage had yet to sink in.

The community concentrated instead on rescuing survivors from displaced-person camps, and helping them settle here. My maternal grandparents, uncle and aunt, were among Holocaust victims in Poland. I was only 2 years old when the war ended—too young to share my mother’s trauma in learning that our family was part of the 6 million Jewish vicims.

The extent of and consciousness surrounding our personal and the community’s tragic losses only emerged over time.

Survivors and refugees began arriving in the neighbourhood. Two families moved into our apartment building. We all have a chuckle when we recall the son of one Polish family coming to our door one night, saying: “My mudder wants a badado.” The father of a Russian family suffered nightmares. I remember my father going to see him and offering him a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves.

At times, the neighbourhood felt like a slice of Europe.

Frank’s, the corner store at Lajoie and Durocher, catered to our tastes. There was a barrel of pickles and another of schmaltz herring, and the owner would cut you a piece of cottage cheese from a brick of it, as wide as you wanted. Yiddish was as common as English.

I took the 96 streetcar at Bernard and Durocher to our Talmud Torah school on St. Joseph and Jeanne Mance. We bought our Hebrew books from Mr. Kaplansky’s dusty little shop on Park. The Jewish People’s School was a few blocks away on Waverly, the Peretz School on Duluth, the YMHA on Mount Royal and the Labour Zionist Centre on Laurier. Also on Laurier was the Beth-El Mission to the Jews, a mysterious storefront aimed at converting us “heathens.” At school, we went through the required secular curriculum in half a day, then spent the rest of the time pursuing Judaic studies. We started learning Hebrew in kindergarten.

There was truly an extraordinary mix of students, who complemented and competed with each other.

Some of our classmates have gone on to illustrious careers: Janice Gross Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, was always at the top of the class. So was Leslie Dorfman, who practices clinical neurophysiology and neurology in Stanford, Cal. Brian Segal, who lived on de l’Épée, is president and CEO of Rogers Publishing division of Rogers Communications. Bernard Zinman and Arnold Aberman are leading physicians practicing in Toronto.

The same could be said of other schools here and elsewhere, but there was a drive to achieve in those days that was remarkable.



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