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Jewish pioneers on the prairies endured harsh conditions to build a better life for the generations that followed

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Pioneer immigrant families in Narcisse and Bender Hamlet, such as the Arbers, Goldbergs, Lavitts, and Lazer and Chai (Chaya) Rachlin (highlighted in yellow), are remembered for establishing the first Jewish farming community in Manitoba

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Can I tell you a story about some of my heroes?

My Bride has recollections of the life experience of her mother’s family in their early days on the Prairies. I am transfixed by her stories. They are like the fairy tales I read when I was a child, like the stories of the heroes who lived in the times when dragons roamed the earth.

Her grandparents, Lazer and Chaya Rachlin, arrived in Canada when the government was encouraging settlement in the Prairies with land grants. We always heard of those in our early schooldays, and the talk was of land grants of sections, (640 acres), and quarter sections, (160 acres) along with starter cattle and horses. Not so for these Jewish immigrants.

They arrived in the early 1900’s, settling with others in a Jewish community established in Narcisse, ninety miles north of Winnipeg, where Lazer Rachlin applied for and received a plot of land and a hut. They may have had a cow of their own because her mother remembered that seemingly all they had to eat the first year were mushrooms and milk. Can we imagine their lives?

He sought jobs in Winnipeg to earn a living, trying his hand at a variety of tasks. He met a Ukrainian immigrant on the street and in conversation with him, told him he was looking for a job. His acquaintance took him to a place where he learned to install windows, but he ended up as a house painter. He would work all week in Winnipeg and return on the weekend to Narcisse. I know some of you have heard stories like these about how we re-invent ourselves to meet the challenges we face. These are some of mine. 

When Lazer brought supplies each week from the butcher for the family, the butcher papers and newspapers were plastered on the walls to block the winds coming through the boards of the hut they lived in.  Chaya also saved all the string from the packages so she could hang a curtain between the boys and girls when they slept. My Bride couldn’t stop talking about how ingenious Chaya was in dealing with the challenges of feeding, clothing and caring for their five children during the sixteen years they were in the country. The same goes for Lazer who worked those years in Winnipeg, going Monday and coming home Friday. No one would buy the land when they left. It had no value, even after all those years of clearing stones from the land to make it cultivable.

I look around at the surroundings we enjoy, and I marvel at what people did to survive.

Lazer Rachlin settled the family in the city, using his painter experience. He re-fashioned a house they bought. With the help of neighbors, he put in a basement and a second floor to house the offspring. The family raised five living children in Canada. Me, I have difficulty banging in a nail straight.

My Bride’ mother, Malke, remembered she had to walk three miles to Bender Hamlet, from their near-Narcisse home, each weekday, to get to school. (Narcisse was named after Narcisse Leven, then the president of the Jewish Colonization Association, by the residents of Bender Hamlet. It became more famous for the Snake Dens in the area that cross the highway during spring mating season.) She carried her younger sister on her back during her early years. Anyone who has lived through a prairie winter in Canada will well appreciate what that meant. When a school was built only a mile away, it was a cause for joyous celebration.

My Bride’s aunt never forgot that experience. When she became an adult, she moved lock, stock and barrel, to California. Who can blame her? I still remember the Winnipeg winters of my youth. One reason I live far away from there. My Bride, however, still misses the quiet of an evening snowfall!

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Lazer had a storied career. He was the youngest of three. Before being conscripted into the Russian Army like his brothers, he studied in a Yeshiva like all bright kids did. While fighting in the Russian army he was posted on the Chinese border and learned to speak Mandarin. (In all he spoke seven languages as a consequence of his wanderings.) As a soldier he was wounded in the leg. He hid in ocean waters to avoid detection, with the effect that his wound healed without infection. He walked all the way to Lithuania and freedom.

Living on handouts at synagogues in towns on the way, he settled there and met his wife Chaya. They travelled to Turkey where he made his living as a vendor of the cigarettes he made by hand. Then they went to Germany where my Bride’s mother was born. They travelled to Israel, then back to Turkey and finally resided in Berlin. From there they immigrated to Canada. In the life he built for his five children in this country, he is a hero for our times  Malke, my Bride’s mother, registered to become a nurse when she reached her fifteenth birthday. Although she reported her name as Malke, she was assigned the name Millicent by the Nuns who were her teachers.

Malke met my Bride’s father when she went to a dance in 1926, when he was visiting from work in New York. One of the men at the dance began insisting that Malke dance with him, even though she refused. My Bride’s father saw this and came over to help her. The man, perhaps twice his size, (her father was diminutive,) struck him and knocked him out cold. Malke ministered to her fallen hero. I have the strongest regret that I never met my Bride’s father, although I knew of him from a distance. He was all courage.

My Bride’s father, Chaim, was born in Poland, but grew up in Winnipeg. His father was a teacher. In High School he was a Junior Chess Champion and the Western Canadian High School Sprinting Champion. He played violin during silent movies in theatres to earn money for further education. He studied at a Jewish University in New York. He supplemented his income there by selling silk stockings from a pushcart, teaching youngsters and driving a cab. The eternal immigrant story.

After he returned to Winnipeg, with the urging of Malke, he took Law, financed by playing his music at events as part of a trio, and teaching Hebrew. He was admitted to the Bar in 1931. Six months after this event, and five years after they met, he married Malke. The groom was married wearing a borrowed suit in his bride’s home. The rest is history.

A photo of Narcisse School (no date) by M. Hall-Jones Source: Archives of Manitoba, School Inspectors Photographs, GR8461, A0233, C131-3, page 44.

My Bride reports that Malke used to get Chaim to practice his addresses to the Judge since he had a stutter. Every court presentation would be done first at home. Each morning, as she recalled, her mother would prepare her father’s outfit for the day to ensure he was properly dressed. Meanwhile, Malke continued her career as a sought-after private nurse. Together, they had two children.

Chaim Kushner became well-known as a pre-eminent criminal lawyer in Canada. He was a senior partner in the firm of Kushner, Breen and Gordon was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1956. With an illustrious career, he lost only one capital case. He earned a long list of accolades to his name. He filled a number of prominent positions of public trust, including acting as an advisor to different Premiers of the province of Manitoba and was named a Queen’s Counsel in 1956.

Among other things, he advised on the establishment in Winnipeg of the first urban metropolitan government in North America, and on the construction of the Red River floodway that ended many decades of urban and rural flooding in Manitoba and saved lives to this very day. He also headed up the National Federation of Mayors and Municipalities, was a Counselor for a number of years before serving ten years as the Mayor of the city of West Kildonan. He was recognized for his many contributions to his community.

Malke died, too young, in 1966, at 59. C.N. Kushner , QC., died in 1997 at 92. They live on in the memories of their children and grandchildren.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. We look at our past and appreciate how easy it was for us by comparison.

Humble beginnings and wintry times do not always foretell the future.

Max Roytenberg is an author, poet and blogger, with many published articles in Jewish periodicals in Dublin, New York, Winnipeg and Vancouver. After a career as an Economist and Executive in the Food Industry, in Canada and abroad, he writes, and lives with his Bride, in Vancouver. He has children and grandchildren in the US, Canada, China and Israel. His last book, “Hero In My Own Eyes”, is available through major booksellers and on Amazon.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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