Montreal artist and art teacher Rita Briansky emigrated from Poland with her family when she was four, and lived in northern Ontario and Val d’Or during the Great Depression of the 1930s before settling in Montreal. She described those years in a recent talk sponsored by the Jewish Genealogical Society. Here are excerpts:
I was born in the small town of Grajewo, northeast of Warsaw, near the East Prussian border. I was four when we came to Canada in 1929, but I remember much about my early years. My father, born in Briansk, spent his growing years in a Yeshiva and on his graduation my mother and he were united in an arranged marriage.
After they settled in Grajewo, they opened and operated a sort of tea shop where they sold choco lates, dried gold sprats, and made wonderful vanilla ice cream, which was very popular, especially with the German soldiers who were very friendly with us.
I grew up not fully understanding but living with an ingrown fear of The Other who hated us and threw stones into the windows of Jewish houses. I was aware of the fear of pogroms and untold dangers around us.
In 1927 my father immigrated to the small Northern Ontario town of Ansonville to work for his brother-in-law, who owned a dry goods store. Two years later, my mother, two sisters, and I followed him to Canada. We boarded a ship to Liverpool and we stayed overnight in a hotel where there was a parrot in a cage that spoke Polish, begging for “chocolata”.
We arrived in Canada on October 28, 1929, the day before the stock market crash. We arrived at my uncle’s house by train the next day and our life in Northern Canada began. Ansonville was founded about 1912 when the Abitibi pulp and paper mill was built. It is 670 kilometers northeast of Toronto, and in 1930 had a population of fewer than 1500. People were needed to work in the mill, operate clothing and grocery stores, and provide necessary services. This was an incentive for immigrants to come from Eastern Europe, and when we arrived I took for granted the
cultural mix of Jews, Ukrainians, English, Irish, and French Canadians. There were about 18
There were two grocery stores operated by Jews, four dry goods stores owned also by Jews, one of whom was my uncle. Down the street there was a general store owned by Carl Kussner. There was a Middle Eastern man, Mr. Ayoub, who had a candy store and made the best peanut brittle. There was a drug store that sold candies for
pennies and two cinemas, one of which was silent, and one where a young woman followed the action by playing a suitable tune on the piano. There was a Protestant school, a Catholic school, a synagogue, and several doctors, who decided that my Jewish name Rashka would become Rita. There was a lawyer named Mr. Fine.
The men who worked in the mill lived in Ansonville, but the mill, hospital, and high school were in neighbouring Iroquois Falls, a company town occupied by the elite middle class. Before I knew it, I was speaking English with my best friend, a Ukrainian girl, Nelly, and an Irish girl, Enid.
Some time after we arrived, my father left for Pittsburgh for a brief period and returned an ordained rabbi, becoming the town’s shoichet (ritual slaughterer). I became the town’s vegetarian.
My father also taught Hebrew to unwilling children and my mother kept boarders and worked hard cooking, baking, cleaning, and washing our laundry in the bathtub on the washboard.
Travelling salesmen would eat at our house and this is how we met Alexander Massey, the husband of the Montreal Yiddish poet Ida Maza, who became one of my dearest friends and mentor when we eventually moved to Montreal.
The Jewish community of the north was like a big family: many would come to our synagogue for the High Holidays from Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Cochrane, and Rouyn-Noranda. One year during Simcha Torah, the men started at the far end of town, had a glass of schnapps, and continued till they came to the shul (synagogue), quite drunk. At night the congregation met in the synagogue and the men, newcomers from Russia and Poland, danced the kazatzke around the Torah.
My father used to take orders from the Jewish community for Pesach (Passover) and have the required food delivered from Toronto to our house — boxes filled with the aromas of Passover, which were distributed to the people.
The ladies belonged to the Hadassah (Women’s Zionist organization) and met regularly in one another’s homes, competing with their delicious baking.
I learned one could buy on credit and started buying candy from Mr. Ayoub in that manner until he told my father I owed close to $5. Needless to say, I have never owed money to anyone ever since.
We lived with my uncle (in Ansonville) one winter … During some very cold winter mornings, the pipes would freeze and I remember helping my uncle get under the sink with lit candles to melt the ice. One winter day in 1935 we had the coldest day on record, minus 75! My mother wrapped me in scarves and I proceeded to school. My breath froze immediately. We ventured to school several blocks away but were turned back because they could not heat the school.
Behind the house was a hill built by my uncle, where in the summer he used to grow vegetables, and in the winter we would slide down on corrugated cardboard sheets. One October day when a biting wind was blowing grainy snow, my uncle asked if I would help him pick the last potatoes at the bottom of the hill – one of the most memorable times for me. We grubbed in the freezing earth and pulled up the last small potatoes and put them in a bushel. I felt very close to him.
Next to my uncle’s store and house was a Chinese hotel. Their kitchen was opposite our bedroom. At night we would sit in the dark and watch them smoking water pipes. We wondered if it was opium. They were friendly and we learned that in those days Chinese women could not come here. The men could come alone as labourers on the railroad and eventually were able to open laundries and restaurants.
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I used to take chalk from the blackboard and draw on the sidewalks for my friends’ entertainment. During the warm summer days I would run across the meadow to the river’s edge and sit quietly by myself. I’d also lie in the grass among the wild, fragrant roses and pick sweet, tiny wild strawberries. On dark summer nights we used to sit on our doorsteps and because there were no neon lights, I could marvel at the grandeur of the Milky Way, which eventually led to my becoming a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Montreal. The Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, were so visible I felt I could reach up and touch them.
I spent a great deal of time in the house of my Ukrainian friend Nelly. Her father who worked in the mill had a steady income. They lived in a small, white clapboard house with a garden full of nasturtiums. I loved watching Nelly’s mother make crepe paper flowers, then crochet a basket of heavy cotton string, dip it in glue, then paint it gold, to hold the bouquet of paper flowers. I helped them cross-stitch a carpet.
I would accompany my friend to the Ukrainian Hall where she took Spanish guitar lessons, and while she was eating her supper, I would go into their living room and practice for her. There was also a poolroom nearby with a bowling alley run by a Ukrainian man. Sometimes I would go there with my friends and act as a pin girl.
I was also aware that upstairs of a corner store there was a brothel – I wasn’t sure what a brothel was, but that’s what I was told – run by a one-armed man named Mike Côté.
In the time of the Ukrainian Christmas, called Little Christmas, I used to go with my friends to 12 different Ukrainian homes where we would each receive a piece of fruit cake.
In the winter – always very cold but dry – we would walk over the snow covered fields of the frozen river and watch the men saw chunks of ice for the iceboxes, and load the blocks onto horse-drawn wagons.
During the summer holidays I once went with one of my older sisters and some friends across the Abitibi River by way of a boom – a string of boards joined by chains which form a shaky, treacherous bridge to the other side of the river. We walked over to where the lumberjacks stayed and picked wild raspberries.
I also spent a lot of time with my Irish friend Enid. They were a lovely family, with a big black and white dog named Buster. They were Protestants and one July day Enid asked if I would like to join her in the Orange Day Parade. The girls wore white dresses, with large orange bands across their chest, and I, the Jewish girl with a hand-me-down dress, walked beside my friend. Only in later years did I realize we were marching against the Catholics.
I felt very close to my non-Jewish friends, but was aware that at times someone would call me a dirty Jew.
Over the years families of the Ansonville Jewish community began leaving, moving to Montreal or
Toronto. A large proportion of the young men, Jewish and Christian from Up North were killed overseas. The whole community personally felt the losses.
When I was about 13, we moved to Val d’Or, a new mining town with an ethnic mixture. The town was built on the edge of the wilderness, and for dessert, I would take a cup into the back of the house and knock big blueberries into it.
I began imitating bird sounds, as there seemed to be so many varieties around us. I saw my first neon lights.
One winter there was an international dog sled race. The wife of the American ambassador to Canada, Doris Duke Cromwell, came in for the occasion. The snow was plentiful and clean, lights were strung across the main street, music was playing constantly, and many contestants with their dogs and sleds took off, amid an air of great excitement.
During the summer holiday I got a job working in a general store, where I learned to sell ladies’ shoes, ladies’ clothing, as well as men’s work clothes and mining boots. I was able to buy myself a new raincoat and an umbrella – my first non second-hand clothing.
High school was held upstairs of a store, in a small room. In 1939 two of the boys of my class – they were big guys, I guess they were 17 or 18 – enlisted in the army, and I learned later that one of them named Dutchy was killed early in the war.
In that period a new school building was erected and one teacher, Miss Stobey, who must have
recognized that I needed more, started lending me good books to read and generally showed me a kindness that I still treasure.
In Val d’Or, I became friends with the daughter of the Presbyterian Minister, a very lovely and loving friend, Marian MacLeod. With my new friends I played softball, acting as the catcher of the team, I learned to box, and went on picnics in the nearby wilderness with them. Looking back, it seems now that there was an air of security in the non-Jewish homes, a lack of the impending doom that I always felt.
In 1941 we moved to Montreal, where I suffered a bit of culture shock. I had never seen so many cars and so many Jewish people in one place. I spent my last year in high school in Baron Byng, where the student population was almost completely Jewish, and where boys and girls were in separate rooms. Girls were not permitted to study the sciences, which was a disappointment to me, as I was interested and good in that subject.
In May, 1995, I had an unyielding urge to go back to Poland, the country of my birth. I made immediate arrangements to go there, and to go alone, except that I would have two personal guides, one to accompany me to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the other to my hometown, Grajewo, in northeastern Poland.
My sister, who was older than me, gave me the address of our place where my parents had a sort of cafeteria in the front, and we lived behind the shop. It was now a fish store.
My final stop was Stockholm, to visit my cousin Leybl Truss, who, along with his father, were the only survivors of my father’s family who had lived in Briansk. Three sisters, one of them being Leybl’s mother, and their families remained in Briansk and were all murdered in Treblinka, along with all the other Jews there. Leybl survived as a partisan in the forest, while his father, a journalist, had been arrested by the Soviets and spent the war years in Siberia. They eventually were reunited in Bialystok.
When I came home I began to digest what I had seen and experienced. It was difficult to fathom the murder of six million, but when I saw it in the light of the family, it hit me in my core.
Looking over my photos I had to express my sorrow, which words could not. It ended as the Kaddish series of 18 paintings.
Rita Briansky’s Kaddish series is on display in a gallery on the first floor of the hospital’s main entrance.. Each has a small plaque with the painting’s title and a short poem by the artist’s sister, Bella Briansky-Kalter. Works by Briansky and her late husband, artist Joseph Prezament, go on display at the Jewish Public Library from May 6 to June 22. Rita and Joe: A Life of Sketches presents their individual perspectives: Briansky explores personal mythologies though her surroundings and experiences, while Prezament reflects the city and abstract allegorical visions in a unique spatial and colour context. JPL, 5151 Côte Ste-Catherine.