Digitization of the Shields Family Films

Through the generosity of Mel and Lorne Shields, the OJA has completed digitizing its collection of the Shields family’s home movies. Mel and Lorne’s parents, Harry and Esther Shields, were married in Toronto in 1937. Harry owned a sportswear business called Shields Sportswear Ltd., which was located at 349 Queen Street West. Their family films offer a rare and vibrant glimpse of every day Jewish life in Toronto between 1937 and 1970, including footage of Lorne’s Bar Mitzvah at Beth Tzedec Synagogue, weddings from the 1930s, a family trip to Pontypool (a summer destination for many Toronto Jews), and clips of summer camps that were popular within the Jewish community, such as, Camp Rockwood and Camp Winnebagoe. The OJA is thrilled to make these films accessible to current and future generations and extends its warmest thanks to the Shields family for their generous support with this initiative.

The OJA has over 30 hours of home movie footage from the late 1920s to the 1970s documenting weddings, birthday parties, Bar Mitzvah’s, family vacations in Ontario and around the world, graduations, Toronto recreation and amusement, cottage life, and other every day family outings and activities. Please contact us if you would like to learn more about our home movie collection or if you have home movies of your own you'd like to donate.

Henry Cassel's War

As November marks a time for remembering war related stories of sacrifice and survival, the OJA is highlighting the life story of Henry Cassel (previously Heinz Kassel). Henry was a German refugee during the Second World War who was classified as an enemy alien by the British government. He spent two years in an internment camp for prisoners of war (POWs) in Quebec. He later became a naturalized Canadian citizen and enlisted in the Canadian military.

Heinz was born on October 25, 1912 in Aschaffenburg, Germany to Adolf and Olga Kassel. Adolf owned a successful banking business which he had inherited from his father. The family resided above the bank and lived a comfortable life during these early years. They moved to Frankfurt around 1920 after Adolf sold his business to buy a partnership in a bank there.

Heinz’s parents had hoped that he would one day become a corporate lawyer. In 1931, in preparation for his future career, he began studying law and economics at Frankfurt University. He enjoyed his initial university years. However, after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 he became alarmed when his non-Jewish university friends began ignoring him and when the German government passed laws forbidding Jews from practicing law in court. Determined to leave Germany and seek out a better life elsewhere, he begged his parents to immigrate with him to the United States. They refused to go, unwilling to leave behind the life they had worked so hard to build. In accordance with his parents’ wishes, Heinz relocated to nearby Italy instead of the US in 1934. He learned Italian and eventually secured a job with an engineering firm.

Sensing that the political climate in Italy was becoming dangerous for Jewish people, Heinz applied for immigration to the US in early 1939. Eager to leave Italy, he relocated to London to await the approval of his US visa. He left just in time – Britain declared war on Germany less than a week after his arrival. His parents, in turn, managed to escape to Holland. Soon after Britain’s declaration, all immigrants from enemy countries were considered enemy aliens and suspected of being spies.

On May 12, 1940, the British military arrested Heinz and interned him with other German immigrants and POWs. He believed his detainment was only a precautionary measure and that he would be cleared within a few days. However, the British shipped him to the Isle of Man where he remained for several months. Fearing an invasion, the British shipped 3,000 of the POWs, including Kassel, to Quebec, where he was briefly interned at a POW camp set up at the Plains of Abraham. In October 1940, he was moved with 736 other refugees to an abandoned railway yard (later known as “Camp N”) in Newington, near Sherbrooke, Quebec. While there, he confronted a great deal of anti-Semitism from the guards.

Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 93, file 8.

Cassel's internment headshot taken by Canadian officials soon after his arrival in Canada, 1940.

Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 93, file 8.

While he was interned in Quebec, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) interviewed him and other Jewish prisoners in order to lobby for their release. Realizing that the internees were not POWs, the Canadian government declared the camp a refugee camp in 1941. By October 1942, the CJC was successful in helping Heinz secure employment with Benjamin Pape & Company in Toronto.

Heinz met Reta Freeman in Toronto and they were married in November 1944. Reta was born and raised in Toronto. After their nuptials, they were both briefly classified as enemy aliens and had to report to the RCMP on a regular basis. Shortly thereafter, Heinz enlisted in the Royal Canadian Army and was sent to basic training in Manitoba. On January 21, 1946 he was granted landed immigrant status, and in April of that year, he became a citizen.

After the war, Heinz learned that his parents as well as other relatives had been transported to concentration camps and had not survived. He was certainly one of the few fortunate ones to leave the country, despite the circumstances of his removal. He resented being interned for so long, but did not blame the British for rounding him up with other Germans based on their initial fears regarding enemy aliens. His feelings about Canada's treatment of him during that time, however, were not as sympathetic. Reta passed away in August 1962 and Henry later remarried Esther Cassel. He passed away at the age of 96 in February 2009.

The records of Henry Cassel were donated to the Archives by his sons, Andrew and Richard. The collection documents his family and personal life as well as his experience as an internee. Records include his autobiography, family photograph albums, legal records, a diary and hand-made notebook written by Henry during his interment, correspondence between Henry and his parents, and, correspondence between Henry and several Jewish agencies. Also included are newsletters that were produced during the 1990s by ex-internees who had kept in touch over the years. These remarkable records are invaluable in documenting the Canadian internment camps, the refugee and immigrant experience, Canada’s treatment of enemy aliens, as well as the Jewish community’s response.

Provincial political history at the OJA

The OJA has recently processed the records of Joseph Baruch (J.B.) Salsberg (1902-1998), a prominent labour leader, political activist, politician, and journalist. Salsberg was also active in various Jewish organizations, including the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and the New Fraternal Jewish Association. He is well remembered by contemporaries, such as Sam Lipshitz, as a "champion of the people", committed to social justice, the plight of the working-class, and the preservation of Jewish culture.

J.B. was born in Lagov, Poland on November 5, 1902 to Abraham and Sarah-Gittel Salsberg. In 1913, he immigrated to Toronto with his mother and two younger sisters, following his father's arrival three years earlier. Four additional siblings were born in Canada. J.B. briefely attended Landsdowne Public School, but dropped out at age 13, against his parent’s wishes, and took a job in a leather goods factory in order to contribute to his family’s income. His parents had hopes that he would become a rabbi and, despite his full-time employment, J.B. continued to study the Torah at the Centre Ave Synagogue.

In 1917, J.B. decided to pursue the ideas of Zionism and Socialism and abandoned his plans to become a rabbi. He became involved in establishing the Young Poale Zion organization, a Labour Zionist youth group dedicated to secular aims. Around 1923, he became the organizer for the Hat, Cap, and Millinery Workers Union of North America in Chicago. While in Chicago, J.B. married Dora Wilensky, who would become his constant companion and supporter, and a well-respected communal worker in her own right.

In 1926, J.B. joined the Communist Party of Canada (CPC). He was an active member of the CPC for 30 years, serving as the head of its Trade Union Department for two decades. It was as a member of the CPC that he entered electoral politics. After a series of failed bids in municipal and provincial elections between 1935 and 1937, J.B. was elected Alderman of Ward 4 in Toronto in 1938, but only held the position for one year. In 1943, he was elected to the Ontario Legislature as the representative for the St. Andrew riding. He sat as Member of Provincial Parliament for the Labour-Progressive Party (the provincial wing of the CPC) for 12 years. For several years, he was the only elected communist in North America. As MPP, he helped create legislation banning discrimination in public places and introduced a bill that would ensure fair employment practices in the province. He lost his seat to Allan Grossman in 1955 and unsuccessfully ran in the federal election later that year. Remembered by journalist Gordon Sinclair as "one of the best debaters in the house", J.B. was well-respected by members of all political parties. Out of admiration for J.B., Conservative Premier Leslie Frost named Salsberg Township in Northern Ontario in his honour.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, J.B. had grown increasingly concerned about reports of Soviet anti-Semitism and privately urged party leaders to pursue the issue. In 1956, when Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev exposed the transgressions of Stalin’s regime, J.B. went to Moscow as part of a CPC delegation. After meeting with Khrushchev himself, it became clear to J.B. that anti-Semitism was indeed a serious threat in the USSR and that his efforts to probe the situation were being stonewalled. J.B. publicly expressed his concerns in a series of articles published in the Vochenblatt between October 25 and December 13, 1956. He formally renounced his membership in the Communist Party in 1957. Two years later, J.B., along with others of like mind, resigned their membership in the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO), a communist Jewish fraternal organization, for not being critical enough of the Soviet Union. A non-communist left-wing Jewish organization was founded as an alternative - the New Fraternal Jewish Association - of which J.B. served as President for several terms and edited its publication "Fraternally Yours".

In his later life, J.B. was active as an executive member of organizations such as the CJC and the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. He was the first chairman for the CJC Ontario Region’s Soviet Jewry Committee and the Committee for Yiddish. He also began writing an award-winning weekly column for the Canadian Jewish News. J.B. was awarded the CJC’s Samuel Bronfman Medal for distinguished service, and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Ben Sadowski Award of Merit. A strong supporter of Israel, he was involved in the creation of two Israeli medical centres that are named in his honour. He also helped establish the J.B. and Dora Salsberg Fund and the J.B. Salsberg Fund for Yiddish at the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto. J.B. passed away in 1998.

Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 92, series 3, file 12.

1943 Provincial Election Campaign sign for the Labour-Progressive Party, 1943.

Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 92, series 3, file 12.

The records in this collection document J.B.'s political and communal activities and includes personal and professional correspondence, photographs, political and editorial writings, artifacts and campaign materials. The records will be of great value to researchers interested in provincial politics, labour history, and the history of communism within the Jewish community of Toronto.

Knesseth Israel Synagogue centenary celebration

The OJA was host to over 170 people on Wednesday September 7, 2011 as the Knesseth Israel Synagogue (the Junction Shul) celebrated their 100th anniversary. The event was punctuated by the launch of a new book on the shul and the Jewish presence in the Junction, entitled 100 Years at the Junction Shul, written by Lorne S. Miller and Neil Ross. The night included speakers from UJA Federation, the Ontario Jewish Archives, book publisher Jack David and Neil Ross. A tribute to the late Dr. Stephen Speisman z'l, former director of the OJA and a great friend to the Junction shul, was also read by Jules Kronis. The whole event was MC'd by synagogue preisdent, Edwin Goldstein.

The OJA has a long-standing relationship with the Junction shul, dating back to its heritage designation in 1984. We also featured the first written history of the synagogue on our Toronto's First Synagogue's web exhibit in 2004 and we are the repository for the shul's records.

Books are available for purchase through the shul by contacting them directly.

Ontario Jewish Archives awarded the OHA Scadding Award of Excellence

The Ontario Jewish Archives was awarded the Ontario Historical Society’s Scadding Award of Excellence on June 4th after the Society’s AGM. The intent of the award is to honour an historical society or heritage group that has made an outstanding contribution to the field of history. The OJA was selected for its virtual exhibition initiative Ontario’s Small Jewish Communities.

Pictured in photograph (left to right): Dr. Brad Rudachyk (President, OHS), Cyrel Troster (OJA Board Member), Dr. Ellen Scheinberg (Former Director, OJA)  and Dr. Sharon Jaeger (Chair, Honours and Awards Committee, OHS).

OHS Award Presentation, 4 June 2011.

Pictured in photograph (left to right): Dr. Brad Rudachyk (President, OHS), Cyrel Troster (OJA Board Member), Dr. Ellen Scheinberg (Former Director, OJA) and Dr. Sharon Jaeger (Chair, Honours and Awards Committee, OHS).

The OJA launched this Trillium funded virtual display in the fall of 2009. It documents the histories of 11 small Jewish communities from across the province, spanning from Cornwall to Thunder Bay. The site relies on approximately 250 pages of text along with oral history clips, archival photographs, textual material, maps, architectural plans and artwork to tell the compelling stories of Jewish life and culture in these mostly undocumented communities.

The OHS described this initiative as being of the highest merit, stating “from a technical standpoint the design and execution of the virtual exhibit takes full advantage of the rich and varied historical material at its core and presents new information in an innovative, educational and entertaining manner.” Since its launch, the display has attracted thousands of viewers from around the world.

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