Processing the United Ostrowtzer Hilfs Committee Collection

I began my journey at the Ontario Jewish Archives as a volunteer following the completion of my Master's of Information at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information with the hope of gaining hands-on experience working in an archive. I was eventually brought on as a contract archivist for a particular project: processing the United Ostrowtzer Hilfs Committee collection. 

Established in 1924 and named after the town of Ostrowiec, Poland the Ostrowtzer Hilfs Farein initially functioned as a branch of the Ostrovtzer Shul. Its mission was to offer support to Ostrovtzers who had relocated to Toronto, providing small loans, medical aid, and fostering a sense of community. In the aftermath of World War II, the society expanded its relief efforts to aid surviving Ostrovtzers worldwide, eventually evolving into the United Ostrowtzer Hilfs Committee.

The collection mainly consists of over 300 letters from Ostrovtzer Holocaust survivors located throughout Europe and Palestine. These letters, written to Max Hartstone in his capacity as committee secretary, offer a unique glimpse into the immediate post-war experiences of Holocaust survivors, shedding light on their ongoing struggles even after liberation.

Over the past 5 months, I've had the privilege of working with this collection to preserve and make it accessible both in person and online. This entailed reading and re-reading the translations of every letter, researching the letter writers, scanning and uploading the documents to the archives' digital preservation system, inputting necessary metadata, and crafting detailed descriptions for each item. This work was made possible through a grant from the Rabbi Israel Miller Fund for Shoah Research, Education and Documentation at the Claims Conference.

Researching the authors often involved delving into concentration camp records, which was an emotionally taxing process. Many of these letters were difficult to read, as the authors recounted their experiences during the Holocaust and as refugees in displaced persons camps. Stories of losing spouses and children, or being the sole surviving members of their families, were distressingly common. The recurring phrase “lonely as a stone” exemplifies the profound sense of isolation that many of the writers felt. Many expressed the sentiment that corresponding with someone from their hometown provided them with much-needed solace. There was also hope expressed in these letters. Encountering stories of reunions with family members, marriages and recovery from illnesses was immensely gratifying.

I was deeply moved by the generosity of the Ostrovtzer community members who donated their time and resources to aid their fellow Ostrovtzers. The collective effort of Ostrovtzers worldwide underscore the camaraderie and community values within the Ostrovtzer community.

This experience has been both emotional and rewarding. I am very grateful to the Ontario Jewish Archives for giving me the opportunity to work with such a fascinating collection, and to develop my skills as an archivist. Though my time at the OJA has come to an end, I consider myself lucky to have worked with such an excellent team and look forward to working with them again in the future.  

Memory of the World Register

In 2022, the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA) and the Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives nominated the records of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) for inclusion in the Canada Memory of the World Register. Maintained by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO), the Canada Memory of the World Register showcases documentary heritage of national significance. Later, the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia and the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada joined the nomination, both repositories holding records of the CJC. Today, CCUNESCO announced that the CJC records had been included in the register.

Founded in Montreal in 1919, the CJC served as a national voice for Canada's Jewish community for almost one hundred years. In addition to its national headquarters (first in Montreal, later in Ottawa), the CJC had several regional offices, including in Toronto, which is how its records came to be distributed across the country. The work of the CJC was vast and encompassed files as diverse as immigration and settlement, antisemitism, human rights, chaplaincy services, and war efforts. While the CJC no longer existsits functions having been taken over by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)–its achievements remain significant not only for Jewish Canadians but for Canadians of all backgrounds. 

Delegates to the first meeting of the Canadian Jewish Congress

Delegates to the first Canadian Jewish Congress, Montreal, 1919.
Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 45, item 41.

Commenting on the inclusion of the CJC records in the Canada Memory of the World Register, Shimon Koffler Fogel, chief executive officer of CIJA, wrote, "We are incredibly proud of our community’s long tradition of being a leading voice for human rights in Canada, including the work of CIJA’s predecessor organization the Canadian Jewish Congress. In their tireless efforts to counter antisemitism and advocate for policies that make Canada more inclusive for all communities, generations of Jewish activists made an invaluable contribution in our country’s development as a vibrant, multicultural democracy. The inscription of the Canadian Jewish Congress’ records in CCUNESCO’s Memory of the World register is an important step in honouring this history and the role of Canadian Jewry in human rights advocacy, which continues to this day.”

For his part, Jeff Rosenthal, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto chair, wrote, "On behalf of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, we extend congratulations and appreciation to the Ontario Jewish Archives/Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, Jewish Museum and Archives of British Colombia, and the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada on having the records of the Canadian Jewish Congress inscribed in CCUNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. UJA is proud to support the Ontario Jewish Archives which, together with partner Jewish archives across the country, plays a vital role in preserving our heritage and sharing our history with all Canadians. This milestone is an important recognition of the excellence of our communal archives, as well as the remarkable history of Canada’s Jewish community."

The records of the CJC, which are held by the four repositories listed in the first paragraph, include documents as well as over 15,000 photographs, audio records, videos, and films offer important insight into Jewish community. Without a doubt, the Canadian Jewish Congress, Ontario Region fonds is the most important collection stewarded by the OJA. Researchers wishing to consult the records are encouraged to contact the OJA to set up an appointment.

To read the official CCUNESCO announcement click here.

Learn more about the CJC Ontario Region records held at the OJA in our 50th anniversary video.

'Logical Family

by Andrea Taylor

David Gruber, 1960. Photograph by Sylvia Schwartz. OJA, fonds 80Not all of us are born into our families. In my case, and in the case of my adoptive dad, David Gruber, our families are mostly made up of people who chose one another; assemblages of dear friends, and often times their families. I grew up hearing fantastic tales of my dad’s Aunts Sylvia, Ruth, and Jewel Schwartz, and friends and extended families within the Toronto Jewish community. Stories of Jewel’s shop and the artists who moved through their lives, halcyon summers at the family cottage in Bobcaygeon where kids were free to fish and swim and canoe and roam under the watchful eyes of adults, the very best of life, days we would all live for.

David Gruber, 1955. Photograph by Sylvia Schwartz. OJA, fonds 80When David – who I met when I was just 14 - died in March of 2022, the vacuum of loss he left behind led me on a search for ties to his past.  Who he was and where he comes from has become who I am, and where I will go. The reach of my words ends when I think of the day I found these photos of my dad, digitized, and preserved by the Ontario Jewish Archives. His memories were suddenly made real. These documents, and photos of people’s lives, with their loves and their losses are alive in the stories we can tell and pass along. The world is a better place for having had them in it, and I believe it remains good with each remembrance of them.

The Taylor-Gruber family, Hanukkah 2020Andrea Taylor is completing a thesis for a Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management while working with the Canadian Red Cross 2021 BC Floods Recovery Team. She and her rescue dog live next door to her son at their home in the west Kootenays. Photo caption: The Taylor-Gruber family, Hanukkah 2020. Identified from left, Dorito, Josh, Andrea, and David 

Caption: Portaits of David Gruber in 1960 (top) and 1955. Photographs by Sylvia Schwartz. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 80.

Looking back on my iPraktikum Internship with the OJA

By Graeme Myers

As a student of Yiddish, I was immediately drawn to the opportunity presented by an internship at the Ontario Jewish Archives. The chance to work with historical Yiddish documents while improving my language and translation skills was extremely exciting. This opportunity at the OJA allowed me to build upon two years of studying the Yiddish language by gaining practical experience working with older texts.

My time at the OJA began with the examination of an 1927 issue of the Toronto Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle) Youth Magazine, Yungvarb. On the pages shared with me, I discovered a beautiful poem written by Yitzhak Katzenelson—the well-known poet. Working on the text was a true test of my knowledge of the Yiddish language and translation skills. While I had much previous experience translating Spanish texts, Yiddish poetry provides an entirely different kind of challenge, with rhyme structure, word choice and etymology, as well as syntax all adding extra considerations and layers of complexity to the process. Reading it over and over, I slowly worked through the translation line-by-line, doing my best to preserve the meaning of the text alongside its feel and flow. A beautiful poem deserves an equally well-considered translation, which I strived to achieve.

Header from the March-April 1927 issue of Yungvarb

Next, I turned to the handwritten documents, a series of letters, which presented new and much more trying challenges. While I was familiar with Yiddish handwritten texts, historical script and calligraphy can be daunting to attempt to read, let alone translate. In many cases, these letters contained non-standard orthography and spelling, as well as faded script and styles I wasn’t familiar with. So, I set out to find some materials for reference.

While researching examples of older Yiddish handwriting, I discovered the work of the Dybbuk Project. Based out of the University of Haifa, they had spent the last few years building a model for the analysis of Yiddish handwritten texts. Using the software Transkribus and the Dybbuk model to analyze the letters’ handwriting, I began to work through the first of the letters from the OJA collection, reading slowly through each line and comparing any words I couldn’t make out initially with the analysis from the Dybbuk model. Though slow-going and requiring long periods of focus, this process allowed me to begin to recognize certain patterns within the letter— from the way certain letters were written, or contractions were used, to spellings that differed from the standardized forms I had learned. The Dybbuk Project’s model allowed me to create multiple reference points and better understand these documents as I worked through them.

An example of one of the handwritten Yiddish letters from the Ontario Jewish Archives, 1899. Toronto Hebrew Benevolent Society fonds 54, file 1, item, 6.On a personal note, examining and working with the OJA’s documents has been both difficult and extremely rewarding, with content that ranges from the deeply upsetting to the humorous or joyous. The study of Yiddish is important to me for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it was the language of much of my family and my grandfather still speaks it. But beyond individual ties, translating Yiddish archival documents for today’s audience provides an important opportunity to preserve individual stories, moments of joy and sadness, that can resonate with all of us. To paraphrase my first Yiddish professor: you can say anything and everything in Yiddish. Preserving and sharing these words with a broader audience is a task I’m honoured to have played the smallest of parts in.

I’d like to thank the OJA once more for the opportunity to take part in the internship program!

 Photo of Graeme MyersGraeme Myers, Master’s Student, Centre for Comparative Literature & Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto

Scrap, Salvage and Sell

Scrap, Salvage and Sell: the Scrap Metal Trade in London, Ontario

If you have working-class Jewish ancestors who immigrated to Canada between the 1890s and 1930s, there is a good chance that one of your ancestors “started out” by selling second-hand goods or collecting junk (scrap).

In the early 1890s, my great-great grandfather Moses Leff and my great-grandfather William Leff settled in London, Ontario. They started by collecting scrap, rags, and second-hand goods. In 1898, William became a scrap dealer and founded his own business, “William Leff & Company”. My great-uncle Hyman Leff started a salvage business in the 1930s, and both businesses were in the family until the early 1970s. I was fortunate because I grew up hearing family stories about their lives in London, Ontario and about the scrap trade. However, I yearned to learn more.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 2436.

W. Leff & Co. truck (London, ON), 1937.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 2436.

This past year, I participated in the Morris Winchvesky Centre’s, Adult B’(nai) Mitzvah class, and was presented with a challenge of doing a project. I chose to do a project about my maternal family and their connection to the scrap business. The project can be found on the website: Scrap, Salvage, and Sell: the story of a Jewish family and their scrap businesses in London, Ontario.

During my research and interviews, I heard stories that I knew before: how my great-grandparents were the first marriage in the B’nai Israel Synagogue; how my great-grandfather William Leff co-founded the B’nai Moses synagogue; and that my great-grandmother Jennie co-founded the first Hadassah chapter in London.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2010-8-1.

B'nai Moses Ben Judah window.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, accession 2010-8-1.

I also uncovered new stories that I didn’t know before like how William and his employees were charged and fined for breaking the Sunday labour law in 1909. By diving into street directories and the census, I learned that in the 1920s, 90% of the scrap business owners and scrap collectors in London were Jewish. From a photo at the OJA, I learned that Max Lerner, a contemporary of my great-grandfather, started out as a scrap collector, and then became London’s first Jewish alderman. From my cousin ‘Aunt’ Ida, I learned how my great-uncle Hyman was “let go” from William Leff Company because he was blind. Not to be deterred, Hyman started his own scrap and building material company named the Hyman Leff Company. From newspaper articles and interviews, I learned about targeted arson attacks against the two businesses, and other Jewish owned scrap yards in 1948.

As part of the research project, I interviewed family members who have connections to both William and Hyman Leff’s businesses. These interviews shed light on their day-to-day operations, as well as what it was like to be a child of scrap and salvage brokers. These interviews form part the story on the website I created. When I finish editing and transcribing the interviews, I will be donating the interviews to the OJA, which will enrich their holdings on the Jewish-owned scrap industry.

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 6056.

Max Lerner, junk peddler (London, ON), [ca. 1904].

Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, item 6056.

The Value of Digitized Photos

Many of the photographs in “Scrap, Salvage, and Sell” are from three archival donations to the Ontario Jewish Archives. The photos of the William Leff & Company business were donated by Zara Leff (daughter in-law of William Leff) in 1978. The photo of Max Lerner (former alderman in London, Ontario) was donated by Judge Mayer Lerner in 1993, and the stained-glass window from the B’nai Moses Synagogue was donated in 2000. Due to the past efforts of the OJA to digitize their photograph collections, I was able find these photos on the OJA website and use them for my own research.

As a researcher, I love the serendipity of finding hidden gems in digital libraries and archives. I am always grateful that someone had the foresight to donate photos, papers, and other documents to archives, so researchers can access them in the future.

In the past few decades many libraries, and archives, the OJA included, have been digitizing photographs with the goal of making their collections accessible to a wider audience. To date, the OJA has scanned upwards of 8,000 photos and documents from their collections which represents only a small fraction of their entire photographic holdings. Why have so few items been scanned? The answer is simple: it takes time, people, and funds to digitize collections. Sustained funding through donations is key to ensuring that even more documents and photos are processed, scanned, described, and made available for use.

Rosa Orlandini is a Data Services Librarian at York University Libraries. 

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