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You Could Lose an Eye
My First Eighty Years in Montreal
By David Reich
Baraka BooksCopyright © 2010 Baraka Books
All rights reserved.
MA AND PA
Putting Down Roots
At the turn of the twentieth century, Emperor Franz Josef reigned over the Austria-Hungarian Empire, Tsar Nicholas ruled Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm was master of Germany. From the safety of their palaces these intrepid monarchs sent millions to their deaths in the First World War. The resulting upheaval encouraged millions to migrate to a "new world." They travelled light: their only baggage was intelligence, energy, and burning ambition. It was more than enough.
Many arrived in Canada, profoundly grateful to have arrived anywhere. Among them were a couple of Galizianers, Hirsch (anglicized to Harry) Reich, and his older brother, Mordkhe (Marcus). A younger brother, Nute (Nathan), landed in 1923. They had been born in Terszow, a backwater village in Galicia, an insignificant corner of the Ukraine. In 1920, they became Montrealers.
At about the same time, Genya Ivry (Jennie) arrived from Vilkaviskis, Lithuania, one of a wave of Jewish immigrants identified as Litvacks. She was greeted by her father, Avrum Leib. His three brothers had landed in America early in the twentieth century and he had taken their mother to visit them. Attracted to the "new world," he returned to settle in Montreal in 1911, expecting to send for his family. The First World War intervened; only in 1923 was he reunited with his wife, Chaya Tzipporah, his daughter Miriam and his son, Sidney. Two other sons, Harold and Sol, daughters, Leah (married to Moe Blostein), and Sochie (married to Yosef Rabin) joined them later. By 1929 the Ivry family was settled in Montreal, except for the Rabin ménage; they nested in Ottawa, but they might just as well lived next door.
Harry Reich was destined to be my Pa; Jennie Ivry became my Ma. This is their story — and mine.
* * *
Jennie and Harry met at the Baron de Hirsch Institute where they had come to learn their new language. They found more in common than a desire to master English and, over their grammar texts, friendship blossomed into love. A faded invitation records that their wedding was fixed for January 11, 1925, at the New Adath Jeshurun Synagogue on Mount Royal Boulevard, to be followed by a reception at 81 Villeneuve West. Pa was twenty-seven years old, Ma a couple of years older. The wedding portrait shows him standing handsomely erect in a tuxedo, a carnation in his lapel. His abundant hair was combed straight back from his forehead and he sported a discreet moustache; both disappeared with age. A slender Ma sat beside him in a pleated white gown with a gossamer tulle veil stretching from a beribboned headpiece into a train piled artistically at her feet. A bouquet nested on her lap; she never looked more regal. Both were serious and purposeful, calm in the face of challenges to come — like royalty, not at all like a couple of immigrants five years off the boat. I, their crown prince, was born two years later; the dynasty was launched.
The synagogue and the Reich flat were in the heart of Montreal's ghetto, an area where two- and three-storey shabby, undersized, under-heated apartment buildings crowded against each other, their dimly lit rooms looking into air shafts or courtyards or back alleys. They were reached by outside stairways that twisted to their upper floors: obstacle courses in summer and bobsled runs during the long, dark, icy winters.
But this ghetto didn't bear the stigma and isolation of its European counterparts. It teemed with Jews from every European hovel, happy to be safe and surrounded by their own people in a neighbourhood in which the language and signs were Yiddish and energies could be devoted to making a living and raising children to be real Canadians and good Jews. They were breathing free air after centuries of subsisting in wretched villages and confronting pogroms, drunken peasants and rapacious officials. In due course the problems of these impoverished communities were settled by the Final Solution. They would send no more Jews.
My father and mother stemmed from different milieus. Lithuanian Jews (Litvacks) considered themselves superior in education, in the quality of the Yiddish they spoke, and in all matters cultural. Galician Jews (Galizianer) were more pious and regarded Litvacks as virtual non-believers: they lisped and lived on herring — sources of merriment, if not derision. Despite these critical differences, my Ma and Pa remained together until parted by death after half a century of marriage.
Language, except for English, was not a problem. Living on frontiers of Europe's unstable, racially diverse countries had made them polyglots. Ma had studied French in the gimnasium, learned Swedish while caring for children in Sweden and could communicate in ten languages. Pa was close behind. Initially, the language at our home was Yiddish. My parents quickly acquired an accented English. Mothers or fathers without Old World accents were unknown in our neighbourhood and a British accent was equated with membership in the royal family. Grandparents rocked in chairs, covered their heads with shaitels or yarmulkes, and praised, chastised, gossiped, and instructed in pure Yiddish until they passed on leaving us their incomparable heritage.
The Yiddish that we imbibed with mother's milk was the richest and most eloquent of languages: warm, comfortable, and infinitely expressive of the Jewish soul. It verbalized the misery of life in exile, the voice of a people coping with oppression, surviving, and keeping their faith — if not in humanity, then in God. Its bittersweet humour and its sadness and pathos, born of persecution, massacres, and expulsions, could not be defined in dictionaries. It needed the speaker's tongue, hands, and shoulders and included shrugs, smiles, scowls, winks, lifted eyebrows, intonations, eloquent silences, and cryptic idioms, all beyond linguistic description. The pompous were pricked, fools were exposed, hypocrites were mocked, and the haughty were derided. It is no accident that this language, and the culture that it reflected, so strongly influenced American humour and drama. My English was acquired on the street and polished in the classroom. I write in English, but my mind and spirit spring directly from my momeh loshen that resonates in me.
Ma and Pa had unknowingly landed in Quebec. They weren't aware that the province was dominated by French-speaking Catholics with a sprinkling of Anglo-Saxon Protestants diluted by a mix of Europeans. For us, French, lingua franca for eighty percent of the population, was a foreign tongue, only another school course, less important than arithmetic and history. It never entered our minds that it would become an imperative in our later years. We could successfully ignore the French- and English-speaking neighbours alike, except when we were chased by shkotzim intent on seeking revenge for the son of God, whose image, impaled on crosses, stared accusingly down on us in every room in every public building.
We had no gentile friends. We weren't prejudiced, we didn't know them; we were from different worlds. We bought from them, sold to them, but never interacted socially, in or out of our homes. It wasn't forbidden — we simply had nothing in common with them, nothing to say to each other. We were a race apart. Our relationship only thawed decades later.
Our family was more than closely knit; it was woven, meshed, and glued. Ma took over the life of each arriving family member. Marcus, Pa's brother who had arrived in Montreal with him, welded the family together even more by marrying Ma's youngest sister, Miriam, in 1936. Why start a family with a stranger? They had two children, Harriet (Susi) and Lawrence, my double cousins.
Another of Ma's siblings, Leah, had married a Jewish teacher before arriving in Canada. Moe Blostein was well qualified: like Ma, he was from Lithuania, an intellectual with opinions on every subject that he was ready to discuss at length between puffs on Turkish cigarettes. He prefaced every argument by intoning "And I'll tell you something else ..." followed by an exposition from behind his Turkish smoke screen. Ma, an ardent nepotist, had already conscripted her three brothers, Harold, Sol, and Sidney, into Pa's business, but there was room for the new brother-in-law. Moe became manager.
During the 1930s Pa managed to extract two nephews, Herman Reich and Henry Narzisenfeld (Field), from Poland. Then Canada's iron gates clanged shut; Jews were excluded. As an anonymous Canadian immigration agent elegantly put it, "None is too many." Those remaining in Galicia, Pa's parents, brother, sisters, their spouses and offspring, were murdered and bulldozed into unmarked ditches.
Herman and Henry joined the family in what we called The Store. My brother Lionel was also drafted, and Marcus's son, Lawrence, a fledgling lawyer, met a similar fate. I was never drawn into the business, preferring the hardships and satisfactions of an architectural career. It was also more fun.
Sadly, Leah died young from a disease so fearsome that its name was never mentioned. When questioned on the cause of death the family's invariable response was "freg nisht." Another dreaded diagnosis was "zog nisht." When I heard these sentences pronounced, I knew that a funeral would shortly follow. (Years later, I discovered that these were family euphemisms for cancer.) Leah left a year-old son Maier. Moe was told by Ma that his son should be raised within a family and he was transferred to our home. My Pa became his and Moe became an uncle who, like all other uncles, aunts, and cousins had unlimited visiting rights that came with the privilege of having their destinies shaped by Ma. He grew up to be a professor at McGill University and director of Bell Telephone Laboratories. Possessing the Ivry's musical gene, he taught himself to play piano.
* * *
It would be an exaggeration to say that we were welcomed, loved, or joyfully accepted in Quebec. Obstacles were everywhere and discrimination abounded. There were no pogroms, but anti-Semitism was alive and well. Our family business was on a street lined with Jewish-owned businesses. They dealt with banks whose windows carried Yiddish signs that not one of their gentile employees could read. Financial institutions were Judenrein; Jews had no place in insurance companies, public utilities, and countless private firms. Our district schools, filled almost entirely with Jewish students, employed only English-speaking Protestants. No teachers of the Hebrew faith were accepted. McGill University, prestigious dispenser of degrees, required Jewish applicants to have ten percent higher matriculation marks than non-Jews and some faculties imposed quotas. Resort hotels carried signs: No Jews or Dogs. I wondered what they had against dogs. They'd never crucified anyone. There was a precedent: Jesus' family was refused shelter in an inn and consigned to a manger. But for us there were no vacancies, not even in their mangers.
In certain districts, title deeds prohibited property sales to Jews; in others, Jewish students were excluded from schools until legislation was passed. Jewish doctors were not accepted into hospitals; in response, we built our own Jewish General Hospital. Jews were excluded from many private clubs devoted to golf, curling, tennis, yachting, and just plain socializing. In response, we created the Elmridge Golf Club, the Greystone Curling Club, the Lord Reading Yacht Club, and the Montefiore Club, where we could play cards, enjoy cocktails, smoke cigars and celebrate family occasions in tuxedos — almost as if we were gentiles.
Yet Ma and Pa were grateful to be allowed to live in Canada, where we could walk in safety. Pictures of the king and queen hung on our walls as our personal saviours. By accepting us as Canadians, the royal family had saved us from the endless pogroms and vicious anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe and reprieved us from the Holocaust. We were well aware that we were not favoured by the local gentiles, but we knew that their feelings and actions were nothing compared to those that poisoned the countries that Ma and Pa had left.
For the less attractive elements of our lives, Ma and Pa had a simple answer to Christian benevolence: work harder, faster, smarter. We did — and we prospered.
On September 17, 1927, ten pounds of solid flesh were delivered at the Royal Victoria Hospital. I was the first member of our family born in Canada. In recognition of my sturdy physique I was called the "policeman of the ward." Possibly because countless generations of my forefathers had lived impoverished lives in Eastern European shtetls, I emerged hungry, an ominous portent for my future life. It stayed with me.
Rabbi Colton, Montreal's most prolific mohel, presided over my public debut at my circumcision. He presented my parents with an impressive photographic affidavit, devoted mostly to his bearded visage, attesting to my birth and his handiwork. This was my religious and civil birth certificate and for decades I was obliged to present his imposing portrait to any official whom I had to convince that I existed. I did so with my face averted and my cap pulled down as far as my nose permitted. It certified that I had been born and circumcised; only my foreskin was missing from the document. I discovered sixty years later that my birth date was incorrect; I was actually one day younger than advertised, a circumstance that caused endless confusion in my later life as driver's permits, passports, credit cards, and medical records required correction, a task that baffled guardians of these vital records. That discrepancy of a single day created employment for an army of clerks.
My brother Lionel followed three years later. He was smaller than I and suffered less from hunger pangs. But he was prone to ear infections, a serious matter in those pre-antibiotics days. He needed protection.
Lionel and I got on well. Because I was bursting with good health, exuberance, and independence, I was sent to summer camps. Lionel, suspected of frailties, was more tied to Ma's apron strings. Being younger, his arrival in school was always greeted by, "Oh, you're David's brother." Unfortunately, he was judged by my boisterous performance.
In the absence of any strong alternative inclination, Lionel cut short his formal education and was swept into the family business that the world knew as Reich Brothers Limited and that we knew as The Store. Lionel had a gift for languages and a taste for exposition. He could have been a successful pedagogue. In addition to Yiddish and French, he studied Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, German, and Italian. But he was imprisoned in The Store and spent the rest of his working life in a business for which he had no love and little talent. He persevered, but the market changed; Reich Brothers Limited didn't. Lionel presided over its demise toward the turn of the century and gratefully retired. A load was lifted from his shoulders.
He winters in one of Florida's Century Villages. When not discussing the world affairs around the pool with his fellow statesmen, he takes tennis lessons, and, being the only Reich with any musical aptitude, plays the accordion, studies piano, and aspires to song writing. In Montreal, he occupies spare moments with three grandchildren. It suits him well; he is content.
My life was not entwined with Lionel's. I had my own friends and interests. I read voraciously. A handsomely bound twenty-volume set of the Books of Knowledge entranced me for a decade. I lost myself in translations of thousand-page novels by Victor Hugo, Eugene Sue, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. By flashlight, instead of sleeping, I salivated over risqué stories by Guy de Maupassant and Honoré de Balzac, shivered over terror tales by Edgar Allan Poe, and marvelled at Jules Verne's fantasies. I perished heroically on bobbing ice floes with every Arctic and Antarctic explorer. I was caned at British public schools in the pulp magazines Champion and Triumph and then strolled through British society with Somerset Maugham, John Galsworthy, and Charles Dickens. I savoured the sharp wit of Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and George Kaufman. I suffered with Israel Joseph Singer and Israel Zangwill in ramshackle shtetls from which Ma and Pa had fled. My world had no limits. I came by literature honestly. Ma, an avid Russophile, filled me with Russian romances: tales of passion and magnificent spectacles in which nobles danced the night away in the arms of their lovers, against a background of assassinations and revolutions.
Excerpted from You Could Lose an Eye by David Reich. Copyright © 2010 Baraka Books. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 My First 80 Years…
Ma and Pa 15
Putting Down Roots 15
Raising Children 22
My Ma 27
My Pa 33
Dealing With God 39
Today I Am a Man 44
The Lighter Side 45
You Could Lose an Eye 51
Ma's Guide to Survival 51
Surviving Fun 52
Drawing the Curtain 56
The Store 63
The Store is Born 63
The Store Grows 64
The Store Expires 72
Education and Me 75
How We Got To Where We Were 75
The Public School Student 76
The High School Student 79
The University Student 82
I Draw the Line 89
What This Is All About 89
Growing Wings 93
In and Out of Practice 96
One, Two, Three-Lift Off! 99
I Become Industry-ous 101
The Partnership Ball, My First Dance 104
Back to School, Teaching 107
Back to School, Learning 110
Adrift on a Computer 110
Tiptoeing Through Building Codes 113
The Partnership Ball: My Second Dance 117
The Partnership Ball: My Third Dance 119
The Partnership Ball: My Last Dance 120
As I Look Back… 124
Winding Up 137
Part 2 …And Those Who Enriched My Years
People in My Life 143
Sidney, Sol, and Harold: The Moon Brothers 143
The Rabins: Adventures in the Liver Trade 153
Nathan: The Professor 159
The Cheder Student 162
The Public School Student 164
The Gimnasium Student 164
The University Student 168
The Savant 171
Out of the Ashes 177
Destruction of a Family 177
Miriam Brahms Reich 182
Lisl Epstein Ivry 191
Parting Words 197
What People are Saying About This
"You will smile and laugh and identify with these stories and this is what one has a right to expect from the written word . . . I must caution that you will want more of the same and David has promised to continue the series." Aniko Koranyi, past president, Canadian Authors Association
"A sheer delight." David J. Azrieli, Canadian architect and philanthropist
"A charming 201-page book, providing an insider’s view of Montreal’s vibrant and historic Jewish community, as well as a powerful description of what happened to relatives who were left behind in Eastern Europe. He has graced the publication with many vintage photos and some historical documents . . . There are so many Jewish and Yiddish terms included in the book that Reich included a comprehensive glossary at the end." Jewish Tribune
"The title sets the stage for the tongue-in-cheek humour that abounds in the book . . . His account of his life up to the time he was in university is filled with warm remembrances that capture the time and place, right down to the way food tasted and how the word ‘cancer’ was never uttered." Canadian Jewish News
"Jewish mothers worry. . . . As a consequence, the young Reich eschewed danger, even fun, and embraced his true risk-averse nature. [Reich has] a knack for finding things funny. . . . A self-deprecating, warm-hearted book." Montreal Review of Books (May 1, 2011)