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Manitoba History: Review: Michael Usiskin, translated by Marcia Usiskin Basman, Uncle Mike’s Edenbridge: Memoirs of a Jewish Pioneer Farmer

by A. G. Levine
Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Uncle Mike’s Edenbridge: Memoirs of a Jewish Pioneer Fanner. Michael Usiskin. Translated by Marcia Usiskin Basman. Winnipeg: Peguis Publishers Ltd., 1983. xv, 174 pp. ISBN 0-919566-92-8.

In 1906 a small group of Lithuanian Jews who had migrated to a settlement near Capetown, South Africa, uprooted themselves once again for the promise of a better life in far-off Canada. Making their way to an area near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, these Jewish pioneers—each to the 160 acres of virgin Canadian soil given to them by the federal government—laid the foundations of Edenbridge, one of several Jewish agricultural colonies in the province. Over the next few years the “Afrikaners,” as they were called, were joined by other vanguards of globe-trotting Jewish immigrants. One group came via New York’s Lower East Side, the other via London’s East End. Among the latter contingent was a courageous and industrious individual by the name of Michael Usiskin.

Born and educated in a small village in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Usiskin at age thirty journeyed to London with his brother David. There he found work as a fur-cutter, but the harsh realities of life as a worker in a British sweat-shop proved to be intolerable. Idealistic and energetic, Usiskin joined the English-Jewish Farmers’ Colony, a small group of European immigrants whose dream was to establish a cooperative agricultural settlement in the new world where the Jewish peddlars and workers of London could “throw off their dirty downtrodden jobs and become pioneers of the soil.” Indeed, for many Jews of this era the concept of “land” had a particular fascination. Barred from owning rural property in Czarist Russia, Jewish immigrants like Usiskin were eager to show the world that Jews were quite capable of becoming productive farmers.

Finding a financial backer for their scheme was a difficult task, for many Jewish philanthropists of the day equated the group’s co-operative approach with anarchy. The notable exception was, as Usiskin points out, Baron de Hirsch, who helped many Jews settle in Canada as well as Argentina. Disappointed, but still determined, Usiskin eventually made the long journey to Canada (or “Eskimo-Land” as it was known to the immigrants) in 1911.

Many years later, Mike Usiskin, proud of his achievements, related the tale of his life in the back-woods of rural Saskatchewan in a book written in Yiddish and entitled Oksen Un Motoren (From Oxen to Tractors). Now, thanks to the efforts of his niece, Marcia Usiskin Basman, the English translation of this work is available as Uncle Mike’s Edenbridge.

Mike Usiskin’s story is one which will appeal not only to those interested in the history of Jews in Canada, but also to enthusiasts of Western Canadian history. In an eloquent and lucid style, Usiskin’s narrative of Canadian pioneer life is informative, often humourous, and always very moving. Each day brought a new and unique challenge. Despite the horrendous Saskatchewan weather—a continuous onslaught of snow, slime and mud—the lack of food, clothing, and shelter, the loneliness of country life and even incidents of anti-Semitism, Usiskin and his friends persevered. Certainly in many ways Usiskin was ill prepared for the hardships facing him. For example, after being in Edenbridge for only three weeks he joined other farmers in the area on a road building gang which entailed chopping down hundreds of trees. Usiskin immediately realized that he did not know the first thing about such work. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “my grandfather was not a woodcutter.” Yet he was a quick learner and became accustomed to such labour.

For the pioneers of Edenbridge the pleasures of life were found in a rich Yiddish heritage that they had brought with them along with their other baggage. As one of the more educated members of the isolated colony, Usiskin took it upon himself to establish a Jewish library. Later a Yiddish theatre group was organized and evening lectures were scheduled to pass the long cold prairie nights. Although perhaps anecdotal, Usiskin’s tale is still worth telling. As Uncle Mike so aptly puts it, “to historians these may not seem like memorable events, but to us, they told the story of our lives.”

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