Manitoba History: Playing in the Shadow of the Ukrainian Labour Temple
by Jerry Szach
February 2009 marks the 90th anniversary of the opening of the Ukrainian Labour Temple. It is Winnipeg’s only remaining labour hall from the period of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The Labour Temple is a City of Winnipeg Heritage Building and Manitoba Department of Culture, Tourism and Sport designated Historic Site. An application for the hall’s recognition as a National Historic Site is before the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The Labour Temple was one of the most prominent of the web of labour, cultural and church halls that European immigrants created as they settled in Winnipeg’s North End in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Readers interested in learning more about the Labour Temple should turn to Myron Shatulsky’s recent series of articles published in the Ukrainian Canadian Herald. Shatulsky, the historian of the Ukrainian Labour Temple and its cultural and political movements, paints an intriguing portrait of life in the ethnic association halls and churches that populated the neighbourhoods surrounding the Labour Temple.
Jerry Szach, who was born on 7 November 1930, spent his early year’s youth playing in the shadow of the Ukrainian Labour Temple, which is located on the corner of Pritchard Avenue and McGregor Street in Winnipeg. In this article, Jerry Szach’s remembers his youth in Winnipeg’s North End during the Depression of the 1930s. Today, Mr. Szach lives in Vancouver but continues to visit Winnipeg regularly. [Update: Jerry Szach died at Vancouver on 12 June 2013.]
Much is written about the Great Depression, also known as the Hungry Thirties or Dirty Thirties. It was a time of great hardships. My friends and I understood as best we could as children that our parents were struggling to care for their families. As kids though growing up in the North End of Winnipeg where poverty was so widespread we were mostly unaware of our social standing. We were poor but so was everyone else around us. What follows then are my memories of my childhood in Winnipeg’s North End.
My earliest memories all revolve around the Ukrainian Labour Temple at the corner of Pritchard Avenue and McGregor Street. It was one of more than 100 such halls scattered all across Canada. My parents were members of the Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association, a mouthful, which shall be referred to here as the ULFTA.
One early such memory is of a funeral, that of Mikhaylo Lenartovich. He was a young man at the time of his death—in his early 30s, and I think he died of tuberculosis, a common disease of the poor, then and now. He was one of the editors who produced a variety of publications that emanated from the print shop located in the basement of the building, including Ukrainski robitnychi visty (Ukrainian Labour News). It is generally recognized as the only Ukrainian daily paper ever published in Canada—probably in North America.
The funeral was held at the Labour Temple and the crowd was so large it spilled out onto Pritchard Avenue and into the house across the street, because it was a cold day. The house had a veranda with windows about three feet off the floor. That was too high for me (I must have been about three at the time) and my mother held me up so I could see what was going on. All the time, it was impressed upon my young mind that a very important person had died—a leader of the working class. When the memorial service concluded, men brought the casket out onto the street and proceeded to carry it to Selkirk Avenue, then on to Main Street and all the way down Main to Market Square. That procession-turned-march through the city streets (probably without benefit of a permit from City Hall) culminated in a mass rally with thousands of people participating. While in Winnipeg in May 2006, I stood on the steps of the Labour Temple and looked across the street. The house is still there, as is the veranda with its windows.
Another early memory is being in the house of the Navis (Naviziwsky) family. Ivan Naviziwsky is recognized as one of the key founders of the ULFTA. They lived on Aberdeen Avenue, just west of the CPR line to Winnipeg Beach. As the adults sat and talked, several of us kids had great fun running under a big, round oak table in the kitchen. Who the other kids were, I have no idea, but one of them may well have been Myron Shatulsky. Who knows? Myron and I certainly go back that far together.
Also at that time, around 1933–1934, I remember placing chairs in the middle of our house, sitting my parents down, grabbing a piece of kindling, and commanding them to sing. “Ya choveek z kuyarami,” I proclaimed; this being my best attempt at pronouncing “Ya choloveek z okulyarami”—”I’m the man with the glasses.” This was a reference to Nicholas Huculiak, musical director of the cultural groups in Winnipeg. He wore thin, black-framed glasses and would never dream of conducting without a baton in his hand. I knew that when he raised his arms with that little stick in his hand, magical things happened and I wanted to replicate them in our own home.
The house we lived in was on the north side of Boyd Avenue between Arlington and Sinclair streets. It was typical of many in the North End. A kitchen with a sink—cold water only—a wood stove and a cubicle about the size of a phone booth, which contained a toilet and nothing else. It also had a trap door, which opened to reveal a flight of stairs leading to a root cellar. Alongside the oven was a small wooden table and chairs to match. The front room was my parents’ bedroom. It had a kufer (trunk) for storing bedding, etc. And that was pretty well it. Both tables, chairs and such bowls/dishes as we had all came from the same source—Wakhnyak’s Second Hand store at the corner of Boyd and Sinclair. He had a three-wheeled bicycle with sidecar, which he used for deliveries, and for years was a common sight pedaling around the North End.
The middle room had my bed, a cupboard for storing staples, with an accordiontype sliding cover and, during the cold season, a box stove—a bayshtok in Ukrainian immigrant parlance. The room also had a little larger table and, after around 1937–1938, a floor model radio. The first radio we got was a Rogers-Majestic from Manitoba Furniture, on Selkirk Avenue where the Ukrainian Legion is now located. It came on a trial basis from the store’s owner Mr. Mirlovich. It was really intriguing to me because it had what the company called The Magic Eye. When you worked the dial to pick up a station, as the dial got close to the proper frequency—for instance, CJRC at 630—the eye would start to turn green. It would begin at the six o’clock position and proceed up towards noon. This green light would keep going up both sides of the eye until it was right on 630. Bingo! The two sides would merge at 12 o’clock, so you knew you were right on target. But this radio had one major defect. It had only 17 tubes. (Transistors had not yet been invented.) This made for very poor short wave reception—and my father was definitely interested in short wave. So we sent it back, to be replaced by a Philco with 21 tubes. This was a vast improvement and on many a night, when I was presumed to be asleep, I could hear the catch phrase “This is London Calling,” Sometimes, depending upon weather conditions, it was possible to pick up Moscow, and several times I could hear a voice ranting in German. Undoubtedly, Hitler. Of course, short wave came at a price. If you had any kind of radio, you were obligated to purchase a radio license from the federal government. I think the cost was $4.00 a year. Most people ignored this requirement. But if you wanted to pick up short wave signals, you had to mount an “aerial” (antenna) and run a wire from the radio to the outside to hook it up. This of course was a dead giveaway, so you couldn’t avoid the license fee.
The street was unpaved. It didn’t have even a topping of gravel so delivery trucks always got stuck in the Red River gumbo after a summer deluge. We kids used to watch gleefully as vehicles would attempt driving through it and inevitably ended up being pulled out by horses. The sidewalks were wooden—a couple of two by four runners with two by sixes nailed across to form the surface. There were open spaces between the planks to allow for expansion/contraction as the weather changed. I will return to the subject of the sidewalks a little later on.
An Immigrant Neighbourhood
The families who lived on our street were typical of the whole neighbourhood: Ukrainian, Polish, German, a couple of Italian households, and a sprinkling of Anglo-Saxons. My playmates were all Ukrainian and Polish with the exception of one kid, whose mother was German and father Polish. At one point, we shared a house with two other families—Ukrainians who also had three rooms on the main floor with a wall running the length of the house separating us, and an older Polish family who lived upstairs. Both our upstairs and main floor neighbours had access to the toilet and bathtub on the second floor, but it was off limits to us. I guess the landlord figured that running water and a private toilet was good enough for six bucks a month we paid him. That’s what the rent was, but that six dollars was surprisingly hard to come by at times. With no bathtub, we had to bathe in a zinc washtub my mother used for soaking clothes. Soak, then boil on the stove in a big copper tub, rinse back in the zinc tub and wring out by hand before hanging on a line in the back yard; both winter and summer. In winter, it was quite a sight as my parents brought in the wash from outside: the sheets would be frozen stiff and looked like giant pieces of plywood.
The entire structure of the house had no insulation. Many times, we would awaken in the morning to find the pipes had frozen overnight and ice a quarter of an inch thick on the walls. I slept with the bayshtok stove on my right and the wall of ice on my left. The fact that I developed osteoarthritis in my left knee at age six is probab1y no coincidence. Many a night when we went to bed and the lights were out, I glanced over to the bayshtok to see it glowing red in the dark. It is a wonder we weren’t all burned alive—while freezing! Another feature of the house—and there was no extra charge for this—was that it was completely infested with mice. They ran rampant, day and night. We had a cat that we never had to feed. She lived on the mice. She would eat until completely full, then settle down with her paws tucked under, and try to have a nap, only to be awakened by the noise of mice as they frantically scurried about. She would open her eyes, watch the creatures as they slipped and slid on the linoleum floor, and go back to her nap, confident in the knowledge there would be plenty to eat when she awoke. In the summer, she got a little more variety in her diet, when grasshoppers would descend upon us in the millions. But they served only as a supplement as the main course remained mice. For a few years, our downstairs neighbours were the Kuchmeey family, also ULFTA members. Both of us had numerous traps set in various places and they would always be sprung when we arose in the morning. Still, despite the heroic efforts of the cat plus the traps, there was no discernible drop in the mouse population. One night Kuchmeey who, like my father, was unemployed decided to wage war on them. He stayed up all night, clobbering them with a broom. Next morning he showed us his handiwork: a quart sealer filled with mice. Nothing helped. My mother and “Kuchmeeyka” as she was known in the time honoured Ukrainian fashion, consoled each other. “Mice are not too bad.” “Rats are far worse” and “Bozhe boroni (God forbid) we should have cockroaches.”
Most people had bread and milk delivered to their homes, mostly by horse and buggy. Bread was two cents a loaf delivered by the likes of Standard Bakery, City Bread, Buckwold’s Electric Bakery, Northwest Bakery, and on and on. Despite the presence of such large commercial bakeries as Weston’s and Brown Brothers, it was the small, family owned, mainly Ukrainian and Jewish bakery trucks and wagons that were most often seen on the streets. One such bakery was Winnipeg Workers Bakery, a holdover from the famous General Strike of 1919. During that strike, the committee in charge realized that people had to eat and so the bakers of the day were pressed into service to feed the city. The name they chose was Winnipeg Workers and the name persisted right into the Thirties. Although the bakery had long since reverted to private ownership, people still patronized it out of a sense of loyalty to the concept. It was located on the north side of Selkirk, a couple of doors east of Arlington.
Milk was delivered the same way. In fact, the horses got to know their customers so well that the driver rarely had to issue stop-and-go commands. The horses knew at which houses to stop. It was possible to learn quite a bit about the politics of people on the block just by watching milk deliveries. Two or three of us used People’s Co-op products; others were served by Crescent Creamery, City Milk, Standard or Modern Dairies and even, in rare instances, by St. Boniface Creamery, indicating French-Canadian residents. Of course, all the Polish Catholic households had St. Joseph’s delivery. The creamery was located just west of McPhillips between Mountain and College. Everything else, all around, was nothing but bald prairie. Wagons and buggies were on wheels during the summer, but after the first snow fell, the wheels would be replaced by a type of ski, making it easier to cope with the snow and ice.
Heating our three little rooms required following a nightly ritual—well thought out by my father. First, he started the fire in the bayshtok with poplar. It was quick burning wood that didn’t last long at all, but it had the advantage of providing lots of heat readily, thus inducing a good draw up the chimney. Next came, tamarack from northern Ontario. It burned more slowly than poplar—but also cost more. After the two woods had done their job and created a good fire, Souris coal would be added. This was a soft, bituminous coal that took longer to burn but, again, cost more than wood. Finally, just at bedtime, would come a big block of anthracite Drumheller coal. Black, shiny and replete with fossils, ferns, etc., from which it had been formed, this was very long burning, lasting into the morning so at that time the fire could be maintained without starting anew. The drawback with Drumheller was, of course, that it cost a lot more so it had to be used sparingly.
The ashes would be removed regularly and carefully set aside to fertilize the family gardens. Part of the back yard was used to plant tomatoes but the real garden was a block to the east, between Arlington and Parr streets. My father rented a full regular sized lot from the city for $2.00 a year. It was 33 or 35 feet wide and about 100 feet in length. On a garden that size it was possible to plant a real variety of vegetables: corn, potatoes, beets, carrots, peas, beans, radishes, onions, garlic, leaf lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers and dill. During the heat of summer, it became a real problem trying to water a garden that large that was so far from home. At first, we tried carrying water in buckets but that proved to be totally unrealistic. So we made a deal with the people next door to the lot, a Ukrainian family named Popeel. If we could use their water, they could help themselves to any and all items grown. The arrangement worked to everyone’s satisfaction. The summers were hot. In the midst of this heat, my mother still had to make a fire in the kitchen stove. There was no alternative. Just to boil water for a cup of tea required a heat source and since we had no hot plate, the stove was it. We also lacked an icebox so we bought butter a quarter of a pound at a time and ran cold water over it constantly to keep it from melting completely. And water was not cheap.
Grocery stores abounded with virtually one on every corner and sometimes more than one. So, you didn’t go shopping once a week, you went to the store every day to meet that day’s needs. And every family had its favourite grocer. The reason was simple: no one had any cash, so you relied on the kindness of the grocer to see you through until you had some. Each day’s purchases would be listed on your bill, in duplicate, and totalled up when you had the cash to pay. At that point, some grocers would throw in a bag of apples or oranges—so happy were they to get paid. Others would simply tally up, knock ten percent off the total, tear off the top copy of the bill and that was that. The next time you went in for groceries, a new bill would be opened. As mentioned, everybody had their favourite grocer. In our case, it was a store on the northwest corner of Burrows Avenue and Arlington St. Although it was several blocks away from our home and there were other stores in between, we chose this one for a very practical reason: it was owned by the Mazoveeta family who were members of the ULFTA.
Children at Play
Most of my preschool years were spent playing with the other kids on Boyd Avenue. In the summer, we would play a game called Hippy Tippy. The rules are rather complex to go into but it required two lengths of broom stick—one about six inches long another two or two and a half times as long, and a hole in the earth a couple of inches deep and about three inches across. It was a game made up by and for kids; we had to provide our own entertainment since organized sports were still years in the future. If we got tired of Tippy, we would take six tin cans out of garbage bins, stack two sets of three about 12–15 feet apart and play a form of cricket. All it took was a bit of imagination and we could entertain ourselves for hours on end. As far as I can remember, nobody on the block had a fridge. But several families had iceboxes and we eagerly awaited the daily delivery of ice, especially in the summer. Ice was one commodity that always was delivered by truck: Arctic Ice Company, red trucks with blue and white lettering. We would watch fascinated as the driver climbed into the back, took a huge block of ice and proceeded to carefully cut out a chunk about 18 inches long, wide and high, then sling it on his shoulder over a rubber pad and carry it into someone’s house. This was our cue for one of us to jump into the back and round up a few slivers of ice for all of us to suck on. This had to be accomplished in a hurry because if the driver returned and found one of us in his truck, he wasn’t too happy; if it happened too often, he would close the door and deny us our treat.
Some of the boys enjoyed chewing tar—they claimed it tasted just like licorice-flavoured gum. Each spring, the paved roads like Arlington Street would be inspected for frost heaves. As the frost melted after a severe winter, the concrete cracked and city crews would come around with boiling tar to fill them in. Inevitably, some tar spilled onto the street and while it was still warm and pliable, it could be chewed. Not being a fan of licorice at all, I decided to take a pass on this particular pleasure.
In the winter, the game of choice changed to hockey. Like all other communities across the country, we played it constantly. But we couldn’t always get our hands on a puck, so had to improvise. Horse droppings filled the need nicely, although they tended to sting when frozen. Somebody got the idea to take a magazine and stuff it behind his stockings, thus providing a form of shin pads. Life magazine was undoubtedly the best for this purpose, since it had a large format and was good and thick. Three or four additional horse turds would provide us with goal posts, and away we went. There was a further winter activity that everybody indulged in whenever possible and that was skating at the local rink. These neighbourhood attractions consisted of a flooded ice surface on city owned property, together with a clubhouse or shack built by volunteer labour. There were all kinds of unemployed, vigorous young men looking for something to do and these endeavours provided an outlet for their energies. The lots were simply appropriated in groups of three or four (they weren’t being used anyway) and the shacks built using CPR siding. This siding was wooden, about three or four inches wide and came from actual CPR box cars, donated—willingly, or otherwise—by the company. An old oil drum would be converted to a box stove and the structure thus heated. Now, the boys who built these rinks guarded their privacy zealously and all but members were absolutely refused entry to the building. But once a week or so, they opened up the ice surface to the public at large. You then had a choice of either walking to the rink with your skates on, or slinging them across your shoulders and changing into the skates and sticking your shoes into a snow bank—whichever you preferred. And, despite the hard times, I can’t recall a single instance where someone came back for their shoes and found them missing after an evening of skating.
These rinks were scattered throughout the North End. The ones I easily remember are Leafs (Boyd and Arlington), CAACs (College and McGregor), Bronx Athletic Club (on McKenzie, between Machray and Church), Hermits (Mountain at Robertson), Bulldogs (inside the old Exhibition grounds on Sinclair at Dufferin), and Toph’s (Redwood and Prince.) The latter two were constructed differently from the others: Bulldogs was a log structure and Toph’s an entire CPR boxcar. It would be interesting to find out how they managed to swing that deal.
School Days: Slavko Becomes Slavik Becomes Jerry
While most of my preschool time was spent at home, there were occasions when that had to change. We were on relief all through the thirties (as were many other families). With both my parents unemployed and a child in the house, relief was finally granted to us sometime around 1933. But this occurred only after a good deal of struggle by organizations such as the ULFTA. Once in a while, either my father would be lucky enough to find work for a day or two, or my mother would go washing floors or walls for some relatively well off family. Sometimes it happened they both had work on the same day, which posed a problem. I could not be left at home alone and asking a neighbour to care for me was out of the question. One never knew when an inspector could come along and, if he found someone was at work, he would move immediately cut them off of relief. One particularly nasty such inspector was named Shalay. Being Ukrainian made him doubly dangerous, since he could pry out information that others might not be able to.
Thus it happened that I was baby sat (so to speak; baby sitters or the concept of paying to have children minded was unheard of) by a Jewish family named Blok. I suspect their actual name was Blokh but my parents always referred to them as Blok—so Blok it shall be. They lived in a large brick house with a big veranda on Garlies Street, on the east side, just north of Mountain. The family patriarch was Sam and he was either a dreamer or schemer—probably a bit of both, He was one of those people who just knew there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if only he could figure out how to obtain it. His wife was named Rose, I think, and they had one son, Nathan, and three girls: Pearl, Jean and Fanny. One of the father’s earliest schemes was to raise bees at home. He seemed unperturbed by the thought that when winter came along with its 40 below weather he would have to find a place to keep the bees. At any rate, he needed hives built to get the project underway and that was how he met my father who was a skilled old country carpenter. On his first trip to the Blok house to get started on building the beehives, my father took me along and that was my introduction to the family.
The family was always very kind to me; polite and patient. My endless questions were answered in a straight, honest fashion, without talking down to me, as adults so often do with children. In a word, they truly treated me like family. They all had part time jobs of one kind or another (outside of Sam and Rose), and thus were able to get by. It usually fell to Fanny, the youngest, who was a teenager and worked part time for the Winnipeg School Board, to keep me occupied. It was from her that I learned the stories of the Three Bears, and Little Red Riding Hood, and so on. Stories I would never have heard at home because my parents at that time were hardly proficient in English. My parents also thought fairy tales were silly. Their attitude would have been: bears sleeping in beds? Eating porridge? Why fill a child’s head with such nonsense? And, of course, it was nonsense. Even a child could tell that, but it gave me a boost before going to school because it put me on an even footing with the other students. When a teacher talked about Goldilocks or the Big Bad Wolf, I was not at a disadvantage to others.
I always looked forward to a visit with the Bloks. Not only because it was a break in the routine, but also because they were so nice to me. They knew I loved nuts so they would always have filberts, walnuts, etc. ready to feed me. Also, it was a rare chance to enjoy white bread—with butter, yet! We had white bread at home now and then, but infrequently. Bread was usually rye or pumpernickel. In the summer of my sixth year, Fanny and I were sitting in the kitchen when she looked at me, and said: “Well, Slavik, you’ll be starting school this fall ….” Now, I had been named Slavko—no prefix such as Miro- or Yaro- or any other. Simply Slavko. (My good friend Myron Shatulsky had a very interesting column in the Ukrainian Canadian Herald recently on the ubiquitous nature of this name.) But for some reason everyone in the Blok household called me Slavik; maybe it was the Yiddish equivalent. Whatever, such was the case and I never made any big deal out of it.
So, Fanny says: “You know, when you start school you’re going to have to tell them your name. Have you ever thought of changing your name?”
“Well, maybe we should think about it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Slavik. It’s a perfectly good name. But some kids are funny. They may decide to make fun of it. You wouldn’t want to start school by having fun made of your name, would you?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Well, then, maybe a change of name would be good. Do you know what kind of name you’d like to have?”
“How about Jerry? That’s a nice name. Would that name suit you?”
“I guess so.”
“Good. That’s settled then. When you start school and they ask you your name, tell them it’s Jerry.”
And that was that, except for one other conversation I had with the patriarch himself. It was at just about the same time when I was starting school. He offered me the following advice “When you start going to school you’re going to meet all kinds of new kids. Some will be nice. Others will be not so nice. Some may even try to tell you there’s something wrong with you; that you’re not as good as they are. But you just remember one thing: you’re as good as anyone else. Will you remember that?” When I told him yes, I would, that ended the conversation. It wasn’t until years later—after having matured a little bit—that I realized what he was trying to do. He was informing me that bigotry existed and kids were not immune to it. He could have told me this fact in a manner designed to scare me, but he chose, instead, to do it in a positive way: be prepared for it but don’t let it get you down. Invaluable advice.
Shortly after the above happenings—maybe a year or two later—the family decided they had had enough of the old man’s shenanigans and kicked him out of their house and lives. They moved to a place on Redwood Avenue around Powers and then again to an apartment on Flora or Stella just west of Main. My mother and I kept in touch with them and visited them in both locations into the early 1940s, but then lost contact with them. That family helped me pass from preschool to the next important phase of my life and they did it with grace and kindness, though they were not much better off financially than most people in the North End. I will always treasure time spent with them.
With the question of my name having been resolved, there remained only two other hurdles to cross before enrolling at Margaret Scott School—one minor, the other a bit more serious. The minor one involved my age. A child had to be at least six years old to gain admittance to school and I wasn’t turning six until 7 November while school started right after Labour Day. My father promptly solved that problem by taking me aside one day and stating: “If anyone asks you when you were born, tell them July.” And that was that. The other one was a bit more complex. During that summer of 1936, I overheard my parents quietly discussing the question of my religion. I couldn’t see any problem—my religious beliefs mirrored those of my parents. They did not believe in any Supreme Being, thus, they professed no religious faith. What they did believe in was that ordinary working people, if they banded together in common purpose, could achieve remarkable things. And, in my opinion, they were correct. All the key forward thrusts in the history of humankind have come only after masses of people have become involved the French Revolution, American Revolution, the fight for India’s independence waged by Gandhi, and likewise the civil rights movement in the United States. It seems that injustice continues until, to paraphrase a well-known quote from the movies, people get to the point where “they’ve had enough and aren’t going to take any more.” This notion of united action may appear rather quaint at present, but none can predict the future. And so, the perceived problem of my religious deficiency concerned me not at all.
My parents, on the other hand, had heard rumours that upon registering, each child was expected to declare his/her religion. Hence, the problem, one could choose any name they liked and even pick a birth date virtually at random, but God forbid you failed to state a religious affiliation. That was serious. So my parents decided that an appropriate religion would have to be selected. In reality, there were only two options: Catholic or Orthodox. Catholic was immediately rejected because of the Vatican’s ambivalent (some would say friendly) attitude towards Mussolini’s Fascism and Hitler’s Nazism. Thus, by default, I would become for the purposes of school an Orthodox believer. But the question was how to accomplish this? Well, there was a Ukrainian Orthodox Church—fairly recently constructed—at the corner of Burrows Avenue and Sinclair Street and it was to become the site of my baptism or whatever the correct term is. When the big day came, towards the end of summer in 1936, I was taken to the church by my parents; just the three of us, no godparents or anyone else that I can remember. There were other candidates for the blessing, five or six of us all told—and all the others were infants. The priest duly started his routine, proceeding at a measured pace from one to the next, ending by dipping the baby’s bottom in a baptismal container of holy water. When it came my turn, I detected a momentary look of consternation on his face, as if he were thinking, “What am I going to do with this bambula?” (oaf). However, being the resourceful type, he muttered his incantation, dipped his hand in the water, sprinkled some on my head and duly pronounced me a true member of the Orthodox faith. And none could claim otherwise.
School opened up a whole new world to me. Our grade was considered to be “grade nothing” until the Christmas break, at which time adjustments were to be made. Not knowing the intelligence levels or preparedness of any students (there was no kindergarten or preschool) the teacher arbitrarily assigned us in September to Class I, II, or III. As things progressed, she was able to assess each of us and assigned each of us to a class. By Christmas, those who were in Class I were promoted to Grade 1 while the rest of the students had to wait until the following year to achieve that level. I was one of the fortunate ones who was assigned to Grade 1 and went into a different room with a new teacher in January of 1937. First thing in the morning was roll call. Once that had been dispensed with, we all had to rise and sing God Save the King—not O Canada. When the singing was over, we had to remain standing and recite in unison The Lord’s Prayer. It mattered not a whit whether you were Christian, Jew, agnostic or anything else, you had to proclaim: “Our Father, which (sic) art in Heaven,” and so on. The first few days were quite a jumble because hardly anybody knew the words in English but, as with all kids, we got the hang of it fairly quickly. We were constantly reminded that Canada belonged to the greatest empire the world had ever seen—the British Empire “upon which the sun never sets.” Just about every room in the school had a wall map of the world, showing Britain and all its possessions in pink. In addition, the walls were adorned with photos of King George VI and other members of the Royal Family, including the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Little did we know that barely a decade hence the British Empire would suffer the fate of all previous empires and dissolve into nothing. Every empire since recorded history has followed the same pattern: rise, rule and fall. At present, the United States seems to feel it is an exception to this immutable rule of history. We shall see.
The early part of January each year saw a drastic falloff in attendance. The reason, of course, was celebrating the Ukrainian holidays. After one such episode, our teacher was going through the roll and determining why certain students had been absent. After she got through with the Levitskiys, Peetyuras and Sadoviys she called out: “Marvin Berlin. Why weren’t you at school last Tuesday?”
“Ukrainian Christmas” came the prompt reply.
“But you’re not Ukrainian, you’re Jewish,”
“Yeah,” admitted Marvin, “but I’ve got to live with these guys.”
For Ukrainian New Year’s many of us took part in a tradition, which probably dates back to pagan times. We would leave home with a small bag of wheat to visit several homes to get the year started on a proper footing. We would enter the house, dip a hand in the bag, take out a small handful of wheat and scatter it around in a sowing motion, all the while reciting:
We would usually call upon only those that could pay for this blessing, because it was customary to pay the youngster a nickel or so and no one wanted to impose such an expectation upon a truly needy family. Although this honour was supposed to be restricted mainly to family and friends, I always included a trip to our landlord even though he wasn’t Ukrainian, but Polish. I figured that if we could pay him six bucks every month he could afford a nickel once a year. I say “we” used to do this but, in truth, these rites were always performed by a boy. I’m not aware that girls did the same.
As mentioned earlier, the school population represented many ethnic groups. If only we had been given a little encouragement, we could easily have picked up three or four languages and what an asset that would have been in later life. Naturally, we did pick up quickly on all the curses, swear words, and off-colour expressions in the other languages, but that was all. The Ukrainian immigrants believed in the old adage: “Znaysya veel z volami, a keeny z konyami”—”An ox should keep company with oxen, and a horse with horses,” Obviously, the other immigrant groups felt the same because there was precious little effort expended to understand each other. And the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture did nothing to encourage such crosspollination, so we ended up with ridiculous spectacles like a roomful of kids who had grown up with the polka or kolomeyka singing, “Do Ye Ken John Peel” or “The Ash Grove.” Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those songs. They’re fine for the cultures they represent, but to us they were alien. Thankfully, Canada is a much more tolerant society now, although much remains to be done to erase racism—particularly against people whose skin colour happens to be other than white.
Most times, corporal punishment reigned supreme and was applied at the slightest provocation. The chosen instrument was the strap—a hideous invention of leather or rubber, about three inches wide and a quarter inch thick. Most teachers and principals were only too eager to use it. For some it became almost addictive—if they hadn’t used the strap for a couple of days, they seemed to invent excuses to do so.
In those days, even though vehicular traffic was far lighter than now, there were still streetcars and buses, plus the odd truck, so the school patrol told students when to hold back or when to go by simply raising their arms at right angles to the body to hold us back. If any kid tried to pass when told not to (which never happened) it would be the duty of the patrols involved to report such a violation. That’s why we always referred to the patrols as “stoolies”—even while serving as one. By Grade 6, I along with my best buddies Ted Perich and Roy Nizalik, had in fact become part of the patrol. We took great pride in the way we marched to our stations and back, the way we took down the flag (the Canadian Ensign, it was called) and performed our duties in general. In fact, we were so good that in the spring of 1942 the school patrol of Margaret Scott School was declared the winner in a citywide survey. The best in the city award (complete with pictures and story in the Winnipeg Free Press) went to our little elementary school. We were really proud; not just for ourselves, but because we brought an honour to the entire North End, which was always at the short end of things—be it parks, pavement, sidewalks or anything else. And with this win, we proved that the North End could be as good, or better, than any area.
During those years, the Winnipeg school board had a policy of delivering milk to elementary schools. For two cents, you could have a half pint of milk brought to your room every day. When my mother found out such a service was available, she asked me if I would like to take it. But I could see that the offer was only half-hearted (because it would mean another ten cents a week would have to be found somehow) and so declined. I did add, however, that if she made it chocolate milk, I’d be happy to reconsider because I really didn’t care for milk that much. One of the regular milk customers was a girl by the name of Joyce Ketchen. We all knew that the family was Ukrainian but we couldn’t figure out where the surname came from, but that’s beside the point. I remember her quite well because of her father. Upon the rare occasion that parents were invited to attend some function or other—usually no more than a couple of times a year—he would always show up wearing tinted, rimless glasses. Most glasses were rimmed, so these stood out and were no doubt more expensive. Not only that but he always wore a suit and tie, in contrast to the plain working clothes of most parents. Plus, he always had a big, fat cigar stuck in his mouth. He was a businessman and owner of Ketchen Printing, which published one of the Ukrainian nationalist papers.
In 1941, when the federal government closed all the Ukrainian Labour Temples across the country and confiscated all the contents—books, manuscripts, music, instruments, etc.—they also seized in Winnipeg the print shop, complete with presses, type, linotypes and everything else. Since there was hardly a market for such specialized equipment, it was sold at bargain basement prices to Mr. Ketchen. And so, what had been so painstakingly assembled through the years by the collective nickels and dimes of poor working people, all of a sudden ended up in his hands. After that, it seemed that whenever I saw him, his cigars had grown bigger and fatter than ever.
Mr. Lazechko: Guardian of the People’s Health
No reminiscence of the North End would be complete without a word about Lazechko. He was a pharmacist and proprietor of White Cross Drugs at the southwest corner of Boyd and Arlington. But he was so much more than just a pharmacist. He was, in truth, the guardian of the people’s health in the North End, and he ministered constantly to his flock. Indeed, he looked like a typical priest. His collars were always so stiffly starched that any priest would be envious. But they always seemed one size too small, so the folds of his skin rolled over them. His face was ruddy, with a high forehead and rather narrow eyes, coloured blue. He ran the operation by himself, peering out at people from behind a wicket that looked much like a bank teller’s cage. A visit to or by the doctor was prohibitive. The five-dollar cost could be a killer, so people would go with their ailments to Lazechko. He was able to help them most times. He mixed his own potions and salves, so was able to clear up skin rashes and all kinds of minor problems. He was years ahead of his time because, in actuality, he ran a medical health centre. During the early thirties, he had a steam bath under the drug store but had to give it up after a few years because it was just too much for one person to handle. He was married but no one ever saw his wife help him in any way in running the store. Indeed, she was regarded by some as being a panyee—an aristocrat. He also had daughters in high school. Two, I believe. The elder, Myra, proved to be quite a poet. While still attending Isaac Newton, she wrote a poem titled. “Let No Man Call Me Foreigner”—a ringing rejection of the prevailing Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, which won acclaim from one end of Canada to the other. Although she wrote many other poems and much prose in later years, under her married name of Myra Lazechko-Haas, I doubt any of her later works achieved the renown of that early, inspired poem.
Lazechko also kept leeches, which he rented out for healing purposes. I remember one occasion when my father had a bad bruise on his back, acquired on some job or other. Like all bruises, it turned an ugly blue-black-green colour and caused him a good deal of discomfort. Lazechko suggested the leech treatment. My mother heated up a stemmed glass, put the three or so leeches on the bruise, and placed the glass over them. The heated glass provided a sort of domed vacuum, which prevented them from going beyond the bruise. After the little medics had done their job and removed the bad blood, the pain was gone and they were returned to the drug store.
I don’t know how Lazechko addressed the other kids, but I was always Sonny to him. He knew I like to read but really had nothing to read at home. We couldn’t afford the daily paper and I had not yet discovered the joys of the school library. We did receive the People’s Gazette (Narodna Hazeta) but it was of no use to me because I couldn’t read Ukrainian. I pleaded with my parents to let me start Ukrainian school at the same time or shortly after entering public school, but they demurred, on the grounds that I would get “mixed up.” How can I get mixed up, I reasoned—English is English and Ukrainian is Ukrainian? But they were adamant and I had to wait until 1939 to go to Ukrainian night school twice a week at the Labour Temple. Meanwhile, I wanted to read. Lazechko knew this and helped me out by giving me old Toronto Star Weeklies. The Star Weekly was delivered each weekend to Lazechko’s store and he was supposed to return the unsold copies whenthe following week’s edition arrived. But each week Lazechko saved one for me and gave it to me when I would stop by on Monday. I believed him when he said a copy was left over from last week, never realizing he still had to account for every last copy. One Monday I walked into the store as usual and asked if there were any old Star Weeklies. He said no, that they had all sold out. My disappointment must have been plain on my face because, as I turned to leave he said: “Just a minute, sonny, I just found one” and, reaching under the counter handed it to me from inside his wicket. It was only after I came home and started to read it, that I realized he had given me the current week’s edition. So he was subsidizing my reading at his own expense. I really appreciated his generosity and tried to make up for it in part, at least, by offering to deliver for him. He really didn’t need to run a delivery service but every once in a while he would send me off with something for a customer. I think he wanted me to feel useful and not the beneficiary of charity.
When we moved away from Boyd Avenue, I pretty well lost touch with Lazechko. His life was a constant parade of people who should properly have been taking their problems to a doctor, not a pharmacist—talented though he undoubtedly was. Accident victims, young mothers with sick babies, old people with what was euphemistically called rheumatism (but could have been anything from arthritis to sciatica) all went to him for help. At times, it must have been overwhelming for him. He was the only person that many people could turn to and he struggled mightily to cope.
As if the daily struggle to survive wasn’t enough, sometimes fate likes to place an additional burden on the poor. Like the fine summer morning, I awoke, got to my feet and fell flat on my face. I tried again. Same result.
“What’s the matter?” my mother asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t stand.”
And it was true; my left leg simply refused to carry any weight. Alarmed, my parents realized this was serious. Something even the mighty Mr. Lazechko couldn’t fix. There was nothing to do but summon a doctor. Dr. Ribak appeared at our house carrying his medical satchel. He examined me but declared he could offer no remedy for my situation. There was a specialist, he said, a Dr. Galloway, located downtown, who should be able to help. If we agreed, he would phone ahead and clear the way for our visit. What choice did we have? So my parents told Ribak to go ahead and we took off for the streetcar stop. My father had to carry me to that first stop and between car transfers until we finally arrived at the office of Dr. Galloway, which was on the north side of Broadway, somewhere around Smith or Donald Streets. The doctor entered the waiting room asked me to stand up and walk toward him. I fell again. He performed a rather cursory examination of my left leg and then announced rather matter-of-factly: “the leg will have to come off at the knee. The cost will be $300. Let me know your decision,” and strode out of the waiting room, leaving in his wake a shocked family.
I immediately began to plead. “Don’t let them cut off my leg. I’ll walk again. I promise. You’ll see—I’ll walk again. Please.” My parents both assured me nobody was going to do any cutting, but the looks on their faces belied their soothing words. We left the office of the esteemed doctor and headed back home, my mother and father discussing their options on the way. They finally agreed upon Kramer, in desperation. Kramer was a neighbourhood healer whose reputation rivalled that of Lazechko’s. The common understanding was that he was doctor who had arrived from Europe but could not get accreditation in Canada. He himself was careful to avoid the label of medical doctor. He stated that “I am Mister Kramer, not Doctor Kramer. I do not practice medicine and do not charge a fee. But if someone comes to me for an opinion on something, I will provide an opinion, as is my right.” Even though he didn’t charge a fee, the honour system prevailed and anyone visiting him was bound to leave something: a bag of apples, maybe some homegrown vegetables, a chicken, cash if possible, but something. Kramer, too, had to eat.
We arrived at home; my father went into the woodshed and emerged with a little red wagon that I had played with in my younger years. He sat me in the wagon and the three of us took off for Kramer’s. He lived in a house, typical two-storey neighbourhood house with an enclosed glass veranda on Powers Street somewhere around Cathedral Avenue. When we arrived at the house we were met at the front door by a kindly looking man of slight build, about five feet six inches in height, with a small face and soft grey eyes. His voice and manner were gentle and sympathetic. He asked us to sit down and explain the problem. When we had, he didn’t ask me to try to walk, or even stand. Instead, he came to the chair where I was sitting and kneeled down on the floor in front of me. Taking my left leg, he gingerly moved it back and forth, simulating the natural walking movement. He then gently turned it one way, then another. Placing his hand alongside my knee, he applied a little pressure and asked: “Does this hurt? How about here? And here?” Satisfied, he rose to his feet, looked directly at my mother and said, “Don’t let anyone touch the boy (we had advised him of our encounter with the specialist). Put him to bed and keep him there for two or three days and nights. By the end of the week he’ll be running around with his friends.” We left, but not before I noticed, my father put something into his hand, thanking him.
His prognosis turned out to be 100 per cent correct. By the end of the week, I had rejoined the Barans, Borovskees and Pastukhs on the boulevards of Boyd Avenue.
Culture and Politics: Youthful Days at the Labour Temple
Mr. Mikita Krechmarovsky who taught night school at the Ukrainian Labour Temple was a unique character. He was clearly loved by anyone who ever had the good fortune to have been taught by him. A humble, kind man, he treated every student in his care as if she/he were his own child—a perfect environment for learning. He had absolutely no discipline problems. He maintained discipline by being kind and respectful at all times; he was simply too nice for kids to take advantage of him—unlike the man who replaced him during World War II. In 1941, the federal government used the Wartime Measures Act to close all the Ukrainian Labour Temples across Canada and imprisoned the ULFTA’s leadership. Although he was never more than a simple schoolteacher, Krechmarovsky found himself interned in a concentration camp. Ironically, the Polish Labour Temple organization, which had exactly the same political and ideological outlook, was allowed to remain functioning. Strange, indeed, are the ways of bureaucracy, for we found ourselves attending Ukrainian school in the Polish Labour Temple at Pritchard and Prince with a brand new teacher named Yakeev Semenov. That worthy gentleman chose to enforce discipline by making miscreants kneel in the corner at the front of the classroom where he had thoughtfully provided a bed of dried peas. He got his discipline, but respect was lost in the process.
Krechmarovsky never had to resort to punishment of any kind, even though he had well over a hundred children under his care—ranging from Grades 1 through 6—with more than one Grade in the room at any given time. He always stood in the vestibule outside the classroom and greeted each student as they were about to enter. He always remembered everyone’s name and offered an encouraging word to each of us. To make sure his students were mastering the Cyrillic alphabet, he would ask each of us to stand and read aloud, after the first few weeks of Grade 1. As you progressed through the grades, the reading became more complex. But by this simple expedient he could always tell which students were “getting it” and which needed specialized help. After having started night school in the fall of 1938, I was promoted to Grade 2 in the spring of 1939. That fall as I was on my way into class, he stopped me and asked (in Ukrainian, of course) “Can you still read as well as you did last year?” “Of course,” I confidently replied. “Good. Then, starting tonight, you sit with the Grade Threes.” He had just skipped me a whole grade! I was so thrilled; I could hardly wait to get home to tell my parents. Not only did he pass me on a full grade but a few months later, he paid me an even bigger compliment.
The drama group was intent upon staging a play called Za Sinyeem Morem (Beyond The Blue Sea). One role called for a young lad aged about eight to ten. Could he recommend some one? Yes, he said, he could, and told me there was a part in a play waiting for me and whom I should report to. When I did, it could hardly be called an audition because there were no other candidates. Someone handed me a copy of the play and asked me to read certain portions in as loud a voice as possible, which I proceeded to do. And got the role. This was in the winter/spring of 1939/40 and gave me my first opportunity to appear on stage. I found the experience to be very rewarding and have continued performing in choirs, choral groups of all sizes and types, folk song groups and playing trombone in many different orchestras. The latest such appearance was in June 2006, at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver for the World Peace Forum. And who can say if it’s the last? After I started work and my first ever vacation took me to eastern Canada along with three other friends, I made it a point to find this wonderful man while in Toronto where he had moved with his wife and daughter after the war. He was as kind and gentle as ever. That was the last time we met but I will never forget him and still think of him fondly from time to time.
Even before starting night school, I had already spent many days and nights within the walls of the Ukrainian Labour Temple. During the Thirties you could walk into the hall on any given day and find the place full of people—mostly men. The reason was obvious; unemployment. Figures ranged from 25 per cent to 40 per cent but nobody knew for sure. But it was clear there were a hell of a lot of people out of work, so they came there for companionship and to talk politics. It was the era of the great show trials in the Soviet Union and it seemed virtually every week brought new revelations. The names came in an almost endless procession: Trotsky. Kamenev. Zinoviev. Tukhachevsky. Bukharin. Rykov. And on and on. Some brave souls expressed the opinion that “there’s something not quite right there. How is it that, all of a sudden, everybody is a no-goodnik and Stalin is the only good guy?” But they were in a definite minority. Most took the position that the Soviet Union was the only Socialist country, surrounded by enemies who were constantly trying to undermine the regime from within.
Another event I remember during the 1930s revolved around the Spanish Civil War. As the war to save the Spanish Republic raged on, with clear signs it would soon engulf all of Europe, somebody in the Ukrainian nationalist community got the bright idea of sending a wristwatch to Adolf Hitler. This was before the infamous Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939, while Germany and the USSR were still bitter enemies. Hitler had made promises several times in his speeches to “liberate” Ukraine and some naive people believed him. His brand of national liberty soon became evident and could be attested to by the people of Europe from Norway to France to Greece. But this was still in the future. At the time in question, the word went around the North End that a meeting/fund raiser would be held at the Institute Prosvita Hall at Pritchard and Arlington, with the aims of (a) approving the idea of sending the watch to Hitler, and (b) raising funds for the purpose. When word of this meeting got out, the ULFTA decided it was a horrible idea and the organization would do everything possible to stop an action they deemed to be a black mark on the entire Ukrainian community. But how to stop it? They feared sending a contingent of protestors to break up the meeting would lead to fisticuffs and perhaps even bloodshed. So it was decided to send not only men but women and children too to the meeting in the hope that this would prevent violence. I went together with my parents. We sat down in the middle of the hall and recognized other friends and ULFTA members sitting scattered throughout the audience. After the chairman’s opening remarks he asked for either a motion or discussion—I can’t remember which, but it matters not anyway—and that’s when he lost control of the gathering. One after another, speaker got up and loudly protested the entire concept of the meeting. There was a complete breakdown of order and the meeting was, of necessity, declared to be over. Obviously, no decision was reached on that day (it was a daytime meeting) and I can’t recall that any attempt was ever made to hold another meeting, so I don’t think Adolf Hitler ever got his wristwatch from Winnipeg. Saner heads must have prevailed.
If the days were devoted to politics, the evenings were for meetings, lectures and, on weekends, cultural events. Friday night was movie night, where we could view the classical films of people like Sergei Eisenstein and be entertained by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy (always referred to as “Fat and Skinny”) and some top-notch Hollywood efforts like Dead End, Angels With Dirty Faces and Robin Hood—in colour yet. Saturdays were for predstavlenyas—presentations. It could be a drama, a folk operetta or a comedy, but there was always a presentation of some kind every week for over twenty years consecutively. The pool of acting talent was so deep and circle of directors so wide that there would often be three or four productions being worked on at the same time. Many of these productions were so popular that they had to be repeated. After spending weeks, if not months, in rehearsing and packing the hall (which held roughly 1000 people when standees were included) it seemed a shame to perform once in public and leave it there. So an extra performance would be squeezed in a few weeks after the first one, again to a sold out house. Sometimes, we were presented with Ukrainian translations of such popular fare as Charley’s Aunt or Rain. The drama group was justifiably proud of its range of work and was hugely popular. It was supported not only by ULFTA members but by the broader Ukrainian community and many Jewish people, most of whom were quite familiar with the Ukrainian language from their European roots. Indeed, one of the main reasons for building Canada’s first Ukrainian Labour Temple was to provide a setting where the drama group could do its work without worrying about renting suitable halls, which were not plentiful to begin with.
Sunday mornings were turned over to the Junior Section, as over a hundred children took over every possible space in the entire building. Boys were taught how to carve wood, build models, and the rudiments of playing chess. The girls, on the other hand, received instruction in the fine arts like painting Easter Eggs, Ukrainian embroidery, and so on. There were no charges for any of these lessons. Sunday nights were reserved for concerts. Mandolin orchestras, choirs, folk dances, soloists, duets and other vocal combinations were on the menu. The children would leave their parents to sit in the first three rows—right up at the front of the theatre. And it was a true theatre with seats that were anchored to the floor, which sloped towards the stage. Naturally, when you had a bunch of kids like that—grouped all together—it could lead to distractions. So there was a need for discipline and the enforcer was a little old man named Kharchina. He would sit surrounded by the sea of kids and watch for rowdy or unseemly behaviour. He was elderly, with a fringe of grey hair framing a baldhead; very small in stature, he was hardly bigger than some of the older kids. But nobody messed with Kharchina. If you misbehaved, he would look at you and raise his finger to his lips, telling you to quiet down. If you persisted, he would glance at you again—this time, wagging his finger back and forth, indicating your actions were a no-no. Then, if ever he had to look in your direction again, it was game over. He would take you by the hand and lead you back to your parent, which was the ultimate humiliation. To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever got to that point—so strong was Kharchina’s reputation. Admission to all of these cultural events was by silver collection. This was strictly an honour system. Many a time an entire family of four would drop one nickel in the collection plate and take their seats. It was assumed that’s all they could afford and nobody ever challenged them.
Once or twice a year our family routine would deviate on a Saturday evening so we could participate in a house party organized by the Lemko community. The Lemkos are a distinct branch of the larger Ukrainian nation. Geographically located at Ukraine’s westernmost region—abutting against Slovakia—they speak a form of the language, which has inevitably been heavily influenced by Slovak, a sister Slavic language. The most distinctive feature of the Lemko version of Ukrainian is placement of emphasis on the wrong syllable in multi-syllabic words. The following example will illustrate: when a Ukrainian says “Ya zaplaCHU” it means: “I will pay”, but when she/ he says “Ya zaPLAchu” it means, “I will cry.” Whereas when a Lemko says “Ya zaPLAchu” he means: “I will pay.” Needless to say, two Ukrainians, ostensibly speaking the same language, can have some confusing conversations if one happens to be a Lemko.
My mother came from this community and she had a brother living on Jarvis Avenue in a tenement with several other members of the community. Some of the men were married, but most single. They numbered several dozen and tended to live in the area around Jarvis bounded by Robinson and Schultz streets. Fully a half or more of their number had managed to find work, usually of the menial kind. For instance, my uncle worked in the Galvanizing Shop at Manitoba Bridge & Iron Works. I’m not familiar with the details of the process but do know it involves electricity, hot metal and acids. He started work there as a relatively young man and, for the rest of his life, I rarely saw him without scabs on his hands and forearms and sometimes his face. These were either acid or metal burns. And one can only imagine the noxious fumes produced by this ungodly combination. He died of apparent heart failure on the job aged sixty-one.
The Lemko community would get together several times during the winter to have a party usually around a family event. Whenever we attended these parties we always traveled by foot, to save on car fare. My parents would bundle up, place me in a sleigh all wrapped up in blankets and trundle off to Jarvis from Boyd avenue—no small distance, especially when temperatures fell to 35 or 40 below zero.
Those who had a pay cheque threw in some money to have Drewry’s brewery deliver a small keg of beer to the party site, which almost invariably was at the same house on Jarvis. The keg would come with a spigot and hand pump plus a supply of glasses: thick, with Drewry’s painted on the side and shaped just like a beer keg. The keg had a bung at the bottom, which would be knocked out and replaced by the spigot. The keg would then be stood on end and the pump fastened to a receptacle on the top. After a few enthusiastic pumps built up enough pressure—lo and behold!—out would flow the beer. The beer would always be supplemented by a container of home brewed liquor. The kids always went with their parents; baby sitters were unheard of. So, after an evening of racing around and just as the party was starting to hit its stride, we would be hustled off to bed. By then we were tired enough that there were no complaints about having to go to sleep. As the adults had arrived at the house, their heavy winter outerwear was piled on a bed. When we were sent off to bed, we were placed on top of the pile, covered up, and instructed to go to sleep.
There was always at least one violin, sometimes two, to provide the music and, for a while, a man (I believe his name was Fred) who played a button accordion. But then Fred somehow got a job working in the mines of northern Ontario and took his accordion with him. Everybody remarked about how lucky Fred was because he had found steady employment—a rare occurrence indeed. But, it didn’t take long for him to come back. He was injured in an explosion, probably due to inexperience, and came back to Winnipeg completely blind. To this day, I remember how he wore sunglasses while playing the accordion. In the end, some good fortune did finally smile upon him. He had been dating a young woman before he left for Ontario and when he returned to Winnipeg blind, many thought she would no longer be interested in him. But she stuck by him. They married and, as far as I know, spent the rest of their lives together.
Early one evening at one such shindig, I heard a knock at the door, a pause of a few seconds, and then the knocking resumed. This was strange, since most invited guests would knock and then let themselves in while announcing their presence. After all, nobody wanted to spend even a moment longer than necessary outside in the cold. So when I heard the knock and nobody entered, my curiosity was aroused. I watched as my uncle (who roomed upstairs in the house) went to answer. When he opened the door, it revealed the biggest man I had ever seen. He wore a buffalo coat and fur hat, which made him look twice as big. He exchanged a few words with my uncle who went into the kitchen to get two jiggers and a bottle of home brewed whisky that he stuffed into his jacket pocket. He went outside. There was a window on the side of the house and I peered out to see what was going to happen. My uncle gave the cop the jiggers to hold, took out the bottle and poured two shots into them. They clinked glasses and tossed back the shots. Now sufficiently fortified against the cold, the policeman resumed his beat.
While on the subject of home brewed liquor, it should be noted that this product was omnipresent. Rarely did anyone put a bottle of government whisky on the table. Most of the homemade variety, provided it came from a reputable source, was actually very good—and much cheaper than store bought. For about 15 cents, you could get a Coke or 7-Up bottle full of the stuff. There was an “agent” placed in just about every block in the North End, so obtaining the liquor was no problem at all. Indeed, I’d venture a guess that even today, provided you know the right people; it wouldn’t be too difficult to buy some. The product was far too strong to drink straight and it had to be “cut.” This, of course, added to the appeal because one bottle would usually end up being two or three. The cutting was quite an elaborate procedure: first, you poured a teaspoonful straight out of the bottle into a spoon. Then, you put a match to it, to determine if (1) it burned with a pure blue flame and (2) to see how much residue was left. This residue was referred to as “feusal oil” or impurities. If there was very little then you knew that the contents were the real stuff. Next, you burned some sugar in a dry skillet, turning the sugar brown. This was then added to the whisky, imparting a golden colour and making it look very much like rye whisky. After the sugar and booze were blended, you could then “cut” the combination with water, 7-Up or some such mix. If you started with almost pure whisky, by the time you did all the above it was possible to end up with more than a 26 oz. sized bottle of still potent whisky. I watched my father and uncle go through this routine several times but this does not mean that they were constantly drinking. On the contrary, I rarely saw my father take a drink, other than at Christmas or other special occasion and my mother drank even less.
All this whisky was supplied from distilling to wholesaling to retailing at the street level, in the main, by a single organization. The supposed kingpin of this outfit was reputed to be one Paul Stanley. He was a Ukrainian but chose the name Stanley and that’s the only way people ever referred to him. In reality, however, Paul was merely the front man for a syndicate of seven or eight partners, chief among them being Bill Wolchok. He was the architect of the whole operation, beginning with building the first still, then expanding to a whole series of them and turning out 1000 gallons of pure alcohol daily. From Winnipeg, they shipped the product east, west, and even south as far as Chicago. One celebrated delivery entailed switching three entire boxcars, filling them with 45-gallon drums of booze, then diverting them to the Windy City. When the police finally were able to crack the operation Bill was the only partner to go to jail, serving five full years at Stony Mountain Penitentiary.
Summer Pleasures: Picnics and our Saturday “na spatseer”
Quite often, the ULFTA organized picnics on Sundays. Some were held in East Kildonan. The street car routes ended on Henderson Highway at the old Bergen Cutoff, whose bridge can still be seen today south of the Chief Peguis bridge crossing the Red River. Where the tracks ended (the site of the Curtis Hotel now) specially chartered buses would take over and drive out to a farmer’s field east of the highway. The farmer was either a member or friend of the organization and allowed his property to be utilized this way once or twice a year. Other times the picnics would take place at Parkdale, east of Main. Parkdale is a few miles north of Middlechurch, just where the highway takes a jog. The land and buildings were owned by the Workers Benevolent Association, a sister organization to the ULFTA. The property ran from Main all the way to the river, with a creek running through it, and the buildings were of Manitoba Tyndall stone—the same material used to construct the Legislature. The entire complex was used as a home for orphans and administered jointly by the WBA and ULFTA. There are still people alive today who were raised in that orphanage and have remained grateful to those two organizations ever since. But most of the picnics were held on the old Exhibition Grounds (“Artsebeeshin” in Ukrainian immigrant speak) west of Sinclair and south of Dufferin. There would be kids’ races, with different coloured ribbons for prizes, a sand box, and always a horde of kids around so there was no shortage of playmates. While the adult men would lay down a blanket and play a card game named King Peedro (whose complexities were far beyond a child’s ken), the women would sit and chat and the children, as usual, would make their own fun.
One lasting memory from these picnics goes back to the summer of 1935. A group of young men were camped in tents on the Grounds. Some were the forerunners of the On-To-Ottawa trek; others were local Manitoba boys who had come to join it. The trek had started on the West Coast and picked up more strength as it headed east. Travel was by CPR freight trains and the object of the enterprise was “Work and Wages.” They had hoped to confront the Prime Minister, R. B. Bennett, but that Conservative politician had no intention of meeting with what he considered to be “this rabble.” So on July 1st of that year, at a public rally in Regina, he unleashed the RCMP on the crowd with resultant deaths and injuries to many people. That action effectively killed the trek but that did not become obvious immediately, so these young men were left in limbo. Meanwhile, they had to stay alive somehow, and I recall vividly how poor people—some of whom undoubtedly went to bed hungry at night—nevertheless found the human kindness to provide something for these young guys: a container of homemade soup, a sandwich, or a bagel. People did what they could. That memory is seared in my brain for all time.
However, while Sunday picnics were irregular, Saturday nights were the time to go na spatseer—for a stroll. At that time, Selkirk Avenue was Main Street and Portage Avenue all rolled into one. It was a procession of shops: grocers would display their wares on the sidewalks; there were tailors, hairdressers, furriers, furniture stores, meat markets, shops with ladies’ fashions—even an ice cream restaurant. It was called Taylor’s Ice Cream Restaurant and sat next door to the Merchants’ Hotel on the north side at Andrews street. Of course, it was open only during the summer and people used to line up on the sidewalk waiting to get in and choose from maybe eight or ten flavours—an unheard of number. People would start the stroll at Arlington and proceed east from there, stopping to chat with friends who were also on a stroll, perhaps buy a bag of chips for a nickel (salt and vinegar free!) and press on. By and large, all these businesses were owned by Ukrainians and other Slavs. But from Salter on, the nature of the area changed and Jewish became the predominant culture. From there to Main, you would find Jewish dentists, doctors, delicatessens, and the Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall, next to Gunn’s Bakery (both structures still exist). The Hall had a lunch counter, which served a corned beef sandwich second to none in the city and was available to other ethnic groups for rental. I had the pleasure of attending many a function there, including weddings and wedding anniversaries. If for some reason the ULFTA hall was unavailable, the Hebrew Sick Benefit was always an option.
While there were certainly Jews west of Salter and Slavs east of it, nevertheless those areas were defined as outlined above. On the other hand, the area between Andrews and Salter was a sort of transition zone. On the northeast corner of Andrews and Selkirk, you found Soloway’s—the North End’s largest grocery store and a little farther down, just past the Palace theatre, its largest department store (the Eaton’s of the North End), Oretzki’s. The Oretzki brothers sold everything from apparel to shoes, and the shoe department drew people in like a magnet. The reason was their x-ray machine. When you were trying on a pair of shoes you could walk up to the machine, stick your feet into the slot at the bottom, peer down a visor tunnel and actually watch your toes as you wiggled them. People used to walk in off the street, go straight to the machine, and insert their feet just to watch this phenomenon. Today, of course, we realize that exposure to x-rays can be harmful and so it’s kept to a minimum but then—who knew?
The Saturday night walk marked the end of the working week (for those fortunate enough to have jobs) and Sunday was the day of rest—all shops closed, etc. But Sunday night was the night for family and friends to visit. It seemed everybody was on the move Sundays, just like Saturdays, but with a different objective. This custom of visiting fell off dramatically after the war when we all were able to obtain phones. It was much easier to keep in touch that way. Besides, who wanted to leave a warm house in the winter to go and visit? An additional factor was that, during the 1930s, we all rented and lived close to each other, but as things improved economically many bought their own houses in “better neighbourhoods.” They all still lived in the North End but much farther apart from one another. They still kept in touch but the Sunday night ritual of visiting all but died.
One unforgettable memory of Winnipeg summers was the presence of Jewish peddlers. There were three that come to mind. The first sold watermelons when they were in season, in August. Presumably, he also sold other produce because he could hardly earn a living on the melons. He operated, as did all of them, out of a horse drawn wagon. He would go up and down the streets shouting in his rich Yiddish accent: “Vademel-o-o-n—von cent a pound.” And the people would come to his wagon to choose their melons. Watermelon must not have been well known in western Ukraine, because my parents were certainly unfamiliar with it. I, however, had been given a taste at school by one of my friends, so could recommend it to them. I was a notoriously poor eater, so my recommendation carried a good deal of weight. My parents took a chance and bought one and, of course, liked it immediately. The second peddler sold live chickens. The women on the block would come out to inspect his stock, which was kept in metal cages so the customer could peer through the bars and make a choice. My mother had a real knack for choosing birds. She was not interested in fryers but wanted an old hen, which she knew would be ideal for chicken soup. She would inspect two or three birds, always feeling between their legs until eventually deciding on one. Invariably, she would pick one, which was just about to lay, so we would get an additional egg or two for the same price. But buying the chicken was the easy part. Next, it had to be killed, then plucked and cleaned before finally going into the soup pot. The third peddler was a ragman. Instead of the streets, however, his domain was the back lanes. He would allow his mare to leisurely amble along while crying out “Lakhy. Lakhy!”—the Ukrainian slang for “rags.” He always had a collection of old lamps, shirts, pants, bottles, etc. When we kids heard his call we would cry out “Here comes Lakhy”, not knowing his true name, and go rushing over to see what wonders his wagon might hold. We would watch with interest, as some woman would come out of her home holding an old bottle and offering it to him for only a nickel. He, of course, would counter with one cent, and the haggling would begin. Usually he would get it for two or three cents, in the hope that down the line he might get a nickel for it. And so it went. All three of them were trying to schlepp a living as best they could—and it had to be earned during the summer because who could sell out of an open wagon in the winter?
I’ve referred several times to walking as the main means of transportation. And it was. People hated to part with a nickel for carfare and walking was so commonplace nobody even noticed it, let alone commented on the fact. But when we had to resort to public transportation, it was readily available. Streetcars ran along McGregor, Arlington, Mountain, Selkirk and Dufferin and buses along Salter, Arlington, Cathedral and Aberdeen. Most of the streetcars were the same as those in other parts of the city, running on dual tracks and having an operator/conductor at the front and conductor at the rear. But there was one streetcar, which was the pride of the North End. It was no doubt the oldest and smallest car in the entire Winnipeg Electric Company fleet so, naturally, was relegated to the North End. It had a top speed of somewhere in the order of 10–15 miles per hour, so people referred to it affectionately as the Mountain-Dufferin Flyer. Because there was no other like it, people took it into their hearts with the attitude “this is ours, this belongs to the North End.” It travelled in a U-route, starting at Main and going west along Mountain, then south to Dufferin and east back to Main Street. Because there was only a single track and no place to turn around at the end of the run, the car was actually designed like a ferryboat. After going outside to disconnect one trolley and connect the other, the driver/conductor (it had a crew of one) would simply disengage the throttle and brake handles at one end, walk down to the other end of the car and reconnect them at that end. Of course, in winter, he had the additional task of stopping in the middle of the car and putting a shovel or two of coal into the box stove located there. People simply loved that car and sometimes went out of their way to use it. In point of fact, the Mountain-Dufferin Flyer became an institution.
Our family used the Flyer most times when we weren’t walking. About the only times we boarded a bus was to go to City Park. Its official name was Assiniboine Park but in the North End, it was always City Park.
Christmas on Relief
For a kid like me, “on relief,” the coming of the Christmas holidays was anticipated with a mixture of inevitability and dread—the cruellest time of the year. Not having a religious background had very little to do with it, since many secular families nevertheless celebrated the occasion. But when a family is trying to subsist on three sacks of potatoes for the winter, there was nothing with which to buy trees or any other baubles. So I never received any kind of present at Christmas until I was about seven or eight years old. Word went around the North End that the Robertson Memorial church at the corner of Burrows and McKenzie would be handing out presents to needy kids. My mother and I joined the line-up on the sidewalk, eventually winding our way inside where I was handed a wrapped box and sent on my way with a “Merry Christmas.” Upon arriving home, I unwrapped it to find a team of horses with a detachable wagon. Both parts were stamped out of metal and painted in bright, happy colours. Not much of a present, one would think. But, decades later, my mother informed me that I spent hours playing with that outfit. I distinctly remember waiting in line for the present and remember a photo taken outside our house with me holding the wagon and horses at my feet (it exists somewhere in our family photo albums), yet remember nothing about playing with the set. Is it possible my memory—usually pretty good—blocked out the scenario? This feeling of what: inadequacy, second classness?—was certainly not helped by certain insensitive teachers who, upon returning to school after the holidays, asked everyone in the class to describe what they had received for Christmas. The fortunate few would recite a list of their booty while the rest of us sat glumly looking at the floor, wishing Christmas would never come again.
There was not much for the rest of my family to celebrate either, particularly during the early part of the decade. One Christmas Eve my mother had gone to bed and I was lying a few feet from my father and uncle who assumed I was safely asleep. They were sharing a “festive” drink of homemade whisky—no doubt provided by my uncle—and decrying their fate. How was it, they asked each other, that in a country as rich as Canada, so many people were without jobs, decent lives and actually going to bed hungry? Then, in the middle of this bleak conversation, my father made a statement, which will stay with me for as long as I live. “And yet,” he said to my uncle, “we’re still better off in Canada than in the old country.” Hearing those heartfelt words, I tried to imagine how terrible things must have been in Ukraine, but came up short. My imagination was not quite fertile enough.
Those early years without joy at one of the happier times of year have stayed with me always. I still don’t feel quite comfortable receiving gifts at Yuletide even now. Somehow, they provoke a vague feeling of unease in me. However, I will happily admit that there was one institution connected with the holidays that I looked forward to with great anticipation each year, and that was the Christmas choir organized by the Hudson’s Bay Co. It was a mixed choir of Bay employees, conducted by I know not whom. In fact, I rather doubt there were any announcements regarding the conductor. If there were, I certainly don’t remember. But the choir was excellent; they appeared (or aired, I guess is the proper term) over one of the local radio stations and performed every morning between 8:30 and 9:00 o’clock, for a period of two to three weeks. That was one treat I never missed.
A Room of My Own
As the Dirty Thirties drew to a close, conditions began to improve slightly, almost imperceptibly. Partly, it was because by then people had become inured to the bad times; if someone has been kicking you in the ass for ten years and suddenly stops, you’re going to feel better even if nothing else has changed. But it was also more than that. There were encouraging signs of economic activity resuming—albeit slowly. The empty lot on Boyd Avenue where we had played for so many years, all of a sudden was denied to us because a house was being built on the property. And there were other signs that there was a bit more money around. As the last of the thirties slipped through the hourglass of time, my mother decided she could finally afford to take a break on the Labour Day weekend of 1939, and elected to visit the Sokolovsky family in Gonnor. Upon first arriving in Canada, she had worked for them as a naymichka—a maidservant. They must have been reasonable employers, I guessed, otherwise why would she choose to go back and visit? My father must have been temporarily employed because she took me with her on the trip. It turned out to be a very memorable weekend for several reasons. We took the streetcar to the end of the East Kildonan line where Mrs. Sokolovska met us with a team of horses and wagon. When we arrived in Gonnor we went to a wooden structure with a thatched roof and whitewashed clay walls. Inside was a one-room home with earth floor and a kerosene lamp for lighting. The visit was very pleasant throughout our stay. Next morning I had Bran Flakes for the first time in my life and that evening roast duck—another first. It turned out I liked them both, which was a relief to my mother. In fact, I still do like them.
When we climbed out of the wagon that Labour Day to pick up the streetcar on Henderson Highway and headed for home, it was to a changed world. We learned that World War II had broken out. Suddenly, as if by some miracle, everything changed and the Great Depression was over. Whereas before the war there were plenty of goods and services, but no money with which to buy them, all of a sudden things were reversed. People now had money but there were not enough products to satisfy demand, a classic recipe for inflation. So the government was forced to take steps forestalling it; to nip it in the bud before it took root. All through the Depression, the government claimed it had no power to control events. It was a worldwide problem; it was a lack of markets; it was due to external factors; all sorts of excuses for inaction were trotted out. But now, Ottawa virtually took over the national economy. Manpower was mobilized. Every person aged 21 and over had to register with the authorities and carry his Registration Card at all times. Farmers, who during the ‘30s sometimes plowed their crops under because they couldn’t sell them, were now deemed to be indispensable to the war effort. In many cases when young men from the farms tried enlisting in the armed forces, they were turned down because food production was so vital. Women, who had been relegated to narrow career choices like nursing, teaching or clerking, were now pressed into duty as assembly line workers, riveters, welders and electricians. In fact, one of the top pop tunes of the era was “Rosie the Riveter.” To show it was serious about keeping inflation in check a Wartime Prices & Trade Board was established by the government to regulate prices, wages and virtually all economic activity. Rationing was introduced. Each family got a monthly allotment of coupons for necessities like sugar, tea, coffee, butter, meat and gasoline. Incidentally, this led to a rather brisk trade, like “we don’t use coffee so we’ll trade you for your tea coupons,” etc.
While all this ferment was going on, our family was finally able to leave behind the mice on Boyd Avenue. With a bit of help from some friends, my father built a brand new home on McKenzie Street and we moved into it in the summer of 1942. For me, the move was symbolic as well as physical. I was nearing my twelfth birthday and on the cusp of adolescence. The child’s eyes, which had witnessed the misery of the Depression, were now gazing hopefully to the future—and a brand new start. I would finally have a room of my own.
Page revised: 21 November 2015Back to top of page