The Early Jewish Physicians in Manitoba

by Harry Medovy, M.D., F.R.C.P.(C)

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 29, 1972-73 season
Read December 12th, 1972

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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There are many, especially among our youth today, who believe that the study of the past is irrelevant. All that seems to matter to them is the unhappy present and the need to concentrate their energies to bring about a happier future. Fortunately, there are still many who feel we can learn a great deal from history, and that the struggles and achievements of our forebears are worth recording and relating. We can learn much from their successes and their disappointments. The size of the audience is a pretty good indication that there are others who also believe that what I present to you may justify this assumption.

The early Jewish doctors in Manitoba. Who were they? What kind of individuals were they? Where did they come from? What sort of doctors were they? In what way, in addition to supplying health care, did they serve their community?

Hiram N. Vineberg (1858-1945)

It may come as a surprise to many of you in this room, as it certainly was to me, to discover that as early as 1881 at the time of the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in Manitoba, a Dr. Hiram N. Vineberg of Cornwall, Ontario, honour graduate in medicine of McGill University 1878, came out to Manitoba to practise medicine in Portage la Prairie. There were exactly 33 Jews in Manitoba that year; 21 lived in Winnipeg.

I came across a single line reference to Dr. Hiram Vineberg in a list of Jewish settlers for 1880-81 in Rabbi Chiel’s book on The Jews in Manitoba. He is simply referred to as Dr. H. Vineberg, physician. It turns out that Dr. Vineberg was born in Russia and came over to Canada with his parents and settled in Cornwall, Ontario. The family carried on a grocery business. At age 14 Vineberg ran away from home and eventually set himself up in a general store which he sold when he was 19 years old and used the proceeds to finance a medical course at McGill. He graduated with honours and the Holmes' medal in 1878. He set up practice for a short while in a trading post in southern Ontario and then started on a fantastic three year Odyssey. He signed on as a ship doctor on a sailing vessel and traveled to Wellington, New Zealand where he stayed for awhile and then went on to Hawaii where King Kalakaua appointed him district physician on the island of Oahu. From there he went to the island of Molokai and worked for some time in the leper colony with Father Damien. And so to Portage la Prairie!

How he got there I have not been able to find out but at any rate we now know that in 1881 he was in fact a Health Officer in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. For this information I am indebted to a letter published by the late H. E. Wilder, editor of the Israelite Press in 1932. Mr. Wilder had come across a news item in the Free Press of June 3, 1882 reporting an accident which stated that "the party at once drove to Portage and the wounded man was placed in charge of Dr. Vineberg." Mr. Wilder traced Vineberg to the Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City where he had by this time become a prominent gynecologist. In reply to a letter from Mr. Wilder, Dr. Vineberg replied as follows:

Dear Mr. Wilder:

"In reply to your letter of January 2, 1932 I am the Dr. Hiram Vineberg who practised in Portage la Prairie area in 1881, 1882 and 1883. Although I was the only Jew in town I soon acquired the leading practice. There were four other physicians in the town. I was appointed Board of Health Officer. I was on intimate terms with the ministers (4 or 5) especially the Reverend Mr. Fortin, Minister of the Episcopal church. I did not encounter any prejudice whatever, and there was no doubt as to my religion from the very first.

On the eve of my departure a dinner was tendered to me at which most of the leading citizens were present. Many complimentary and flattering speeches were delivered. All expressed the wish that I would return soon to resume practice there. I went abroad for a year visiting the leading European clinics and then settled in New York City."

In New York, Vineberg became an outstanding gynecologist, joined the staff of the Mount Sinai Hospital and won renown as a teacher as well as a physician. He published several scientific papers related to his specialty and was regarded with affection and admiration by his students and his colleagues.

On Dr. Vineberg's 85th birthday in May, 1943, the Mt. Sinai Hospital issued a special Anniversary Number of its world famous bulletin in his honour. The introduction is written by Dr. Bernard Sachs who achieved fame by describing the clinical picture what is now known as Tay-Sach's Disease. Dr. Vineberg died in 1945 age 87 years.

Oscar Margolese (1882-1951)

Oscar Margolese was actually the first Jewish physician to settle and practise medicine in Winnipeg. The year was 1906 and Margolese was then 23 years old. His office was located in the old Bon Accord Block on the north-east corner of Logan and Main.

Winnipeg had a population of about 70,000 in 1906 and the Jewish community totaled about 4,000 (1,500 in 1901 - 10,000 in 1912). There were 295 physicians in Manitoba. The Medical School had opened in 1883. It occupied its present site on Emily and Bannatyne in 1906 and became part of the University of Manitoba in 1918. The Royal Alexandra Hotel had just opened its door.

The practice of Medicine of that day was relatively simple by present day standards. X-rays had only just been discovered. Penicillin, Cortisone and heart surgery were 40 to 50 years away. Insulin was 20 years away.

No one had even thought of the pill. Anaesthesia was mainly ether and/or chloroform dropped on a mask clasped tightly over the patient's nose and mouth. Babies were born at home. The hospital was for the dangerously ill and for those undergoing major surgery. Infant diarrhea, typhoid fever, pneumonia, meningitis, scarlet fever and tuberculosis were the diseases to he feared. Now heart disease, accidents, strokes and cancer head the list. There were relatively few drugs to prescribe-Aspirin, Bromides, Digitalis for heart disease, Eucalyptus for inhalation, Mercury, Arsenic and Bismuth for venereal disease, which was almost as common then as it is now. Mustard plasters were used for chest ailments, leeches for eye infections and of course Castor Oil and Epsom Salts for everything. Chicken Soup (Jewish Penicillin) was of course as efficacious then as it is now for almost all illnesses.

Patients who were really ill were seen at home. House calls were the order of the day-and night. The doctor walked, rode a bicycle, or used a horse and buggy until 1910 or so. When the first motor cars made their appearance, Oscar Margolese was one of the first to own one of the new contraptions - a Flanders. The story is told that his wife, Pearl, drove the new car downtown one day, couldn't find or apply the brakes and drove frantically around and around Eaton's store until a policeman jumped into the car beside her and brought the unruly vehicle to a halt. Imagine what would have happened to her and her car under present traffic conditions!

Oscar Margolese was born in Germany in 1882, moved to Glasgow with his family the following year and to Montreal in 1899. His first career choice was the Rabbinate in the tradition of his father, grandfather and great grandfather, but he switched to Medicine at McGill University and graduated in 1904. He spent a year of Post Graduate study in Edinburgh, then returned to Canada, this time to Winnipeg.

He married Pearl Rosenblat in 1909, and set up residence and office at 39 Lily Street. His office was later moved to the Somerset Building and lie concentrated his practice in the field of Venereal Disease. However, he continued to enjoy a well merited reputation as a wise general physician, especially in his later years. I recall my late aunt, who was concerned about her health and was not convinced by her own physician's assurance, seeking out Dr. Margolese as a consultant. I remember that she was greatly reassured and sang his praises at every opportunity. "This is what I call a doctor (A doos heist a doctor). You can talk to him! (Me kann zich ois redden)." He is said to have delivered Jake Hollenberg with Mr. Hollenberg, Senior, standing by to make sure he did a good job. He was also present at the birth of one of my sisters-at home, of course, not in the hospital. His patients came from every section of the community. It is of interest that he became physician to the Italian Consulate, possibly because some one thought his name sounded Italian.

Oscar took an active part in matters concerning the health of the growing Jewish Community and held office in the Jewish Medical Society founded in 1919, in the Simon Flexner Club, founded in 1934 and in the Mount Carmel Clinic (1929). He gave freely of his time to the Orphanage and Old Folks Home.

I remember him as a short, clean shaven, affable, pleasant, rather casually dressed and soft spoken individual. He was a sociable human being, and in his later years when I knew him he enjoyed an evening at cards and the company of close friends. He was particularly pleased about being elected and re-elected President of the Simon Flexner Club.

He enjoyed the status he acquired in his later years as a sort of elder statesman and senior physician in the Jewish medical community.

Dr. Margolese died of a chest infection while on a visit to his son, Sydney, a very successful Endocrinologist in California. He was 69 years old when he died in 1951.

Abram Bercovitch (1882-1962)

My earliest personal recollection of doctors understandably had to do with Dr. Bercovitch, who was our family doctor. He was born in the same year as Oscar Margolese, and opened his office on Selkirk Avenue near Salter two years after Oscar in 1908. I remember him as a rather handsome young man, with a very trim professional looking small moustache, dignified, very neatly dressed, brisk in his movements and with rapid clipped speech.

I have several vivid memories of Dr. Bercovitch who was my doctor from 1908 when I was four years old until 1923 when I graduated in Arts. I can still remember the nice clean smell of disinfectant in his office. I remember him as the anesthetist when a Dr. Brown, a nose and throat specialist, removed my tonsils and adenoids in 1912 in the old Children's Hospital on Aberdeen Avenue. Incidentally this was the year the Children's Hospital first began to function in the new building after vacating the temporary quarters it had occupied from 1909. I can honestly say my association with the Children's Hospital began in 1912 with my tonsils and adenoids operation. I remember Dr. Bercovitch speaking softly to me as I yielded to the effects of chloroform and ether dropped on the mask held over my nose and mouth. He reminded me as I drifted off into space that I could have an ice cream cone after the operation and I remember insisting later that day that this promise be fulfilled. I remember being scolded by him on more than one occasion when I gagged on a tongue blade - I still do!

I remember standing in a long line with my father, during the Flu epidemic of 1918, a line that extended all the way from his second floor office down the long stairway to the front door. As we passed the anteroom Mrs. Bercovitch sat at a desk and collected the fee - $2.00 I recall - and we proceeded into the main office where we got our shots. This was my introduction to mass immunization. The vaccine was of doubtful value but at any rate none in our family got the Flu. There were two deaths in the house next door to us, and each evening edition of the paper carried a frightening list of names and addresses of victims of the epidemic. We got our first telephone to ease the isolation brought about by my father's insistence that we stay home and avoid any exposure to possible Flu carriers. We wore a necklace of camphor sewn into a tiny little bag which dangled on our chests. I remember Dr. Bercovitch making a house call in his Overland two-door coupe. He would leap out of the car while it was still coasting to a stop, slamming the door behind him. The car would keep moving on for several more feet before it finally stopped obediently like a milkman's horse.

He was a good doctor and had an excellent reputation in the community and a huge practice even by today's standards. He had come from Montreal where he was born and educated, receiving his M.D. in 1906 at McGill. The next two years were spent in Post-Graduate work in London, Edinburgh, Paris and Berlin. He was appointed a Demonstrator in Gynecology in the Medical Faculty and had a staff appointment at the Winnipeg General Hospital - I believe the first such appointment held by a Jewish physician in Winnipeg.

Dr. Bercovitch attended Post-Graduate courses in Baltimore and other medical centres each year. He was interested and involved in the health problems of the growing Jewish community and its health institutions the Orphanage, the Old Folks' Home, the H.S.B.A., the Talmud Torah and the Synagogue. He was one of the founders and the first President of the Jewish Medical Society, which held its first meeting in 1919.

The Jewish Medical Society had its origin not only in a recognized need for professional sociability but also as a forum where young physicians with few opportunities for professional association with their non-Jewish colleagues, were able to prepare and present scientific papers and case reports. It started off with about twelve members in 1919 - in addition to Bercovitch, these were Margolese, Victor, Pearlman, Genoff, Ginsberg, Moyse, Hershman, Kalichman and Bermack. It served the additional purpose of organizing the Jewish doctors to deal with demands on their services by the rapidly developing community health institutions - the Orphanage, the Old Folks' Home and later the Mount Carmel Clinic. Although the J.M.S. lasted only eight years, it obviously served important needs. Not surprisingly it was revived as the Simon Flexner Club in 1932. Dr. Bercovitch was the first President of the J.M.S., while Oscar Margolese became the first President of the Simon Flexner Club.

Dr. Bercovitch suffered a tragic loss in the death of his wife in childbirth. I can recall the hushed grief of patients in his waiting room and the wordless hand clasp of my father at an office visit just after the tragedy. In 1923 Bercovitch left Winnipeg for Montreal. At a dinner tendered him by the community, Dr. Ginsberg representing the Jewish Medical Society praised him for his pioneering work in the community and for his contribution to better understanding between Jewish and non-Jewish physicians.

Abram Bercovitch returned to Montreal as a specialist in Gynecology. He found hospital appointments barred to him. I am indebted to a mutual friend, Dr. Harold Segall, the eminent Canadian Cardiologist for the details about this phase of Dr. Bercovitch's career. Almost single handed he revived a deteriorating hospital and built it into a famous Women's Hospital, now called the Herbert Reddy Memorial Hospital after one of its senior attending physicians. Dr. Bercovitch acted as Surgeon-in-Chief and Director, and opened its doors to capable physicians and surgeons who could not hope for appointments in the major Montreal hospitals of the day. He was one of the early protagonists for a Jewish Hospital in Montreal and spent many hours as a leader in the campaign and in planning and working for the development of what has now become one of the outstanding General Hospitals in Canada. It is sad to reflect that when the hospital finally opened its doors in 1934, the appointment as Head of Gynecology went to a younger man and Dr. Bercovitch elected not to serve on the staff in a junior capacity.

He was a tireless worker in synagogue affairs and served as Brotherhood President and finally as President of the congregation of Temple Emmanu El.

He died, beloved and respected by his patients and colleagues, in 1962 at the age of 80 years. During his professional life of about half a century he had served two Canadian communities well not only as a physician but as a community leader with a great sense of responsibility to his co-religionists.

There is little doubt in my mind that it was Dr. Bercovitch who determined my career choice of Medicine. The nice clean smell of his office, the ascent of the long flight of stairs to his office "on high" so to speak, his trim professional appearance, his air of confidence and assurance, the affection mixed with awe which my parents had for him added up to qualities an impressionable youngster would want to emulate. And so it came to pass that when I reached the point when a career choice had to be made, and I remember it was not easy, these recollections and impressions played no small part in the final decision.

George Kalichman (1879-1960)

I never knew Dr. Kalichman personally, although I well remember his office on Selkirk Avenue near Powers Street and remember that he was one of the early Jewish physicians with a busy practice and a good reputation in the community. He was born and received his medical training in Rumania, came to Canada in 1911 (age 31 years) and opened his office in Winnipeg in 1912. He served in the Canadian Army, 1915-1917, in France, resumed practice in Winnipeg in 1918 and moved to California in 1923, the same year Bercovitch left for Montreal. He served as a physician to the Jewish Orphanage and helped to raise money for its founding. He was Vice-President and co-founder of the Jewish Medical Society in 1919 with Dr. Bercovitch as President. He specialized in Dermatology but evidently did a considerable general practice as well. His widow informed me he looked after Dr. Uri the atomic scientist and colleague of Einstein. He traveled on a bicycle with his medical bag to make calls and bought a car a few years after he started to practice.

Dr. A. Moyse (1877-1968)

I include Dr. Moyse among the early Jewish physicians because he was a member of the Jewish Medical Society. He was graduated M.D. Laval and started in Medical practice before 1913 with offices in the then St. John's Block on North Main Street and Pritchard. He soon acquired ownership of the block. He came from Rumania where he received part of his medical education. My information is that he preferred not to recognize his Jewish origin and his involvement with the Jewish community was minimal. His son, John, graduated in Medicine in the 40s and is said to be a very successful practitioner in England. He also did not consider himself Jewish and I never saw him after graduation. Dr. Moyse, Sr., lived to be 91 years old, and spent his last years in retirement in Winnipeg.

Sam Rodin (1893-1942)

Vineberg, Margolese, Bercovitch, Herschman, Moyse and Kalichman were of the first Jewish physicians in Manitoba. They each had completed their medical training before they came to Winnipeg. We now come to a group of physicians whose medical training was obtained in the Medical Faculty, University of Manitoba. Of these, the first in point of time was Sam Rodin.

Sam Rodin came to Canada as a child and received his M.D. in 1914, age 21 years. From then until 1919 he served in the Medical Corps of the Canadian Army. He then opened an office on the north-west corner of Selkirk and Main, and rapidly developed a large practice in the community. He was a tireless worker, greatly beloved by his patients whom he served faithfully on a 24-hour basis. He agonized over difficult diagnostic decisions, and brooded over those patients he could not really help. He was a very sensitive person and he had a very demanding clientele, many of whom did not spare him when recovery took longer than they thought it should, or when calls which they believed to be urgent were not taken care of almost instantly. He used consultants freely, not because he felt inadequate but rather because he would leave no stone unturned to ensure that everything was being done in a difficult situation. Shortly after I started to practice in 1930, in the depths of the depression, he began to refer many of his pediatric problems to me, as well as my colleague, George Shapera, who opened his Pediatric Office at the same time.

My wife and I became great friends of Sam and Gertie Rodin, a friendship that has been continued to this day through their daughter, Norma, and her husband, now practicing in California.

Sam became a Demonstrator in Medicine and received a staff appointment at the Winnipeg General Hospital. He was highly regarded as an astute diagnostician by his colleagues at the Hospital; he was not often wrong in his judgments and decisions.

He was very much involved with the health of the community and gave generously of his time to the Orphanage, the Old Folks Home and the Mount Carmel Clinic. He was chairman of the Health Committee of the Orphanage and it was through his invitation that I first visited the Jewish Orphanage and began an association that lasted many years.

Sam was blessed with a real sense of humour and chuckled over many of his experiences. I recall the story he told me of the 40 year old male patient who came to see him about some vague abdominal pain. Sam referred him down town for x-rays of his stomach and intestinal tract since he was naturally concerned about the possibility of Cancer in a 40 year old with recurrent abdominal distress. A few days later the patient came to see Dr. Rodin to get the report of the x-ray slides. Sam didn't wait for the patient to sit down but shook his hand, patted him on the shoulder and congratulated him. "The x-rays don't show a thing!" he announced with obvious relief. The patient stared at him for a moment and then said slowly and unsmilingly, as he sorted out the implications of the report "But - I paid out $35.00 for x-rays and you tell me they don't show anything"!

Sam was very highly regarded by his non-Jewish colleagues as well. He was elected to the College of Physicians, an unprecedented event for a Jewish physician of that day. I recall that he was naturally pleased but not particularly overwhelmed. His interests were almost completely centered in family, friends and patients. Unlike several of his colleagues he avoided political arguments and polemics. If anything, he favoured traditional Judaism and supported the Synagogue and Talmud Torah. It is of interest that his wife Gertie was active along with the late Mrs. Harry Speechly in the Family Planning movement in the 1940s before it had reached its present status of acceptance.

The hard work and almost constant worry and concern for his patients took their toll. A severe heart attack left him with no choice but to restrict his work. With his family he took a two year Sabbatical in England and in medical centres in the U.S.A., and on his return specialized in cardiology. I don't really think he was happy in this role - he preferred the role of a busy front-line practitioner, and he found it difficult to resist the pleas of former patients for medical help in any field. In any event, his career came to an untimely end in 1942, at the age of 49, when he died of cancer after a distressing illness of several months.

Dr. Charles Bermack (1895-1947)

Dr. Bermack was born in Detroit. He came to Winnipeg at an early age, received his M.D. from Manitoba in 1916 along with Dave Genoff. After army service in the first World War he set up practice at 834½ Main Street and soon had a large Jewish as well as non-Jewish practice. His community interests were extensive. He was an active member of the Montefiore and Y.M.H.A. Clubs, and actively interested in sport. He found time to contribute service to the Jewish Old Folks Home and the Orphanage. He was often summoned at night from his home on Scotia Street near the Orphanage for emergency illnesses. According to Dorothy Hollenberg he always responded whatever the hour. He formed an association with Dr. Sam Easton who became one of the founding members of the Mall Medical Group along with David Bruser, Alan Klass, Laurie Rabson and Ruvin Lyons on their return from Active Service.

Isaac Pearlman (1886-1954)

Isaac Pearlman was born in Russia and received some of his medical training there. He came to Canada in 1911 at the age of 25, and at that age undertook and succeeded in mastering a new language within an incredibly short period of time. Understandably he retained a heavy Russian accent and a turn of phrase which lent a certain piquancy to his pronouncements. To a patient with a peptic ulcer who had been forbidden to eat herring and pickles, and was reluctant to accept this "fate worse than death" he is reported to have said, "We all have to learn sometimes to do without. So Pearlman would like to go to Miami - but you know Pearlman to Miami has never yet even was!"

Pearlman's medical school career is a fascinating one. He worked as an assistant to Dr. Kalichman in order to earn tuition and expense money and learn the language. He was admitted to advanced standing, second year, in 1913, but continued to work evenings. He attracted the attention of the late Professor of Physiology at the University of Manitoba, Swale Vincent, (later Oxford), who hired him as a Fellow for one year and persuaded him to drop out of Medicine for that period. He wanted him to continue but Pearlman felt he had to graduate with an M.D. and by dint of intensive summer "catch up" work in Chicago, where he worked with Bertram Sippy (of Sippy Ulcer Diet fame) he was able to rejoin his class and graduate in 1918.

He specialized in stomach disorders and developed a reputation among patients, students and colleagues as a particularly skilful practitioner of Psychosomatic Medicine. He was years ahead of his time in his emphasis on this aspect of health care. He dealt with the whole patient. He listened patiently and his explanation and counselling were down to earth and based on a detailed knowledge of the patient, the family and the home. His manner of speech was colourful, not too correct grammatically, often using appropriate expressions in Yiddish or Russian to underline less descriptive English words. He was very popular with medical students and interns who loved his fresh and colourful discussions and learned a great deal about the art of communicating with patients.

His interests ranged across a broad field of music, literature and politics, and his home was often the setting for delightful small social gatherings. His wife, Clara, and his son, Leonard, were both talented musicians. There was often folk song singing with Clara improvising at the keyboard of the concert grand.

Dr. Pearlman was not easy to classify politically. He was a Socialist, yet outspokenly critical of Communism and the extreme left. On the other hand, he had no sympathy for Hebrew or the Synagogue with its rituals and tradition. He was active in the Peretz School, where the emphasis was on Yiddish and a secular education. Along with Drs. Victor, B.J. Ginsburg and Dave Genoff he represented a group of highly intelligent intellectuals of broad cultural background, who came to Canada from Russia as mature young men, who mastered a new language in short order, graduated in Medicine, contributed in a very real way to the health care of a rapidly growing Jewish community and added substantially to the quality of culture and education of their compatriots.

When I try to recall Isaac Pearlman, I conjure up a picture of a rather stocky, balding individual, pacing up and down as he talked, using his hands and shoulders freely to underline a point, occasionally fondling his cigarette holder with the fingers of his right hand, holding it much as Count Orlofsky might do in Strauss' Fledermaus, as if he were supporting it from below, and puffing furiously away at a partially lit cigarette.

Isaac Pearlman died at the age of 68 in 1954.

Dave Genoff (1899-1944)

Genoff was another example of the cultured, politically minded, mature individuals who emigrated from Russia to Canada, received their medical education in Manitoba, after mastering a new language in short order, and went on to a highly successful career in medical practice without at any time giving up their cultural or political interests.

Dave Genoff graduated with an M.D. in Winnipeg in December, 1916 and for several years carried on a general practice in Macklin, Saskatchewan. He then opened an office in Winnipeg on Selkirk Avenue. In 1922 he left for Chicago, where he specialized in Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat for a two year period, and returned to Winnipeg, where he practiced his specialty with great success until his untimely death in 1944.

He was a cultured, aristocratic looking individual, who would attract attention in any group. Since he was an uncle of the late Dr. Louis Wiseman, who was a boyhood friend of mine, I saw a good deal of Dave and his family.

I recall him as a tall handsome man, slightly stooped, wearing pince-nez, which he frequently adjusted or removed for a moment to emphasize a point in discussion. He held strong opinions and expressed them fearlessly. He appeared to be a gentle person and he was soft-spoken as a rule, but he was quick to anger and then his voice rose quickly in intensity and his face became flushed. He reacted sharply to real or imagined criticism or rebuke, and would not tolerate even the mildest racist innuendo. He visited Russia in 1935 after an absence of 24 years, and wrote a most interesting full page article for the Free Press about his experiences and impressions. Reading it through one regrets that he was not encouraged to write a book about his Odyssey. He had a real flair for writing. His command of English was more than adequate yet he never really lost his Russian accent.

Dr. Genoff served on the Active Staff of the St. Boniface Hospital and was a lecturer in the Medical School. I recall several very effective clinics which I attended as a medical student. He had an excellent reputation and a large clientele. Dr. Dorothy Hollenberg recalls Sunday mornings at the Jewish Orphanage, when Dr. Genoff did Tonsils and Adenoid operations with Sheppy Hershfield giving the anaesthetic.

Ben Victor (1891-1950)

Dr. Victor was one of the group of Russian born and educated intellectuals who came to Canada as a mature young man, learned a new language in an amazingly short time, took his medical training in Winnipeg and became an excellent community physician. Pearlman, Ginsburg, Shubin, Genoff and Rady also belonged to this group. In the process of becoming physicians and serving the community, they maintained a vigorous interest in everything that had to do with Jewish survival, education, social reform and the arts. They remained individuals nevertheless. Their views about social reform differed in many ways one from the other. A few believed strongly in traditional religion; most held to a strong secular philosophy, which left little room or regard for tradition. All believed that reform of the social system was essential. No one felt as strongly about it as Ben Victor.

The main details about Dr. Victor's medical career can be set down very simply. Victor's father was an army surgeon in Russia. Ben took the formidable religious training in his early years and then with the help of some older friends such as Bere Ginsburg - a lifelong friend - prepared himself for the Gymnasium from which he graduated at the age of 18. He held very firm socialistic views, which made his stay in Russia unwise as well as unsafe. He came to Canada in 1911 at the age of 20 years. The family lived on Jarvis Avenue.

Ben learned to speak English-although Yiddish and Russian came more naturally to him. After a year at St. John's College he entered Medicine in 1913. He graduated in 1919 with a year out of college to work in the C.N.R., Transcona Shops in order to finance his Medical education. He interned at the Winnipeg General Hospital, and then set up practice in a Doukhobor settlement in Veregin, Saskatchewan, where he remained for four years.

At this point I would like to quote from a letter sent to me early this year by his son, Dr. Maurice Victor of Cleveland, one of the outstanding Neurologists on the Continent, and a long time personal friend of mine. I could not possibly present a more graphic or moving description than the following tribute by a son to his late father:

"In 1923 Ben Victor and his family left Veregin. Schooling would be needed for their son and there were no schools in Veregin. The Doukhobors had not allowed any schools to be built ... the family moved to Winnipeg. Ben spent a half year in London, England ... then returned to Winnipeg in 1924. There he lived and remained in general practice with offices in the Royal Bank Building on Selkirk until his death June 6, 1950.

"These are the bare facts of Ben Victor's life ... but they hardly convey an adequate picture of the man. I am, therefore, taking the liberty of adding a few remarks that may be more revealing and that may tell something of the very positive effect that he had on the community, his family and his friends... I don't know to what extent this period in Jewish life has been recorded in human terms. In my father's case it meant acquiring a new language and integrating into a whole new culture in adult life. It meant grinding poverty with little or no money for an overcoat, for note paper or for car fare. There was the need to keep body and soul together, to help support a mother and sick brother, and to scrape up enough money to pay tuition at the Medical School. It meant delivering telegrams after classes and teaching Jewish literature at Peretz School for three hours each evening. It meant backbreaking work in the boiler room of the C.N.R. Shops each Summer from the moment exams were over to a week or so after resumption of classes in the Fall.

"I suppose that my father's situation was not different or worse than that of many of his colleagues but I have never ceased to marvel at the great inner strength of these people, their capacity for hard work, their dignity and lack of self-pity or resentment and above all their motivation-their desire to learn and to advance intellectually and professionally. These attributes and this sense of values were clearly evident for the remainder of my father's life."

Ben Victor had read all the classics - Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Balzac, Dickens, Anatole France, Schiller, Heine and of course the Russian classicists, all in Russian. Maurice Victor goes on to say:

"Yiddish occupied a very special place in his life. His use of the language was masterful. Our house was a constant meeting place for Jewish intellectuals of every type from local pundits to the giants of the Jewish literary world, but none of them could handle the language better than he. Coupled with his love and respect for the Yiddish language was a fervent belief that our society needed to be replaced by a new social order. The "Jewish Problem" would be solved when the economic and social ills of the country in which Jews found themselves were solved. Here he parted company with the Zionists who believed that the problems of the Jews could only be solved by the creation of a national homeland in Palestine. "My father's opposition to the popular view made him a target of abuse by certain segments of the Jewish community, but he was firm in his beliefs and he never compromised his convictions for the sake of popularity or conformity."

Ben Victor did not confine himself to rhetoric and polemics. He was a builder as well as a teacher. Along with Hestrin and Dr. Ginsberg he founded the Radical School in 1914, to provide a secular education for the children in the community. Classes were originally held in the Aberdeen School. In a short while—a year or two—this school separated off into the Peretz School which, while adhering to a secular approach, did retain elements of traditional Judaism, and the Arbeler Ring School, which followed a more radical approach to history and current events. For a while Dr. Victor was active in both as a teacher and supporter, but in 1939 he along with others broke away entirely, and concentrated his efforts in the Sholem Aleichem School on Salter and Pritchard.

He was a man of strong principles. Many in the community, including several of his colleagues, were bitterly opposed to his views, and did not conceal their hostility. Of his personal courage and belief in his own philosophy there can be no doubt.

Dr. Victor had a large practice but not a specially remunerative one. It is certain that a great deal of his work went unpaid but it is equally certain that his patients adored him and he gave them dedicated service until his final illness intervened in 1950. I saw many of his pediatric patients and was impressed with the affection and loyalty which his patients had for him.

B. J. Ginsburg (1894-1962)

Bere Ginsburg came to Canada from Russia at the age of 18. He was by then an individual with considerable education, and an author of short stories which had been published in the Russian Press. He originally chose Engineering as a profession but changed to medicine almost immediately. He graduated in Manitoba in 1917, and spent the next two years in the Army. He then opened an office in the Steiman Block on Selkirk and Andrews, and later moved to the Childs Building. As a result of expertise acquired in the Army he specialized in Venereal Diseases, and developed a huge practice in this specialty. It was hardly a specialty to bring him to the attention of the Jewish community, and yet he became one of its best known members.

Bere was a cultural entrepreneur with wide interests - music, literature, drama and Yiddish education, as well as an aggressive protagonist for a community health centre and hospital. All these singly or in combination engaged his interest at one time or another. He seemed to possess boundless energy.

He was a fine looking person with considerable charm. He was an accomplished Yiddishist and in fact seemed to be more at home in expressing himself in Yiddish than in English. He was a talented conversationalist and dominated any group small or large in which he found himself.

The nature of his practice made it possible for him to spend time at writing and gardening, and in planning new and interesting ventures for which he felt the community was ready, whether it be health or one of the performing arts.

He was one of the founders along with Mr. Hestrin and Ben Victor of the Peretz School which first opened in the Aberdeen School. He was instrumental in the formation of the Mount Carmel Clinic which opened on 263 Pritchard Avenue in 1929 and became its first president when the present building was opened on Selkirk Avenue, East. He campaigned vigorously for a Jewish Hospital on this site but had to accept failure on this occasion. He was active on the Board of the Immigration Society, and promoted a famous Yared (Old Country Fair) to assist in fund raising. He was President of the Jewish Music and Drama Club, which produced musical plays in Yiddish. He started a Yiddish radio program in October, 1938 for the Israelite Press. He headed the Scotia District Flood Sufferers Association. He was an active horticulturist, and on one occasion won a second prize. He reached the high point of his literary career with the publication of his book entitled "Generation Passeth Generation Cometh" which was written in Yiddish and translated into English with the devoted and dedicated help of his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1929.

Bere and Mary were gracious hosts. Conversation ranged over the wide field of cultural and community interests but music and literature seemed to predominate. It was inevitable that Bere's counsel was much sought after by many in the community.

He was a leader and a doer. He had considerable charisma and won many an argument by the force of his personality. He was a representative of an authoritarian age. He did not take kindly to criticism or obstruction but he did not dodge debate and confrontation. "He had great plans and ideas and most were well thought out, but some were not realistic for the times. In retrospect it seems a pity that he was so far ahead of many of his colleagues and other contemporaries, and that he was so impatient when his ideas were not promptly accepted. Even so his successes far outnumbered his failures and the community gained immeasurably from his stimulating and exciting presence.

A. L. Shubin (1894-1945)

Dr. Shubin was another in the group of Russian emigrants who came to Canada just before World War I. He was well versed in Hebrew and the Talmud and indeed took advanced studies in the Yeshiva.

He arrived in Winnipeg in 1913 with $30.00 in his pocket. He attended the St. John Technical School and supported himself by doing odd jobs. Although he knew not a word of English when he arrived he graduated from High School on schedule. He then entered Pre-Med. and Medicine continuing all the time to teach at the Talmud Torah, where he ultimately became a principal.

He received his M.D. degree in 1923 and promptly went into practice in Redditt, Ontario, where he served as the C.N.R. physician in addition. In 1924 he married Brina, who was a school teacher. Together they became an integral part of the community and long after they returned to Winnipeg in 1929, his former Redditt patients sought him out. Before setting up practice in Winnipeg he spent a year in New York as resident in Medicine and Obstetrics.

He was always interested in Cardiology and it is ironical that his own life was cut short at the early age of 49 by an acute heart attack.

He was a short rather stocky individual, kind and pleasant. He rarely engaged in argument but kept a sort of scholarly aloofness, and there was an Old Testament wisdom about his comments and counsels. He was deeply attached to his patients, who realized how sincerely this kindly physician was interested in their welfare. He was one of the kindest souls I have ever known.

In contrast to his more secular minded colleagues, he was steeped in Hebrew, and held strong religious convictions. His community base was the Talmud Torah, and he contributed much time, energy and enthusiasm to the quality of education that went on within its walls.

Dr. Solomon Kobrinsky (1895-1955)

Sol Kobrinsky was one of the most popular and certainly the busiest Jewish physician I have ever known. He specialized in Obstetrics and Gynecology but during most of his medical life he carried on a real family practice. He came to Canada from Russia at the age of twelve years in 1907, the eldest of eight children. The family was desperately poor. To finance his education he got up at 4:00 a.m. to milk cows and did chores at home as well as for some of the neighbors. He then walked three miles to the end of the street car line and so to High School and later to Medical School. At St. John's High School he excelled in Latin and Mathematics, and won scholarships in both. He graduated in Medicine in Manitoba in 1917, and went into Medical practice at McGregor, Manitoba, until 1920. He then moved to Winnipeg and for many years carried on a busy practice with offices in the Bank of Commerce Building, on Dufferin and Main. He was certified a specialist in 1940. He held appointments at Grace and St. Boniface hospitals. He was Chief of Staff at St. Joseph's and Chief of Obstetrics at Grace Hospital. He was a lecturer in Obstetrics and later an Assistant Professor.

He was one of the founders of the Simon Flexner Club, which held its first meeting at his home, 5 St. Johns Avenue.

Sol was a handsome man, affable, always smiling and good natured, and possessed of almost limitless energy. He worked very hard, was often up night after night delivering babies, and yet found time to be a charming host, to go to concerts and to spend every spare moment with his family. My wife and I were fortunate to be counted among the close friends of Sol and Mary, and we spent many delightful evenings together.

When I was a medical student I remember Sol coming over to see me about a bleeding tooth in the middle of the night. It was really a minor emergency and hardly justified any kind of a house call, certainly not a night call, but Sol took no chances with his patients. He preferred to visit the home and size up the situation himself.

He was an excellent teacher, highly regarded by the many students who attended his clinics. He attended Medical conventions regularly and often spoke at Medical meetings. I recall one particular mannerism of his. He would make a statement about a new procedure or a new method of treatment, and then cautiously qualify it, almost as an afterthought, by saying slowly - "if I am not mistaken." He rarely was mistaken.

He was an excellent physician and his patients sang his praises. He had a large following among European immigrants other than his own co-religionists. He spoke their language well and they flocked to his office in large numbers.

Sol, along with Pearlman, Bercovitch and Sam Rodin did a great deal to open wide the doors of hospitals and Medical Faculty appointments to those of us who came later. The excellence of their teaching, and the high quality of their clinical work earned them the respect of their professional colleagues in practice as well as in the Academic arena.

What about the women? We can hardly in this day and age, and before the audience, neglect to mention them. Of the early graduates, I should mention Sophie Granovsky, who graduated in 1919, practiced in Winnipeg about two years with offices in the Trick Block on Pritchard and Main, then moved to Calgary and then to Israel. She finally settled in Chicago where she lives at present, and is still in part time practice, 53 years after graduation.

Mary Sokoloski graduated in 1933 and spent her medical career in Chicago, working with the Jewish Family Bureau until her retirement and return to Winnipeg a few years ago.

Sara Meltzer (1924) became one of the leading cancer pathologists in Canada. One can only speculate what heights she might have achieved had her life not been cut short by the very disease in which she was the local authority. Her niece who bears her name recently graduated from McGill.

Dorothy Hollenberg who, even as a medical student, was involved in the care of the disadvantaged child, and went on to make a very real contribution in child care for Winnipeg pre-schoolers and school children. I have never known anyone blessed with more sensitivity and compassion for the sick, the handicapped and the luckless.

There were others but they came later. In any case I do not want to deprive some one, perhaps Dorothy Hollenberg herself, of the incentive necessary to prepare and record the history of Jewish medical women in Manitoba.

These then were the early Jewish doctors in Manitoba. They were all good doctors. A few were exceptional. When one realizes how meager were the tools they had to work with, they were for their time, at least the equal of the doctors of today. They were probably on average better clinical diagnosticians than the average doctor of today. They had to be. They didn't get much help from the laboratory and the x-ray machine. They supplied an excellent type of health care. There were no groups or clinics and no telephone answering service. Their patients were looked after as individuals in a family setting. They worked long hours in the office, home and hospital. Their patients were often very demanding, sometimes unreasonably so, but on the other hand the doctor occupied a position of respect and trust reserved for very few people. They were continually available to their patients. It was a full time, round the clock operation, with few opportunities for leisure, and with sharply restricted time for their own families.

Their striving for excellence in their profession was commendable. They attended meetings, took refresher courses, and developed skills they did not possess when they graduated. At considerable expense to themselves they went to the U.S.A. or abroad to further their training in various fields.

Their devotion to the Jewish Community was unique and deserves to he recalled and recorded. They gave freely of their time and skills in service to community institutions. They contributed in a very important way leadership and administrative know-how to the planning and utilization of these community resources.

The cultural life of the community owed a great deal to them. They were catalysts as well as participants in everything that added to the quality of life of a relatively isolated community. Theatre, music, debate, lectures by individuals with international reputations as well as encouragement of local talent in all these fields - all these owed a great deal to the early Jewish physicians.

Their involvement in the education of the youth, both as teachers and in the less rewarding field of planning and supporting on-going programs was extremely important to the community. Individually, their approaches were often radically different, and they held very strong feelings about their concepts of what was important for the cultural survival of Jewish youth. There were those who held strongly to the preservation of religious traditions and Hebrew education, e.g., Shubin, Bercovitch and Rodin and Bermack. Others turned their backs on this traditional approach, and supported a secular type of education, which stressed Jewish history and Yiddish as the language of communication, e.g., Ginsberg, Pearlman. And then there were those who stressed education to encourage ultimate social change as offering the best hope for a reasonable future for Jewish youth. Victor was an outstanding example. They shared a common goal but chose different routes to get there.

There is little doubt that they served as career models for their own children as well as other children in the families they looked after. They were certainly models fit to emulate-they had considerable status in the community, not because of wealth - for in general they earned modest livelihoods and a few had a continuing struggle to survive economically but rather because of their total contribution to the community's welfare. Several served Canada in the first World War.

The children of these pioneer physicians did them proud. Several went on to achieve eminence in medicine. Sydney Margolese became an endocrinologist of international repute. Maurice Victor is one of the leading neurologists of our day. Leonard Pearlman torn between careers in music and medicine chose the former and is a successful music teacher and conductor at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Herbert Shubin is a cardiac consultant in California and an expert in critical care medicine. Sam Kobrinsky is a successful obstetrician in California. Gordon Bermack is a psychiatrist practicing in San Francisco.

Although it is understandable that non-English speaking European immigrants, Jewish or non-Jewish would seek out doctors who spoke their language, this was by no means always the case. Many older Jewish families who had no language barrier, but also some recent immigrant families went to non-Jewish physicians for their health care. Drs. Winram, Lebman, Ross Mitchell, Charles Hunter, Arthur Burridge, Donald McIntyre were popular and counted many Jewish patients among their clientele.

Gradually, as language ceased to be an important factor doctors were chosen because of the excellence of their health care and their personal qualities. Most Winnipeg physicians developed a clientele that included all sections of the whole community.

Individually Jewish physicians of that day had many friends among the non-Jewish physicians and there was even some degree of socialization back and forth. However, internships and hospital appointments were difficult to come by. There were few opportunities except in the smaller hospitals to present or discuss clinical cases. The Jewish Medical Society of 1919-1928 and the Flexner Club of 1932-present, helped to fill this vacuum and provided a forum for some Jewish physicians many of whom became proficient and effective teachers in later years.

It is not easy to appreciate the Academic obstacles of the 1920s and 1930s when we see how important and effective a role many Jewish Medical graduates have played in recent years in the Medical School, the Manitoba community and in Medical Schools all over Canada and the U.S.A.

The young Jewish community had its growing pains. There were at least two possible answers to every question. The parochial schools competed for support. The Sick Benefit Society wanted to change its doctor. Should there or should there not be a Jewish Hospital? The early physicians were often involved in community quarrels and disagreements. There were periods when individually or collectively they bore the brunt of personal and community displeasure. Happily these episodes were infrequent and short-lived.

They were after all human beings even as you and I. They possessed in varying degrees the frailties common to all of us, and these were often revealed by rivalries inevitable in a competitive society. Yet they were warm hearted individuals, who enjoyed each other's company. I recall many happy social evenings at which almost all the guests were the doctors and their wives.

In their time, and each in his own way, the early Jewish physicians helped the community come of age. They guarded its health, they supported and participated in the operation of its institutions, they exemplified and highlighted the community's preoccupation with the education of its children. This presentation hopefully will help to remind us who they were, what they did and what they meant to the community.

Page revised: 14 April 2017